Mini-Stories: Volume 2

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

Roman Mars:
This is from Twitter: “Hey, Roman Mars and 99pi.org, I have a burning question for you. Why do US flags on military vehicles and uniforms always appear backwards.”

Roman Mars:
Well, first of all, they’re only backwards part of the time. Military regulations state that when a flag is displayed, it must give the effect of that flag flying in the breeze as if the person wearing it is moving forward. So if the patch is on the left arm, the flag is displayed as you normally think of it, with that blue star field in the upper left-hand corner. But if the flag patch is on the right arm, it’s the reverse side flag that’s displayed, with the blue star field in the upper right-hand corner. The same goes for vehicles. The blue star field always points towards the front of the vehicle, as if it’s flying and we’re charging forward to victory. So if you’re looking at the right side of a tank or an aircraft, you’ll see the reverse flag.

Roman Mars:
This is part two of the mini-stories episode, where I interview the staff about their favorite little design stories that don’t quite fill out an entire episode for whatever reason, but they are cool 99pi stories nonetheless. Plus in between the staff stories, I’ll be telling a few mini-stories suggested by you beautiful nerds who enjoy having me paraphrase Google search results and read them out loud. All right, first senior editor, Katie Mingle.

Katie Mingle:
My name is Katie Mingle and I am the senior editor.

Roman Mars:
What does that mean?

Katie Mingle:
I do the same stuff that we all do in some ways, which is find stories, and report on them, and make them. But I also edit a lot, so I look at other people’s stories on paper, before they go to a larger group edit, and I cut like five pages out of every story. I probably cut like four minutes, and sometimes do some restructuring, and just kind of try to get it ready so that it’s a little more smooth when the whole group looks at it.

Roman Mars:
So, even though we don’t hear your voice in every story, you have worked on every story, because you’ve edited almost every story that comes out of here.

Katie Mingle:
Yes, I am lurking behind every 99pi story.

Roman Mars:
Cool. Okay. So, but in addition to that, you do pitch stories and so part of coming up with story ideas is basically just trolling around the internet, trying to find things to turn things into stories. And that’s how this one came to you.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah, huge amounts of time just following links. That’s sort of how this one came about. And I ended up on this YouTube video about this place called ‘The Byker Wall’ which is in Newcastle, England. And it’s being narrated by this woman wearing this amazing sort of double-breasted suit jacket and she’s just super, super eighties. Her name is Beatrix Campbell. In the video, she’s sort of walking around outside the Byker Wall or the Byker Estate.

Beatrix Campbell:
“It’s big and it’s small. It’s cheap and cheerful. It’s cheeky and it’s clever.”

Katie Mingle:
I don’t really know how it’s big and small. And I’m not sure that we ever really figure that out. So the structure or the sort of estate that she’s talking about, it actually replaced an entire neighborhood. So let me just give you a little background.

Katie Mingle:
In 1963, in Newcastle, England, a 17,000 resident working-class neighborhood called Byker, so the same name as this new place, was demolished because it was considered a slum. And I think there were a lot of vacancies. And the neighborhood was made up of sort of Victorian row housing. If you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Billy Elliot’ and you can like picture him sort of dancing through these brick houses, and really, really close together narrow streets. That’s, that’s-

Roman Mars:
That’s Byker.

Katie Mingle:
Exactly.

Roman Mars:
That’s the old Byker.

Katie Mingle:
That’s the old Byker. And I think that movie was actually filmed really close to the old Byker neighborhood.

Beatrix Campbell:
“Street by street, the old slums were cleared, while street by street, the new Byker was built.”

Roman Mars:
So yeah, in place of the old neighborhood of brick row houses, this architect named Ralf Erskine built the new place, which is called Byker Wall, or sometimes Byker Estate. And it’s a community of public housing that is enclosed by this great big wall of apartments. The wall is a mile and a half long and it provides a barrier to winds coming kind of off the North Sea. And also highway noise. There’s like a big freeway or expressway nearby. And it kind of creates this sort of micro-climate within the community. So it’s basically this big wall that sort of wraps around these other buildings, enclosing them. And Campbell, she has some very like vivid descriptions, but she says the way it’s constructed and laid out kind of reminds her of a pomegranate.

