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Radiolab Presents: 99% Invisible

Monday, December 12, 2011 - 07:00 PM

From the 2009 Feltron Annual Report From the 2009 Feltron Annual Report (Courtesy of Nicholas Felton)

Roman Mars loves to spotlight the seams and joints that make up the world around us. He's the host of an irresistible podcast called 99% Invisible--a series of tiny radio stories that provoke enormous questions. Roman joins Jad and Robert to play a few favorites, and to chat about the hidden language of design that shapes our lives--from sound effects to stuff that’s more ... concrete.

In this short, Jad and Robert invite Roman into the studio to feature three of his episodes and answer some questions.

We start with the art of making modern electronic devices "sound right" with carefully designed beeps and clicks. Then, a complicated portrait emerges from decades-old graffiti etched into the sidewalks of San Francisco. And dense infographics become a new kind of diary for a guy who charts his time on Earth as a series of annual reports. Roman's podcast is full of little shake-up moments--discoveries that make you stop and re-examine the objects you see and touch every day.


Roman Mars


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Comments [51]

deshan from Tallahassee, FL

The last segment is a Big Data scientist's dream if we could find a way to automate the cataloging of every detail of our daily life (I'm pretty sure Homeland Security would love it also).

We could really get into trying to predict future behaviors.

Dec. 02 2015 02:09 PM

Hey friends I found this website that you can use to listen to 99% Invisible:

Jan. 30 2015 02:09 AM
Armen from California

Hey friends i found this website that you can use to listen to 99% Invisible:

Jan. 29 2015 03:19 AM
Upton C. Gatsby from Florida

I LOVE this. I love when people take lots and lots of information and present it in an interesting day. Even greater, they express how something as simple as posting on twitter was created by so much work by so many people. And in the end, all their work, is to show your friends your breakfast. Not to mention, that the majority of information that is sent on these intricate systems is pointless crap. I think the title (99% Invisible) is an allegory to atoms and how they are 99% empty. Nothing is really there and what is there doesn't really matter

Jan. 26 2015 10:55 PM

Wow, awesome weblog structure! How long have you ever been blogging for?

you make running a blog look easy. The whole look of your web site is great, as
well as the content!

Mar. 07 2013 03:00 PM
Meghan from St. Louis

I TOTALLY agree with Robert on the first story. There's an issue of deception and morality, even if its built purely on aesthetic concerns.

Feb. 03 2013 04:50 PM

Where in the world can you find the sounds they use for these hardwared products. Like, the "click" you hear when you open your iPhone. How can you get access to sounds like so, to use for your own products?
Any thoughts or leads would be most most appreciated.
Sincerely, Mr. Weezy

Jan. 23 2013 01:22 AM
Anderson Jon from USA

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Jul. 31 2012 01:20 PM
Mac from NYC

Robert's getting real Platonic on that first segment! Anyone interested in the idea of 'artful lying' or the deception of these sounds should read Book X of Plato's Republic. It discusses the idea of art as 'imitation' that can be morally misleading.

Really enjoyed the show! Thank you!

Jul. 19 2012 01:14 AM
geena from Denton, Tx

@a sane man: I'm pretty sure I heard Nikko use the word "repent" first in the recorded interview with Delfin Vigil, basically minutes before Jad uses it at all. So that term was straight from the horse's mouth. ... Just sayin'.

Jun. 27 2012 05:03 PM
natural son from guess

The sound designer's work is wasted on me. The first thing I do when I get a new gadget is to turn off the sound. Less noise, please.

Mar. 16 2012 12:56 PM
Antonia from Whangarei, New Zealand

This episode floored me. I've known Nico my whole life. My family was the bohemian family in San Francisco that took him in. In fact, my father is probably the one who gave him a love for cheese.

I had no idea about the sidewalk art. Although I do remember Nico telling my mother she should pull me out of private French school and send me to public school so that I could get beat up a few times in the bathroom. He said something about how that would REALLY get me ready for the world.

Jan. 12 2012 10:47 PM
C Tom R from New York

My 2005 Toyota FW-21, or to humor their marketing division, "Scion tC", makes a subtle but distinct "sssschaaawhoo" noise (5 "s"s?) upon opening the throttle. It is a wonderful sound, like a quick mid-aria flourishment of a soprano's voice. Especially in the Queens Midtown tunnel, where this metallic hiss reverberates off the dirty tiles, it reminds me that what I am driving is a machine. That it is really a collection of parts bolted together, each relying on heat and motion and mass and time, and that when set into motion result in a cascade of precisely timed accidents, occurring thousands of times a second, to propel myself across the Earth from which all it's parts, now seemingly alive and however implausibly, actually once came...and I hate it.

