Mini-Stories: Volume 11

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
This is part three, the 2020-2021 mini-stories episodes where I interview the staff about their favorite little stories from the built world that don’t quite fill out an entire episode for whatever reason but are great 99 PI stories nonetheless. We have music games with Sean Real, lost statues with Joe Rosenberg, and overactive heaters with Delaney Hall. Stay with us.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
Hey Dee. What do you have for us today?

Delaney Hall:
So today, I want to talk with you about old radiators. Have you ever lived with an old radiator?

Roman Mars:
I have. Where we met, I don’t know, 15 years ago in Chicago when we worked together at the station there, I lived in at least one apartment that had a radiator, which was yeah… it is a confounding device.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. They are notorious for being loud, clinking a lot, and also, just for being too hot.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, blisteringly hot.

Delaney Hall:
Right, right. So I don’t know if you’ve ever wondered why that is, but I recently learned that there is a reason for it and it’s actually related not to this current pandemic we’re all living through, but to the flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919.

Roman Mars:
Well, I’ve heard a little bit about this, but I don’t know the full story. So I’m excited that you’re bringing this to us.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. First of all, I learned about this history in an article in Bloomberg City Lab. It was reported by Patrick Sisson. It was kind of through that article that I found Dan Holohan. So he grew up in the heating industry. His dad worked for this plumbing and heating wholesaler in Manhattan and now, his family runs a website called heatinghelp.com. He wrote a book called, “The Lost Art of Steam Heat.” Basically, he’s just really into heating, specifically steam heating.

Dan Holohan:
“It throws such a lovely radiant glow on you. It’s like being on the beach and it’s just a wonderful way to heat. The dogs are always sleeping in front of it. The cat will pop up on top of it. People will dry their hats and gloves on top of it. It feels like home.”

Delaney Hall:
So he can go on and on waxing poetically about steam heat for a long time.

Roman Mars:
I love it.

Delaney Hall:
He got really interested in the history of steam heating in the US. He said that as he started doing this research, he was looking at these primary source documents, like these old technical manuals and he kept coming across references to the Fresh Air Movement.

Roman Mars:
I’m on board with the Fresh Air Movement. I’d follow Terry Gross into the gates of hell.

Delaney Hall:
I think we’re all part of the Fresh Air Movement, but this is a different Fresh Air Movement.

Roman Mars:
Well, that’s too bad. We’ll have to work on the other one.

Delaney Hall:
This one, not with Terry Gross, was a health crusade. It started right after the Civil War and proponents of the Fresh Air Movement basically thought that stale, uncirculated air was bad, like very bad for your health. They called it vitiated air, which means spoiled air. They thought that spoiled air was everywhere like we were just steeping in it.

Dan Holohan:
“People didn’t bathe regularly. There was unventilated stoves that would be in the place. So they just said it’s dirty air and it’s coming off your body and it’s coming out of your mouth and you’re smoking and all these things are going on in a sealed apartment that doesn’t have good circulation to begin with. So that caught everybody’s attention because it was indeed, killing people.”

Roman Mars:
So this was pre-germ theory, right?

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, it was.

Roman Mars:
Did they have a concept of the mechanism of why unventilated air might be making them sick?

Delaney Hall:
They didn’t really, at this point. They were just sort of starting to realize that something was up. One of the main proponents of the Fresh Air Movement was a guy named Louis Leads. He had been an inspector for the union army field hospitals, and he got really interested in this idea of vitiated air. He was convinced that something about it was making people ill. He actually teamed up with Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” They created this traveling roadshow. They would basically go across the country and give lectures with these magic lantern-type slides.

Dan Holohan:
“She got moms and dads sitting in the parlor and in crawls the baby in a long gown and the baby’s bonnet and the baby crawls into these vapors that are coming out of the man, and they’ve done it red so you see it comes out of his mouth and it goes to the floor and the baby crawls into this cloud. The next slide, the baby just kind of topples over and dies.”

Roman Mars:
Wow. That’s an extreme form of scared straight.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. As you can imagine, it was pretty effective. They really caught the attention of lots of people. I was really struck by when Dan was describing these lantern slides that they would show. It really actually reminded me of the coronavirus diagrams you’ll see where there’s two people talking to each other and they’re sort of spewing red and blue virus droplets all over each other.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. No, that scarred me. That and the 90’s reports from 20/20. They would show the black lights on hotel rooms of all the organic splatter all over hotel rooms. I’m scarred for life for that.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. So these were sort of like the 19th-century version of that and they were part of what helped the Fresh Air Movement really take hold. So it gets very popular and gets so popular that building designers actually started adapting their buildings to bring in more fresh air.

Dan Holohan:
“The tenements suddenly, as they come into their own, have to have their shafts. You have to have more windows. You can’t have these hobbles like you see in the Gangs of New York, that sort of thing. So things got better, but then it took a crisis like the Spanish flu to really kick it into high gear.”