Beatrix Campbell:
“It’s kind of like a pomegranate, it’s fruity, hard edges and soft sweet places inside.”

Katie Mingle:
Yeah. And if you’re feeling like, at all, like that was a little sexual, it gets like, there’s more.

Beatrix Campbell:
“But what does all this mean for architecture? Is it modernist or postmodernist or what? For sure, it abolishes aggressive phallic architecture. All those gray erections, which puncture the skyline. Maybe it’s vulval architecture. It’s round. It goes with the contours of the landscape. It’s an enclosure rather than a disclosure, full of nooks and crannies. Layers and levels and surprises.”

Katie Mingle:
Nooks and crannies.

Roman Mars:
Oh my God. Yeah.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
So yeah, if you didn’t hear that. It abolishes aggressive phallic architecture and those gray erections that puncture the skyline.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
For vulval architecture. Beep.

Katie Mingle:
Those gray erections.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s so great.

Katie Mingle:
So I found this place and I was sort of like, I want to put this on the air, basically just to get this lady and her vulval architecture theories on our podcast. I don’t know if there’s a story here, but I want there to be.

Roman Mars:
But there are little cool things about Bykers.

Katie Mingle:
There’s actually a lot-

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Katie Mingle:
… that’s kind of neat about it. Ralf Erskine, the architect, he was a socialist and a Quaker, and he really wanted to build a place that fostered community. And he’d also studied buildings in the Arctic and how they were constructed to sort of shield the inner courtyards from winds coming in from the outside. And he wanted to do something similar but not just to shield it from winds, but also just to enclose the residents in this vulvic community…

Roman Mars:
…vulvic community.

Katie Mingle:
And Erskine tried really, really hard to involve a bunch of the residents from the old Byker in the redesign of the new one. But despite his sort of best efforts, not that many of the original residents ended up living there. And eventually, in the eighties, the place kind of turns a little bit back into a slum. There’s a lot of crime, and vacancies, and a lot of the places sort of fall into disrepair.

Katie Mingle:
The Guardian said this about the Byker, the new Byker Estate, “For all its faults, Byker Wall was an exemplar of both design and an attempt to involve the community in the changes planned for them by those in power. That it failed in so many ways reveals that it’s rarely in the interests of communities to demolish the homes they live in.”

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah. So that’s, to me, that’s just sort of like, you can try really hard to do it right and it still might come out wrong.

Roman Mars:
Right. Right.

Katie Mingle:
So, and Beatrix Campbell, the YouTube lady, she admits that the place is flawed, but she still thinks it’s pretty great.

Beatrix Campbell:
“It’s flawed of course, but at least, unlike most of its contemporaries, there’s a bit of democracy here. It’s both monumental and modest. It’s a social space and domestic. There’s something lighthearted about this place, something lovable.”

Katie Mingle:
Okay. So I don’t know if you can understand her last line there, but she says, “There’s something lighthearted about this place, something lovable.” And then if, I love that if you scroll down just a little ways, that the comment on the videos is ‘they didn’t tell them it was Carl Orff 24/7 in this place’. And Carl Orff, I think what that comment is getting at, is that it was really a kind of a dark place to live because Carl Orff wrote this tune. (“O Fortuna Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff plays)

Roman Mars:
That’s pretty dark.

Katie Mingle:
That’s the Byker Wall.

Roman Mars:
Cool. Thank you, Katie.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah.

——————————————

Roman Mars:
In 2014, the Byker Community Trust started a multimillion-dollar revamp of the Byker Wall with lots of improvements, including broadband in every property. So I hope it’s not all Carl Orff up there anymore, if indeed it ever was.

