Tag Archives: This American Life

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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Trube on Tech: Making a DVD Video

Elle was kind enough to provide the first question to “Ask a tech guy”. She’s having a little trouble burning DVD’s from her Sony Handycam:

I cannot get Nero 12 to make a DVD from my Sony Handycam video camera. I know it can be done because I was successful about a year ago. Now each time I connect and pull up the video and try to burn it tells me it cannot write to a DVD disk and instead asks for a CD. I cannot find an option to change it to DVD.  My only option has been to create it on windows media which will only play on a computer. When I Google the problem I get everything but an answer! If you can’t help me with this at least I vented.  ;)Thanks!

Elle

After some digging and a little more feedback from Elle, we found out that her camera creates MPEG (.mpg) files. While I have neither Nero 12, nor a Sony Camcorder, I have a decent amount of experience creating DVD’s from all sorts of video files.

Today I’ll cover how to make a DVD from any video file, and more importantly, how to burn it to a DVD.

For today we’ll need a couple of (free) third-party tools:

We’ll be creating a DVD working directory from her video files, and then cover how to burn these to a DVD that will play on most DVD players.

Creating a DVD

1) Open DVD Flick and click Add Title. Browse to your video file on your computer and click Open. (I recommend copying the file off the camera to somewhere on your computer for ease of generation). You can add multiple videos by repeating the Add Title step.

2) You’ll see your title in the main editor view.

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The indicator on the left-hand side shows how much of a standard DVD the final video will fill. Typically I recommend burning between 90 minutes to three hours on a single DVD (the quality will automatically adjust in DVD Flick). My example video is almost two-hours, the latest live special from This American Life.

3) Click Edit Title. You’ll see this screen pop-up:

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From here you can change the title of your video file (Name) and choose a thumbnail from the video that will show up on any menus we create. You can adjust the time index by using the arrows, or by typing in a time (takes a moment to refresh the picture).

4) Click Chapters on the left of this dialog. From here we can create some chapters for easy navigation in a long video.

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For the moment I just went with uniform 10 minute chapters.

5) Click Accept to save Title changes.

6) Click Project Settings to adjust the overall title of your DVD. For the moment the default settings should be fine.

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I’m using kind of a long name here (as you’ll see when you create the menus). You’ll probably want to keep the title to 20 characters or less. Click Accept to save changes.

7) Click Menu Settings. This allows you to create a basic menu for your DVD based on a couple of pre-selected templates.

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8) You can preview how your menu will look and operate by clicking the Preview button.

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As you can see, my project title was a little long.

9) The preview will also show you any titles you’ve added by clicking the Select Title option.

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Click the X at the top-right to close the preview. Click Accept to save menu changes.

10) Save your project by clicking Save Project. A saved project will work as long as the video file is kept in the same place (so it’s a good idea to copy this file to your computer).

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11) You’re now ready to create your DVD files. Click Create DVD to create your DVD.

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12) Running this will take a number of hours so DVD Flick has some built in ways to entertain you. Click Entertain me if you’re really bored.

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Actually this program runs pretty much in the background, so you can use your computer normally while it’s working. You can speed it up (a little) by adjusting the Process Priority up.

13) When the program is finished running it will create a DVD folder that looks something like this:

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The sub-folder dvd contains the two folders AUDIO_TS and VIDEO_TS required for all DVD videos. It’s these folders we’ll be burning to a DVD. Here’s what the inside of the VIDEO_TS folder will look like:

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The number of VOB files will vary based on your project.

Now we’re ready to burn our movie.

Burning a DVD movie

1) Put a blank DVD in the tray and Open InfraRecorder. Select Video Disc from the front menu.

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2) This will bring up the basic project window. Browse to your DVD folder and add the AUDIO_TS and VIDEO_TS folders as shown:

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3) Click Actions–>Burn Compilation–>To a Compact Disc (works for both DVD’s and CD’s).

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4) Burning options are pretty simple (defaults are probably fine). Click OK to burn your disc.

