Mini-Stories: Volume 4

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

Roman Mars:
This part two of the 2017-2018 mini-stories episodes, where I interview the staff and our collaborators 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.

Roman Mars:
We have underground tunnels, alarms, mysterious filing cabinets, and gold – tiny, tiny amounts of gold. Prepare to be very interesting at your next party. Let’s do this.

Roman Mars:
Why don’t you start with who you are, actually?

Delaney Hall:
Okay. Yeah. So I am Delaney Hall, and I am a producer and senior editor on staff.

Roman Mars:
All right. So what is your story today?

Delaney Hall:
Well, first, I’m going to introduce you to Peter Sokolowski.

Peter Sokolowski:
“My levels are okay? Okay. So I’m not too loud? I try to not pop my p’s, but I get excited. I’ll try not to talk too fast.”

Delaney Hall:
The stuff that Peter gets really excited about, the stuff that makes him pop his p’s and talk really fast, is language, because he’s the editor at large at Merriam-Webster, and he’s a lexicographer.

Peter Sokolowski:
“Lexicographer is a person who compiles and edits dictionaries. That’s the old definition. The great Samuel Johnson, a lexicographer in London in the mid-eighteenth century, very famously defined a lexicographer as a harmless drudge.”

Delaney Hall:
Peter, he actually said that they use that term affectionately now, as a kind of badge of honor. They like to be called harmless dredges. So don’t worry about insulting them if you want to use that term.

Roman Mars:
So what is a harmless drudge like Peter do all day at Merriam-Webster?

Delaney Hall:
Well, from his description, it sounds like they work in an office that is very, very quiet – silent, basically – and it’s filled with these massive steel filing cabinets. I’ve kind of been imagining it like that scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” at the end, where the man is pushing that crate through a huge warehouse.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Delaney Hall:
But instead of stacks of enormous crates, it’s filled with metal filing cabinets, and those metal filing cabinets are filled with index cards.

Peter Sokolowski:
“As far as I know, it’s the largest body of collected evidence of any language in the world. It’s 15 or 16 million index cards with a word in use – that is to say, in context – with its full bibliography. So we know who wrote it and where it was published and when it was published.”

Delaney Hall:
So that is the work of lexicographers. They’re the keepers of that word history, and, for a long time, before computers came along, this is how they did it, with these massive systems of filing cabinets.

Peter Sokolowski:
“There’s the file for the phonetician, for the pronunciation editor. There’s the file for our dating editors, who do the etymological dating. So it’s a place full of file cabinets.”

Delaney Hall:
But this isn’t actually a story about how the Merriam-Webster offices are filled with filing cabinets.

Roman Mars:
It’s not? Okay.

Delaney Hall:
No, it’s not. It’s a story about one special filing cabinet in their office.

Delaney Hall:
Okay, so here’s where it gets really interesting. So, one day, Peter was wandering through these endless rows of filing cabinets, and he came across this one.

Peter Sokolowski:
“One of them simply said ‘Backward Index’ on it.”

Delaney Hall:
So he opens up the cabinet that says ‘Backward Index’…

Peter Sokolowski:
“… and I realize what it was, which was all of the headwords of the unabridged dictionary – some 315,000 separate index cards – with only one word on them. It was a headword typed backwards.”

Roman Mars:
So the headword is the entry in the dictionary that’s the first word of the word in question.

Delaney Hall:
Right. Yeah, exactly. So this index is like … Imagine all the words in the dictionary, but typed backwards, and then organized alphabetically.

Roman Mars:
Okay, okay. So why would you do that?

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, that is the question – because the utility of it is not immediately obvious, at least not to non-lexicographers like you and me, but Peter, the harmless drudge, he kind of got it.

Peter Sokolowski:
“Lexicography is an extreme sport. This is kind of a radical practice of collection and of archiving. So, to a certain degree, this is maybe the weirdest example of that kind of archiving, but it made a kind of sense to me.”

Delaney Hall:
To really understand why it makes any kind of sense, you have to think back to when lexicographers first started compiling the backward index which was in the 1930s, it turns out, which was a time before computers and all of the search possibilities that they allow.

Peter Sokolowski:
“In the pre-digital era, how else could we have known that there are, for example, 500 words in the dictionary that end in ‘-ology’?”

Roman Mars:
(laughs)

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. Yeah, you’re getting it. That’s because with a regular dictionary, just organized in a regular, alphabetical way, a word like “ecology” would not appear next to a word like “technology” …

Roman Mars:
Right.

