Tag Archives: NPR

Pledge Drive


It’s the NPR spring pledge drive this week. When I tuned in last Friday during my commute (at the start of the drive) I actually made a Homer-like groan. Not that I don’t love supporting my local NPR station, but the pledge drive is kind of annoying.

NPR has taken a more tongue-in-cheek approach to the drive over the years, from the Alec Baldwin pieces, to Ira Glass calling up individual listeners and asking them why they don’t give. A variation I heard this morning was from Jacob Goldstein calling up listeners and asking if one of them would be willing to cough up the $46 million to make pledge drives unnecessary for all NPR stations in the country for a full year.

Turns out they should have just called Homer. In the 11th season episode “Missionary: Impossible,” Homer anonymously pledges $10,000 to attempt to get back to regularly scheduled programming. Unfortunately the Pledge Enforcement team, headed by Betty White, tracks him down, forcing him to leave the country and teach gambling to natives. It gets a little fuzzy from there.

Another bit of evidence toward my theory that The Simpsons is relevant in every discussion. Have a happy Monday!


Ben Trube is the author of the noir/technological mystery Surreality and a lot of books on fractals, including this one.

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Poochie 2.0

Heard a story on the radio this morning that touched a bit of a nerve. Apparently, for $100,000 a lab in South Korea can clone your dog for you. NPR did a profile of a couple in Louisiana who did this with their dog Melvin, twice.

There are a number of troubling things about this, and to NPR’s credit they did a good job of touching on them. For starters the eggs for these clones need to be harvested from female dogs and placed into surrogate mothers. The procedure is often unsuccessful and requires multiple attempts to produce a viable clone. And most clones have defects that can cause them to be sickly.

But as all science fiction writers have a tendency to do, let’s set aside all of the medical complications and consider the question from a more ethical perspective, assuming eventually the technology will get better.

The US Humane Society estimates the owned dog population (in 2013) to be about 80 million. Another 6-8 million dogs wind up in shelters, with approximately 2.7 million not adopted each year. That’s 1 dog for every ten people in the United States. Clones don’t appreciably affect this population (NPR reported the particular lab has only produced 600 or so cloned dogs), but there are still many dogs out there who are alive and need a home.

Okay, dog over population is bad, it’s why Bob Barker always told us to get our pets spayed and neutered (and not because of his amusing last name). But again, not my point.

We lost our first dog, Simon, about a year and a half ago*. Like the family in the radio piece, it took two dogs to replace him, our beagle-boxer Riley (who we adopted from a shelter 3 days after we put Simon to sleep) and Murphy, a beagle like Simon who we adopted a few months ago. Simon was a great dog, very chill, but always greeted me when I got home. Those last days with him were hard as a tumor in his brain caused seizures, but he still was able to enjoy walks, and even a Five Guys Burger.

Losing a pet is hard. It took us a while to grieve for Simon and every now and then Murphy gives us a look that reminds us of our dog when he was younger (though we’re doing a better job at keeping Murphy thin). Riley and Murphy are very different dogs. Riley is playful, energetic, a lot taller even though he can curl up surprisingly small and isn’t much of a snuggler, though he has his moments. Murphy is a lap dog (at least he thinks he is) who I suspect would explode if he wasn’t on a human for more than an hour.

Cloning Simon, I would have missed out on the new experience of my dogs now. And cloning anything, a pet or even a loved one is trying to deny a fundamental part of our nature.

Things end. People and pets pass away. It’s sad, and it can be hard to deal with sometimes. But I can’t help but feel like cloning a pet is denying that truth, trying to set aside grief, to cheat death. But it’s a trick. A dog might be a genetic duplicate, but that is not everything that made it who it was. Even a cloned animal is still a different being than the one that preceded it. Part of life is about letting go, and letting others into our lives. Simon had a happy full life with us, and we’re trying to do the same for Riley and Murphy.

$100,000 could help hundreds of dogs. You could pay the adoption fee for the whole Franklin County Animal Shelter with that kind of money, and let families who might balk at the upfront money still provide a loving home. You could pay for medical expenses for older dogs and help them live a little longer with their owners. You could buy free bags of dog food for needy families who otherwise would have to give up their pet.

I understand this Louisiana family’s choice. But I can’t help but think of it as selfish, offensive, and ultimately self-defeating.