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And you’re done. It might take a little longer than the Nero process did, but it offers a lot more flexibility with the kind of DVD’s you can make. Nero may have a DVD video burning function like the one shown in InfraRecorder, so you may want to try that, but that will typically require the AUDIO_TS and VIDEO_TS folders we generated with DVD Flick.

Let me know if you have any questions, and for those of you with tech problems of your own, feel free to submit them in the comments, or by using the Contact menu option. If you do, you’ll get a personalized response like this one.

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I Heart NPR

I love public radio and television.

My local station is WOSU, out of the campus of THE Ohio State University, and I can drive by it on Olentangy River Road on my way to a writing session.

Now before you become too worried, I’m not here to debate the federal subsidy (which is really tiny), or Mitt Romney’s feelings on Big Bird (he did say he loves him after all). I think the Obama ad featuring the big yellow bird was stupid, and the Children’s Television Workshop was right to ask him to take it down (something I’m not sure he did).

I just want to tell you I heart NPR.

I got the back struts on my car and my wife’s car fixed because of listening to Car Talk. I unpacked a lot of the Foxconn controversy and the financial meltdown with This American Life and On Point. I heard touching stories of my college president, his daughter, and a legacy his wife left many years after her passing. And I get a weekly laugh with the irreverant Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me (particularly their Sandwich Mondays).

I listen on the radio, through podcasts, and reading their website. I can download the full audio of the debate, without commentary, the day after the event from the NPR “It’s All Politics” page. Every Friday I can download the “Pop Culture Happy Hour” podcast and listen to a panel talk about TV, music and all sorts of pop culture conundrums.

Simply put, I learn about culture, science, economics, politics and life, and they ask so little in return.

It’s pledge season til the end of the week. I used to think pledge drives were a drag, but with Ira Glass calling up people who don’t give and giving them “radio justice”, Alec Baldwin’s fervant speeches AGAINST NPR, and the local color which made me laugh out loud on my drive home, I’ve changed my tune. They’re not talking about Romney’s comments, or threats to Big Bird, they’re just trying to get a handful of us to support the thing we love so we don’t have to listen to ads all the time.

If you heart NPR, consider giving. Otherwise Ira might have to call you at home.

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Review: Sleepwalk With Me (The movie not the book, radio story or video game)

SPOILER ALERT: I discuss the content of a movie based on a one man show based on a book based on a radio story first told at the Moth some 5-6 years ago. You’ve been warned.

The little red haired girl and I finally got a chance to see Sleepwalk With Me this weekend (I’d been begging her to go for a week or two and somehow managed to convince her to come down to Ohio State on a Friday night with me. She loves me 😉 ) Now, full disclosure, I am if not in the target demographic for this movie, at least demo-adjacent. We both got a kick out of the twenty or so other people going to see this movie, guys with beards and glasses, and girls with glasses (if you have seen Portlandia then you know the type). I have discovered my tribe.

But anyway, for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, Sleepwalk With Me is based on the very real story of comedian Mike Birbliglia’s struggles with REM Behavior Disorder, a sleep disorder which causes him to act out his dreams, dreams which involve running from wild animals or guided missiles. But the real story is how he and his then girlfriend discover that they’re really not right for each other.

The movie is peppered with Birbiglia’s Mitch Hedburg inspired musings, and embarrassing personal stories. Birbiglia starts the movie off by asking you to turn off your cell phone and listen to his true story. Is it true? Yeah. Is it? Uh…YEAH!

They had changed Mike Birbiglia’s name to Matt Pandapiglio (not sure about spelling), which was largely unnecessary and maybe even a little distracting, since it clearly is biographical material. The dream sequences felt very real, and not the Hollywood dreaminess, but just what would happen if you were winning an Olympic event for dust-bustering. The climatic scene where he jumps out of a second story window at a La Quinta inn is exactly how I would have pictured it (down to the selection of Lutz from 30 Rock as the guy at the front desk). Still, the story is not really comedic, and would probably be characterized by most as an art film story of the end of a relationship.