Roman Mars:
Tell me who you are.

Sharif Youssef:
I am Sharif Youssef, assistant producer at 99pi.

Roman Mars:
And what does that mean? What do you do?

Sharif Youssef:
I sort of do a lot of the ProTool stuff. So working with the actual tape for a lot of the producers’ stories. I score and sound design a lot of the pieces. I do research and fact-checking. So I basically do whatever needs to be done.

Roman Mars:
And so what is your mini-story?

Sharif Youssef:
So things that are creative are relatively simple to copyright. You write a song, copyright. You write a book, it’s easy to get copyright. And it’s easy to prove that you’ve done this thing.

Sharif Youssef:
But a question arises when you try to copyright something that is based in fact, some sort of objective reality, like the definition of a word in dictionaries. Or an entry for a person in an encyclopedia. Or, in this case, maps. And I know you like a good map story, Roman.

Roman Mars:
Oh, I love a good map story.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah. So this story is about a town called Agloe, New York. And it was in the 1930s, the General Drafting Company was creating a map of New York State. So they put in a lot of hours, and a lot of manpower, detailing all the rivers and gorges and finger lakes and towns. And they said, “We put in so much work. We have to protect our investment.” So they set a copyright trap, near the Northwest corner of Pennsylvania, just a couple miles into New York, they put a little town next to Roscoe, New York, called Agloe. And Agloe, I believe is actually a jumble of the initials of the founders’ names, A-G-L-O-E.

Roman Mars:
And so they put this on the map, and they know that if another map shows Agloe, New York, that person was copying their map.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah, exactly.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Sharif Youssef:
So they create this fictitious town, it’s on the map. And it’s like sold in Esso Stations around the state, and for a while, everything is all hunky-dory. But then several years later, another map comes out. And they open the map and, lo and behold, Agloe was on it. This company was called Rand McNally Drafting Company.

Roman Mars:
Busted.

Sharif Youssef:
Busted. Yeah. That’s what they thought. So the General Drafting Company goes, “Yo, Rand McNally, you stole our map and we’re going to sue you.” And Rand McNally’s like, “No, no, wait, this is an actual place. Let’s go and take a look.” And so the General Drafting Company people are like, “Okay, sure, take us to Agloe.”

Sharif Youssef:
So they go to this place where Agloe should be. And lo and behold, there is actually a big general store there, a small general store actually. And it’s called the Agloe General Store. And there are a couple of houses, maybe two at its peak. And so the story goes, some people, maybe from the neighboring towns, wandered to this place, wanted to build a general store, saw that the map said Agloe is here, but nothing was there. So when they wanted to build this store, they just slapped on the Agloe name. So this place that was created as a fictitious copyright trap sort of sprang up into reality. So this sort of became famous because this author John Green wrote a book called ‘Paper Towns’, that is set in Agloe, New York. And he gave a Ted X talk about Agloe, New York, and about the concept of paper towns as well. And it was since turned into a movie.

Roman Mars:
So we thought the story might not be a great fit for us because people in our audience might already be really familiar with it.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
But we can talk about it a little bit and if you want to learn more, you should look up John Green because he and his brother Hank make these great videos. You learn all kinds of things. I know people who like this show will totally love what they do on YouTube. So check them out.

——————————————

Roman Mars:
And you are?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
I’m Kurt Kohlstedt and I’m the digital director at 99% Invisible.

Roman Mars:
And describe what that means.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Sure. I produce web stories for the show and I take care of all of our digital content.

Roman Mars:
So several years ago, I remember being in the waiting room waiting for Maslow, who was in surgery. It all turned out fine. I got an email from a firefighter and she said, “Do you know anything about Knox Boxes?” Which are these little invisible elements that you see everywhere in urban environments, but you probably never notice them. So please tell us what is a Knox Box?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, Knox Box, in simple terms, is a rapid entry system. It allows emergency personnel to get into buildings quickly when there’s a disaster going on. So for example, when there’s a fire in your building, and the fire department is trying to get in quickly, they show up, they opened the Knox Box, get out a key and enter the building.

