99% Invisibles Roman Mars on the benefit of slowing down and looking around
In nineteen ninety five. A college student disappeared on a trip across the usa. Report him missing right away but they wouldn't take it so. His mother started investigating the case file. I started going through and saw. It wasn't interviewed. I joined this mother search for justice or you recording us. i am. Yeah someone knows something season six available now. This is a cbc podcast. Fan of podcasts. Like i am chances are this is one of those familiar. Sounds that brings a bit of a smile to your face. This is ninety nine percent invisible. Hey i can't find that in on the radio. I'm roman mars. You'll turn to that station in the ten years since it launched. Ninety nine percent invisible has become one of the most popular podcasts around with more than four hundred seventy five million downloads. If you have never heard it host roman mars and covers the surprising stories behind everyday objects from the stamps you see on sidewalks to those funny looking waving inflatable men outside of used car lots. He and longtime producer. Kurt kolstad have bundled together many of those stories and some new ones into a new book called the ninety nine percent invisible city a field guide to the hidden world of everyday design. Roman mars joins me now from his home in berkeley california roman. Good morning good morning. Thanks for having thank you for being. I'm reaching you in the midst of a pandemic and you're in california and i know things are grim there. What is life like free these days. We've kind of taken it seriously like in this household in this region for quite some time so even though there's been various stages of of lockdown and and sort of relief Been kind of all locked from me. So so Things are really rough in southern california. Were hoping for the best here. Your dad died in november of covert. He did he. He He he's he lived in In ohio which was also overrun especially during that time period So yeah this is real serious. It's affecting us very gravely and I'm really hopeful that people Take care and do what's right so it gets over with as fast as possible. I'm really sorry for what you've been through And i mean this is not what you talk about on the podcast at all. But i mean given what you've been through and you say you hope people take it seriously. We're seeing me. Vaccines are starting to roll out. But there are way too many deaths on both sides of the border. What is your sense to how those who are in charge are handling this virus right now. I think most of those in charge or not hanlin. Well at all i mean. It's a truly preventable crisis. It's a lot of behavior can mitigate the effects in the spread It was not taken seriously. And it's you know for the most part I'm going to be eager for when our government transitions to who believe in government and believe that government has a role in the public health of the nation. And i think that will only improve things this so personal free. You given what you've gone through but like many of us. You're spending so much more time at home these days in lockdown. What is lockdown. Meant to i mean. How's it practically. How's it changed your life. I mean i work a lot so we're like it mainly affects work. I have the kids round hunt. You know like you have to sort of be a kind of a teacher and guide to them in a different way But you know a lot of the you know the the editing and writing show and tending in meetings. Those are kind of the same. But they're just ramon and they they feel it more distant. I miss staff It's been a surreal an odd. It seems like i'm kind of used to it. The double dose of things is is when it really sort of ways on me like so. We had wildfires in california in august and september. And when i was stuck inside it was bad. But was when i was stuck inside and i couldn't open the windows because of air quality i that was really loose-knit but you know things moved on from there in some ways i mean a book like yours and your podcast is perfect for this time. Because they're both about seeing things with different is in some ways and i just wonder whether i mean it's your sense that you know. The pandemic is kind of unlocking new way of seeing for some people because of of of where we are. And where we aren't. I mean obviously wasn't written for this moment when he was turned in right before. The the lockdown com started here in the us in mid march but it is sort of this strange book of the moment because it is about recognizing the cool stories behind everyday things that are right outside your doorstep and it's it's a field guide to those things and so when this moment when we can't go too far flung Cities and other countries and marvel at the cool things that they have there. You really can look at the everyday things right outside your door and and marvel at those instead outside your door or inside your door avenue in march after the first lockdown began you did an episode that was recorded at home Where you went around your house and described what you saw Let's take a listen to some of that. I am starting in my bedroom. I'm sitting on a casper. Mattress is not an ad. We eat our own dog food and bug as business. Oh i have a casper mattress. But i digress. As i look around i see. I have five windows in this room. Now if i were in england or france or ireland or scotland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would probably not want this many windows. Let's because