Again I’m not sure if I’m an unbiased source, having been very familiar with the material (and a fan of This American Life, Ira Glass and Birbiglia for a long time). If I had seen the Hunger Games without reading the book I would have had no idea what was going on in spots. With this movie it’s not that things were left out per-say, but there wasn’t as much NEW as I would have expected. And the movie ends on a slightly more depressing note than I know Mike’s life does in reality. He is now happily married to someone else, and the story of how he made that decision could be a movie all its own (sequel?) JK.

I was delighted by the casting of all the secondary characters including Ira Glass as a photographer, and Wyatt Cenac as another struggling comedian (and not the only Daily Show or 30 Rock veteran in the cast). While many of the jokes weren’t exactly new to me, they were told in a way I had never experienced them (and frankly though this is ubiquitous in some circles, most of you have probably never heard this story).

In short, go see this while you can, or at least Netflix it. You won’t be disappointed.

If you do want to see it in a theater here are listings (only 1 in Columbus, Gateway 8).

Here’s the original radio story.

And the book.

And an interview with Ira and Mike on Fresh Air.

And yes, I am an NPR junkie.

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Pushing Daiseys

“Inspired by true events”

These four words should precede Mike Daisey’s critically acclaimed stage play, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”. Instead the events presented in this monologue, detailing Mike Daisey’s 2010 trip to Foxconn and other factories that manufacture Apple products, are presented as the truth, or at least they were when a portion of this stage play was excerpted on This American Life.

Last Friday, This American Life host and producer Ira Glass issued a press release stating they were retracting their January show, which had featured a 39 minute excerpt of Daisey’s stage play, because it “contained significant fabrications … we can’t vouch for its truth.” The story of this retraction was featured on last weekend’s TAL episode, which you can listen to here.

The fabrications consist of exaggerations regarding the amount of workers interviewed and factories visited, as well as meetings with workers that never took place. Two significant examples of this were meetings with workers who had been exposed to n-hexane, a neuro-toxin that was used in the cleaning of some iPhone screens, and with a worker with crippled hands seeing an iPad for the first time. In the case of the n-hexane exposure, Daisey admits he inserted this detail from a story that happened in a different factory 1000 miles away and that he never met workers who were exposed to n-hexane. In the case of the crippled worker, Daisey’s translator, whose name Daisey lied about, disputes his account of events saying this incident, which is one of the most emotional moments of the stage play and the TAL show. never happened.

“My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.” Daisey responded to questions from Ira Glass and Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz, who first broke the story. Daisey later went on to say that he stands by the work as a piece of theater.

This gets into the troubling part of this story. What Daisey says about many of the conditions at Apple factories is true. Where he lied is his own experiences, the ones he talks about in his monologue. The monologue is a work of fiction, strung together from real things that have happened, just not to him, and not all in the same area. It is a simple narrative designed to tug at the heart strings, which I can attest it is very effective at doing.

I understand this idea of trying to tell a truth in a fictional way, because when I first heard these stories I was inspired to do much the same thing. The result, my short story “Competitive Edge“. There’s a proud tradition in science fiction of talking about societal problems in a fictional context, from Orwell to Heinlein to Star Trek. TAL itself has used fictional stories to highlight ideas about every facet of life, from love to job loss to rejection. In this case, however, Daisey’s story has a more documentary feel, and is presented if not “as” then certainly “like” journalism.

There’s a marked contrast between the way Daisey talks about this mistake and the way Ira Glass talks about it. When confronted with the fact that he had lied about the n-hexane workers Daisey’s response is “I wouldn’t express it that way.” In contrast Ira clearly calls the decision to run the story “a mistake” and is very clear about the fact that while Daisey had lied, it was ultimately TAL’s responsibility in not killing the story. Rob Schmitz describes talking to Daisey as “exhausting” and listening to the interview I would agree. I kept wanting Daisey to admit that he had lied openly, to “man up”. Instead he kept coming back to this idea that the cause and the “truth” of the problems was more important and that he wanted to construct this show to get people’s attention on this issue.