Roman Mars:
So describe it like physically. So it’s like a little box that’s sort of up against a wall, like posted on a wall.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Knox Boxes will typically be found within a few feet of an entryway. It’s at eye level. It’s a black box, usually with a little red on it, so it’s easy to spot. So the fire department shows up, they grab ahold of this little box, and they use their master key to open it and enter the building.

Roman Mars:
So if there’s a fire inside, they don’t want to break in all the doors and windows. They just, if there’s a key available, they can use it.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. In an emergency, they’re not worried about the property damage, of course, that’s a byproduct, but they’re worried about injuring themselves. Right? So if they have to break a glass door and jump through that glass door, that puts them at greater risk. It also takes more time to get into the building. This saves them time, reduces injury risk, and just lets them in quickly.

Roman Mars:
And so how does the whole system work? So they have a master key that opens up all the Knox Boxes.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. So their master key opens up all the Knox Boxes for all the different buildings. And that means when they arrive at a building, they don’t have to sort through a bunch of keys, figure out how they’re going to get into that particular building. They just whip out their one key, stick it in the Knox Box, open it up, and inside of that, they will find whatever key they need to access that particular building.

Roman Mars:
Where does the name Knox come from?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Knox is a company that produces a lot of these boxes and so technically generically you might call them a rapid entry system, but Knox makes so many of them that it has become an everyday sort of household name for these things. Knox Box like Kleenex.

Roman Mars:
It’s like Band-Aid and Kleenex. Exactly. Okay, cool. So like if you were in any populated area, you will see a ton of these, right? They’re everywhere.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. You are surrounded by Knox Boxes, basically anywhere you go. You probably pass a dozen or so of these just walking down the street every day. So on every block of every city, you’ll find some equivalent of a Knox Box attached to the outside of the building. And once you start seeing these, you will see them everywhere. They are at eye level, they’re made to be seen, and yet they’re somehow strangely invisible until you start noticing them.

Roman Mars:
So cool.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
This was one of those great examples of a short story that was just, it’s an anecdote more than a story. So it made sense, just put it up on the web and call it good.

Roman Mars:
Right, and so we have tons of those. We have a whole website devoted to them at 99pi.org.

Roman Mars:
Thanks to Nikki, the former firefighter, for the Knox Box suggestion all those years ago. Last week I got this mini storage suggestion from Tucson, Arizona, resident Megan Phillips. In Tucson, roads running east-west are called street, roads running north-south are called avenue. That all makes sense. But what is unique to Tucson is that any diagonal roads are called stravenue, a portmanteau of street and avenue. That is an official designation. It’s not just slang. And I think that’s pretty cool. When I got Megan’s note, I was sitting next to famous portmanteau skeptic, Helen Zaltzman, of “The Allusionist”, that’s Radiotopia’s acclaimed word podcast. And I asked her what she thought.

Roman Mars:
I know your general opinion on portmanteau is pretty negative.

Helen Zaltzman:
I think that’s unfair. I think where portmanteaus are useful is to express a concept for which you don’t have a proper term, and it’s related to concepts that you do already have terms for. However, in this case, I feel like the portmanteau is fixing a problem that doesn’t really exist. And that problem is that the people of Tucson are just very much too dependent on things either being streets or avenues. And I come from Britain, which does not have such a binary road naming system. So you might get a street that is called a street or a road or an avenue or a crescent or a boulevard or not even have a road term at all. And it could go in any direction. So live and let live, Tucson.

Roman Mars:
As a very pro-design, pro-grid show, I’m sorry that you had to hear that, my nerds, but I assure you Helen Zaltzman’s ‘The Allusionist’ is a fantastic podcast that will teach and entertain you about words and the strange consequences of language. But I won’t have Helen planning my city because grids rule.

