October 26th, 2012
This American Life is a show about, well, everything. Each episode is wildly different, but the premise is always the same: interesting stories about real people. Hosted by journalist Ira Glass, the show is made up of field recordings, interviews, memoirs, and first-person narratives. The stories are funny, thought-provoking, and beautifully told, and it’s probably the most diverse, fascinating podcast on the internet.
Below I’ve picked out ten of my favourite episodes. They’re a perfect introduction to the show, and you can stream them in your browser for free. But if you have an Apple device, you should consider downloading their official app. For less than the price of a pint you get full access to the archives, which go all the way back to ’90s, and can download episodes to listen to offline. Some are so good I’ve listened to them more than once.
House on Loon Lake – Listen
In the 1970s a group of kids find an abandoned house in the woods around Freedom, New Hampshire. It seems to be frozen in time, as if the owners left in a hurry. One of the kids, Adam Beckman, returns to the town in 2001 to find out what happened.
Somewhere in the Arabian Sea – Listen
Stories about daily life aboard a US aircraft carrier providing support for troops in the Middle East. The crew share tales of forbidden romance, stocking vending machines, and turning the entire 97,000 tonne ship around to get a better TV signal for the Super Bowl.
Convicts from a Missouri jail perform the final act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The lead role is played by a prisoner called Big Hutch who shot two people and left them for dead. He looks to his troubled past to get inside the head of the tortured Danish Prince.
The Bridge – Listen
Stories about bridges, including a man in Nanjing, China who patrols a four mile-long bridge to stop people throwing themselves off, and a government-sanctioned community of convicted sex offenders that live beneath a busy freeway in Miami, Florida.
Original Recipe – Listen
The recipe for Coca-Cola is a closely guarded secret, but a story discovered in an old Atlanta newspaper appears to reveal the original recipe from the 1800s. Is it the real thing? This American Life challenges a soda company to try and recreate it.
The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar – Listen
In 1912, a boy disappears in a Louisiana swamp for eight months, and the story becomes a national sensation. Almost a hundred years later, his granddaughter, Margaret Dunbar Cutright, discovers the truth about his kidnapping.
Stories about apartment block superintendents, including Bob in New York who claims he can kill a man and get away with it, and might not be lying, and a curious tale about a mysterious woman, a $30,000 cheque, and a weightlifting snowman.
My Reputation – Listen
Stories of people trying to recover from damage to their reputations. We hear about a journalist accused of having an affair with a Japanese pop star, a shamed politician, and a writer on a quest to discover whether or not he really is an asshole.
Contents Unknown – Listen
Three stories about filling in the blanks, including a man who wakes up India with no memory of how he got there, archaeologists who devoted their life to one shipwreck, and people who bid on the unknown contents of abandoned storage units.
Hitler’s Yacht – Listen
A modern day fable about the Ostwind, a ship recovered from Nazi Germany by the Americans after World War 2 ended. It was nicknamed Hitler’s yacht, and became a shrine for skinheads and Nazi sympathisers. But did the Führer actually set foot on it?
September 12th, 2012
In the early 1970s, amateur radio enthusiasts began picking up strange transmissions on the outer reaches of the spectrum. These shortwave signals, buried between shipping forecasts and commercial stations, would broadcast bizarre music and mechanical voices reading out long lists of numbers. As the Cold War intensified, so did the ubiquity of these so-called numbers stations. No government has ever officially acknowledged their existence, and some can still be heard today. They’re illegal to broadcast and mathematically impossible to crack – but what are they?
Most stations begin their broadcasts with music. The Swedish Rhapsody opens with the distorted jingle of a wind-up music box. The Lincolnshire Poacher plays a synthesized version of traditional English folk song. This is an announcement to the receiver that the numbers are about to begin. These are usually read out in groups of five by a staccato, machine-generated voice, sometimes for as long as 45 minutes. Then the station falls silent until the next scheduled transmission. Some stations transmit the numbers as Morse code, and there have been rare cases of the numbers being read out live.