Delaney Hall:
… because one starts with E and one starts with T.

Roman Mars:
Got it. Okay. So with a backward index, all the words that end in “-ology,” for example, would be grouped together.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. So you couldn’t actually look up “-ology” words.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Delaney Hall:
You would look up Y-G-O-L-O words.

Roman Mars:
Okay. But you would get to them.

Delaney Hall:
But, in doing that, you would find them.

Roman Mars:
Exactly.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, yeah.

Roman Mars:
So cool.

Delaney Hall:
Kind of ingenious, and there are actually a lot of other examples of why this is useful.

Peter Sokolowski:
“There was no way that they could know, for example, how many words in English are made with the compound ‘like’, like block-like, clock-like, rock-like, sock-like, chalk-like, or how many open-compounds, that is to say, two-word phrases, that use ‘pony’ – so Highland pony, Shetland pony, Welsh pony, that kind of thing.”

Peter Sokolowski:
“Then it gets a little deeper – those words that are related morphologically, like ethological, lithological, ornithological, things that end in that particular sequence of letters – and then just basic rhyming sequences – steepy, weepy, sweepy, forty, shorty, snorty.”

Delaney Hall:
In fact, this backward index was instrumental in the creation of Merriam-Webster’s first rhyming dictionary.

Roman Mars:
Oh, yeah. I have one of those.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, yeah. They’re very popular.

Roman Mars:
They’re really, really good. So, by reading words backwards, you can start to see new kinds of patterns, like the ‘-ology’ pattern or the ‘-logical’ pattern or just rhyming patterns.

Delaney Hall:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Roman Mars:
That’s so cool.

Peter Sokolowski:
“The kind of lexical detail that we can get into by looking at the language backwards does sort of illuminate our knowledge of the language as we read it in a normal way.”

Roman Mars:
So you said it came from the 1930s, before there were computers. But does Peter know anything about who actually made this mysterious filing cabinet?

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. So after he discovered it, he started doing some research, and exactly who invented it is still a bit of a mystery. He figured out that it dates back to the 1930s, and there’s some evidence that lexicographers worked on it up until the 1970s. So he knows how long it was actively being compiled.

Delaney Hall:
He also found out that the project was a kind of favorite pet project of this one editor named Philip Gove. He edited Webster’s third unabridged dictionary in the 1950s, and it sounds like he was very rigorous and rule-oriented.

Peter Sokolowski:
“He was sort of famous for his organizational skills and for making the dictionary apparatus – that is to say, the things that we use as kind of code in the dictionary, things like what does a bold-face colon mean, what does a light-faced italic semi-colon mean, when can we use commas. There’s a rule for everything.”

Delaney Hall:
So it was really Gove who systematized all of that.

Peter Sokolowski:
“He made a rule book for us, for the editors, that was followed to the T. It was really, really strict and very kind of innovative in its way and also kind of proto-digital, because when we finally did digitize that dictionary, we recognized how very regular the apparatus was.”

Delaney Hall:
So Gove… from Peter’s description, it seems like he thought about the dictionary with the logic of a computer programmer, but before computers were a thing.

Roman Mars:
And now that computers are a thing… I mean, you mentioned the backward index sort of fell out in the 1970s, which makes tons of sense. The computers must have really changed the way lexicographers or the dictionary really works.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, totally. I mean, for one thing, they have made the old-school backwards index totally obsolete. On the Merriam-Webster website, there’s an advanced search function, where you can type in ‘-ology’…

Roman Mars:
Right.

Delaney Hall:
… or ‘-phobia’.

Roman Mars:
You don’t have to spell it backwards.

Delaney Hall:
No, you don’t have to spell it backwards. It pulls up all the words that end with ‘-ology’ or ‘-phobia’. So easy. We have it so easy.

Roman Mars:
We really do. We really do.

Delaney Hall:
Then computers have also allowed lexicographers, like Peter, to see other kinds of interesting patterns.

Roman Mars:
For example?

Delaney Hall:
Well, my favorite that we talked about in this interview is this function on Merriam-Webster’s website, which is called Time Traveler…

Peter Sokolowski:
“… by which you can reorder the dictionary in chronological order, as opposed to alphabetical order, because, ultimately, alphabetical order is random. It’s arbitrary. But chronological order isn’t, because English develops in a very particular way. All the words, for example, about train travel and train tracks and coal and engines, they all come at a certain time. All words that have to do with repeating firearms, they all come at a certain time. The words that entered the language regarding the law that are derived from French, they all come at a certain time. So reorganizing the dictionary in a digital way turns out to be a way to sort of turn the dictionary to a three-dimensional search. Rather than just simply a list, we can go in greater depth.”