——————————————

Avery Trufelman:
Man, I’m so excited to, I was about to say, I’m so excited to get this story out of my system, but honestly, I still think it would make a good story. I think everyone is wrong, and I think I’m right. And I want it. I’m still holding out hope. Sorry. I, yeah.

Roman Mars:
Maybe there’ll be a groundswell that they need to know the whole story at the end.

Avery Trufelman:
Maybe. Maybe or I’m just worried that people will hear it and be like, “Oh yeah, no, it’s doesn’t work.” Which would mean I’m totally crazy.

Roman Mars:
Let’s find out.

Avery Trufelman:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So tell me who you are.

Avery Trufelman:
I’m Avery Trufelman.

Roman Mars:
What do you do here?

Avery Trufelman:
I’m a producer at 99% Invisible.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So we’re telling all the types of stories that we can’t tell on the radio for various reasons. Maybe they were little parts of stories that got cut out because they were too confusing. Maybe they were a little too small to constitute putting a whole episode about. But this one, this one is different. Why is it different?

Avery Trufelman:
This was supposed to be my magnum opus. This was the one that got away. I mean I made it like two years ago, and so at the time I was like, “This is it.” I was already planning out like the t-shirts we would sell about this episode and like, and it just, it didn’t happen.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So what is this story?

Avery Trufelman:
This is about the most iconic poster in the world. It is a poster we have all seen. It is a poster we have all been forced to see it.

Roman Mars:
The suspense.

Avery Trufelman:
The suspense. It is this poster.

Mira Lim:
“Can you read that line there?”

Avery Trufelman:
“D-A-O-6.”

Avery Trufelman:
It is that pyramid arrangement of black letters on a white background. It is usually got a big E at the top and each line of letters gets progressively smaller. It is a vision chart. And it has an official name.

Roman Mars:
So what’s the name?

Avery Trufelman:
It is called the Snellen Chart, after the Dutch ophthalmologist, Herman Snellen, who invented it in 1862.

Mira Lim:
“Anything here?”

Avery Trufelman:
“E-V-O-T-Z-2.”

Mira Lim:
“You are perfectly 20/20.”

Avery Trufelman:
The way it works is that you’ve read off the series of letters on each line, and if you get the majority right, you get to move to the next line.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Avery Trufelman:
Then you pass. And I went to a bunch of ophthalmologists and I took this vision test a bunch of times. And according to Mira Lim, this very kind ophthalmologist who works up the street from us.

Mira Lim:
“By convention, you always use the Snellen Chart. This just works well. It’s what everybody has.”

Avery Trufelman:
And a big part of why the Snellen Chart works really well is because it’s easy to memorize. And a lot of ophthalmologists and eye doctors have memorized their chart.

Mira Lim:
“E-S-L-C-A-V-A-D-A-O-6-E-G-N-U-5-F-Z-B-D-4-O-F-L-C-T-A-P-E-O-2-5-E-V-O-T-Z-2. There you go.”

Roman Mars:
Whoa. So that’s just her.

Avery Trufelman:
She just-

Roman Mars:
Rattled it off.

Avery Trufelman:
She rattles it off. And that’s the thing, because if you think about it, then they don’t have to squint with you to make sure you got each one right or they don’t even have to follow along on a paper. If they have it memorized, they can just be like, “Oh, wrong. Oh, wrong.” And they can assess you really quickly, which if you’re an eye doctor, you’re doing this to every single patient, and then this makes – this adds minutes to your day – once you have it memorized. So the Snellen Chart is iconic. You can see it on mugs and ties and whatever. It’s everywhere. Just that layout is classic.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Avery Trufelman:
But it has an obvious problem. This is the thing that I have a hard time describing. Let me try it out. Okay. The way the test works, you read the line, you get the majority right, and then you get to go to the next line.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Avery Trufelman:
But if every line has a different amount of letters on it, it’s basically a different test every time.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Avery Trufelman:
You can get one line, it’s okay to get three wrong. The next line it’s okay to get, whatever, four wrong.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Avery Trufelman:
It’s a different test every time. You have different odds.