Delaney Hall:
What’s going on is around this time in the 19 teens, there are these two things that are happening concurrently. One is the flu pandemic which, of course, was a devastating global pandemic that was killing hundreds of thousands of people. Then at the same time, steam heating is really getting going. So steam heating systems are being installed in buildings across the country. Health officials at the time were starting to push this idea that people needed to keep their windows open, even in the winter, and they needed to do that to increase ventilation and minimize flu spread. If people were going to be keeping their windows open through the winter, they needed some pretty oversized radiators.

Dan Holohan:
“They were saying that because of the Fresh Air Movement, we have to start designing systems big enough that they can heat the building on the coldest day of the year with the wind blowing and the windows open.”

Roman Mars:
Okay. So this is why radiators, even today, can be so overpowering because they need to be that hot for the windows to be open.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, exactly. Many of those radiator systems were so sturdy and so well-built that they are still in use today.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. The one that was in my apartment was certainly put into the 1920s.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. The kind of interesting thing is that once the pandemic was over…

Dan Holohan:
“People began to wonder why do we have the windows open? Oh, that was because of the flu, but that’s gone more than 10 years. Close the window! So they closed the window and now, they’re stifling because it’s so hot. Ask anybody that lives in a Manhattan apartment nowadays.”

Delaney Hall:
So all of those stifling people started insisting that something be done about this. What ended up happening is that basically, a whole industry arose to retrofit those big overpowering radiators. So companies began to develop the radiator covers and other people would paint their radiators with this special paint.

Dan Holohan:
“But if you use something called a bronzing paint, specifically an aluminum bronzing paint, which has flakes of metal in it, that will reduce the radiator’s ability to radiate by 20%. So just by painting the radiators silver with this special paint, you’re downsizing it and this is why radiators are all silver for the most part.”

Roman Mars:
Wow. I had no idea that was why they were silver. They’re very often, silver.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. Yeah, they are.

Roman Mars:
It also must be made worse by the fact that the building around it is becoming more thermally efficient. Buildings trap more heat in than they used to and that must make it even worse.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. Compared to the 19 teens, buildings now are basically hermetically sealed. In some office buildings, you cannot open the windows. It’s not designed that way. It’s not an option. So as you can imagine, that has become an issue with our current pandemic.

Dan Holohan:
“You need a lot of air coming in. You need fresh air. Many of these high-end modern buildings can’t do that and the windows don’t open. So this is where we’re faced right now. Okay, what do we do with that?”

Roman Mars:
I have been wondering if this current pandemic would shift us back a little bit more towards open-air buildings because the need for fresh air and space is necessary as it was in the 19 teens.

Delaney Hall:
Right. Yeah. I think there’s two forces kind of pulling in opposite directions. One is that knowledge that we have now very vividly that buildings need to be ventilated. And then also, this continuing pressure to make them more energy efficient because of climate change. So it’ll be interesting to watch what happens.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. One of the things that struck me as we were doing a bunch of episodes in the beginning of the pandemic and the lockdown is how many things that we’re trying today to slow this pandemic down like masks and quarantine and open windows. They’re so old. These are the same techniques that people were doing 100 years ago.

Delaney Hall:
I know. It sort of feels like the vaccine, that is this monumental achievement of modern science.

Roman Mars:
Especially these vaccines. Yeah.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. These vaccines, but everything else we’re working with is like a really old technology — stay away from each other, cover your faces, open the windows. That’s what we’ve got.

Roman Mars:
That was senior producer, Delaney Hall. To read Patrick Sisson’s full story of steam heating and its connection to the history of the 1918 flu pandemic, visit Bloomberg City Lab. To learn more about Dan Holohan, visit heatinghelp.com.

——————————————

Roman Mars:
All right. So I’m here with producer, Joe Rosenberg. Hey, Joe.

Joe Rosenberg:
Hey, Roman. How’s it going?

Roman Mars:
I’m good. I’m good. So what is the mini that you have for us today?

Joe Rosenberg:
Well, so what I’ve got for you here is a kind of mini-sequel.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Joe Rosenberg:
Because if you cast your memory back, not actually too all that long ago, you will recall 99pi produced a story about monuments to Lenin.

Roman Mars:
Right. Julia Barton did that story for us. It’s kind of about what happened to all those Lenin monuments in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union in ’91.

Joe Rosenberg:
As our listeners probably know and probably know, even if they didn’t hear that episode, after the Soviet Union collapsed, a great many of those statues of Lenin, busts of Lenin, and really all sorts of monuments to Lenin were toppled. They were torn down or pulverized, or even-

Roman Mars:
Dramatically.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. Tossed into the Black Sea and consigned to various other sad fates.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. I think the story was centered on… What was interesting to me is that there are some still standing in Russia that the ones that weren’t destroyed that were put in these Soviet nostalgia parks alongside statues of other former communist leaders. It was a way of dealing with this history without completely destroying it.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, exactly. They kind of almost bracketed it off. They put this kind of metal frame around it, so everyone was able to look at it and you can just project what you wanted onto it in this kind of safer space or something. That is the main thing that most people know about these old Lenin monuments, which is that most of them are gone or defunct in one way or another. But I am here to tell you that there is one monument to Lenin that not only lives on, but I think it’s safe to say it will not be toppled anytime soon. It is arguably, arguably the most secure Lenin in the world.

