Roman Mars Describes Things As They Are

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

Hello beautiful, homebound nerds. If I sound a little different, it’s because I’m recording this at home. You might even hear some cars passing by. I am not sick, hopefully neither are you, but many of us are staying home so that we don’t inadvertently become vectors to a virus, whose impact we don’t fully understand. This is the right thing to do. We are all part of one big ecosystem and if any part of us gets sick, we all suffer… we are in this together. So, my job in this world is to tell stories about all the thought that goes into the things most people don’t think about and since many of us are stuck at home, maybe alone, maybe lonely, I thought we’d spend some time exploring this place we call ‘home’ together. Just you and me. Sound good?

If you answer back out loud, I won’t think you’re weird.

I am starting in my bedroom. I am sitting on a Casper Mattress, this is not an ad. We eat our own dog food in the podcast business, so I have a Casper mattress, but I digress.

As I look around, I see I have five windows in this one room. Now, if I were in England, or France or Ireland or Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries, I would probably not want this many windows. That’s because, back then, the more windows you had the more tax you paid. This was all variable from place to place and over time, but the principle was that a window tax was a good stand-in for a progressive income tax. The bigger the house, the more windows, the higher tax you paid. When the window tax was instituted in 1696 in England and Wales, a home was taxed at a regular flat rate and then taxed an extra amount for each window over 10 windows that it had. Like I said, the number of windows and amount of tax varied a lot over time, but the tax was pretty easy to assess by an outside observer. It was certainly considered easier to assess than an income tax and so it persisted for quite some time, in some places, into the 20th century.

This had a funny side effect on architecture that you can still see today in some buildings in the UK and Europe. There are many instances of window spaces that are completely bricked up to avoid a tax from 100 years ago. Now, if you’ve passed one in your neighborhood, it means some tax cheat lived there a long time ago… or, you know, an enterprising life hacker lived there, depending on your perspective.

On a chest of drawers next to my bed sits an oscillating fan that I’ve had for about 35 years. It still works really well. It’s a Windmere. I’ve done a little googling and honestly, I cannot tell you if this company still exists. The fan mostly points away from the bed, I just use it for white noise when I sleep. If I were in Korea, running a fan in an enclosed bedroom might be discouraged by older generations. There is, by some accounts, still a widespread belief in Korea that fans cause death. No one seems to know how this myth started, maybe fans were just an innocent bystander to too many heat-related deaths, but nonetheless the fear persists. I remember when I was a kid growing up in the Southern US, I was told that if you slept with a fan blowing on you in the summer, you’d catch a summer cold which is just as unfounded, but still nowhere does “fan equal death” like Korea.

I’m gonna get up from the bed. And let’s go ahead and walk into the bathroom.

Alright, so there is the toilet.

There’s an extremely common misconception that the toilet was invented by a man named Thomas Crapper. Crapper was a sanitation engineer and entrepreneur in the UK in the late 19th century that held a few patents and he’s credited with improving indoor plumbing for toilets. He was a good businessman and, by all accounts, he installed and sold a lot of plumbing supplies with the name “Crapper & Co.” on them. No one is quite sure why he gets so much credit for the flushing toilet, but I think it’s because his name was Crapper. Crap, as a term for bodily excrement, was already in use for decades before he made toilet parts, so sometimes destiny just smiles upon you.

While we’re here in the bathroom, let’s wash our hands. That’s good COVID-19 protocol. Soap is one of those inventions that is so monumental it’s hard to even fathom. It’s so ancient, no one knows who first discovered it. There was a very good explainer on soap recently in “The New York Times” by Ferris Jabr. Soap molecules look like little sperm, with a head that loves water and a tail that hates water. So when you put soap and water on your hands those little soap tails find things that aren’t water and dig their tails in to try to get away. This breaks up bacteria and virus cell membranes and surrounds any debris with soap molecules and makes them easy to rinse away when more water and friction are applied. For the sake of your own health, and everyone else’s, wash your hands regularly for at least 20 seconds. That’s longer than you think, so pick a song to keep you on task.

(Sound of water faucet running.)