Ian Bailey:
“If you got three out of five right in the 20/20 row, you will be given 20/20. But if I said, let me repeat that, and you only got two letters right in that same row, now you would have 20/25.”

Avery Trufelman:
“That’s just shockingly imprecise. It’s unbelievable.”

Ian Bailey:
“It is.”

Avery Trufelman:
That is Dr. Ian Bailey. And in the 70s, he helped design a more precise vision chart that has five letters on every single line.

Ian Bailey:
I think our chart design could be compared with designing a ruler. Where you say, “why don’t we make the markings along the ruler of the same size?” It seems obvious.

Avery Trufelman:
And so he has five big letters at the top, five letters on the next line, five letters on the next line, all spaced equally apart. It’s very precise. But if you visualize it for a second. Right? Instead of one giant letter at the top, there are five giant letters at the top, which means that it is a physically bigger chart. It’s just wider.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Avery Trufelman:
And also that means it looks more like an upside-down pyramid.

Roman Mars:
So you have five really big letters at the top, and then five smaller letters, and then five smaller letters, and then they get tiny, tiny, tiny. But they’re still always five.

Avery Trufelman:
Yeah, exactly.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Avery Trufelman:
And then the thing is he also had to pick which letters to use. And so some letters are more confusable like C and G. Some letters are very distinct, like Z and A. And so he also had this design challenge of making sure that you wouldn’t have one line of oh easy letters and one line of difficult letters, to make sure they distribute evenly.

Roman Mars:
Right. Okay.

Avery Trufelman:
And he also had to make sure that there wasn’t, because he designed it in Australia, and he wanted to make sure N and Z weren’t next to each other cause people will be like, “Oh New Zealand.” and create associations with shapes.

Roman Mars:
Oh. Interesting.

Avery Trufelman:
So yeah, it was a really tough chart to design.

Roman Mars:
That’s the LogMAR Chart.

Avery Trufelman:
That’s called the LogMAR Chart. It is one of many improved charts. But the problem is, so yeah, the chart is a lot bigger and wider. Physically it takes up more wall space, which a lot of offices can’t actually accommodate. And since there are five letters on every row, it means there are more letters for doctors to memorize.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Avery Trufelman:
And actually, Dr. Bailey hasn’t memorized his own chart.

Ian Bailey:
“No, not exactly. I can still remember the Snellen Chart that I used to have when I was in private practice.”

Avery Trufelman:
“Can you recite it?”

Ian Bailey:
“Yep. E-C-B-D-O-N-P-T-E-O…”

Avery Trufelman:
Long story short, the memorization is really key to why the Snellen Chart works. It’s what everyone is used to. The old pyramid shape is easier to memorize. So the vision chart presents this really interesting question about what really makes a design good. Because on the one hand you have charts like the LogMAR Chart, like Dr. Bailey’s chart, which are standardized and precise and just a better tool, but a little harder to accommodate and a little harder to use. And then on the other hand, you have the classic Snellen Chart, which is less precise but way easier to memorize, which means it’s a more efficient test for doctors, plus it fits conveniently on a wall. It is memorable, quick, easy, imprecise, and totally iconic.

Mira Lim:
“There’s probably more scientific ways of measuring vision, but it’s a pretty good, it’s a pretty good way of assessing how well you can see and function. So it’s good, it does work, and it’s a lot easier than the other ways that you could do it.”

Avery Trufelman:
So you see both versions of the chart around. And just next time you get your eyes checked, you can see which design your doctor has opted for. If you see the traditional pyramid Snellen Chart shape, that means it’s more efficient for the doctor to use. And if you see the upside-down LogMAR shape, that means it’s just a more precise tool for measuring vision.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Avery Trufelman:
But like both are good designs, just in really different ways.