I hate it because, and you touched on this in the Radiolab episode, it's a lie. Toyota engineers carefully tuned the throttle body as to create this sound when it needn't be there. It results from no necessary function of the car. Yes, the throttle must open, but it would do so silently if it were not for the tinkering of those engineers, I'm sure at the behest of some marketing lackeys who thought that since the "trunk full of Mountain Dew" promo fell though, this would be the best way to sell cars to young men. I understand that much of what goes into a car's design could be called superfluous; they would work fine unpainted, the dashboard need not be swoopy, nor the shift knob chrome. But every time I step on the gas I feel like I am being toyed with. Like some attractive, yet bitchy corporate numbers-girl is pulling on her pantsuit vest and laughing at me. The art of design, I always thought, was finding some beauty in a thing that had a function. The gentle ellipse of a Spitfire wing or the smooth lines of an Olympic bobsled are beautiful because they make for a lethal dogfighter and get Europeans in body condoms to the bottom of a hill with horrific speed. Short of their technical functionality, despite even their beauty, they lose their soul. Wings on the trunks of econo-boxes and air ducts that duct no air (my car has two), mock anyone who has a real interest in design and those that enjoy their work. If you've heard the otherworldly scream of an F1 engine, and let it shock and ignite your soul, you know what art in mechanics can be like. They are gorgeous cars even when ugly and full of swoops and fins and wiglets and noises that each have, or directly result form, some necessary function. They all exist to deal with the reality of the car's task, to get around the track as fast as possible. I too want the same deference to reality, even in my humble Toyota. It makes my artificial "sssschaaawhoo" sound like the nothings a stripper whispers into your ear. Yes, they may sound like the words of a lover, but they are a lie. It's a joke that has been colored with Passion-40 (E235), and it's on you.

Jan. 08 2012 12:26 AM
Charity Lamprecht

You never cease to amaze, educate & inspire me!

Jan. 07 2012 11:12 AM

I got it! It's Hot Chip - Out At The Pictures, I first heard it on Misfits, not sure which episode.

Jan. 06 2012 12:06 PM

What is the song that fades in around the 14:00 mark? I know I've heard it before but I can't place it.

Jan. 06 2012 11:32 AM

for those still breathing,are you cogent to audio pollutents?

Jan. 04 2012 04:49 PM
Mike White from Westland, MI

I'm very surprised that you didn't mention the film Resurrect Dead which covers the mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. If you're unfamiliar with this please visit

Dec. 27 2011 05:09 PM
Keith R from Kentucky

Missed references.

My son and I believe that Delphine Vigil, Roman Mars, and Jad and Robert all missed a critical reference in the Nikko story that merits opening up the whole thing and, possibly, re-contacting Nikko.

In The Boondocks Season 1, Episode 1 The Garden Party, there is this dialog:

Robert 'Granddad' Freeman: There's a new white man out here! He's refined. For example, did you know that the new white man loves gourmet cheese?
Huey Freeman: Wait, I'm sorry. Did you say "cheese"?
Robert 'Granddad' Freeman: Yup, cheese. You give the meanest white man a piece of cheese and he turn into Mr. Rogers.
Huey Freeman: Granddad, that doesn't make sense.
Robert 'Granddad' Freeman: Don't you talk back to me, boy!
Huey Freeman: Granddad, you can't tame the white supremacist power structure with cheese!
Robert 'Granddad' Freeman: Oh, yes I can!
Huey Freeman: No, you can't!
Robert 'Granddad' Freeman: Yes, I can!
Huey Freeman: No, you can not!

A minute later Robert proves himself right by winning over the suspicious, rich, white banker who owns Robert's house by offering him some cheese.

We think Nikko was referring specifically to this episode and the cheese meme it refers to, and that this reference was completely missed by all involved.

We wouldn't bring it up, except that Nikko's offer of cheese so disarmed the interviewer and ended the questioning about race, and then was specifically discussed as to whether it shed any light on his sincerity about having 'repented'... we just think that Nikko slid one by you all and you should look into it.

If you find that we're right (or even if you don't), you should then consider an episode on famous "missed references." I don't know any off hand, but it seems like the kind of thing you guys could really win with.

Dec. 26 2011 11:59 PM
just me

The podcast is focused on sound, but the touch I really love, which is much newer than adding sound to electronics, is that smartphones now have tactile feedback, that mini vibration that occurs as you press things, making you feel you've actually pressed a physical switch. Truth is, I usually try to cut back on to many beeps, keep the important ones but the tactile response is great. a few discreet sounds are nice, but I really don't like a tone for each number or letter I enter.

Dec. 24 2011 12:59 PM

Hi Todd, that one is also off the "Little Things" comp. (of what I call "tink tink" music) it's "Memory Pictures" by Patterns.

Dec. 21 2011 08:35 PM
Todd from Austin, TX

Awesome podcast! I've added 99% Invisible to my Listen / Reader list. What about the song at 4:57 - 6:18 during the piece about the vice-grip sound.