[Roman sings “So Much Better” by Evan Olson.]
“Long before I had you in my dreams
You came and captured my imagination
Though some things are never what they seem
I never have to worry ’cause I know you are
Better than the Venus de Milo in a G-string
Better than a promise of a good one-night fling
Better than a big book of Bettie Page pictures
Even if it came with a year’s subscription
Better than a ticket to a Holyfield ringside
Better than a daughter of a sultan for a bride
Better than the cherry on a whipped-cream sundae
Better than a week that’ll never have a Monday…”

That’ll do. Okay, what’s next?

Let’s walk down the stairs.
(Sound of footsteps on stairs.)

We are entering… the hall.

In his book “At Home,” Bill Bryson wrote that “No room has fallen further in history than the hall.” I always remember that line. I’ve been to Stirling Castle in Scotland a few times and I love it there, especially “The Great Hall,” which has been painted a shocking and delightful buttery yellow since its restoration in the 90s. We did a story about it a few years ago, you should check it out. It seems impossible that a Hall like the one in Stirling Castle and the hall in your house have a shared origin but they do. The hall used to be everything. From the middle ages to about the 15th century, the hall was effectively “the house” with a central hearth that people used to warm themselves and cook over. All activity took place there, awake and asleep. As soon as a second room was added to homes, the hall has been on a downhill slide. Now it is this dumb thing– a non-room room, whose primary function is to connect other rooms. So pour one out for the hall.

If I turn right, I enter the living room. TV… I have a bunch of Article furniture. I have an all-in-one laser printer-scanner-copier in here. Printers are curious technology because they are amazing and everyone hates them. There are admittedly a lot of things to hate, the criminal price of ink is a big one and paper jams are another. According to an article in “The New Yorker” called “Why Paper Jams Persist,” desktop printers will probably always have paper jams. The problem isn’t really the printer, it’s the paper. Paper is an organic substance that has different properties of thickness and texture depending on what kind of tree it came from and how it’s processed. Commercial printers, like the ones you see in the movies at newspapers, where someone gets to say “stop the presses!”, they have these long stretches where the paper goes in a straight line and gets ink put on, but a desktop printer has to do everything in a tiny box. So the paper is pulled off the tray, makes a tight turn, gets rolled onto the ink drum, where the image gets put on, then it gets heated to almost 800 degrees Fahrenheit to fuse the ink to the page. And if you’re printing double-sided paper, it stops and turns, it gets turned again, gets rolled, heated and gets spit out– it’s truly a marvel that it works at all. The first commercially available copier, the hulking Xerox 914, which everyone loved and made Xerox billions of dollars, caught on fire so often that it shipped with a small fire extinguisher. So, things could definitely be worse.

Um… light bulbs!

So we have a really good story that Jon Mooallem wrote about the oldest continuously glowing lightbulb that’s been in a fire station in Livermore, CA for over 100 years. I don’t really remember the details, so you should find that episode and listen. It’s good. But I do remember this one lightbulb joke. Okay. How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to want to change.

Alright. You can tell that one to the kids.

I’m going to walk into the kitchen.

Oh, I have a good one here. This is good. I’m going to open up this drawer here that you might recognize the sound of. (Sound of silverware in a drawer.)

That is the silverware drawer. I have spoons, knives, and forks in here. Of these three common pieces of cutlery, the fork is BY FAR the most recent addition to the tableware family – by probably like thousands of years. Straight, two-prong forks were used in cooking for carving and getting things off a fire, but for a long time, they weren’t on the dinner table itself. People used spoons, knives and just, you know, their fingers instead. Forks were introduced a few times by fancy people and they were often ridiculed for it, but they only really took off when they evolved to have a little bit of curve in them and extra tines, so they could be more versatile for scooping and spearing small things on the plate. The curious thing about the evolution of the fork is how it changed the design of the knife. For millennia, table knives always had pointed ends for spearing food, but with the fork there, that function of the knife was redundant so it could be eliminated. In 1669, King Louis XIV of France decreed all pointed dinner table knives illegal, you know, to stop people from stabbing each other, which I guess was a problem then. So, new knives were to be made to have rounded tips and all existing table knives were to be rounded off to reduce their potential for violence. This style of knife spread across the world which is why the knives in your drawer, unless they’re a specialty knife, probably have blunt ends.

Okay, so I’m going to save some stuff in the kitchen for the next time we do this… if we need to do this, and we’re going to end up back in the living room, at the record player, after this.