Roman Mars:
That’s amazing.

Delaney Hall:
Isn’t that fascinating?

Roman Mars:
That is so cool.

Delaney Hall:
I love the idea of the Time Traveler.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. It’s also a good way to order knowledge in a certain way.

Delaney Hall:
It’s sort of like the backwards index was an early, pre-digital attempt at achieving that kind of three-dimensional search.

Roman Mars:
Right. That’s so cool. Well, thanks.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, thank you.

Roman Mars:
We got to know Vivian Le when she was a finalist in the Radiotopia Podcast Contest. Her show, “Villian-ish”, is premiering this year, but she’s also going to do a couple of 99pi stories for us, including this one, a mini-story, and she decided to start big.

Vivian Le:
So I want to start with the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history.

Roman Mars:
Goodness. Okay, go ahead.

Reporter:
“For many years, there has been a vigorous debate in this country about the safety of the nation’s 72 nuclear energy power plants. That debate is likely to be intensified because of what happened early this morning at a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.”

Vivian Le:
So you probably heard about this before, because it was big news, but, back in 1979, there was a partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Reporter:
“A cooling pump broke down, and the plant did just what it was supposed to do – shut itself off – but not before some radioactivity had escaped. We have two reports.”

Vivian Le:
A bunch of communities around the reactor ended up having to evacuate, and it just freaked a lot of people out.

Roman Mars:
Well, they should’ve been freaked out. That was freaking scary.

Vivian Le:
So, in the aftermath of what happened, the President ordered a commission to investigate what happened, and there was this big postmortem report to try to understand what had gone wrong.

Roman Mars:
What actually did go wrong?

Vivian Le:
Well, it was kind of complicated, because a lot of things went wrong, but Three Mile Island was a classic “cascading failure” type accident. So, essentially, a relief valve in one of the reactor units got stuck in the open position, which caused all the coolant to be released. So the coolant ran out of the core, and it started to overheat and in the end, it ended up being a pretty minor mechanical breakdown, but what they found out was that it was actually human error that made the whole situation worse.

Roman Mars:
Humans make everything worse.

Vivian Le:
They really do. They really do.

Roman Mars:
A cascading failure of humans.

Vivian Le:
But the plant operators could see and they could hear that something was wrong, because all these lights are flashing and alarms are sounding, but it wasn’t clear exactly what was wrong, because all the alarms were really confusing and just made the situation worse.

Judy Edworthy:
“Because they went off all at the same time, that would’ve hindered communication at the very time when they needed to communicate.”

Roman Mars:
And who is that?

Vivian Le:
So that’s Judy Edworthy. She studies psychoacoustics and alarm design at the University of Plymouth, and she told me that Three Mile Island is actually a really common case study when it comes to bad and ineffective alarm design.

Judy Edworthy:
“Three Mile Island is very well-known for having hundreds of alarms going off in a very short period of time. Now that’s an example where there was no alarm philosophy, because that shouldn’t have happened.”

Roman Mars:
So alarm design really matters.

Vivian Le:
Yes, it definitely matters, and there have actually been other major accidents where alarms that were supposed to help people respond to emergency, but instead they made the situation worse, like the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010, which caused a ton of oil to spill into the Gulf of Mexico.

Roman Mars:
I didn’t know that had anything to do with an alarm failure.

Vivian Le:
Oh, yeah, yeah. It turned out that a bunch of the alarm systems on the Deepwater rig had actually been inhabited for at least a year before the accidents happened, because Transocean, which is the company that ran the rig, didn’t want false alarms to wake up the crew while they were sleeping.

Roman Mars:
So the alarms were too easily triggered, and so they just turned them off so they didn’t upset the operation of the rig?

Vivian Le:
Yeah, exactly. False alarm syndrome, basically.

Roman Mars:
So this is the kind of stuff that Professor Edworthy thinks about a lot.

Vivian Le:
Yes. Yeah, she thinks about the best ways to design alarms so that they can accomplish what they need to do, and one of her big concerns is that humans are just bombarded by so many alarms in our everyday life that we just start tuning them out.

Roman Mars:
Or turning them off.