It isn’t the numbers themselves that are strange, but the oddness of their delivery. Each station has its own idiosyncratic quirks, which seems counterintuitive for something intended to be secretive. They almost urge people to listen in, which has created a subculture of shortwave fanatics obsessed with unraveling their secrets. Oddities include the Tyrolean Music station, which plays recordings of German drinking songs and yodeling. The Gong bookends its numbers with loud, mangled clock chimes. The metallic voice on The Swedish Rhapsody sounds eerily like a little girl.
On a station nicknamed Ready Ready, the announcer puts on a bad English accent, perhaps in an attempt to hide its origin. The nonsensical German on the Tyrolean station (“Helmut greets Franz! The sun is shining wonderfully! Our hen is about to lay an egg!”) has a slight French twang. There have even been cases of numbers stations interfering with air traffic control, and interrupting programmes on the BBC World Service. A live operator was once recorded reading numbers over the machine voice, and The Russian Woodpecker – which transmitted a repetitive tapping noise for over a decade – was broadcast from an array inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
Erwin van Haarlem was an art dealer who moved to London in 1975 using a Dutch passport. Described by neighbours as a “pleasant oddball”, he habitually changed the locks on his flat, never had visitors, and rarely spoke to anyone. He visited Russia twice during his stay in the UK and seemed to take an active interest in Jewish dissident groups, which attracted the attention of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch.
A surveillance operation was mounted. Detectives monitored van Haarlem’s movements from a house across the street and bugged his phone. During the course of the investigation, £54,000 of unexplained income was discovered across multiple bank accounts. Paperwork was forged to make it seem like the money was coming from his art business, but an accountant saw through the ruse. In 1988, van Haarlem’s home was raided and detectives caught him receiving coded messages using a shortwave radio. Over a period of 13 years he had intercepted over 200 coded transmissions. They were all five figure groups of numbers, tapped out in Morse code. He had been decoding them using one-time pads, which detectives found hidden in hollowed-out bars of soap.
He was a spy, sent to Britain by the Czech government to infiltrate dissident groups and gather information about companies involved in Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ program. He was sentenced to ten years in prison and deported to Prague at the end of his sentence, but his real identity has never been revealed. The van Haarlem case is the only direct evidence of a numbers station being used for espionage during the Cold War, and it explains why this method of communication was, and still is, favoured by intelligence agencies. He was able to intercept the messages using a simple, store-bought radio, anyone listening in wouldn’t be able to decipher the code without the appropriate one-time pad, and it could never be traced back to the sender.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, numbers stations continued to operate – and still do. Cherry Ripe, which is believed to have been British, was live until December 2009. Voice messages were heard on The Buzzer, a station that has operated since at least 1982, in September of this year. Some believe modern stations may be used by drug runners in Latin America or insurgents in war-torn countries. No organisation has ever admitted to a specific broadcast, although the British Department of Trade and Industry told the Telegraph that they’re “not intended for public consumption.”
An archive of numbers station recordings was released on CD in 1997. The Conet Project spans four discs and contains 157 tracks, some of which have been sampled by bands including Wilco, Boards of Canada, and Porcupine Tree. Director Cameron Crowe used clips from the collection to create a feeling of unease in his 2001 film Vanilla Sky.
There’s something inherently fascinating about the numbers stations and the way the surreal, inscrutable nature of the recordings creeps under your skin. It’s no surprise they’ve captured the imagination of so many artists and musicians. Erwin van Haarlem’s arrest may have exposed one station, but hundreds more remain shrouded in secrecy. We’ll never know the truth behind the playful bleeps of The Lincolnshire Poacher or the shrill voice barking out numbers on The Swedish Rhapsody.
March 28th, 2012
Last year I interviewed Eidos Montréal art director Jonathan Jacques-Belletête for PSM3 magazine (RIP) about the design of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It didn’t make it into the magazine, but was too good to waste, so here it is in its entirety.
The game has a very defined art style. You can tell it’s Deus Ex just by glancing at a screenshot. Was this something you planned all along?
That’s the first thing I said when I started on the project. I wanted the game to be very distinct. Exactly like you said – you see one screenshot and you know it’s Human Revolution. I wanted it to stand out from other games. I’m not saying it’s better than other games, of course; just that it stands out. Games have a tendency to, purposefully I think, try and look like each other, and I don’t like that.