* My wife has had other dogs, but this was the first one she adopted herself. I came along a couple of years later so he predated me.

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Is Software Ethical?

CORRECTION: This was a WOSU (my home station) story, not an NPR story. I will direct my complaints in the appropriate direction. Here’s a link to the WOSU audio. Original post follows.

I heard a comment on WOSU this morning that really kinda pissed me off.



The comment was the button at the end of a story about software being used to write articles for the Associated Press and other news organizations (mostly for sports and financial stories and other statistics heavy articles). The question was asked: Can robots have morals or ethics in writing news stories?

Answer. No. Robots cannot have any ethics or morals. Morals are a human thing.

Here’s what annoyed me about this answer.

1) Robots: The term robot or “bot” has been colloquially used to refer to any automated process, whether it was ChatBots from the old IM days, or algorithms like this one. As an engineer “robot” has always seemed like a misleading term because it conjures a lot of images in people that have nothing to do with what you’re talking about. Robots are hardware, we’re really talking about software, and if we want to get technical, we’re talking about intelligent systems.

Intelligent systems are not AI or at least not in the sense that the general public would think of AI. Intelligent systems take a lot of forms, but basically they take in data and respond with a diagnosis, a solution, or a news story. What distinguishes Intelligent Systems from AI is that they’re not generalized. An Intelligent System can be complex, but it is essentially a bunch of algorithms designed to tackle one kind of problem, in this case, how to write informative, brief, and factually accurate news stories.

2) Ethics: To say that software doesn’t have ethics is like saying that a book doesn’t. Software is another form of human expression. It is written by a human (hey, like me), the requirements for what the software should do are all determined by humans, and it is evaluated by humans.

What are ethics anyway? Well in this case our interviewee was referring to a code of journalistic conduct, where the important morals are objectivity, lack of prejudice, and a basic understanding of what humans find important or insensitive.

The specific example discussed was a baseball game in which a pitcher pitched the first no-hitter game for a team in over a decade. The software wrote an article that had this information in the second paragraph. To me, that just sounds like a bad case statement, not an unethical or insensitive piece of software. The human writing the software needs to write code to look for instances we find significant (no-hitters) and what increases their significance (time since last no-hitter). If it crosses a certain threshold, it goes in paragraph one. Easy.


Image Source: Yahoo Sports


How are ethics and morals implemented in software? Complex mathematical algorithms and/or a bunch of if-then statements.

Good intelligent systems are able to start from a set of rules, and modify (learn) new rules by doing. If there’s human feedback on the articles produced (or if there’s some other acceptable metric that can be tracked through a website: traffic, comments) software can determine what outputs worked better than others.

It’s an old joke among software engineers that “software can do anything”. It’s not true, except everybody thinks it is and so we have to figure out a way to make it true. But to me, a code of journalistic ethics sounds a lot like a requirements document. A good engineer will figure out a way to take that code, and write those evaluations into decisions the software makes. He or she has ethics, therefore the software does, or at least has morals implemented.

One last thing: Software might actually be better at getting rid of institutional prejudice based on age, gender, skin-color, etc. Even the best of us as humans have to get over how we thought about things before. We have to decide we’re not going make decisions about what we write based on any of those factors and we still might have underlying prejudices we can’t even acknowledge. In software, you just take those evaluations out. They’re gone forever. Software can be truly impartial.

Next time you’re doing a story like this one, get an engineer in the discussion. Don’t just ask a writer. We’re easily frightened.

And lose the term “robots”.

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Born Not To Run

I’ve been spending the week listening to old Car Talk podcasts and CD’s after hearing of the passing of Tom Magliozzi on Monday, one half of Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers. I even recorded 4 minutes of one of their calls on my dad’s voice mail this morning when I accidentally butt dialed him a little after 5:30am (sorry dad)!

MI0002400091I grew up listening to Car Talk not long after I had my own radio. What little I know about cars comes from them and a few understanding mechanics who actually show me on the car what they’re talking about. It’s because of the car guys that I know what a flywheel is, and when you should fix and when you should live with it.

This week I’ve been compiling my own personal list of favorite calls and favorite Tom moments for CD’s on my drives home, and for work. One of my favorites is a call where a woman with a bit of a rat problem discovered dog food coming out of her air vents whenever she turned on the air conditioner. Or of course the epic saga of the bet over the “Sleek Black Beauty” Tom’s ’65 Ambassador that Raymond had crushed.