Vivian Le:
Yeah.

Judy Edworthy:
“Because I think the whole world suffers from alarm fatigue, because I think we’re just so used to alarms just going off all the time, and they’re almost just a backdrop to our lives.”

Vivian Le:
She says that the average person probably hears about 100 different types of alarms a day.

Judy Edworthy:
“They’re just all the time. You stand at a cash register, and it’s beeping away. Then you hear cars, car alarms going off, and you’ve got microwaves. You’ve got … everything beeps, and for no good reason, quite a lot of the time.”

Vivian Le:
So people just start tuning them out, and they lose track of which alarms are important and which ones aren’t. If everything in the world is beeping, we kind of forget that those beeps are trying to point out actual problems. But another consideration is that alarm tones themselves should communicate something about what the problem is.

Roman Mars:
So how does that work?

Vivian Le:
Okay. So when you think of an alarm sound, what do you think of?

Roman Mars:
Well, I think of a bracing, clocks on, beeping siren, high-pitched, shrill, alarm. Alarming, upsetting.

Vivian Le:
Yes, yes, exactly. So we basically all have one cultural reference point for what an alarm should sound like, and that’s because, in the olden days, we didn’t really have much range, in terms of alarm mechanisms.

Judy Edworthy:
“In the past, you could only make an alarm by either pushing air through an object, like a claxon, or by hitting something, like a bell.”

Vivian Le:
We associate these archaic noises, like bells and whistles and sirens and claxons with auditory alarms, because that’s just what the technology at the time allowed for and we got used to it. So Judy made, actually, this kind of funny point, which is that we have such a narrow idea of what an alarm should sound like that it even shows up in futuristic sci-fi movies.

Judy Edworthy:
“Sci-fi films, also some wonderful things happen in the film, but when alarms go off, they’re just the same alarms that we’re just used to. It’s like in the film ‘The Martian’, right? They can do all these wonderful things and go to Mars, but they can’t design better alarms than we’ve got now.” (alarms sounding)

Roman Mars:
That’s a lot of alarm sounds.

Vivian Le:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Oh, Lordy.

Vivian Le:
They all kind of sound the same.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, totally.

Roman Mars:
That guy’s in trouble.

Vivian Le:
Yeah. But with digital sound, so much more is possible. You can make an alarm sound like basically anything

Judy Edworthy:
“You can use music. Some people use tones or sequences or melodies. You can use sounds, the sounds of real objects doing real things, and we tend to refer to these as auditory icons. But, really, they’re just metaphors.”

Vivian Le:
I love this. I love the idea of auditory icons and metaphorical sounds. It’s just really interesting and cool to me.

Roman Mars:
So what’s a good example of an auditory icon?

Vivian Le:
Okay. So hospitals are notorious for having these terrible soundscapes because the sheer amount of alarms that are just constantly going off an at all hours of the night. And they’re all just beeps and tones that are kind of variations of each other. So Judy designed this new tone that’s meant to be used when there’s a problem related to a patient’s medication, and this is how it works.

Judy Edworthy:
“What you might do is you would announce an alarm by using something like this (series of beeps) that gets your attention. That’s followed by… (sound of pills in a bottle)”

Vivian Le:
See?

Roman Mars:
Yeah. I mean, that’s interesting. So there’s a little bit of an attention grabber and then something metaphorical, so you can really tell what it is.

Vivian Le:
Right, the sound of the pill bottle kind of cues medication in your head, so you kind of already know what the problem is before you even address it.

Judy Edworthy:
“What we find with these auditory icons is that they’re very, very easy to learn. You just tell people once what they mean, and then they’re aware. They’ve understood it.”

Vivian Le:
So, instead of some generic and alarming alarm sound that could literally mean anything, which is what happened at Three Mile Island, you can imagine these auditory icons that kind of communicate exactly what the problem is. So there wouldn’t be this confusion about trying to decipher what this one tone means.

Roman Mars:
Except for at Three Mile Island, when there’s 100 things going wrong, it would sound like a preschool classroom, the various sounds and beeps and rattles.

Vivian Le:
That is fair.

Roman Mars:
But that becomes the sound design challenge of how do you preference which one you hear the loudest and in what order do you hear them and all that sort of thing, which is a really cool concept to begin to tackle.

Vivian Le:
Yeah, yeah. You basically have to rethink an environment from the top down, in terms of what it sounds like.

Roman Mars:
Well, cool. Thank you so much.