Again, I sympathize. I’m trying to do the same thing with the stories and blog posts I write about this issue. But I can’t help but think that Daisey’s approach lacked rigor. On TAL he exaggerated the number of factories he visited and workers he talked to, perhaps in an attempt to make it sound like he had been more thorough than he really had been. I’m not a giant fan of Michael Moore’s, but I was contrasting Daisey’s story to Moore’s first documentary Roger & Me. As with all documentaries there is definitely a narrative being told, but the amount of “boots on the ground” work that Moore did is astronomical when compared to Daisey. If Daisey had really wanted to construct a stage show based on the truth he should have spent several months in Shenzhen not several days, and let the truth speak for itself.

Daisey was not how I first heard about this issue. It was Jon Stewart, and I find it kind of amusing that Stewart’s story had more journalistic integrity than one presented on TAL, both shows I love. When Stewart is at his best he is telling the truth, and it’s the truth itself that is funny, or his reaction to it. The conditions at these factories are appalling, and are not in need of embellishment.

Tomorrow I’ll talk more about the second half of the TAL program, regarding what is true, and how we should feel about it.

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We were on a break!

I noticed a couple of my Facebook friends got engaged a couple of days ago. Apparently there was this big romantic holiday or something. As someone who’s been married for 3+ years my response to this is “Come on in! The water’s fine!” Seriously, marriage is great. Sure there are ups and downs but that’s true of any relationship. You have a partner in life, someone at your side during the tough times and someone to share the good times with.

Other people’s view of marriage can be different. I’ve always thought Mike Birbiglia’s was funny “I am not going to get married until I was sure that nothing else good could happen in my life.” (He’s married now by the way and seems to like it.) I think a lot of us have this mindset that I need to go out and experience a certain amount of things before I can get married. While I think it’s important to have an idea of the direction of your life, that’s not what most people mean. They mean they want to have sex with a bunch of people.

I’m normally a fan of This American Life, but this week’s episode bothered me a bit. The first story was of this couple who were the cute, stable couple you knew in college (for How I Met Your Mother fans think Lily and Marshall). They’d been dating since they were 17, could talk about anything except marriage. They joked that they’d get married when they had kids. Then the guy in this relationship had a realization, at 30, and asked why they had never talked about marriage. Her response, “well I think we should sleep with a lot of other people first.”

The story goes on to talk about their rumspringa (their term for taking a break from their relationship, inspired by the Amish), in which they take 30 days to sleep with as many people as they can. Only rule “no relationships”. Starting to sound like a bad Hollywood movie right? 30 days becomes 60 and 90, and eventually they break up, no surprise there.

A couple of points in this bothered me. The guy in this relationship talked about dating for the first time since he was 17 and how he only had the emotional tools of a 17 year old. For some reason he couldn’t have sex with someone and not fall in love with them immediately (for the woman this was apparently not the case). This wasn’t exactly a surprise to me, nor was the idea that casual sex is something you should be able to do without a relationship. You mean there’s an emotional connection that comes with sex? Really?! The delayed adolescence being displayed in someone who is 4 years my senior is a little sad.

The guy’s take away from this was that if he ever got married he’d want to do it under the condition that they would reevaluate in seven years. The host of TAL put forth the “shocking” idea that it is the commitment part of marriage that makes it so great, the idea that the other person isn’t just going to leave. Maybe this couple needed this rumspringa to truly address the fact they didn’t want to stay in the relationship, but if that’s so then they really weren’t communicating in the first place.

Let’s get back to Lily and Marshall for a second. At some point toward the end of the first season which started with the two of them being engaged, Lily has some doubts about the direction of her life and wants to pursue an art fellowship across the county. They break up, she goes to San Francisco and Marshall is miserable. She eventually comes back and wants to get back together, but her earlier breakup has hurt the relationship and it takes a third of the following season to heal it. It’s one of the harder parts of the show to watch since these two are otherwise this great fun couple that have always been the most delightful part of the show.