back then the more windows you had the more tax you paid. This was all variable from place to place in overtime but the principal was that a window tax was in good standing for a progressive income tax. The bigger the house the more windows higher the tax you all right. So there is the toilet There is an extremely common misconception. That toilet was invented by a man named thomas. Crapper clamper was a sanitation engineer and entrepreneur in the uk. In the late nineteenth century that held a few patents. And he's credited with improving indoor plumbing for toilets he was a good businessman in bala county installed untold a lot of plumbing supplies with the name crapper and company while we here in the bathroom. Let's wash our hands. There was a very good explainer on soap recently. In new york times by fares jaber So molecules look like little sperm with a head that loves water and a tale. That hates water. So when you put soap and water on your hands these little soak tales find things. That aren't water. And they dig their tails into trying to get away. This breaks up bacteria and viruses membranes and surrounds any debris with soap molecules and makes them easy to rinse away win more water and friction or applied for the sake of your own health and for everyone else's wash your hands regularly for at least twenty seconds. That is longer than you think so. Pick a song to keep you on task long before i had you in my dreams you came and captured my imagination. Those things are never what they seem. I never have to worry. Because i know you are better than being the milo linen do string but other than the promise of a good one thing better than a big book and betty page pictures even if it comes with the us subscription better than the first time that you saw on the podcast. Yeah but i was moved by this. Really remarkable episode of reply all where they dissect it that sort of lost and And so it was on my mind when i was recording. Are you surprised that it took you this long to to give a guided tour of your house. I mean it sounds like a normal episode in some ways of and visible. It's it's funny because So much of the origin of the show was inspired by The book at home by bill bryson which is essentially the that you know but More learned and better written And so eeo it. It did make sense. It just was like you know. The lockdown happened so much was happening in the world and now they're a bunch of people work on it not not just me. It's really a made by humans and you can feel it and if something's happening in the world we we try to reflect and there was this moment where it just felt like the thing. We had slated for the next week even though it usually takes us you know. Six to eight weeks to make an episode was just inappropriate and i wanted to reflect the time and and give people kind of comfort and have a fun moment in because we were all kind of locked in homes and and and maybe we could enjoy that space and encourage people to stay in. Let me ask you something. Also giving people comfort a lot of asserts dealing with anxiety and stress in the midst of this and i had heard that people were listening to the sound of your voice to help them fall asleep during the pandemic. Is this true here. I hear that a lot. I you know. I think it's true you know. The show has calm town. I've always wanted the show to sound like it was a friend or a voice inside your head and i think that is comforting to some people. You mentioned some of the roots of this. This started A decade ago As a project of a l public radio and the american institute of architects in san francisco. What were you trying to do. I mean what was that. The elevator pitch for nine you. I was working in the news department. Kale of you and The general manager matt martin. Call the office with with this idea. That the a wanted to kind of have a little drop into play dorning morning edition here in the. Us radio in states and it would be about a local building and Would i be instead of what what i would think of that. And immediately i wanted to expand it to the whole the broader concept of design. Like not just a cool building but you know a curb. Catis a sewage great. You know something like that and it evolved from from there. And that's what i mean. That's what the title means ninety. Nine percent invisible. It it of lose two things. I actually that came out at a meeting is recalled of different types of designers when i was a planning the show and there was like a landscape architect and a product designer Building engineer and i was like what's a unifying thing that you all do. Besides the word design. I didn't want the word designed the title at all. For some reason. I was very against that and The this consensus was That wh- what they do they do it right. It's it's ninety nine percent invisible. And and i loved that idea. It was really of aug. to me what's wrong. What's wrong with the word design. he does. I just didn't want to be tied to it. In this weird way i i found it. I dunno. Ugly are cumbersome. I i liked the word design. Just fine and use it. Hold the time We have a design bell in in the office a week. Sometimes we get pitches. That are very far afield of You know maybe. Our original purview and But we sorta covered them anyway. So when one is buried designing the design bell in the office but but besides that I just i kind of wanted it to be more poetic than the word design. You've talked about this being a mindset that these are your words allows you to go