Roman Mars:
So we just gave the most cursory explanation of these two different charts and the design implications of each of them. But when the whole story was being scripted, it had lots of different details. And it ended up getting more and more confusing about what 20/20 vision actually was, and all this sort of stuff. And eventually, we just decided just to kill the story and not actually produce a full version of it, which is ongoing tragedy we are reminded of all the time, that this one never really made it.

Avery Trufelman:
I researched the hell out of this. I’m still subscribed to the Ophthalmology National newsletter. And I see this chart everywhere and it really can I say pisses me off? It really pisses me off. Because I’ve had this tape lying around forever. I even made this really fun medley of songs. Check it out. (song medley plays)

Roman Mars:
That is the end of the mini-stories. Happy 2017, everyone. Normal episodes commence next week, with less giggling, but we might try this again a couple of times a year if people are into it. We had a huge response to the last episode, so if you have a mini-story suggestion, send it our way, and maybe we’ll address it at the end of the year.

Comments (28)

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  1. Olivia

    Very excited that you’re talking about my hometown but… it’s Newcastle, not New Castle!

    1. glen

      If you mean the Carl Orff piece at the end of the bit about the Byker Wall, it’s called “Carmina Burana”. The section they played which most people recognise is called “Oh Fortuna”

  2. Aaron

    I’ve loved these mini-story episodes soooo much, partly because of the topics and partly because I get to hear from all of the other (normally) silent members of the 99pi team. Great work, y’all!

  3. Carolyn

    Hi–I started listening to your show a couple years ago after I gave a short talk in Northern England about a landscape park I’d restored–when I finished the organiser’s comment was ‘you sound like Roman Mars’! I thought I’d write with two things about the mini-stories–first, I worked for four years in Newcastle, and discovered among other things that the Geordies love their infrastructure almost as much as their beer and brass bands:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V80Isj9JK1s

    (Byker is even mentioned a couple of times–there’s a station there.)

    Second, cities or developers nowadays may randomly name streets, roads, avenues, boulevards, etc. but each of these terms once had a very specific meaning. I recently read an article tracing the word ‘way’, indicating that its original meaning suggested a steep street–something useful for waggoners to know before they chose their routes.

  4. Rob

    The city where Byker is located is Newcastle (upon Tyne), not New Castle.

    Surely the bigger problem with having a standardised chart for testing eyesight is that the person being tested may become familiar with the sequence of letters? Sometimes in these tests, I have been not sure whether I can really read the bottom row of letters, or whether I am just remembering what they are.

  5. Brian

    The eye chart story is better than the majority of topics you cover – would love to hear the full version.

    1. Michaël

      Totally agree, I normally listen trough a podcast app, this was one of the few times I just had to google something because I wanted to know how it looked.

  6. Jeff Loonin

    The copyright trap is given a sci-fi explanation as well as a practical one in the Doctor Who episode “Face The Raven”. It’s cool when a writer mixes a little bit of truth in with their fiction, no?

  7. Nathan Cross

    I totally love these mini story episodes. They are just so dang fun! I welcome the idea of doing more mini story episodes a few times a year. What about perhaps doing a dedicated short-format podcast devoted to single ministories? Something along the lines of Scientific American’s 60-Second science? Just a thought.

  8. Craig Stevens

    Love these short stories. A couple of points that occurred to me about the eye chart. First, if the Snellen chart is easy for the optometrist to memorize, isn’t another down side that it’s easy for the user to memorize. Kind of self defeating for the user, but it could even inadvertently create inaccurate results over time.

    Second, isn’t another interesting aspect of this chart, the design issues related to the creation of the system for measuring eyesight (e.g. 20/20). Weren’t there other systems that were absolute rather than relative?

