Monthly Archives: August 2015

5-Hour Line Turns Barbecue Pilgrims Into Cash Cow For Locals


Line-sitters waited for hours outside Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Tex., on July 3, 2015.i

Line-sitters waited for hours outside Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Tex., on July 3, 2015.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT


hide caption

itoggle caption

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT

Line-sitters waited for hours outside Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Tex., on July 3, 2015.

Line-sitters waited for hours outside Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Tex., on July 3, 2015.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT

Texas has a barbecue joint known as much for its tender brisket as for the line of people waiting outside.

At Franklin Barbecue in Austin, people start lining up around 5 a.m., waiting six hours chatting with other line-waiters until the restaurant opens at 11 a.m.

This barbecue place is such a big deal, that entrepreneurs, like Desmond Roldan, are cashing in on its fans.

“People know me. I’m a big deal,” he says, chuckling.

This 13-year-old is the face of BBQ Fast Pass, a line-sitting service he founded to serve the people who’d rather pay than wait. Roldan waits for hours on their behalf. But he doesn’t eat any of the meat.

Roldan says he’s hired by hedge fund managers who want to impress a client, or tourists.

“The people I wait for … they’re from New York,” Roldan says. “They wanna have [the barbecue] and they don’t have the time for [waiting].”

Robin Staab from Bartlesville, Okla., however, decided to make the time for it on a Sunday this summer. She got to the line around 7 a.m. with a plan for how to wait: “talk with the others in line, meet new people, read my iPhone, read the paper, drink coffee,” she says.

Desmond Roldan (right) is the 13-year-old behind BBQ Fast Pass, the line-sitting service. He's pictured here with his friend, Jiovani Acosta, on July 3, 2015.i

Desmond Roldan (right) is the 13-year-old behind BBQ Fast Pass, the line-sitting service. He’s pictured here with his friend, Jiovani Acosta, on July 3, 2015.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT


hide caption

itoggle caption

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT

Desmond Roldan (right) is the 13-year-old behind BBQ Fast Pass, the line-sitting service. He's pictured here with his friend, Jiovani Acosta, on July 3, 2015.

Desmond Roldan (right) is the 13-year-old behind BBQ Fast Pass, the line-sitting service. He’s pictured here with his friend, Jiovani Acosta, on July 3, 2015.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT

Drinking coffee is especially easy since you can find an espresso machine on Franklin’s side yard. It’s another venture that’s cropped up to serve the line-sitters.

“My sweetheart and I own Legend Coffee Company right next to Franklin Barbecue,” says Annie Welbes, who started selling coffee in January. Her trailer is open the same days as Franklin, during the prime barbecue line hours.

“It was always in the back of my mind that this would be a really amazing place to start a business,” she adds. Each day, Welbes gets business from about a quarter of the people waiting, people who hail from all over the U.S. and the world.

Back at the line, Benjamin Jacob, Franklin’s general manager, is strolling and asking customers if they’re doing alright as they wait.

Annie Welbes serves customers at her Legend Coffee Company next to Franklin Barbecue in Austin.i

Annie Welbes serves customers at her Legend Coffee Company next to Franklin Barbecue in Austin.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT


hide caption

itoggle caption

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT

Annie Welbes serves customers at her Legend Coffee Company next to Franklin Barbecue in Austin.

Annie Welbes serves customers at her Legend Coffee Company next to Franklin Barbecue in Austin.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT

“You guys all know what’s going on? How long you’re waiting already? Somebody talked to y’all, all about that?” he says to a group halfway down the line. “I’m gonna throw a really crazy number at you: 2 o’clock.”

At this point, it’s about 9 a.m., and already some 100 people are in line for a meal they won’t get to eat for an average of five hours.

“It’s a crazy thing,” Jacob says. “It shocks us everyday, this line. We’re still shocked by it.”

When they moved to this building in 2011, Franklin cooked 300 pounds of meat a day. Now it’s about 2,000 pounds a day.

Over that time, more people have come around to make money off of barbecue fans.