Roman Mars:
Okay. Why is that? Why has this one survived and will probably survive amongst all the others that have been toppled?

Joe Rosenberg:
Well, to answer that, first of all, let me ask you. Have you ever heard of something called a pole of inaccessibility?

Roman Mars:
No, I haven’t. It sounds a little ominous. What is the pole of inaccessibility?

Joe Rosenberg:
So a pole of inaccessibility, it’s both ominous and not. It is the geographical term that indicates the location on a given landmass that is further from the coastline than any other spot on that landmass. So every continent and every island has its own pole of inaccessibility or POI. So for example, North America’s POI is on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. It’s 1030 miles from the nearest coastline. Asia has a POI in the desert of Western China. It’s about 1500 miles from the coast, but even something like the island of Great Britain has its own pole of inaccessibility. According to the British Ordnance Survey, it is near Church Flatts Farm in the county of Derbyshire and is a mere 70 miles from the coast.

Roman Mars:
It’s not that inaccessible.

Joe Rosenberg:
No, I think you can knock that one out pretty easily if you want to. But anyway, the reason I bring this all up is because way back in 1958, a team of scientists from the Soviet Union became the first people to ever reach the Southern pole of inaccessibility.

Roman Mars:
So this is the POI for Antarctica. Is actually the South Pole or not?

Joe Rosenberg:
No. So the South Pole is closer to the coast because if you think about it, there’s that big chunk taken out of one side of Antarctica. It’s a little lopsided, right? It’s got that chunk taken out of it. So the South Pole is actually much closer to that coastline than the pole of inaccessibility, which true to its name for these Russian scientists, was really hard to get to.

Roman Mars:
It’s like really inaccessible.

Joe Rosenberg:
Oh yeah, it was. So by definition, further inland than the geographic South Pole, plus it’s Antarctica. So it was already also on the higher and colder part of the continent. Then the further you are from the shoreline, the colder it tends to get. So we made it to the South Pole in 1911, but when the Soviets finally got to the Southern pole of inaccessibility, that took them another half-century to reach.

Roman Mars:
I guess it doesn’t have a lot of symbolic virtue and it seems like a horrible place, so why would you bother?

Joe Rosenberg:
They weren’t really in a rush to get there. Apparently, they weren’t in a rush to stay there either because once this team of Soviet scientists got there, they tried to set up this meteorological research station, but it was insanely cold. The average temperature was something like negative 72 degrees Fahrenheit.

Roman Mars:
Average! Oh my God. That’s horrible.

Joe Rosenberg:
Right. So just after 12 days, they were like, screw this, and they left.

Roman Mars:
That’s smart. Good call.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. Excellent call. But before they returned to civilization, they left behind a bust of Lenin.

Roman Mars:
Of course.

Joe Rosenberg:
It’s just the Soviet thing to do. So here, let me show you a photo of what it looked like.

Roman Mars:
Wow. Yeah. There it is. There’s Lenin, a bust of Lenin right on the top of, kind of like a pedestal of some kind. What is that?

Joe Rosenberg:
So that is actually the chimney of the research station, which they dragged all the way there thinking probably that they’d use it for longer than 12 days, but now, it serves this function of making sure Lenin is as lofty and dignified as possible as he gazes out over the white expanse.

Roman Mars:
Despite the stark surroundings, this looks like just a classic Lenin bust, like generic Lenin bust.

Joe Rosenberg:
Oh yeah, totally. The furrowed brow, the jutting chin. It’s almost like at the last second before they left, they just grabbed a spare Lenin off the shelf and just kind of took it with them. So I confess, yeah, it’s not much to look at, but I kind of think of it as like the gargoyle on the top of a cathedral because after they left, it was never intended to be seen by anyone.

Roman Mars:
Right. Like the gargoyle has a function, but the people on the ground can’t see gargoyles. They’re meant for the designer of the church and maybe for God and that’s it.

Joe Rosenberg:
Right. Exactly. Or in the case of this Lenin, pleasing to the materialist forces of Marxist-Leninism. It sounds like I’m joking, but they even oriented it so that it would forever face towards Moscow.

Roman Mars:
So these pictures you’re showing me from when it was erected or did people come afterward to check it out? How inaccessible is the Lenin at the pole of inaccessibility?

Joe Rosenberg:
He’s pretty inaccessible. These photos are the originals. There was a brief spurt of visits by pole of inaccessibility standards. In the 1960s, the Soviets went back super briefly in ’64. Then in ’65, an American research team dropped by, climbed up the pedestal, and swiveled the bust so that Lenin faced towards Washington D.C. At which point, learning of the American antics, the Soviets came back down one last time and swiveled him back towards Moscow.

Roman Mars:
This is an aspect of the Cold War that I can totally get behind.