Dec. 21 2011 11:47 AM
Michelle from Seattle

This short was absolutely lovely! Thank you for having Roman Mars on the show. I spend copious amounts of hours on oil paintings and constantly need inspiring bits to listen to while I paint. I look forward to delving into 99% Invisible.

Dec. 20 2011 06:14 PM
Ian Davis

skeuomorph one of my favorite words

Dec. 19 2011 08:27 PM
todd from houston, tx

thank you for a wonderful show. I am a pastor/preacher. I love to listen to your show for strange and wonderful insights.

Dec. 18 2011 03:30 PM
a sane man

I was very disturbed by jad's use of the word "repent" at the end of the second story. in fact I had to shut off the show as I was walking because my thoughts were so intense I had to take a break. it felt to me as jad believed that he wasn't happy with the simplicity of someone saying that he no longer believes what he believed when he was a kid. that jad was in need to hear some words, something even more than an apology even, more than even a recanting - that this man needed to repent - not to the city for defacing public property, mind you - but for the sins of thought of that which he wrote decades ago, with sufficient humility and conviction of sorrow, regret, and remorse to make jad satisfied. and that word repent is usually followed by the word sinner. really jad? do you hold all people to such a standard? must all people answer for things they may have scribbled someplace privately or publicly when they were teenagers, or at any stage in their life that they may no longer believe or completely disagree with. maybe we need to bring back dunking to test faith? if he floats he's repented, if he drowns, well.... now on a personal note, I have a brother who I don't talk to because he's still mad at stuff I did to him when I was eight years old, nothing horrible, just the typical taking of advantage that an older brother has when one is a child. I got to pick what to watch on tv, get the bigger cookie, etc. what more than to say I was a child and children, as artist jenny holzer has noted, "are the cruelest of all." I'm a grown man now and have lived a long time. I don't hold people to how they felt decades ago, years ago, or even weeks and moments ago. I may even change your mind about what you think. and even if that man wasn't sincere and still believes such nonsense, who are you (or anyone) to stand in judgment after only hearing a few minutes of a man's life to demand repentance? life is full of false starts and dead ends. to capture one aspect of a person and mistake that for that person is a youthful transgression, and one which I won't judge you upon. would you like some cheese?

Dec. 18 2011 12:19 PM
mmn from NYC

This is one reason why we don't yet feel comfortable with electric cars...they just don't sound right.I'm listening to the broadcast right now and don't know if Jad or Robert addresses this but I sure expect them to.

Dec. 18 2011 11:02 AM

I was pleased to hear about somebody working in sound design (as in, the design of sounds). I used to create software on the old MS-DOS platform where the only sound capability was the on-board speaker. Nonetheless, I'd sometimes spend an hour or two designing an audible feedback sound for a product.

Imagine how unamused I am by just about every microwave oven I've ever owned. Beep Beep Beep. That's the best they can do!?

Dec. 17 2011 10:06 PM
Hope Johnson from Chattanooga, TN

yoga pants + tea + RadioLab = a perfect Saturday afternoon. Thanks for all you guys do!

Dec. 17 2011 02:22 PM
Ty from NY

I love the part where he says "this is where a normal public radio show would play the song hotel California but I am your friend" LOVE IT !!!!!

Dec. 16 2011 03:31 PM

Hi, Caleb. The song at 7:30 is "Round in Fog" by Cokiyu from the compilation album called "Little Things." It's good!

Dec. 15 2011 11:39 PM
caleb paxton from joplin mo

does anyone know who sings the song that is about 7minutes 30 seconds into the podcast?? i GOTTTA KNOW. :) thanks i loooove this radio program. makes my work day a little less worky.

Dec. 15 2011 11:23 PM

I love that you guys are using this space to feature some work of other great radio/podcast talents (though obviously not *quite* as great as Jad and Robert). I have podcasts on a lot of my time while collecting/analyzing data in my "job" as a science graduate student, and so I'm always looking for new things to listen to. Story Collider made it into frequent rotation after their guest appearance recently, and now 99% Invisible will, too. Thanks so much!

Dec. 15 2011 06:25 PM
Myra Javaid from Pakistan

This was absolutely inspirational.

It really makes you re-evaluate everything; your routine - the little things in everyday life that go unnoticed - that actually shape our thoughts and perceptions, and in turn, shape our entire life i'd say.

I think the question is, though - that even if invisible, abstract things are made 'concrete' or graphical - is that always preferable? The second story really reflects how ambiguous we all are as human beings; so that our thoughts, perceptions and opinions are subject to constant change. Therefore, by making things 'concrete' as is with the annual reports, do we TRULY represent the invisible aspects of our life? Or does the representation itself become a mere 'record' of a specific thought/idea/emotion felt at a given time. Can these trends really show an accurate progressive record of our life, rather than just being an interesting way to personally look back into habits of passed years?