What the fuss is all about: an order of sausage, brisket and ribs at Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Tex.i
What the fuss is all about: an order of sausage, brisket and ribs at Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Tex.

What the fuss is all about: an order of sausage, brisket and ribs at Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Tex.



A Vandalay/Flickr

“The chair guy was one of the first guys,” Jacob says about one of the first entrepreneurs, Derek Kipe. “He sat up on the corner here on 11th Street and he had like 200 chairs basically that he would rent for $5 a pop.”

The chair guy’s no longer around. These days you can find Eddie James. James helps people find parking and he also cleans windshields. That service started earlier this year when a woman called him over to her car for help.

“I went over there and I saw it was some bird poop on the roof of her car all the way down the driver’s side door, and it had dried,” he recalls. “So I cleaned it and she gave me 10 bucks.”

James takes whatever people can spare. He sometimes makes $50 a day.

Roldan of BBQ Fast Pass has a pricing system, though. It’s based on the day of the week and the size of the order. He charges up to $150. Now that school’s started, Roldan only works weekends. His dad helps him deliver barbecue for people who pay him to stand in line and bring them the food – a service that’s an extra $20.

Often, Roldan’s clients come switch out with him in the line, just before the clock strikes 11 a.m. When Franklin finally opens, you can hear the line waiters closest to the door cheer as they can start walking inside.

Are Women Better Tasters Than Men?


"Probably females are better at accessing olfactory memories, but I don't know why," says Robert Bath, a wine and beverage studies professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. "Maybe men don't pay as much attention?"i

“Probably females are better at accessing olfactory memories, but I don’t know why,” says Robert Bath, a wine and beverage studies professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. “Maybe men don’t pay as much attention?”

Maria Fabrizio for NPR


hide caption

itoggle caption

Maria Fabrizio for NPR

"Probably females are better at accessing olfactory memories, but I don't know why," says Robert Bath, a wine and beverage studies professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. "Maybe men don't pay as much attention?"

“Probably females are better at accessing olfactory memories, but I don’t know why,” says Robert Bath, a wine and beverage studies professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. “Maybe men don’t pay as much attention?”

Maria Fabrizio for NPR

If, like me, you’re an amateur taster of beer and wine, inevitably you’ve asked yourself why you don’t taste that hint of raspberry or note of pine bark that someone else says is there.

Genetics certainly have something to do with why we have different perceptions of tastes. Scientists have shown there’s a genetic component to how we experience bitter and sweet flavors, as we’ve reported. And “supertasters,” who seem to be born rather than made, are said to experience a lot of tastes more intensely.

But what if your ability to perceive nuances of flavor is related to something as simple as your gender?

Turns out that, anecdotally, this is something people in the beer and wine worlds discuss all the time.

I first heard it from Douglas Constantiner in June at a beer-and-food-pairing event in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Brewers Association. Constantiner is co-founder of Societe Brewing Company in San Diego. I was sipping Societe’s IPA, The Pupil, when Julia Herz, the association’s craft beer director, mentioned genetic predisposition and taste. That prompted Constantiner to boldly state, “Women are predisposed to have a better sense of taste and smell than men.”

Really? I said, as I swirled the remaining inch of beer in my glass, sniffing again for notes of mango and guava that I couldn’t quite identify.

Yes, he said, science says so.

He went on: “I see that women need a lot less training to get to the same level of tasting as men. Like my wife and [my co-founder Travis Smith’s] wife — they can pick up stuff naturally. I’m like, ‘I’ve been doing this for eight years, training – not just making beer and drinking it, but training” – and meanwhile, his and Smith’s wives readily picked up on lots of aromas in the beer.

Weeks later, Constantiner’s comment lingered in my mind. Could it really be true?

For such burning questions of sensory science, I turned to the Monell Chemical Senses Center.

Sure enough, researchers there have tried to get at gender differences in the sense of smell — which, of course, has implications for sense of taste: A lot of our experience of food and drink actually happens through our nose.