Joe Rosenberg:
Oh, yeah. If the whole Cold War was just somehow dueling pranks for the sake of national pride, that would be a much better war. After that little back and forth, after that little dual, for many, many decades, there was nothing. The Southern POI went kind of forgotten and unvisited, which means that all through the rest of the Cold War and Perestroika and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, as all the other statues and busts of Lenin were being toppled all over the world, this one lonely Lenin just sat there untouched by the forces of history.

Roman Mars:
So it wasn’t toppled by people marking the end of the regime, but did nature topple it eventually? What is the fate of Lenin on the POI?

Joe Rosenberg:
So this is where the story takes a turn because when people finally returned to the area in the mid-2000s, the official position of the POI had actually changed in the intervening years due to updated calculations. So the new focus was on being the first to go to these new coordinates and nab that record. Checking up on Lenin to see if he was still kicking just, it just wasn’t a priority. But nevertheless, there was at least one person who continued to believe that Lenin was still there at the old POI and could be found.

Henry Cookson:
“There’s no way I was ever going to let go of it. So one way or other, I was crawling to the pole of inaccessibility. I was always going there.”

Roman Mars:
So who is that?

Joe Rosenberg:
So that is Henry Cookson. Today, he runs an adventure travel outfit called Cookson Adventures. But back in 2006, he was not a professional adventurer. He just kind of a random dude who, along with two other friends, Rupert Longsdon and Rory Sweet, just kind of got obsessed with finding this bust of Lenin at the Southern pole of inaccessibility.

Henry Cookson:
“Oh, yeah. None of us had a clue. My team, we didn’t know where North, South… we didn’t know were the penguins North or South… we didn’t know the polar bears. We knew nothing about these areas.”

Roman Mars:
He sounds like the right man for the job.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, but I actually do firmly believe in beginner’s luck. You don’t know you’re not supposed to do certain things, so you just do them and then you kind of get away with them. Everyone else they consulted with basically said, “Why even bother at this point? Because even if you get there, you’re not going to find anything.”

Henry Cookson:
“They just looked at us and said, Lenin is going to be buried under the snow. Huge structures have been buried over the decades. So a small little statue that no one’s been to in 40, 50 years, without doubt, is not going to be there.”

Roman Mars:
Oh, wow. So they could be right on it right there, but Lenin could be so buried they would not actually find it?

Joe Rosenberg:
Correct. So they hired a fourth person, a veteran Antarctic explorer named Paul Landry to help supervise their team. But there was still this complication because even though great parts of the Antarctic ice sheet are calving away due to climate change. The middle of the continent, the snow is still just accumulating and then compacts down into ice. At the pole of inaccessibility, one of the things that makes it a challenging place to go is that the ice there is, I believe, 13,000 feet deep. But nevertheless, despite the odds, they decided to go look for Lenin. So they went down to Antarctica. They used kites to help pull themselves and their supplies across the ice.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s cool.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. I will skip over the details of the journey itself. Insert your standard extremes of Antarctica statistics here. But I will just say that to reach the suspected location of the Russian station took them 46 days.

Roman Mars:
Holy moly! Oh my God.

Joe Rosenberg:
The whole way there was just pure horizon and almost entirely flat, featureless landscape. All through this monotonous journey, they had to contend with the possibility that when they got to the coordinates, Lenin would be so buried in the snow that all they would see was more flat, featureless, landscape.

Henry Cookson:
“We’d only see white, white snow and sky, and our own cells and tent for the last 50 odd days. We reach the said coordinates. We are absolutely exhausted. We’re freezing cold and we can see nothing. So we agreed to keep on pushing. After a few minutes, I see this tiny little black dot on the horizon. A few more minutes and this little black dot starts to grow into something more substantial. Then suddenly, you can make out the outline of a man. There was this silence. We put down our kites and we just walked. We walked in silence up to this statute and there was Lenin.”

Roman Mars:
Wow. I cannot believe they found him.

Joe Rosenberg:
They did. He wasn’t buried under the snow, at least not yet. And I have to say, I just love this part of the story because here’s a photo of what Lenin looked like when they did find him.

Roman Mars:
Wow. So it’s really just the top of the chimney that’s left and the bust. He’s just barely hanging on.

Joe Rosenberg:
It’s been reduced to a kind of a, I don’t know, what do you call it? Like a plinth.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Joe Rosenberg:
To give you a sense of scale, the snow had been accumulating obviously, in the previous 48 years, but it hadn’t quite made it all the way up. The original chimney of the Russian station was maybe, let’s say, 30 feet high. Now, only about six to seven feet were left, making the Lenin at that pole of inaccessibility a tad more accessible.

Roman Mars:
You can reach out and touch it, yeah.

Joe Rosenberg:
Which is exactly what they did.

Henry Cookson:
“The really bizarre thing was I was expecting this to be a bronze or something steel, and it was made of some sort of weird yellow plastic compound, which is very light. You could pick him up.”

Joe Rosenberg:
“Did you pick him up?”

Henry Cookson:
“We did pick him up. Yeah.”