out armed with type of curiosity and questioning so that you notice these things and can support the good ones. Tell me more about that. What does that mean. It's pretty easy and you know our brains are made this way on purpose to ignore the things that we see every day So that we notice the changes like the tiger. That's coming out you know. And so what. What i like about the sort of the project of the show over ten years is i know this is how it's worked on me this curiosity of the every day and paying attention to it and noticing that these things are Choices made by usually smart people to make our lives better is like a lovely way to navigate the world. because it's it's it's really easy to get caught up in the bow design design of things that aren't working And eight noer the ninety percent of things that are working really well for you and Making life better and and also that there are stories behind those decisions and those stories are interesting and just makes the world More delightful delight is one of my favorite words and delightful kind of perfect for this. Is it difficult though to spark that delight in something as banal as a sewer grate or a bench until you tell somebody. There's a reason why there's an arm in the middle of that bench so that somebody can't lie down for example you know i think in it can be hard. But that's just what we do like. That's the that's the place i've staked out. And at this point i think it works like the people who were on board for the shower or onboard for it. It's pretty fun To have those moments of connection and to talk about a thing in a new cool way and make you You know sort of enjoy it or get angry about it just notice to scare and and and either of those things. I'm i'm looking for. Hey parents if you're looking for some screen free family fun will you're staying home. Check out the story store podcasts. From cbc kids and cbc podcasts. New story store shorties are released every week. These short original and hilarious stories fit anywhere in your day from breakfast to bedtime. The story store available on smart speakers or wherever you get your favorite podcasts throughout the nineteen eighties a strange phenomenon with sweeping north america. They were in a panic and like people in a panic. They want solutions allegations of underground satanic cults torturing and terrorizing children the thing is there were no satanic cults sprang on children and nearly thirty years later the people touched by it all are still picking up the pieces. This isn't a work of fiction. This is a work of history satanic panic available. Now wanna play a little bit of one of my favorite episodes. This and you talk about connections. This is such a great example of you kinda pulling together design and politics and culture. This is from episode one hundred twenty. Four of ninety nine percent. invisible is called long box. I went to graduate school in athens. Georgia which is a great place to be from the ages of about eighteen to twenty five if you like going out to bars and listening to live music. Even though athens is a fairly small college town it's had a huge an important music scene for decades and the most famous ban to come out of the athens. Undoubtedly was r e m to be provocative right from the start. I'm going to say that. Rem's out of time is the most politically important album in the history of the united states. And this provocateur. Is reporter whitney jones. This isn't one of those. Oh it's a soundtrack to a generation or anything like that out of time made such a huge impact because of its packaging. The box out of time originally came in led to a bill being passed in congress and an actual concrete law. As i said. I have long supported the idea of motor-voter. I'm pleased to be able to keep the promise today that i made on this rock the vote card. Which still has my savior back in new hampshire shaking his hands after the bill. Signing we identified ourselves as rock vote. He said you guys got this past. It was really one of the most surreal moments of my life roman mars. What exactly is that. I love that episode but for people who don't know what what is the connection between rem. I mean and your hometown of athens georgia bill clinton at this time period Cds were In their ascendancy and the packaging of sees was this Long cardboard box because you could fit two of them Upright in the old ben's where vinyl record us to go and so that was the package he put a cd along box that more than doubled the sort of surface area of it. So it could stand upright flipping through the benz and rem was an environmental m amount environmentally-minded a group that did not like these cardboard wasteful boxes and so they made a deal that if you put the cd in a long box They designed these coupons to register to vote in the in the rock. The vote campaign and Because of that that widespread They they they would send in. They would send in support for this bill. They were overwhelmed by it. A congress was and It led to the passing of the motor voter bill and so It was a strange thing. Where morality and ethics of of the band. Hit this sort of design of the packaging and changed the law and it was a really kind of fascinating story. What do you love about that story in terms of what it is that you're trying to do with the podcast. I love that sort of that intersection of the mundane of and Something profound you know like that. There's a this this little thing that a decision made because of the shape of