I found it interesting that you were heavily involved in the promotion of the game, which is unusual for an art director…
Because I’m a spotlight whore. [laughs] Nah, but really, it just sort of happened naturally. It was never planned. The first talk I gave was at GDC 2010 about the game’s art direction, and there were so many articles and interviews about this part of the development process that it all snowballed from there.
Marketing were really happy with how I presented myself – they thought my passion really showed through when I did interviews, and they just started sending me all over the world to promote the game.
I also think it’s great for the game – and the games industry as a whole – because so many interviews have revolved around our game’s aesthetic, which is a crucial part of it. Art in games is not just about tech – it’s not about shaders, ambient occlusion, parallax mapping or anything like that; it’s about ideas. Visuals aren’t just about being pretty. They have to communicate with the player.
I also have to thank JF (Jean-François Dugas, game director), because I know a lot of directors that would’ve just said, “Fuck that shit! I wanna be there!”, but he’s great, and he was happy to stay back and let me get on with it.
How did you make the environments feel so convincingly ‘lived in’?
Well, I’m very glad you noticed that. I always wonder if people will. This is exactly what the plan was; I wanted the world to be detailed and feel like a real place.
Our plan was really crazy. When I approached David (David Anfossi, producer) early in the production, I told him that I think I’m gonna need to design like 1,400 props for this game – anything from cool sci-fi machinery, which is a given for a game like Deus Ex, to keyboards and coffee mugs. I wanted every object to have its own concept art. I even wanted a different set of furniture for each different office space.
It’s just crazy. He could have turned me down right then and there and said that wasn’t necessary for a game, but we actually believe as a group at Eidos Montréal that this kind of thing is entirely necessary. Our world is made up of details. We had to invent a hundred brands and company names, as well as their logos. This is expensive to do, but it really adds to the immersion.
Even if some players don’t notice this stuff, subconsciously they’ll register and it’ll make the world more believable. We had tonnes of concept artists. More than your average game, I think. We even outsourced a lot of it.
I found myself looking at desks and lamps and wishing I had them at home. Did you hire furniture designers?
No, actually. Our concept artists were never part of a specific field, like fashion or mechanical design. But I definitely think that’s the way the industry should be going next. It should be like the movie business; you don’t hire a fashion designer, but you give them a contract to produce something for the film. Then they might work with you for a month or two, laying the visual groundwork for your concept artist.
I had some of the best concept artists in the industry working for me – and most of them are friends of mine – but as good as they are, they’re not really professional fashion designers or industrial designers or engineers, so it was difficult to get that really cool, contemporary credibility out of them. I think we need to start contracting real designers for games. Our team really pulled it off, though. It took a little longer than normal, but the results speak for themselves.
The game looks futuristic, but not too futuristic – was this a difficult balance?
In some cases, we just let ourselves go wild. I mean, I don’t think there’s going to be a two-tiered city in China in 2027. That’s completely out of this world. But I think to have one place like this in an otherwise credible world totally works. This is something the Japanese are really good at if you look at anime, where the world is almost exactly like ours, but with one thing that’s just a little bit out there.
When we started the game it was 2007, and the game is set in 2027, so it’s only 20 years in the future. Some people think it’s too futuristic, some people think it’s not futuristic enough. There are very few designs in the game where I just let one of the concept artists come up with something in his head. I was always looking at real-world design for inspiration. I wanted every object to have a basis in reality, to make them feel real.
Some people say the tech is too advanced – and it might be – but I read a lot of Ray Kurzweil, and he thinks tech will be even more advanced. One of the things JF and I always say is that in 20 years we’ll meet for dinner, and we’ll put on Deus Ex and have a good laugh at how more advanced things are than we imagined.
Why did you choose to go back to a time in the Deus Ex universe where augmentation technology was just emerging, as opposed to when it was commonplace like in the original game?
Good question. It all started with the idea that we needed to reach a new audience with the game. We needed to ease them into the world, and a prequel is perfect for that. For one, it would be closer to our time period which would make it a little more approachable. Then, of course, there’s the fact that it happens before the other games, so if you haven’t played Deus Ex or Invisible War, it doesn’t matter.