But probably my favorites are the one’s where Tom reads something strange or unusual and can’t even get halfway through it because it cracks him up so much. From “Foreign Accent Syndrome” to “Clinton Sends Vowels to Bosnia” it’s less the material, and more Tom’s gleeful reading of it that gets me laughing along with him.

The brothers frequently poked fun at each other and the callers but never in a mean spirited way. Even one of the more infamous incidents in which Tom calls Ray up as the french accented concierge from the hotel in Canada in which they were staying to inform Ray that his car has been destroyed in a fire, ends in Tom laughing after pulling Ray’s chain for a couple of minutes.

These were smart guys, funny guys, and caring guys. What’s striking me about listening to old shows is how much they genuinely want people to be safe, not to talk on the cell phone when driving, not to drive motor scooters ever (even if you’re the girl who’s been writing the show since she was 14 saying she hates the show, and her dog hates it more). When something’s not a big deal, they have a good laugh, but when it’s safety related they made it clear that the caller should really get it looked at. And when they new a transmission rebuild was in a caller’s future, they always recommended fire as a good option.

I’m glad I have 25 years of archives to hear the both of them, but it is the end of an era. Car Talk is probably the reason I started listening to anything else on NPR. It’s one of the reasons driving a car started to be fun for me (as I was not the most eager of teenage drivers at first). And it’s an example of how to enjoy the most out of life, and how to be funny without hurting others or being crass.

Bye Tom, and hope your Sleek Black Beauty was waiting for you up in heaven.

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The Pros and Cons of the Serial Narrative

For the last month I’ve been addicted to Serial, the This American Life podcast spin-off covering one story from week to week. The first story is the case of a murder that happened fifteen years ago and the case for and against the man convicted of the the crime. Each week we’re treated to an in-depth analysis of some aspect of the crime, from high-school relationships, to the layout of the park where the victim was buried, to recreating the route of the prosecution’s timeline.

This episode marked the halfway point for the season and in some ways it feels like we have enough to have formed some kind of an opinion as to whether or not Adnan Syed (our supposed killer) is guilty or innocent and what it would mean if he was either. My own opinion is mixed along the lines of whether he should have been convicted based on the evidence and whether he actually did it.

I trust the This American Life people to tell me a good story, and on that they have delivered, even if it is likely to be as unresolved as many of those Dateline true crime specials. It’s definitely interesting as someone who writes mysteries to realize how mushy real-life cases can be: conflicting accounts, evidence that could mean one thing or another, evolving understandings of the validity of technology as evidence, etc.

But the week-to-week format is getting a little frustrating. With a deep focus on one aspect in every 30-45min episode it can often feel like we’ve only added one or two pieces of information to our appraisal of the case. It still feels that there’s a lot being held back, even after this latest episode that tries to lay out all the reasons why the killer looks guilty. If anything it’s giving us a sense of the way a real investigation would work, you spend a lot of time learning one or two pieces of information, and then you have to figure out how that fits into the building narrative you’ve made of the case.

And Sarah Koenig, our journalistic host and guide through this whole tale, is a bit of an unreliable narrator. Not in the sense that I believe she’s lying to us at any point. She actually lays her vulnerabilities bare in each episode, her shifting opinions, her uncertainty, areas she pursued that don’t play out. One thing in particular that struck me in this last episode were some awkward conversations with Adnan with some long silences that other people might have edited out. These give the listener a sense for the true flow of the conversation and how some statements or questions can stop and make you think.

Probably I’m most frustrated that I don’t just have this whole thing to listen to now. If this were an audiobook it would be like missing the last six disks of the story. But since the episodes are being produced as the show airs, I’ll have to wait patiently each Thursday for a new bite. And I’m also trying to resist the temptation to listen to each episode before I can bring it home for the little red haired girl, who has been listening along with me. In the meantime I’ve been listening to each episode repeatedly trying to absorb every detail (even to the point of e-mailing the show with a question about cell phone timing).

The truth is, no matter my frustrations with individual episodes, how long this is all taking, moments when I feel like I’m only getting part of the story, I’m going to keep listening. On that at least, Serial and the This American Life team have succeeded again.