a been To to To put A record in Led to the shape of the cd that needed to stand upright. And then they had to deal with that. And the and the the record companies could not abide the fact that a cd would be released without a big cardboard piece of packaging and the way they dealt with it and it led to a law. It's that cascade of decisions that that have a story pint. each one of them that lead to something bigger. I mean that's just like our bread and butter. We love that stuff. Okay so i want to ask some questions of things that these are things that you talk about but things that i have been musing about as well weird nerdy type things like stamps and sidewalks so in our neighborhood there art stamps that say when the sidewalk was put in and i sort of became obsessed with looking at those stamps because it tells you the date some of them are from two thousand and nineteen one goes all the way back to nineteen sixty. Why is there a piece of sidewalk from nineteen sixty. Tell me about what you've learned about the stamps that we see on sidewalks depending on the area. They're they're standardized in different ways but often when new construction is is done and the sidewalk has put up. The construction company in charge of that project puts in the sidewalk and then they then they stamp it with their with you know the kind of basically an ad for their construction company and i love these things as well like. They're all over the east bay where i live and And you can sort of mark the date of the neighborhood through these construction projects you can even follow. There's this one company called schnorr which was concrete layer in the neighborhood. And you can follow these from the you know. The various like kind of nineteen hundred to the thirties and forties and the mark on him says Schnorr and that says schnorr and sons and that says schnorr brothers and you can follow the the the the evolution of like this company called snore. You bring the sons into the business. Dad retires and the short brothers company. And you can watch this over decades and it's it's this information layer about a local business. That is right there underneath our feet that you can read. Great example of paying attention Another example of that is The plaque always read the plaque is what you say. And these are you know. Historical markers these are plaques insides of buildings or on a bench in front of someone's home why what do you think people can learn by reading the plaque again. It's right there. There's like an information. Where about the built world. That sitting right there in front of you. And i think they're always worth reading even though they are absolutely incomplete in because they can't tell a whole story on plaque but they just tell you something to get. You started and get you intrigued. And they're worth interrogating like you should always read the pipe. You shouldn't always like believe everything on the plaque. You wonder whether the that takes even greater significance. After the summer that we've had with black lives matter protests and people paying it. Why is that statue there. And who is that statue of. And why is it in this neighborhood in two twenty nineteen or twenty one. Yeah yup and in one of the things. That's really important about historical markers in particular. Is that there as much. Even maybe even more reflection of time that the plaque was erected rather than the time that they're depicting like a lot of the you know the civil war monuments in the american south or you know were erected in the twenties and thirties as a really a tool of oppression. even though they're commemorating a time in the eighteen sixties. I was pleased to see notice in the book of our In toronto our beloved trash pandas That we love to hate or hate to love and the innovative so-called raccoon proof compost bins In the city of toronto somehow cooked up when you take a look at those bins and the raccoons. What's the bigger story there. It's really just a design story about our values and the war. We have with us and anthrax that that have thrived in our cities. You know that one was just kind of fun more than you know. Because what. I love about toronto's Relationship with the raccoon is it. It's kind of fun. Love hate in the end. It's you know it's a nice of cold. War of escalation of arms race of these really really clever animals and All the things we have to do to make it so that Ah latch is Still usable by by humans and can be an open bowl by these clever little creatures with creepy little hands and so And to me that that is is hilarious. It's their city. we live in it. You have a a section. And i've been thinking about as well that talking about the nameless places in cities near the patch of grass maybe between highways or the little spots that it's hard to define what exactly they are but they're still part of the urban fabric due date offer a to think about space differently. What should we be thinking about when we see. You know you're in the car and you're driving and you see this little patch of green summer. I think giving it a name just gives you a way to like grab onto it as a concept and not think of it is just dead space that you ignore so that like that little triangle that's created by an on ramp and so a highway This fellow graham carl allen Named a freeway eddie. And it's as poetic and of aug. And it makes you think about it as a space and thinking about all the times you've seen bases like that and therefore kind of use