Roman Mars:
Did they make them face towards London or something?

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. So of course, I asked Henry precisely that and he said, no. They left him facing towards Moscow, but not before goofing around just a bit.

Henry Cookson:
“He might’ve been dressed up a little bit, nothing to reverent. We put this little hat on him and some goggles and took some pictures of us all sort of group huddle around him and everything else, but I think he’s left with his pride intact.”

Roman Mars:
I’m glad they left his pride intact, but it sounds like he’s not going to last for that much longer because if the ice has accumulated around 20 feet in the 50 years and there’s only about six feet left, it seems like Lenin will be gone in another decade or so. Could you remind me when his expedition was?

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. So Henry’s expedition was December of 2006 is when they started. They found Lenin in January of 2007.

Roman Mars:
So that’s already 13, 14 years. So do people know if Lenin is still there? Is it almost up for Lenin?

Joe Rosenberg:
So of course, that’s the big question. Right? As it turns out, the Russian station has been visited at least two more times since then. And of course, each set of visitors took the obligatory photo posing next to Lenin. So here’s a photo of a Norwegian team that got there just one year later in 2008.

Roman Mars:
Oh. So yeah, he’s already lost a foot at least, maybe two or three feet. The top of the plinth right where the bust starts is just about chest height on most of these guys.

Joe Rosenberg:
I’d say it shaved off, let’s go with a foot, I think a foot, foot and a half.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Joe Rosenberg:
But even more recent data, much more recent data is from this photo taken by a solo Australian adventure who went… Basically, he went yesterday. This photo was taken in December of 2019.

Roman Mars:
In this one, it looks like maybe two foot off the ground.

Joe Rosenberg:
He’s sitting in this photo, but if he stood up, he would be taller than…

Roman Mars:
Above it.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, much taller. Yeah. Yeah.

Joe Rosenberg:
I will say, however, that I do think that this kind of drab cookie-cutter Lenin with its standard-issue defined expression is the perfect statue for this situation because he never looks worried. Even as the ice encroaches, he seems to just be saying like, “Bring it on.”

Roman Mars:
Yeah. He’s definitely, he’s facing his fate with a sort of admirable stoicism, but his fate is coming no matter what. If I were to guess, it did about another foot or two feet in a year. You’re talking five years max before he’s gone for good. Is there any notion that you should save him? It’s just a plasticine bust of Lenin. Could they just take him or what do you think will happen?

Joe Rosenberg:
Well, for starters, it would be a treaty violation.

Roman Mars:
To take him?

Joe Rosenberg:
To take him.

Roman Mars:
I guess that’s true.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. Antarctica is under the joint jurisdiction of the signatories of the Antarctic Treaty. In 2012, the signatories approved a list of historic sites and monuments to be preserved. There’s a lot actually, they’re for like 86 monuments on the list.

Roman Mars:
86 monuments on Antarctica?

Joe Rosenberg:
Let me just tell you, there’s a surprising number of plaques in Antarctica.

Roman Mars:
Plaques, which no one reads.

Joe Rosenberg:
Right. Exactly. But I think this time, 99pi can forgive our listeners if they haven’t read the Antarctica plaques, but coming in at number four was the bust of Lenin at the Southern Pole of inaccessibility.

Roman Mars:
Oh, so this is one of the historic monuments that has to be preserved.

Joe Rosenberg:
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. It’s number four on the list. It’s funny, you can see them. This one’s like, “This one is listed by Denmark and this one is listed by the US.” I think this is either the first or second one listed by Russia. The bust of Lenin stays. So if you tried to move it, Putin would have you killed-

Roman Mars:
Of course.

Joe Rosenberg:
But I personally think there’s an even more important reason not to remove it, which is… well, actually, let me ask you. From an artistic or even philosophical perspective, would you, Roman, want to see it saved and return to civilization or left to the elements?

Roman Mars:
Oh, left to the elements. No question. It should be buried. That’s part of the art project is it being buried as far as I’m concerned.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, and I have to totally agree with this. The whole thing that gives it poetic appeal is that he is, at least most of the time, going unseen by anyone. He almost would kind of reach his platonic ideal by being rendered completely inaccessible and completely unseeable. Another person who feels this way is Henry Cookson. He said he considered taking it for a moment.

Henry Cookson:
“It was a very fleeting thought of putting him in our pulk and bringing him home. So yes. Yes, there’s a huge temptation to take it. But no, I think he should remain where he was put. I think if you could get there and add sort of the snow sort of halfway up his face or something, that would be cool.”

Joe Rosenberg:
“Like only his bald head is left sticking out before that too, is consumed by the snow.”

Henry Cookson:
“Yeah. That final gasp and then he’s disappeared into a silent, icy grave. That would be poetic.”

Roman Mars:
Well, thank you, Joe. This is a really amazing story. I love it.

Joe Rosenberg:
Thank you so much, Roman. This one was a pleasure.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
I’ll play some music games with Sean Real. We’re going to compose a song together. After this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
All right. So I’m here with our composer, Sean Real, who has a mini-story for us. And you always have a music-related mini-story for us every year.