Vivian Le:
No, thank you.

Roman Mars:
Since your voice isn’t heard as much on the air, why don’t you say who you are?

Sharif Youssef:
Cool. I’m Sharif Youssef. I am … What did we settle on? Technical Producer?

Roman Mars:
Yeah, technical producer.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah. I’m Technical Producer for the show, which basically means I try to make things sound good.

Roman Mars:
That’s awesome, and you do make things sound good.

Sharif Youssef:
Thanks.

Roman Mars:
So what kind of story do you have for us today?

Sharif Youssef:
I have … I believe it’s called a mini-story, and it is about alchemy. Woo!

Roman Mars:
Alchemy? Yeah, I know what alchemy is.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah, what is it?

Roman Mars:
It is the idea of using chemistry to turn lead into gold.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah, basically, or any other base metal. It was this loony idea that folks in the medieval ages were obsessed with, turning base metals like lead or mercury into gold, which, of course, is preposterous nowadays. But there was this time when alchemists were these really dope people backed by rich folks and powerful folks, including King Henry IV of France. A lot of Catholic monks practiced alchemy. Even Sir Isaac Newton was super into alchemy. He apparently wrote about it more than physics and optics.

Sharif Youssef:
So, for a long time, hundreds and hundreds of years, across the entire world, in the Middle East and Europe, there were these blurred lines between science and alchemy. In fact, alchemy can actually be traced back to the Arabic ‘al-kimiya’, which means chemistry, because apparently Egyptians were pretty big into alchemy back in the day, especially during the Hellenistic times in Alexandria, which is where I used to live. So shout-out to Alexandria. So alchemy was this really big thing, and it is still really prevalent in pop culture today. I don’t know if your kids play Minecraft or World of Warcraft.

Roman Mars:
Oh. Oh, yeah, of course. Yeah.

Sharif Youssef:
Based on a cursory Google search, I think there are some alchemist characters involved in those …

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Sharif Youssef:
… and one of the examples from my childhood is in Harry Potter. The whole first book is about the sorcerer’s stone – or, in the British version, the philosopher’s stone – which is this thing that turns metals into gold and also, apparently, makes people immortal, which is why Voldemort was all about it … or, sorry, “He Who Must Not Be Named” was all about it. Anyway, that’s all to say that this idea that you could kind of design gold from other metals was a really big pseudo-scientific quest for a really long time. But that all sort of went by the wayside when modern chemistry started to become its own discipline, with atoms and neutrons and electrons and all that stuff sort of started taking hold.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Sharif Youssef:
Well, the ironic thing is that, with modern chemistry, it is actually possible to create gold from other elements.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Sharif Youssef:
It actually happens in nature, like when neutron stars collide, and it can happen in labs, if you have nuclear capabilities or a particle accelerator, which brings us to Maryland, in the 1960s. There was a physicist there named Judith Temperley, and there, with a nuclear reactor, she managed to turn mercury into gold.

Roman Mars:
Huh.

Sharif Youssef:
Well, she actually transmuted it, which is the technical term, and, as I understand, it means she modified the nucleus of one element until it had the same amount of protons as gold.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Sharif Youssef:
Should I do a quick chemistry lesson?

Roman Mars:
I mean, go for it.

Sharif Youssef:
Okay, cool. So a quick chemistry lesson: elements are defined by the number of protons in their nucleus, like hydrogen is number one in the periodic table, which means it has one proton in its nucleus. Sodium is number 11. It has 11 protons …

Roman Mars:
Right.

Sharif Youssef:
… so on, so on. So the idea was that if you got an element that had close to the number of protons as gold …

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Sharif Youssef:
… then maybe, with a particle accelerator, you could add protons to it or strip protons away.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Sharif Youssef:
But to do that, you need a huge amount of energy, because if you collide two positive things, which protons are, then they would bounce off each other.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Sharif Youssef:
So you need a particle accelerator to do that, and mercury is number 80 on the periodic table of elements. Gold is number 79. So they’re very close.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Sharif Youssef:
So she was like, “Okay, cool, I’ll put mercury in there, which has 80 protons. I’ll try to smack one of those off, and maybe one of the protons will fall off and I’ll be left with gold.”

Roman Mars:
Totally.

Sharif Youssef:
She did that. She, I think, successfully converted one atom into gold, which … great. That was a really great job, and she proved that this idea that was really crazy but was so obsessed over for so many hundreds of years was actually scientifically possible.