The circumstances (though fictional) are similar. Their relationship started early in college and Lily wanted some time to figure out who she was separate from the relationship. It’s hard and it’s hurtful, and HIMYM does an honest job of portraying the range of emotions. I never get the feeling that the show exalts or condemns this action, it merely portrays what the consequences of those choices would be. And much as I and everyone else wanted them to get back together, it was appropriate that it took time (and now I can’t wait for their baby!)

I feel like the other couple could learn a lot from this story. They didn’t break up because they wanted to pursue a personal passion, they just wanted to have sex. They sacrificed a 13 year relationship on that alone, and they don’t really seem sorry about it. It doesn’t sound like they actually had a relationship, so maybe it was for the best, but I wonder how many other people are out there who think this way.

I hope my kids grow up with the idea that a lifelong commitment to someone is not a shocking idea and that sex, while wonderful, is really only wonderful with the person you want to spend your life with. If you’re not meant to be together because of the direction your lives are taking you, fine, but make the decision to break up for those kinds of reasons, and only commit to someone you mean to spend the rest of your life with.

Happy two days after Valentine’s day Marshmallow and Lily-pad, and you too Buttercup.

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Where Does My Stuff Come From?

Why did I write yesterday’s story?

The idea came from something I first saw on the Daily Show. In the segment, Jon Stewart describes the conditions at the “Fear Factory”. Workers are underpaid, forced to work long shifts in total silence. They live in dorms with 13-14 strangers in a 10′ x 10′ room, with bunks stacked 6 high.

Some of the workers jumped from the top of the building rather than continuing to work under those conditions. Their supervisors put up nets to catch them. The nets didn’t work.

This is the Shenzhen factory of Foxconn, and they make most of the electronics we know and love.

Foxconn has contracts with Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, ASUS, HP, Samsung, Toshiba, the list goes on. They make the iPad, the iPhone, the Xbox, the Kindle I bought my dad for Christmas, and maybe even the netbook I’m posting from. My Kindle Fire was not made by Foxconn, but they have a contract for the new 10.1” version.

I knew my stuff came from China, and so did you. I think we all have this idea that conditions aren’t quite as good as America, but that things are basically the same. We envision large efficient machines, or thousands of workers in lab coats. We even resent these people, for taking the job from us.

I type for a living. I write code, e-mails, short-stories, novels and this blog. I’m  at a risk for carpal-tunnel or some other repetitive stress injury if I’m not careful, but that’s probably a long way off. By 26, my current age, many of these workers have ruined their hands forever. Their hands shake like someone in their seventies with crippling arthritis. And then they’re out of a job.

When I first heard these stories it hit me like a punch in the gut. I’m not an Apple guy, but I do love my gadgets as much as the next person. I like that the price of these toys has been coming down. I even have a little of the tech-geek alpha male in me, wanting to have the latest thing and the widest array of technology. I’m one of the reasons these people have to work harder than I can possibly imagine. I’m complicit in their suffering, whether I knew it or not.

Apple is investigating the working conditions at this and other factories. It wouldn’t surprise me if many of the other companies that partner with Foxconn do the same. I could be comforted by this. I could think Apple will do the right thing, and that I don’t need worry about it. I think that’s what a lot of us do. We hear about something that makes us angry, maybe a little guilty, and we let it go at the first hint of something being done about it, with no follow-through.

That’s not good enough.

My wife and I have formed a Facebook group, Consumers for Fairness in Manufacturing and Labor (CFML). Our challenge is simple:

1) Pick ONE electronic device you own (cell phone, eReader, tablet, computer, etc.). It can be your latest gadget, or a device you use all the time.

2) Find out where your device was made.

3) Find out how much the workers who made your device are paid, the hours they work, and the conditions they work and live in.

4) Post what you’ve learned on the Facebook page, this blog or share it with your friends.

We’ll be on a lighter note tomorrow on the blog, but I really hope you’ll take some time to learn more about this. Thanks in advance!

NOTE: I’ve been learning a lot about this subject the last couple of weeks, and have posted a number of links in the Facebook group. One that I would highlight in particular is “Mr. Daisey and The Apple Factory”, which was featured recently on This American Life. The NY Times featured Foxconn as well in an article last Thursday found here.

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