Sean Real:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Roman Mars:
So that’s the case of this year too?

Sean Real:
Yep, it is. Yeah, very much so. I love talking about music.

Roman Mars:
So what do you have?

Sean Real:
So today we’re going to talk about music games and specifically, music composing games, which is a term, an umbrella term, I kind of came up with. I couldn’t really find something to really put all these things together, but I swear it feels related. So, okay. So these are music games but not like rhythm games, which I think is what a lot of people think of if you hear the term music game like Rock Band or Bop It or the clapping games that you play on the playground.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Sean Real:
Did you ever play those games, Roman?

Roman Mars:
Rock Band for sure. I have a Rock Band set in my house. I still play. I love Rock Band.

Sean Real:
Yeah. It’s a lot of fun. What about the clapping games?

Roman Mars:
I don’t know if I know any clapping games off the top of my head. I know the mainly from there was this amazing sound recordist and sort of audio anthropologist named Tony Schwartz, who was also an ad man in the 60s, and he recorded lots of kids’ games. He was a New Yorker, and he basically was agoraphobic, and he basically stuck to his block, but he recorded all these clapping and kids games that were amazing. And there’s a Kitchen Sisters piece about Tony Schwartz, which is stunning and one of my favorite pieces of radio. And so, I have some different record albums of Tony Schwartz recording — clapping kids games and rhyming games, and stuff like that. And I think that stuff was really amazing. But I’ve never done that myself.

Sean Real:
Yeah. I was never really a clapping game kid at all either, but it’s also because I just don’t really like rhythm games. You would think that maybe that wouldn’t be the case since I’m a musician but-

Roman Mars:
Yeah, and a drummer, most specifically.

Sean Real:
Yes, and I think this is why music composing games really appeal to me is because … so what’s different about a music composing game is that there are rules around it to keep it sounding like music or whatever the game determines is music. But the whole idea behind them is that you get something different every single time you play.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Sean Real:
And there are lots of different examples of how people construct to ways of basically generating songs and generating different kinds of song experiences from a set of rules.

Roman Mars:
Cool.

Sean Real:
And some of these examples are a little less maybe historically significant than others but this is my personal museum we’re about to step into. These are my favorites.

Roman Mars:
Okay. Well, let’s hear them. What’s the first one like?

Sean Real:
There are a few games. I kind of feel like they’re in the same vein kind of through the 1600s, the 1800s and some of them are done with dice. A composer might layout a certain number of notes or maybe write a few different melody variations. And then they kind of write them on sheets of paper maybe and assign numbers to them. And then you roll some dice and then you notate based on what numbers you roll. And so, basically you’re making a song through chance. I’ve even written sections of music by how one goes into the other and how the song starts, ends is all based on just the chance of the dice.

Sean Real:
Yeah, it’s the kind of thing that you could use maybe as like a writing prompt to be like, “Oh, I’m totally stuck right now.” Well, I’ll just like… Well, I like these notes. I guess maybe I’ll just see if I can just leave it up to God. And I really liked that because it sounds like a good way to maybe just get yourself out of your own way when you’re working on something. And I, as someone who has like deadlines for music, I’ve never tried doing that, but I’m very interested in seeing how that could play out.

Roman Mars:
It seems that the success of this game is contingent upon the little melodies that you assign have to be good in and of themselves and combine well in a random fashion, which is in and of itself its own difficult task.

Sean Real:
Yeah. You really have to be like a composer already to play a game like this. It’s like you have to have parameters already set. That also is dependent on rules you learn based on what you consider to be music.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Sean Real:
Okay. So, next stop in the museum of my favorite music games. We’ve got a little program – computer program – called Microsoft Songsmith. Have you ever heard of Microsoft Songsmith?

Roman Mars:
I have not. I mean, it sounds vaguely familiar, but I’ve never used it, no.

Sean Real:
I’m going to let Microsoft Songsmith have the first word here. This is a little song Songsmith commercial where they explain how it works.

[SONGSMITH COMMERCIAL]
YOU’RE WRITING MUSIC? WHEN DID YOU LEARN HOW TO WRITE MUSIC?

(SINGING)
YOU SING INTO A MICROPHONE WHILE THE DRUMMER PLAYS ALONG.
AND THEN WHEN SONGSMITH MAKES THE MUSIC, YOU’RE ON YOUR WAY TO A SONG.

NOW SONGSMITH COMES UP WITH A MUSIC THAT MATCHES YOUR VOICE.

(SINGING)
YOU SING INTO A MICROPHONE WHILE THE DRUMMER PLAYS ALONG.
AND THEN WHEN SONGSMITH MAKES THE MUSIC, YOU’RE ON YOUR WAY TO A SONG.
YOU CAN CHOOSE A STYLE, YOU CAN SET THE MOOD
AND THE CHORDS WILL MATCH WHAT YOU SING
YOU CAN CHANGE THE MUSIC AS MUCH AS YOU LIKE, SO IT REALLY IS YOUR THING.