Sharif Youssef:
Then, in the 1980s, this professor named Glenn T. Seaborg, who was a Nobel-winning chemist at Berkeley, made even more gold, transmuted it the same way, except this time he used bismuth, which, unlike mercury, isn’t poisonous. It was also pretty close to gold on the periodic table. I think it was 83 protons, number 83, compared to gold, 79.

Sharif Youssef:
So he smacked some carbon into it using a particle accelerator, and he managed to create several thousand atoms of gold. In both cases, the end results were sort of invisible to the naked eye, so it doesn’t seem like the best option for creating wealth.

Roman Mars:
Exactly. Yeah.

Sharif Youssef:
Especially considering that you need a particle accelerator to do it, which I hear is pretty expensive to build.

Roman Mars:
So this centuries-long quest becomes possible, but, in the end, it’s pretty impractical, because you really have to spend way more gold than could ever be made creating a gold atom out of bismuth.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah, yeah. I think Seaborg, the chemist, told the Associated Press at the time that, in order to create an ounce of gold using his process that he did in Berkeley, it would take one quadrillion dollars to create an ounce of gold, and I had to look up quadrillion. It’s a 1 with 15 zeroes after it.

Sharif Youssef:
At the same time, the going rate for gold was about $560 an ounce. So not the most cost-effective, but pretty cool that we did it.

Roman Mars:
Absolutely. Thanks so much.

Sharif Youssef:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Last but certainly not least is the longest-serving soldier in the 99pi army, Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman:
I want to start with a question for you. So how long have you lived in the Bay Area?

Roman Mars:
I moved here in 1997.

Avery Trufelman:
So are there any tourist attractions that you still haven’t been to?

Roman Mars:
Oh. Yeah, let me think.

Avery Trufelman:
Alcatraz, Pier 39, Lombard Street?

Roman Mars:
Oh, yeah. I’ve never driven down Lombard Street.

Avery Trufelman:
Really?

Roman Mars:
No, yeah.

Avery Trufelman:
That’s so funny. You would love Lombard Street. Well, so okay. So I grew up in New York, lived there for my whole childhood and adulthood – or youthhood – and I never, ever went to the crown of the Statue of Liberty. Now it’s too late. It was the kind of thing that everyone always told me to do, and it’s just kind of a typical thing that locals have a very different experience of their town and their city than visitors, because, by and large, they don’t see the attractions.

Dean Najarian:
“The vast majority of our visitors are from out of town, overwhelming majority. Think about locals doing tourist activities in any town around the United States. Many people do not go to the tourist thing in their town.”

Avery Trufelman:
This is Dean Najarian. He is a tour guide in an area of downtown Seattle called Pioneer Square. It’s very touristy, and he works for a company called “Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour”. As the name suggests, the tour allows you to descend some steps and find yourself below street level.

Roman Mars:
Literally underground?

Avery Trufelman:
Under the ground.

Dean Najarian:
I lived here for 12 years before I knew about it. Safe to say, easily the majority of people who live and work in Seattle do not know this. They don’t know that, as we look around up above there, that all of the sidewalks you see up there, all of those sidewalks are hollow.

Roman Mars:
What does he mean that the sidewalks are hollow?

Avery Trufelman:
To explain that, we have to go back to 1851, to the founding of Seattle, when the first white settlers arrived. Back then, the land looked completely different, topographically. It was, I mean, shockingly different. If you look at a map, Seattle is this tiny little peninsula that used to sometimes flood into an island periodically, and it was not the best place to establish a city.

Avery Trufelman:
But some young white guys went ahead and established it, and Pioneer Square quickly became this little logging town full of tiny wooden houses and a logging mill.

Alan Stein:
“That was the original Pioneer Square area, and that’s where the dock was. That’s where some of the only businesses were.”

Avery Trufelman:
This is historian Alan Stein, and he says, even after the settlement, the town would still flood sometimes. This meant plumbing was impossible.

Alan Stein:
“The toilets were at sea level, so the problem is anytime the tide came in, it would blast water through. So these toilets erupting with water, well, that just sounds awful.”

Avery Trufelman:
Oh, yeah, it was a stupid place to establish a town. It was a bad idea. But the settlers decided to grin and bear it, and they put up with the many faults of their little city, as long as they could continue to sell its lumber, until they accidentally burned the entire city to the ground.

Alan Stein:
“Yeah. When the Great Fire hit in ’89, that burned down … that started in Pioneer Square, that burned down most of that area, because, by this time, wooden buildings had been built up.”