This was one of the reasons we took the number out of the title. For the first two years it was called Deus Ex 3, but we removed it because if you see the number three, and then you hear that it’s part of some big series, you might feel pressured to play the other games first. Or if you’ve never heard of it, you might be confused.
We also thought that the idea of exploring the early golden age of cybernetics and transhumanism would connect with people better, because this is actually what’s happening in the world right now. So much of the debate about the ethics of body modification that you see in Human Revolution is going to happen more and more in reality, I think. When soldiers returned from the Vietnam War and they’d lost limbs, they’d hide their prosthetics. But now we have soldiers returning from Iraq, proudly displaying what are basically their augmentations.They can even make them stronger.
I saw this amazing photo the other day of a guy on a subway platform. He’s wearing these cool basketball shorts and sneakers, but he has fucking robot legs!
That sounds a lot like the gangs in Detroit…
Exactly! He looked badass! So by creating a universe based around these real world issues, we help introduce people to the world of Deus Ex.
There’s a very clear Metal Gear Solid influence in the game, from the visuals to the way the stealth works, and I know you’re a fan of MGS and Hideo Kojima. What do you think that series does so well?
One of the things I respect the most about those games is that they’re not trying to be photorealistic. You never think they’re trying to fool your brain into thinking that what you’re seeing is reality. That’s something we’re trying to do so much in the West. If the guys who make Call of Duty could press a button to make their game look exactly like real life, they would, but a Japanese developer wouldn’t.
They like to create worlds that are extremely credible and rich in detail, but make it look like a bit like a fantasy. That’s exactly what I believe in as an art director, so that’s something that’s always influenced me in the Metal Gear games. Even in Metal Gear Solid 4 – you look at the characters, the textures and the skin are so advanced, but you can still see that they’re very stylised. That’s what I really believe in.
Characters shouldn’t just be personified by their costumes, but also by their faces. Adam’s face is very sculpted, and it’s the same for the other main characters. In the West we design these really beautiful, elaborate costumes, but the faces are always kind of ‘mushy’, and you can’t tell them apart if you take away their clothing.
There’s a certain simplicity to the textures too. I think in the West we try and make textures too high frequency, with bump-mapping and all that, and we put grime and grit over everything. The Japanese don’t do this, and it’s something that’s always influenced me. That’s a big thing I’ve taken from MGS.
I once wrote a feature where I separated Western game heroes from their bodies, and it was nearly impossible to identify them…
[laughs] You did that for real? I never saw that! Holy crap! That is exactly what I’m talking about. Don’t get me wrong – we still make amazingly good characters, but it’s all in the costumes. Like the Assassin’s Creed costumes are amazing designs, but generally, if you just look at the faces, you don’t know who they are.
But I think if you take Adam Jensen, or Federova, or Megan Reed from our game, you’ll recognise them right away from just their faces. My goal – if we ever do sequels – is that I don’t wanna change them. The tech might improve and the skin might look more realistic, but they’ll have the exact same recognisable shape.
Did the effort of creating the environments limit you to just two cities?
The reasoning behind having two city hubs was absolutely nothing to do with the effort of designing the world. I don’t think I could live with that! This was a global production decision. We did actually have to cut a whole city hub, though. I won’t get into details, but that was really heartbreaking.
Was there anything else you had to cut?
We had this awesome robot that was supposed to be cleaning the windows of the Tai Yong building in Hengsha – and it was even incorporated into the gameplay – but it just didn’t work that well, so we dropped it.
You’ve already gone back in time. Would you like to make a Deus Ex game set even further in the future than the original? Does the idea of imagining a much more distant future appeal to you?
Yes it does, absolutely. Even if it’s not a Deus Ex game, it totally does. I could put as much effort into imagining a distant future as I did a near future. I love to imagine how humanity will live in a hundred or two hundred years. So much of what I read while researching Human Revolution talks about that. I’m not even sure if we’ll even really be humans any more. A lot of great sci-fi has imagined that in hundreds of years, human beings as we know them today just won’t exist at all.