Sean Real:
So basically, you can sing anything that’s vaguely melodic into Songsmith and it will generate music around that.

Roman Mars:
Wow, that’s something else.

Sean Real:
This is from the mid-2000s. All the promotional material I find about Songsmith is like it’s a great sketch tool for musicians. It feels like they’re trying to market to serious songwriters. And I mean to be fair, I think that’s entirely valid. I think if someone wanted to use it that way, they totally could. Because generally, people do write music within a certain set of rules and parameters. As much as we want to think that we all do things that are completely unique and stuff. We’re within a scale, we’re within a certain Western tradition.

Roman Mars:
That does make sense. Yeah.

Sean Real:
But there is something about Songsmith where the sound of the instruments and everything, it sounds so silly that it’s really provided a lot of great opportunities for wonderful joke songs. And my favorite thing that someone’s ever done with Songsmith – and actually there are a lot of these on YouTube. You can find videos of people who have taken isolated vocal tracks from hit songs and put them into Songsmith.

Roman Mars:
Oh my God! Okay.

Sean Real:
So, I’m going to play you one of those right now.

[YOUTUBE CLIP – JOHNNY CASH ‘HURT’ VIA SONGSMITH]

Sean Real:
Very different take on that song.

Roman Mars:
It’s a very different take. Oh my goodness. That’s hilarious. What a novel use of that technology. That’s a really fun thing to do.

Sean Real:
Yeah. I think it’s genius. It really feeds my soul, these Songsmith covers. I think that music is the language of the soul, but I think that humor is also a huge part of the language of the soul. I consider this to be valid art, personally.

Roman Mars:
Oh, totally. I do too. It’s just a different form. I mean, it has its limitations, but it’s lovely and brings joy and makes you think about the original song and the art of that song. Even designing the algorithm that creates the song is an art form and that’s so cool.

Sean Real:
So next stop on the tour. This also kind of gets into some territory that it kind of feels less like a game, but it feels really related to Songsmith, and to this whole idea of having a set of rules and generating songs for entertainment out of it.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Sean Real:
And it’s also another one of my favorite things ever. So I’m just going to read a bit of this HowStuffWorks article like pretty much word for word real quick. “So researchers from the University of Toronto trained a recurrent neural network – a type of complex artificial intelligence – to write a song inspired by an image of a Christmas tree. They taught the AI to compose tunes by feeding it a hundred hours of online music. They also gave the program thousands of images with captions, so that it could link specific words to visual patterns. Then create the lyrics and music when provided a picture.” Sanja Fiddler, one of the folks who worked on it says, “Instead of buying a karaoke machine with a certain track on it, you can create your own karaoke at home by throwing in some interesting photos and inviting the machine to generate music for you. I think it has endless possibilities.” Now I’m going to play you some of the song that this artificial intelligence wrote. Okay, so here’s the photo that they fed into the computer.

Roman Mars:
It’s a photograph of a Christmas tree. It’s lit. It has presents around it. It’s the bottom half of a Christmas tree, very classically done with red and green and gold ornaments. Very, very fancy.

Sean Real:
And here’s the song.

[AI SONG ABOUT CHRISTMAS TREE]

Sean Real:
It gets a little ominous.

[AI SONG ABOUT CHRISTMAS TREE CONTINUES]

Sean Real:
I love this song. Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Whoa, that is amazing. Like eerie and cool and odd.

Sean Real:
It reminds me of kind of like a kid might write before they have internalized all of these like ideas of what is good and bad songwriting or something like that, which is ironic because this is coming from like an AI that has been fed so much conventional music. It just makes me think like I want this AI to stay exactly as it is forever. Whatever iPhone app is going to come from this kind of technology, I feel like it’s going to be less interesting than if you just take the code as it is and slap it in our hands right now. Let’s start giving it pictures.

Roman Mars:
That’s so funny. Okay, so what’s your final one?

Sean Real:
Okay. So the final thing I thought we’d play a little game of our own.

Roman Mars:
Oh, cool. That’s exciting. Okay.

Sean Real:
Yeah. So I made a music game for us to play that I compose music for. So basically there’s like a 99pi song music game and-

Roman Mars:
Okay, how does it work?

Sean Real:
So I have composed six rhythm parts and six sort of lead instrument piano parts, and we’re going to roll dice to determine what order they are played in.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s so good. Okay, okay. Do I need two six-sided dice or-

Sean Real:
Two six-sided dice, yeah.

Roman Mars:
Two six-sided dice. Okay, hold on.

Sean Real:
So first take one of the dice and roll for the tempo.

Roman Mars:
[DICE ROLLS] Three.

Sean Real:
Okay, so three is 80, which is in my opinion the best tempo for this song. So good work, Roman. You’re already great at this game. With your two dice, designate one di for rhythm and one for lead. So if you have to roll them in separate places or something, just make sure-

Roman Mars:
They’re very different dice.

Sean Real:
Oh, good.