Avery Trufelman:
In 1889, the Great Fire hit Seattle, and it just pretty much levels downtown. It’s just destroyed. But, miraculously, no one died in the Great Fire.

Roman Mars:
Huh.

Avery Trufelman:
So the city actually sees this as an opportunity. Seattle was like, “Okay, this is our big chance to get the town above sea level, and we can start again.”

Alan Stein:
“They thought, ‘Well, let’s grade it over. Let’s pack up the streets so that they’re 11 feet higher in the air. That way, it’s a little more stable.’ But the business owners had already started building.”

Avery Trufelman:
The city didn’t want to tell the businesses in Pioneer Square to wait until the project was done to rebuild, because raising up the streets was this really ambitious project, and it was going to take like ten years to do. So you can’t tell all the businesses in your town to take a ten-year hiatus.

Avery Trufelman:
So the Pioneer Square businesses were asked that, when they rebuild, first, they should do it in brick and stone, not wood. Learned their lesson. Then, secondly, they should add another entrance on their second floors. Slowly, in increments, the city raised up the streets 5 to 11 feet up around the businesses.

Roman Mars:
So they built their businesses with an entrance on the first floor and an entrance on basically the second story, for the eventuality that the street would raise to meet it.

Avery Trufelman:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), and there was a while where the streets were raised up and the sidewalks and the building were lower than the streets. So, for example, if you wanted to park your carriage in the street and then leave your carriage and go into a store …

Alan Stein:
“… you had to actually go down sets of stairs or even ladders to get to these storefronts.”

Roman Mars:
Basically, the sidewalk at this point wasn’t really joined to that second story.

Avery Trufelman:
No.

Alan Stein:
But the street was there. But the sidewalk wasn’t there.

Avery Trufelman:
Yeah, the sidewalk was still down at the old …

Roman Mars:
The first level.

Avery Trufelman:
Yeah, first level. It didn’t all happen at once. It happened in increments.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Avery Trufelman:
But yeah. And then the street was above it. So, eventually, the city connected the raised streets to the new second story entrances with a new sidewalk. So this covered up the old sidewalk and created this hollow space between the old sidewalk and the current one.

Alan Stein:
“Once the streets were graded and level, then the businesses moved to the upper second story. That’s where their storefronts later became. So all these original storefronts were then covered over underground, and that’s what became underground Seattle.”

Avery Trufelman:
So the underground was rumored to have a lot of different uses throughout its history. People speculate about its life as speakeasies and gay clubs and paths for espionage and smuggling. But, honestly, for most of its existence, it was just abandoned or forgotten or used as storage space by the shops above it in Pioneer Square. But then, in the 1960s, most of the businesses started to leave Pioneer Square, and the area became kind of down and out. So this was the ’60s. Everyone was like, “Great, let’s just tear down all the old buildings in Pioneer Square so we can build more Space Age-y stuff like the Space Needle.”

Alan Stein:
“The Space Age, the future. People were more looking forward than they were to the past.”

Avery Trufelman:
Except for a man named Bill Spiedel.

Alan Stein:
“So Bill, he was a columnist for the Seattle Times, and he had an interest in history. A lot of it was because he had a lot of contacts.”

Avery Trufelman:
Like contacts with direct descendants of the founders of the city. Bill Spiedel knew people who were the sons or grandsons of the founding pioneer families, because Seattle has a young history.

Alan Stein:
“As far as white settlement goes, here in Seattle, really it’s just three generations away, if you really think about it.”

Avery Trufelman:
Through these old-timers, through stories, through rumors, Spiedel hears about these underground kind of tunnels in downtown Seattle, and he eventually learns about the raising of the streets and these hollow spaces between the current sidewalk and the old sidewalk. And in 1965, Bill Spiedel’s Underground Tour was officially born. He used the tour as an opportunity to show Seattleites that they had a history and they had a historic district that they were ignoring. They thought they didn’t. They thought they were this young city.

Alan Stein:
“This got the ball rolling on preserving Pioneer Square. By 1969, it worked, because it became a national historic district and still is to this day.”