Paul Breslin, a member of the center and a professor at Rutgers University, studies the genetic basis of human oral perception.

Back in 2002, Breslin and a couple of colleagues got interested in the phenomenon of how some individuals can become increasingly sensitive to certain odors over time, detecting them at lower and lower concentrations. Earlier studies had suggested there is a gender component to this phenomenon, and Breslin and his colleagues wanted to look into it further.

They trained a group of men and women of various ages to identify two specific odors. The researchers then had both the men and the women smell the odors at increasingly diluted concentrations. And they found something quite interesting, as they reported in a paper published in Nature Neuroscience in 2002: The women who were of reproductive age saw their sensitivity to one of the odors increase by an average of five orders of magnitude.

Crazy, right? “It was such a bizarre observation,” Breslin says. So bizarre they decided to try to replicate the results.

For a second study, which appeared in the journal Chemical Senses in 2005, the researchers ran more experiments: They trained men and women to detect more odors. And they tested post-menopausal women and age-matched men, as well as prepubescent boys and girls.

And again they found that only women of reproductive age were able to detect multiple odors at increasingly lower concentrations over time.

But this time, they found that the sensitizing effect was even greater: Women of reproductive age could, with some training, identify odors at concentrations up to 11 orders of magnitude lower than men who’d started out with similar experience with the smell. To be clear, 11 orders of magnitude is huge.

So what gives? Breslin says sex hormones present in reproductive women must have something to do with this. The experiments also suggest that hormones and attention are working together, he says: “It’s not that women are super sensitive to everything – it’s that women are a little better when they focus their attention on a smell.”

The findings may help explain why women are more likely to develop chemical intolerance syndromes – when you notice and become irritated by odors present at very low levels – than men.

But why might reproductive-age women have this higher level of sensitivity? One can imagine that it could be useful for a mother to be able to detect contaminated food, or traces of toxins, to protect her children.

But Breslin says he thinks it’s something else: Women might have a greater need to be able to recognize and bond with their kin through smell. “If you’re a social animal, you have to know which kin is yours. It’s been shown that mothers can pick out their baby’s smell from a big group,” he says.

He says it’s highly plausible that this ability to be more sensitive to smell could carry over into perception of food, wine and beer, though neither he nor anyone else has ever published research on it.

That said, Linda Bartoshuk, a professor at the University of Florida Center for Smell and Taste, has found that supertasting abilities are more common in women than in men. She tells The Salt it’s hard to come up with a good estimate. But in one study of 4,000 Americans, she found that 34 percent of them were supertasting women; by comparison, supertasting men were 22 percent of the study population.

Julia Herz of the Brewers Association confirmed to me that many in the beer world posit that women are better tasters. But what about the wine world? I wanted to know what the people who train both men and women to taste wine had to say on the matter.

Christie Dufault, an associate professor of wine and beer studies at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, Calif., has taught thousands of students how to taste wine over the years. Dufault and many other wine instructors use the Systematic Approach to Tasting, a rigorous training program for professionals that involves a lot of blind tastings.

When I asked her if she’d observed differences in how men and women learn to taste wine, her answer was surprisingly decisive.

“The women pick it up faster, learn it faster, then ultimately, they have a faster sensory recollection. And that gives them more confidence, especially in blind-tasting scenarios,” Dufault says.

It’s not that the men can’t or don’t learn how to taste, she says. “Ultimately, they all get it in time. With practice, practice, we see lots of improvement in everyone.”

But Dufault says in addition to learning faster, women also may have an advantage in noticing when a wine is off. “If there’s excessive oxidation or Brettanomyces [a yeast that can ruin wine], women pick up those flaws much more quickly” just by smelling it, she says.

Dufault isn’t the only one at CIA who’s observed this. Her colleague, Robert Bath, a wine and beverage studies professor, says he’s also seen women, over time, consistently develop a stronger ability to identify characteristics in wine: “I’ve seen [women outperforming men] enough times to know it’s there,” he says. “Probably females are better at accessing olfactory memories, but I don’t know why. Maybe men don’t pay as much attention?”