Roman Mars:
Okay. One for rhythm. Since I did the last one was the tempo one. I’ll do the tempo one is rhythm. Okay, the tempo one is four and the lead is a one.

Sean Real:
Okay. Four and one. We’re off to a very dramatic start. Okay, and so now we’re going to do that seven more times.

Roman Mars:
In the same order, five and three, five and five. Oh, six and six.

Sean Real:
How very conventional.

Roman Mars:
Two and four. Oh, six and six again. One and two. Four and five.

Sean Real:
You just wrote a song, Roman.

Roman Mars:
I’m so excited. I didn’t know I had it in me.

Sean Real:
Let’s see how it sounds.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

[SONG PLAYS]

Roman Mars:
Oh, it was so good.

Sean Real:
That was a false ending.

Roman Mars:
That was my one and two. The one that went down to that.

Sean Real:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
That’s so funny. Oh, it turned out so well.

Sean Real:
So I rolled this a couple of times with Courtney, my partner, yesterday. I mean, something that I thought was great was the false ending. That’s the kind of stuff that I really like and I think it’s great for a laugh and makes it feel like a game.

Roman Mars:
Oh, I love it. It’s so much fun. Thank you for helping me write a song this afternoon.

Sean Real:
Thank you for writing a song with me, Roman.

Roman Mars:
Oh, it was my pleasure. I never knew how talented I really was.

Sean Real:
I always knew.

———

Roman Mars:
At the beginning of 2021, 99% Invisible is Katie Mingle, Kurt Kohlstedt, Delaney Hall, Emmett FitzGerald, Sean Real, Joe Rosenberg, Vivian Le, Sofia Klatzker, Chris Berube, Abby Madan, Christopher Johnson, and me, Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
We are a project of 91.7. KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. We are part of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best, most innovative shows in all of podcasting. Discover, listen, and support them all at radiotopia.fm.

Roman Mars:
You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. We’ll be returning to our normal reported stories next week. But if you like these mini-stories and you haven’t heard them all over the years, I think this is episode 11 at this point, you can find them all at 99pi.org.

  1. Mac

    I’m dying. That songsmith commercial and the creepy christmas tree song.

    Also, how do we get ahold of Sean’s dice song-writing game? Can it be a prize for the next fund drive or something? I want it so bad.

  2. Andy

    Did you know story of the resurrected (or re-erected) Lenin statue located in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle?

  3. Massimo

    This podcast is awesome! I really enjoy the short stories… (a blue Yoda…What?!) I’ve discovered your podcast thanks to my english teacher and the transcript is so useful ;D .. so I have just one question.. You’ll publish the transcript also for this episode? Thank you and a huge bravo from italy!

  4. Ki

    Sean’s mention of the dice game reminds me of a mechanic in the podcast Bombarded. It’s a DnD podcast where every member of the party is also a bars. The players are bandmates and roll dice for a song each episode. As the party goes further in the journey, more dice rolls are added to modify aspects of the song. It’s a really cool idea and the application is marvelous.

  5. Christian

    An entire bust-in-the-middle-of-a-wasteland story without an Ozymandias reference? Someone needs a stern talking-to.

  6. As usual, I love y’all’s work.
    A comment: please be conscious of using “Soviet” and “Russian” interchangeably. The Soviet Union was compromised of many nations and ethnic groups. Unfortunately, because Russians were the powerful majority, many people’s identities and contributions are regularly erased.
    Thanks for what you do.

  7. Anne Allen

    Great show! Felt like Roman was back on his game this episode. He seemed a little checked out on the last one and I was worried. I have loved this podcast so so much. It is my go to when I need something interesting, need to unwind, need to avoid coronavirus news, and need something even the kids will enjoy in the car. The rest of my family listens too and we call each other about after particularly good episodes.

  8. Adam

    More fun with radiators: My office is in a building in NYC’s garment district, so the entire floor was at one time probably a big open space where clothes were made (some might say a sweatshop), but now it’s divided up into lots of offices of various sizes. I’m lucky that my company is in an office on the outside of the building, with a window, which means also with a radiator (I never knew before why it’s silver!) and because it was designed to heat a whole building it gets so f***ing hot in the winter. The windows technically do open but we’re not supposed to open them. It is one thing I haven’t missed about working from home this winter!

  9. Joanne in Canada

    Thanks for the transcript. I couldn’t decipher “ Kitchen Sisters ” even at a slower speed! 8^D

  10. Jen

    It’s not germ theory that the “fresh air” movement was going after – it was carbon monoxide poisoning. Think about it – every source of light, every source of heat, sucked up oxygen and put out carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Fire places. Stoves. Gas lighting. Candles. Oil lamps. Every source of heat and light put off fumes and made things unhealthy.

    Old homes were drafty because they had to be, for safety. You needed fresh air or your light and heat sources would kill you. You needed to be aware of carbon monoxide poisoning or those gas lamps would kill that baby. They were a huge improvement over candles, but could be deadly without ventilation.

    Texas last week was a great example of why modern homes don’t work with burning heat sources. Too sealed off for their own good.

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