Episodes
Throughout Joseph Weizenbaum's life, he liked to tell this story about a computer program he’d created back in the 1960s as a professor at MIT. It was a simple chatbot named ELIZA that could interact with users in a typed conversation. As he enlisted people to try it out, Weizenbaum saw similar reactions again and again -- people were entranced by the program. They would reveal very intimate details about their lives. It was as if they’d just been waiting for someone (or something) to ask....
Published 12/11/19
“Incubators for premature babies were, oddly enough, a phenomenon at the turn of the 20th century that was available at state and county fairs and amusement parks rather than hospitals,” explains Lauren Rabinowitz, an amusement park historian. If you wanted your at-risk premature baby to survive, you pretty much had to bring them to an amusement park. These incubator shows cropped up all over America. And they were a main source of healthcare for premature babies for over forty years. The...
Published 12/03/19
In the 1930s, Lester Gaba was designing department store windows and found the old wax mannequins uninspiring. So he designed a new kind of mannequin that was sleek, simple, but conveyed style and personality. As a marketing stunt, he took one of these mannequins everywhere with him and she became a national obsession. “Cynthia” captivated millions and was the subject of a 14-page spread in Life Magazine. Cynthia and the other Gaba Girls changed the look and feel of retail stores. Mannequin...
Published 11/27/19
Galileo tried to teach us that adding more and more layers to a system intended to avert disaster often makes catastrophe all the more likely. His basic lesson has been ignored in nuclear power plants, financial markets and at the Oscars... all resulting in chaos. At the 2017 Academy Awards, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway famously handed the Best Picture Oscar to the wrong movie. In this episode of Cautionary Tales, Tim Harford takes us through all of the poor design choices leading into the...
Published 11/19/19
There are symbols all around us that we take for granted, like the lightning strike icon, which indicates that something is high voltage. Or a little campfire to indicate that something is flammable. Those icons are pretty obvious, but there are others that aren't so straightforward. Like, why do a triangle and a stick in a circle indicate "peace"? Where does the smiley face actually come from? Or the power symbol? We sent out the 99PI team to dig into the backstory behind some of those...
Published 11/13/19
The chili pepper is the pride of New Mexico, but they have a problem with their beloved crop. There just aren’t enough workers to pick the peppers. Picking chili peppers can be especially grueling work even compared to other crops. So most workers are skipping chili harvests in favor of other sources of income.  As a result, small family farms have been planting less and less chili every year in favor of other less-labor intensive crops. So, scientists are trying to find ways to automate the...
Published 11/05/19
A little-known bit of world history about a rag tag group of sailors stranded for years in the Suez Canal at the center of a war. Great Bitter Lake Association
Published 10/30/19
To help celebrate its 60th anniversary, the Guggenheim Museum teamed up with 99% Invisible to offer visitors a guided audio experience of the museum. Even if you've never been to the Guggenheim Museum, you probably recognize it. From the outside, the building is a light gray spiral, and from the inside, the art is displayed on one long ramp that curves up towards a glass skylight in the ceiling. We’re going to take the greatness of this building as a given. What we’re going to focus on are...
Published 10/23/19
Before 1992, the easiest way to run the time off the clock in a soccer game was just to pass the ball to the goalkeeper, who could pick the ball up, and hold it for a few seconds before throwing it back into play. This was considered by some to be unsportsmanlike and bad for spectators. So in 1992, the International Football Association Board, the committee in charge of determining the rules of soccer, made a minor change to the laws of the game. From that season forward, in every league...
Published 10/15/19
Today, there are more than a hundred abandoned asylums in the United States that, to many people, probably seem scary and imposing, but not so long ago they weren't seen as scary at all. Many of them were built part of a treatment regimen developed by a singular Philadelphia doctor named Thomas Story Kirkbride. Kirkbride was obsessed with architecture and how it could be harnessed therapeutically to cure people suffering from mental illness. The Kirkbride Plan
Published 10/08/19
There’s an idea in city planning called “informal urbanism.”  Some people call it “do-it-yourself urbanism.”  Informal urbanism covers all the ways people try to change their community that isn’t through city planning or some kind of official process. If you’ve put up a homemade sign warning people not to sit on a broken bench, that’s DIY urbanism. If you’ve used cones or a chair to reserve your own parking spot on a public street, that’s also DIY urbanism. Gordon Douglas has written a whole...
Published 10/01/19
Donald Trump took office 977 days ago, and it has been exhausting. Independent of where you are politically, I think we can all agree that the news cycle coming out of Washington DC has been very intense for anyone who has been paying attention at all. One of the reasons for the fervor is Trump’s role as a very norm breaking president. If you like him, that’s why you like him, if you hate him, that’s why you hate him. But my reaction to all this, was that I realized I didn’t really know what...