Avery Trufelman:
Bill Spiedel passed away in 1988, but today, if you go to Pioneer Square, you will see hordes of tourists roving around in groups of 47, taking Bill Spiedel’s Underground Tour. They churn out these massive tours every day. 188 people come through every hour, and one time I went, there was this woman translating the tour in real-time on her phone into Chinese. I mean, they’re from all over the world, and the tour very much continues in Bill Spiedel’s original style. It’s a lot more dedicated to fun than facts, through a lot of gags and dad jokes. They talk a lot about the exploding toilets, and they tell tales about drunken debauchery on the raised streets.

Dean Najarian:
“In the first year of construction alone, 17 men walked out of bars, tried to cross the street, fell to their deaths stepping from the street to the sidewalk below. Bill Spiedel said that that was … It worked in a way because that was early Seattle’s original one-step program. Oh, I love that joke.”

Avery Trufelman:
So it’s a lot of unverified stuff and a few exaggerations, but, honestly, that’s true with a lot of tourist-y tours. They kind of turn into this giant game of telephone. But, in this case, without Spiedel’s legends and dad jokes, we might not have this part of town at all or this piece of Seattle history that tourists know better than the locals.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
You might not remember December 22nd, 2017 as a particularly notable day, but I will always remember it as the day the world first saw Donald Trump’s redesigned presidential challenge coin.

Roman Mars:
Now if you were unfamiliar with challenge coins, please turn your hymnals to episode number 156 of 99pi. It’s called “Coin Check” and you’ll know everything you need to know. But if you’ve been here a while, you know I know about challenge coins and I care about them deeply. In fact, if you didn’t serve in the military there’s a good chance you learn about challenge coins for the first time from 99% Invisible.

Roman Mars:
This show has its own challenge and so does Raditopia, so my association with challenge coins is strong and because of that, I was forwarded the December 22nd Washington Post article about Trump’s garishly over the top challenge going by about 9,000 people. So on my other podcast, “What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law”, we take the tweets of Donald Trump and we use them as a jumping-off point to learn about the U.S. Constitution. And if you haven’t heard it, it’s a really fun show and it’s not nearly as snarky and angry as you might think. Plus my co-host on that show is a law professor and a friend of mine. Her name is Elizabeth Joh and she’s super smart and just delightful to listen to, so check it out.

Roman Mars: One of the things we discuss a lot on the show is that Donald Trump has a tendency to subvert constitutional norms. And if you’re into Trump, you can actually appreciate that tendency. I know I totally dig people who push on rules to achieve the things I want them to achieve.

Roman Mars: Anyway, with the redesign of the presidential challenge coin, it’s clear that Trump also likes to break the norms of taste and good design and tradition. The new Trump challenge going dispenses with the presidential seal and replaces it with a similar-looking eagle image. But the head of the eagle is pointed in the opposite direction for some reason and it has Donald Trump’s signature across the bottom instead of ‘E Pluribus Unum’, it says ‘Make America Great Again’. Then it says Donald Trump again on a ribbon that extends below the traditional circle of the coin. It is twice as thick as the most recent presidential challenge coins and instead of the muted colors befitting a dignified office this coin is gold. A very very cheap looking gold.

Roman Mars: In terms of taste, I consider this new coin an impeachable offense. I will personally draw up the articles of impeachment myself. Just give me a call. However, I also must consider this from a design perspective. The key question in design is, does the thing do what it was designed to do. And in that sense, one could argue that the Donald Trump challenge going is perfectly designed. It completely reflects the taste and style of Trump in his presidency in every way. It is in your face and untraditional. I find it unbelievably ugly and tacky and I don’t like the ribbon protruding from the bottom of the circle. But it’s fitting. Much like the man himself wears his wide shiny ties that calm down way too low. So just like I didn’t really get the red MAGA hats I can’t argue that they weren’t effective icons that did the job they were designed to do. So in a way you kind of have to admire the new coin and judge it for what it is. And that is the limit to how far my generosity will extend because it is awful. It is really awful. It is awful to look at in every way. It is just… it is… It is… it is so bad.

Roman Mars:
It’s so bad. You heard it here first.

Comments (6)

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  1. Kakurady

    “auditory icons” are also called “earcons” – from reading “icon” as “eye-con”, and then making the analogy that, what an icon is to the eye, is that which an auditory icon is to the ear.

  2. Sam

    I really want to find a dictionary now in chronological order. Cant find one online. Anyone else?

  3. Terry

    A great example of auditory icons is police radar detectors, Valentine brand in particular:
    http://www.valentine1.com
    They use different tones to signify the different frequency bands, and vary the beep frequency based on signal intensity. Coupled with visual direction icons, it’s a powerful system.

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