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Pull Your Pants Up, Or Else

Ocala, FL has enacted a law imposing a $500 fine or up to six months in jail for anyone wearing (or barely wearing) saggy pants on their streets*. As you might suspect, this is a law that disproportionately affects young people, and men of a certain racial persuasion. NPR’s Code Switch does a great survey of the potential racial motivations and consequences involved, and the history of clothing discrimination throughout American history.

Not being able to speak with great authority on this side of the issue, I’ve chosen instead to suggest new laws that might counterbalance any perceived racial motivation, and target items of clothing that are no less a threat to our fashion decency. Feel free to contribute any suggestions of your own.

Tiny Fedoras – Unless you’re this guy, or living in the 30s.


Endless Scarves – You’re just hurting the economy. We need scarf turnover so we can keep the garment industry afloat. Scarves were meant to have a beginning and an end.


Hipster Glasses – Unless you need them to see, are this guy again, or are a girl (which admittedly is pretty cute). This picture actually contains two violations.


I would have mentioned Crocs, but wearing them is punishment enough, as my co-worker who sliced his foot on a rock whilst wearing a pair of these can attest.

I’d love to hear your suggestions. And seriously, check out the NPR post. This stuff is kind of nuts.

*In case it wasn’t abundantly clear from the tone of the post, I find this law ridiculous and potentially harmful to whole groups of young people. I might yell at a guy to pull up his pants (and often they’re white in my area), but I’d never throw him in jail.




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Three-Minute Fiction “Cube Picking”

Here’s my submission for “finders keepers”, the latest round in NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction“. The challenge for this round was to write a 600 word story in which “a character finds something he or she has no intention of returning.” If you missed it, check out my wife’s story “Ganja Man” from yesterday. Enjoy!


It’s a time honored ritual, even though we rarely talk about it. Some have called it the “circling of the vultures” or “shopping.” Me, I just call it “cube picking.”

I’ve lost count of the rounds of layoffs during this “economic downturn” but I doubt I could count them on one hand anymore. When operating profits are low, the easiest solution is to reduce headcount, and stop buying new office supplies.

The trick is to work quickly, maybe on your way to get coffee you pick up a stapler. I’ve already got three, so I try to look for tape dispensers or something nice to hold paper clips and pencils. I also like notebooks, even though we do all our work on computers and I hardly ever use them.

Our latest “right-sized” employee is John. John and I used to go cube picking together. One time we found a mini-fridge in Gray’s cube, and moved it into the “bullpen”, an L of cubes John and I used to share. I kept sodas in there until I discovered I could just steal them from the break room.

John’s divorced and lives in a rented apartment not far from work. We used to hang out and watch Dr. Who on our lunch hour. It’s been a week and I haven’t stopped by once. I guess it was the shared drudgery that bonded us together, and now that it’s gone we’re not really friends. That, and hanging out with someone who’s both divorced and unemployed is kind of a downer.

Since I knew John the best I get first crack in our little secret dance. I immediately pounce on his heater, an essential appliance in these offices which are either too hot or freezing cold. I’d thought about buying one, but it just doesn’t feel right to bring anything of permanence here at the moment.

I take the unusual step of actually opening his desk drawers. Inside is the usual assortment of pens and highlighters. I pocket a few post-its even though I have two dozen pads already when I see the frame.

I recognize the dark wood of it immediately. It had sat on his desk for years before the divorce, and pulling it out I was surprised to discover it looked exactly the same. John’s wife was riding on his back, smiling as they walked through some park not far from here. John’s looking into her eyes with amusement and affection. The picture was taken before they were married, and in all the time I’d known him I’d never heard him talk about his wife as someone he loved.

The picture was a relic of a bygone era, and I was surprised to see it unblemished post-divorce. No tearing her out of the picture or drawing a mustache with a sharpie. And yet he hadn’t taken it with him.

I wondered if it was just an oversight. You only get about fifteen minutes to clear out your desk, and that’s with a security guard standing over you. Still he had to know it was there. If he’d saved it all this time, it would have been the first thing he grabbed.

I contemplated bringing it over to him at lunch, then remembered that I had been looking forward to Mexican all morning, and it was a nice frame after all. I popped out the picture and threw it in the drawer, then slipped the frame in a notebook I’d stolen, and went back to my desk.


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