[BREAK]

One of the things that I love about vinyl records is you can see how they work. A needle reads the vibrations in a groove, that vibration moves a magnet that interacts with a couple of electromagnetic coils, and the signal that’s generated is amplified a couple times and is sent to the speakers. If my phone stops playing music, there is no hope of me getting it to work, but if everything in the world fails… I have this fantasy that I can put together a crappy record player if I had to. And that gives me some measure of comfort.

So, I want to play the song “Exit Without Saving” by the band, Beauty Pill, from their album “Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are” which is where I got the name for this episode.

Chad Clark is the lead singer and songwriter of Beauty Pill. Over a decade ago, his heart got infected by a virus that nearly killed him. Every sickness he’s had since then has been a risk to his life and often involved him being hospitalized for days or weeks at a time. He has been blunt in saying that the new coronavirus would kill him if he got it. So, I know it’s hard to go through this quarantine and act in the collective good when the action that we’re all taking is staying inside and minimizing contact, and not, you know, like gathering 10 people to lift a car off of someone, but taking care in this way is how we can do the most good. So, you can help me lift a car off my friend Chad Clark, because I need him to stay in this world and keep making music. And what’s amazing is, at the same time we’re lifting a car off your 70-year-old mom, and the nurse working a 12-hour shift at the hospital.

So, here we go…

(“Exit Without Saving” plays on record player.)

“Exit Without Saving” from “Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are” is available on Bandcamp. You can buy it right now, without leaving your house. I think it’s a masterpiece but don’t just take my word for it. “Time” magazine named it one of the best albums of the decade, in amongst Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar, which is pretty amazing. But I also recommend that you use this time to support any artist that you enjoy, with your attention and, you know, if you can do it, your financial support. It might be rough for a while for many of them.

99% Invisible was produced this week by me, Roman Mars. We collectively are Avery Trufelman, Katie Mingle, Kurt Kohlstedt, Delaney Hall, Sharif Youssef, Emmett FitzGerald, Sean Real, Joe Rosenberg, Vivian Le, Chris Berube and Sofia Klatzker.

Special thanks to our supporters: Topher McCulloch, Steve Midgley… (sound of a motorcycle) that guy on a motorcycle… Houston Fortney… it’s so loud… Sarah Carrier and DJ Shanty.

We are a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative shows in all of podcasting. Find them all at radiotopia.fm.

You can find the show and join the discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show at @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. If you’re looking for more stuff to listen to we have hundreds and hundreds of stories at 99pi.org.

As one of my favorite broadcasters, Mark Kermode, says, “Everything will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.”

  1. Charles Campbell

    Roman,
    Thank you so much for this Bryson-esque episode. I especially love that you sang the song from Reply All. I laughed out at work, which felt really good today.

    1. Ktmelv

      Amen – I loved the gimlet / radiotopia crossover, a powerful manifestation of being in it together! Reminded me of the Alain de botton description of a french travel book “voyages around my bedroom”

  2. Andy Ligget

    Hey! So Much Better by Even Olson, I remember that song! JK it is completely new to me.

  3. Michael Robbins

    Omgosh, I love that you sang that song while washing your hands. I just listened to that episode of Reply All!!

  4. Erin

    I adored this. Thank you so much for taking me out of this stupid situation to ponder the curiosities around your home. It made me feel less lonely and anxious for 20 minutes, and that I am grateful.

  5. Ben

    *Share your love with me tonight*

    *doo doo do do doo*

    This song is following me around the internet – thank you for the spark of joy in handwashing, Roman!

  6. Johnny Van Cura

    Great, now that song is stuck in my head again.

    Roman’s singing voice is kinda James Mercer-esque. I want to hear some Shins covers.

  7. JackR

    Great episode. Light hearted, entertaining, informative.

    I have recommended it to more than a dozen friends and fam.

    I’d appreciate clarification of the surname of the broadcaster [Mark] quoted.

  8. Susan Cornell

    I just want to say that I usually love the beautiful custom music, extensive interviewing, editing, and production that goes into episodes of 99PI, but this episode was very different and simple and amazing! I appreciate the raw nature of this walk through your house, the sound of the water as you wash your hands, the sound of your steps as you stroll down the halls; it all feels so personal like I’m right there with you. As an architect, my minds eye can follow you perfectly and paint a picture of the rooms and orientations you are describing with some fun facts along the way. Just what I needed to take my mind off my home-bound boredom, great episode!!