An interesting thought.

Dec. 15 2011 04:02 PM
phr from Washington, DC

Enjoyed Robert's comment about the sounds our electronic devices make."gorgeous lies." These noises are an embodiment of virtually reality. Virtual reality can expand our world to the brink of imagination. It can also trick us into thinking a smartphone as a tool ranked in utility with vice grips, and not also as a gateway to indentured consumerism. Be critical of the things you hear, even the beeps and boops.

Great show as usual!

Dec. 15 2011 09:51 AM
simo from Sydney, Australia

Wunderful Episode!

Nothing more lovely than putting my head on the pillow, closing my eyes lightly, after a ferocious creative day of frantic esoteric isolation, to find that I'm not alone - that genius, careful, subtle, kind, insightful, tricky thought is going on also on the other side of the planet, neatly flying through space, bouncing off satellites, jumping into my mind, sending me into a comfortable place, sending me safely and peacefully to sleep with sounds creating pictures like ancient cathedrals in my electric young almost forty year old mind... Keep it up. I need and love what your podcast does for me. Thank you.

Thank you. Simo in Australia.

Dec. 15 2011 05:55 AM

I too was impressed with the music. Where does the soft melodic chime music come from? Wonderful sleep aid.

Dec. 15 2011 02:43 AM
Doug from San Francisco

I listen to new Radio Lab episodes on my walk home from work, whenever a new one comes out.

This particular episode was pretty surreal for me. As he talked about the concrete graffitist named "Niko" I remember listening for a while, suddenly realizing where it took place, and looking down at my feet.

"Oh," I thought... "It's spelled N i k k o".

I walk to and from work through North Beach every day, and I've got a fun new game to play on the way now. Thanks.

Dec. 14 2011 10:52 PM
chris huston from in geek prison

You should really include a list of the music snippets you include with your podcast episodes.. I would purchase some of them.. or...

Dec. 14 2011 06:31 PM
Ellie from England

At the end of this podcast Robert said about the Feltron Annual Report 2010, 'When you have somebody who's in flow [...] there's a kind of a motion there. If you were to divide it into tiny little slivers [...] then you're just getting the static version of the flow.'

I found that to be an incredibly vivid way to encapsulate exactly what all statistics are - tiny, slivered, static versions of the real flow behind everything.

Dec. 14 2011 02:34 PM
Lee from Phuket, Thailand

A wonderful introduction to another talented artist. Thanks for that. Just used this as a reminder to reintroduce you to all my Facebook, Twitter, and blog followers. Your work helps keep me sane crossing oceans.

Dec. 14 2011 08:20 AM

The music in the closing credits come from "Ma-Ma" FC by Ballaké Sissoko & Vincent Segal

Dec. 14 2011 12:33 AM
Isaiah Keepin from Burlington, VT

Wonderful episode. But I'd write that every time.

And, I'm also curious about the music at the closing credits. It was great.

Thanks for the best thing on the radio.

Dec. 13 2011 10:49 PM

The last story reminds me very much of "Sum" by David Eagleman. Was there any cross-inspiration?
Re: 99% invisible... Great, now I have another podcast I need to check out. I've been trying to cut back.

Dec. 13 2011 05:07 PM

I have to say I found this pod cast too Arty and touchy feely. :o( I prefer the more of the personal stories and science behind our world. Maybe I spend too much time around architects.

Dec. 13 2011 03:37 PM

I find it oddly amusing how at the beginning portion of this podcast, Jad and Robert discuss how lack of sound and music leaves us feeling lost and confused. Well, in the middle of this podcast my net browser crashed, ending the podcast prematurely, and leaving me feeling lost and confused

Dec. 13 2011 11:44 AM

Where does the music in the closing credits come from?

Dec. 13 2011 12:36 AM
Oaklander from Oakland, CA

I've been listening to 99% Invisible for a long time, and its great to hear that word of this amazing show is spreading. Roman Mars does a great job of bringing fascinating stories out of the most mundane things, from airports to United Nations Plaza. Highly recommended!

Dec. 12 2011 09:18 PM

Wonderful episode - thanks, it was thought-provoking!

I'm curious about the interviews: do your guests have to be physically present at your station or do you interview people around the country/world?

Dec. 12 2011 08:49 PM

Wonderful! Radiolab and 99% Invisible share a similar approach to making the aural presentation of a story a key part of the story.

A good story is definitely improved by good sound design, though!

Dec. 12 2011 08:33 PM
Marek Abramowitz

Ugh. A boring story is as a boring story does. Yawn. Can't save it with sound effects. #radiolabfail

Dec. 12 2011 08:05 PM

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