    Thanks,

    Craig

  9. Frank

    As a Canadian high school student, we studied the Snellen ratio in (accelerated) physics as part of the study of light, and used patterns of parallel lines (like a spatial frequency chart from old TV). I recall my lab partner (a provincially ranked baseball pitcher) had something like a 9/6 for his dominant eye.

  10. So I have a way to get Katie’s eyechart into a full episode, cover a few different things that we use all the time that are hard to use like the qwerty keyboard.

  11. Emily

    I’m with Avery! The design of charts and equipment for measuring vision and what it actually means to test 20/20 on a vision chart sounds like a fascinating concept to cover. I would be interested in hearing more about it. A majority of people wear vision correcting lenses and interact with optometrists, so it strikes me as something with a wide appeal as well.

  12. Brian

    I found it strange that you felt the need to repeat Beatrix Campbell’s lines, not once but twice. I understand that it’s radio, and that the majority of the audience might not be overly familiar with the Geordie accent, but hers wasn’t particularly strong. You’ve had people from all over the world on the show before, without resorting to this, so to do it with a native English speaker is kind of jarring. I liked the episode, and I think that the mini stories concept is great, but I was really distracted by that choice.

  13. John Sanders

    I used to live near Byker and I agree that it is special. It is often cited as the start of community architecture in Britain. I dont know if that is the case – and neither do i know if two other stories about it are true – that the community consultees did not want tradition but pushed the designers to more inventive design once they saw what was being built in the first phase and what is possible. Newcastle has (or had recently) more architects per head of population than any other city in Britain. I sometimes wonder if this is because the architects who came to work on Byker with Ralph Erskine stayed there. The point is that its a place that is sufficiently interesting for people to make myths and poetic comments about. I admit that Bea Campbell’s attempts at architectural criticism are embarrassing but how good to have people who are not designers talking so generously about recent architecture in this way. If you want to know more there is a very good conservation plan written by Jules Brown at the North East Civic Trust.

  14. Mike

    Loved the section on the Byker Wall. Apparently it was originally intended for a main road to run much closer to it, matching the curve of the Wall, but the road was scrapped. The Wall was built in that shape anyway, then the idea of a road was resurrected, following the design that it has now (i.e. alongside the Wall, but much straighter).
    Also, the streets that you were describing “like Billy Elliot” are known as terraced streets (often shortened to “terraces”) :-)

  15. Nikki Reese

    I was the firefighter who emailed you about the knox box. I had completely forgotten about it! Thanks for the awesome mini story.

  16. The modern Byker Wall is kind of horrendous. The old 1970s (and before) Byker estate version seemed to waste a lot of space but seemed more like a neighborhood and community.

    Urban planning is certainly challenging, I wouldn’t want to be in architect Ralph Erskine shoes.

  17. I loved the story about the Snellen chart, and I think it would be interesting to look at visual acuity charts used in other countries, especially those where the written language doesn’t involve our roman alphabet.

    I’ve lived in Taiwan for a couple of years and had to undergo a complete medical check-up for my student visa, which included an eyesight test. I was surprised to see that the chart used was different from our own; instead of letters, it featured a shape resembling a capital E, but oriented in four different ways. To pass the test, I had to name the direction that the three ‘legs’ of the E were facing, either left, right, top, or bottom. Simple enough, can be applied in all languages, but maybe not as easy to memorize as the Snellen. Anyway, I thought it might interest you – I think there are a few images online.

  18. miss pooslie

    my eye dr does the chart digitally (in a dim room with a projector) she also switches up the letters for when she is fine-tuning your prescription.
    i feel like the chart is a jumping off point, giving you the range of vision, not 100% precise. (or maybe that is my darkroom experience talking–doing 5 second increments on a negative then fine tuning from there)
    also, i never knew that you could just get a majority right! i sit there and struggle with c/g e/f etc on the lower lines. glad to know i can just guess and if its wrong, i can still “pass” that level!

  19. Shay

    There’s gotta be a ministory to be told about Begich Towers and The Town Under One Roof!

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