  9. Kim

    Thank you for taking this seriously.

    My new way of saying goodbye to people is to say: I wish you good health! Don’t touch your face! Generally this is shouted from six feet away, or said over the telephone. Generally they laugh.

    I was feeling morose about how many folks are not taking this seriously. But I want your friend to stay alive. And my partner. And everyone’s granny. So thank you. I’m happy that you’re saying it out loud. I’m trying to say it out loud too. I hope if we all say it out loud, folks will start listening.

  10. Jacqueline

    Me too! I love that song! Thanks, Roman Mars, for introducing me to Reply All way back when; you’re both great.

  11. Jacqueline Costa

    I love that song too! Thanks, Roman Mars, for introducing me to Reply All. You’re both great!

  12. Morgan Andrews

    A gem of an episode. Feel free to drop more like these anytime. And yes, best song usage since that time one of your kids bust out some Teen Idles lyrics. Another best friend you just haven’t met yet.

  13. Sheila Christie

    Thank you so much for posting, and for the Reply All allusion. I needed that laugh.

    S

  14. Connie C

    Hi Roman,

    I just had 2 podcasts universes collide! That song that you sing while you wash your hands was actually a song that a podcast called Reply All just did an episode on. #158 The Case of the Missing Hit. I don’t know if you did this on purpose but it made me really happy. Stay safe and keep doing what you’re doing!

  15. Dyalan

    This episode – right down to the promo for Everything is Alive – reminded me that in addition to making me worried or stressed or fearful, the world around me also makes me smile and laugh, and occasionally sing. An important reminder at the best of times; an essential reminder at times like these. Thank you.

  16. Mike R Baker

    Love you, love this episode, love your love and caring, and love your listeners. It made me so happy and a little teary when you sang that song from Reply All. Like we’re all still connected, even though we’re miles (or 6 feet) apart. Thanks for everything.

  17. Mims

    I loved the sly podcast tie in to #158 th missing hit. But also loved the call back to
    https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/there-is-a-light-that-never-goes-out/.
    It is a classic 99pi. Maybe a silver lining to all this Covid stuff is that people will be forced to slow down and look more closely at the world around them and begin to understand the impact on the environment all our human activities cause.

    And of course, they will have time to listen to your great back catalog of episodes!

  18. Meredith Simpson

    Ok… I’m pretty sure I reached some sort of beautiful nerd secret level. Last Tuesday, I was driving 11 hours to pick up my daughter who had to move home from college. I listened to this episode I busted up laughing when I realized what was happening when Roman was singing and washing his hands! No one else in my car was laughing. And then I hung my head in a weird sort of shame. But lifted it again with pride; I really am some sort of beautiful nerd to recognize a Reply All and 99PI Easter egg / crossover with a handwashing song. Well played, Roman!

  19. Robert Fuge

    the fan thing… I lived in Italy (Palermo) for a year about 13 years ago, and would routinely get scolded by old people for not wearing a coat… in summer, just because there was a breeze. Old Sicilian wisdom has it that moving air = illness and possibly death.

    It’s incredibly amusing and frustrating. One of my Italian room mates at one point scolded me for 20 minutes for sleeping with a fan blowing… on my feet.

  20. Thank you for a great episode and introducing me to the band Beauty Pill. The song you played reminded me so much of XTC’s Deliver us from the Elememts. They were the band that got me through many a hard time in my life. Thanks for all you do.

  21. Melanie

    I, too, laughed out loud at the handwashing-singing bit — in my case, while walking around a deserted block after dark to shake off the weeping rage I’d been stuck in all evening. And it worked. Thank you.

    Unlike most of the commenters, though, I didn’t recognize the “Reply All” allusion, which clearly means I need to add another podcast to my feed. For which I also thank you.

  22. garrett carrigan

    I had no idea that so much work had to be put into making something so ordinary.

  23. Catharine

    Hello back, thou beautiful nerd! As I understand it, circulating hot air in a closed room is the source of the fear of fans in bedrooms (many people do not open windows or doors while sleeping for reasons of security and privacy); with a fan on in such a scenario you are not actually cooling down and are instead creating a rough convection oven but you’d have to know the science behind it and instead it’s simpler to fear having a fan on in the bedroom.

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