it. There's a lot of debt space in cities that be used in interesting ways and it's kind of fun to engage without in your mind even if it's just you know just to engage with it of as people use it is to walk over it. You talk about desire paths for people who don't know what that phrases. What does that mean so for example if you if you imagine parkin there's Walkways there you know like sidewalks and have concrete on that are planned by designer but if if they aren't efficiently laid out and you there's a ninety degree turn coming up that's the concrete pathway. And you just wanna get across Often people like you don't walk across the grass and created a little diagonal cut through and And when somebody sees that piece of grass tramp down the you know they also tramped down on it and his recreates this sort of dirt path and those desire paths are You know they're just kind of people voting with their feet as to how they wanna use a space and i find them fascinating Because they are this intersection and about what public space like how it was designed versus how it's used and It's worth paying attention to desire past because We could learn how to use spaces better if we pay attention to the people that you do. You worry about how cities are going to change because of this pandemic i mean we aren't at. They're walking in those public spaces. We're staying home And people worry about where people are going to work where people are going to live. You know people whether they'll take feel comfortable and taking transit for example. Do you worry about the future of cities i do. Don't i don't have a like existential worry about the future. Cities cities have always been through lots of changes. And i do think that said he will survive and people you know being together and creating culture together as like a i think a fundamental need of ours You know around here. Even though i think we've taken the lockdown pretty seriously There's more people walking in my neighborhood than ever before you know like like they're out all the time they're just not gathering in bars and stuff. It'll be interesting to see what sticks in again it kind of depends on if this is a part of a wave of pandemics. That's going to be in our future with some people predict or not but what i found interesting about the moment was all the rapid changes that happen so quickly to cope in a city like all the plexiglas that went up almost instantly. Like i don't even know where you get a ten foot piece of plexiglass but it showed up in the corner store. You know like a fixed to the ceiling So quickly that i. I was sort of amazed by that. And the tape on the floor that gives you guidance as to where to be which. Actually i kind of enjoyed that one. And i kind of hope that one. Why don't like because you know. I find navigating. Public spaces can be kind of Anxiety inducing and knowing where to stand knowing if you're in the right line on whatever and there's a information layer available you know to space on the floor. It's available to you to provide so much guidance. That is rarely used and i i kind of found it cool like you know like maybe it won't be you know hope it's not dire and you need to stay six feet away from people but i do kinda hope that Like the floor is used to guide you through a single serpentine line so you can efficiently get through a register like that would be pleasing to me. We've been forced to slow down. I mean part of it. Is you see those things and you see them in a different way. But you're also mean people aren't traveling as much and so hopefully they aren't And so you're spending time walking around your neighborhood or walking around community and and learning about the streets that you've been around for a long time what happens when you're able to unlock that kind of curiosity and people do you think i think it makes the world look a little bit better place because you recognize the fact that there are a lot of things that are working for you and when things in the world seem broken. I do a show for ten years where i've talked about how great you know. Roads and bridges and these municipal projects that we all get together and build the things that we can't build on her own and aren't they sort of marvelous and and and sometimes a really beautiful to look at. But you know if. I'm in my car and i'm you know the word it to where i want to get to. Because of construction. I can get impatient and i get angry and i could be like wise. I can't deal with this way now. Whatever and to slow down and go. Hey you talk about how much you loved these things. They have to be made some time so just chill the just tell the hell out. Just take the moment of recognizing that the world is trying to be made better for you and And i think it just it resets my mind a little bit to think about the care that goes into making the world I've become you know much more optimistic person Through the production of this show just because of that just node seeing that you know people care. They're trying hard and they're making stuff in there making so for me. It's made me see my we'll differently. Which i love Real pleasure to talk to you roman thank you oh my i really enjoyed. Thanks so much. Roman mars is the host of the podcast ninety nine percent invisible and co author of the book the ninety nine percent invisible city also a founder of the podcast collective radio topa. He spoke with us from berkeley california for more. Cbc podcasts go to cbc dot ca slash podcasts.