Published 09/24/19
Everything in Bethel, Alaska comes in by cargo plane or barge, and even when something stops working, it’s often too expensive and too inconvenient to get it out again. So junk accumulates. Diane McEachern has been a resident of Bethel for about 20 years, and she’s made it her personal mission to count every single dead car in the city. Dead cars are the most visible manifestation of the town’s junk problem. You see them everywhere -- broken down, abandoned, left to rust and rot out in the...
Published 09/18/19
This is the newly updated story of a curvy, kidney-shaped swimming pool born in Northern Europe that had a huge ripple effect on popular culture in Southern California and landscape architecture in Northern California, and then the world. A documentary in three parts with a brand new update about how this episode resulted in a brand new skate park in a very special city. The Pool and the Stream Redux
Published 09/10/19
Waiting is something that we all do every day, but our experience of waiting, varies radically depending on the context. And it turns out that design can completely change whether a five minute wait feels reasonable or completely unbearable. Transparency is key. Wait Wait...Tell Me!
Published 09/04/19
Before we turned our phones to silent or vibrate, there was a time when everyone had ringtones -- when the song your phone played really said something about you. These simple, 15 second melodies were disposable, yet highly personal trinkets. They started with monophonic bleeps and bloops and eventually became actual clips of real songs. And it was all thanks to a man named Vesku-Matti Paananen. All Rings Considered
Published 08/28/19
There are many walls in Belfast which physically separate Protestant neighborhoods from Catholic ones. Some are fences that you can see through, while others are made of bricks and steel. Many have clearly been reinforced over time: a cinderblock wall topped with corrugated iron, then topped with razor wire, stretching up towards the sky. Many of the walls in Northern Ireland went up in the 1970s and ‘80s at the height of what’s become known as “The Troubles.” Decades later, almost all of the...
Published 08/21/19
During the depths of the Depression in the late 1930s, 300 craftspeople came together for two years to build an enormous scale model of the City of San Francisco. This Works Progress Administration (WPA) project was conceived as a way of putting artists to work while also creating a planning tool for the city to imagine its future. The massive work was meant to remain on public view for all to see, but World War II broke out and the 6,000 piece, hand-carved and painted wooden model was put...
Published 08/13/19
Farmers have known for centuries that putting a hive of honeybees in an orchard results in more blossoms becoming cherries, almonds, apples and the like.  Yet it’s only in the last 30 years that pollination services have become such an enormous part of American agriculture. Today, bees have become more livestock than wild creatures, little winged cows, that depend on humans for food and shelter. On Beeing
Published 08/06/19
When confronted with trash piling up on a median in front of their home in Oakland, Dan and Lu Stevenson decided to try something unusual: they would install a statue of the Buddha to watch over the place. When asked by Criminal’s Phoebe Judge why they chose this particular religious figure, Dan explained simply: “He’s neutral.” He’s Still Neutral Subscribe to Criminal on Apple Podcasts or RadioPublic
Published 07/31/19
Men are often the default subjects of design, which can have a huge impact on big and critical aspects of everyday life. Caroline Criado Perez is the author of Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, a book about how data from women is ignored and how this bakes in bias and discrimination in the things we design. Invisible Women
Published 07/23/19
Vivian Le is on a mission that requires equal parts science, philosophy, and daring, in search of something that’s been hotly contested for decades: the world's largest ball of twine. Goodness Gracious Great Balls of Twine
Published 07/17/19
Sand is so tiny and ubiquitous that it's easy to take for granted. But in his book The World in a Grain, author Vince Beiser traces the history of sand, exploring how it fundamentally shaped the world as we know it. "Sand is actually the most important solid substance on Earth," he argues. "It's the literal foundation of modern civilization." Plus, Roman talks with Kate Simonen of the Carbon Leadership Forum at the University of Washington about measuring the embodied carbon in building...
Published 07/09/19
Reporter Andrew Leland has always loved to read. An early love of books in childhood eventually led to a job in publishing with McSweeney’s where Andrew edited essays and interviews, laid out articles, and was trained to take as much care with the look and feel of the words as he did with the expression of the ideas in the text. But as much as Andrew loves print, he has a condition that will eventually change his relationship to it pretty radically. He’s going blind. And this fact has made...
Published 07/02/19
When Singapore gained its independence they went on a mission to re-house the population from densely-packed thatched roof huts into giant concrete skyscrapers. In 1960, they formed the Housing and Development Board, or HDB, and just five years later they had already housed 400,000 people! In Singapore, where land is scarce, it’s not unlikely for apartment buildings to be built on top of land that was graveyards not too long ago. But building on top of a graveyard has its complications. Life...
Published 06/25/19