On the flip side, Bath says, women often don’t feel as confident about their acquired skills. “Men use confidence in lieu of ability,” he says.

This helps explain why only about 20 percent of sommeliers today are women. But, he says, the atmosphere and industry is changing. “Traditionally, the sommelier profession was very male-dominated, and even snobbish. The modern one is more empowering, enthusiastic and [focused on] sharing information about wine, which makes it more attractive to anybody.”

And ultimately, anybody can improve their ability to taste, says Herz of the Brewers Association. She thinks what’s most important is “the mind-palate connection. How mentally dialed in are you to what your palate might perceive? The more aware and less biased [you are], the more you will notice and sense the whole picture of flavor.”

Female or male, “if I have heightened awareness of what I’m being exposed to, then I’m apt to observe it more deeply and effectively,” says Herz.

Even Doug Constantiner, the brewer who claimed his wife was a more natural taster than him, admitted it’s mostly about training.

Which also explains why, I, a reproductive-age woman, couldn’t taste the mango and guava in his beer. I simply haven’t trained enough. Maybe I’ll start with this Slacker’s Guide to Wine Tasting.

Rest In Peace, Wes Craven — The Rest Of Us Sure Won’t


Wes Craven's most memorable creation may have been knife-fingered nightmare Freddy Krueger.i

Wes Craven’s most memorable creation may have been knife-fingered nightmare Freddy Krueger.

The Kobal Collection


hide caption

itoggle caption

The Kobal Collection

Wes Craven's most memorable creation may have been knife-fingered nightmare Freddy Krueger.

Wes Craven’s most memorable creation may have been knife-fingered nightmare Freddy Krueger.

The Kobal Collection

He was called the Sultan of Shock and the Guru of Gore: Wes Craven, who died Sunday, directed dozens of now-classic horror movies, including A Nightmare on Elm Street and all of the Scream films.

Scream, from 1996, is an expert parody of horror movies, filled with inside jokes — like the girl alone in the house who gets a phone call that’s coming from closer than she thinks. Writer Kevin Williamson made it funny. Craven made it scary.

Craven helped bring the horror genre back from the grave when he began directing the Scream franchise in the 1990s.i

Craven helped bring the horror genre back from the grave when he began directing the Scream franchise in the 1990s.

Dimension Films


hide caption

itoggle caption

Dimension Films

Craven helped bring the horror genre back from the grave when he began directing the Scream franchise in the 1990s.

Craven helped bring the horror genre back from the grave when he began directing the Scream franchise in the 1990s.

Dimension Films

One of Craven’s gifts was making his actors believable, even in a movie as silly as Scream. He told WHHY’s Fresh Air in 1997 that he stayed up all night with Drew Barrymore, talking about very personal things. “Her extreme connection to animals, for instance, that I was able to use,” he recalled.

He used it in a scene where the killer attacks Barrymore through a window. “She and I were talking about what was happening to a puppy in a news article about somebody who had tortured a dog,” Craven said. “So there’s all kinds of tricks; you just try to find the commensurate place in their subconscious.”

“That scene took a week to shoot,” Barrymore told NPR in 2009. “I’ve never, ever, ever had to cry that much and be hyperventilating and fear-ridden, and to be in that state for five days was a total blast.”

And audiences had a blast releasing their inner fears in the safety of a darkened theater. It was an improbable career for a guy born in Ohio to a family of fundamentalist Baptists, the kind that rejected popular culture — no comic books, no dancing and certainly no movies. Craven grew up to study philosophy, teach literature and eventually become enthralled by art house movies like those of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.

In fact, Craven based his first movie, The Last House on the Left, on The Virgin Spring, a Bergman film about a young girl whose family takes revenge after she’s raped and murdered. “The notion was to do something that was completely anti-establishment and completely non-Hollywood,” he said.

Craven based his first movie, 1972's The Last House on the Left, on an Ingmar Bergman film.

Craven based his first movie, 1972’s The Last House on the Left, on an Ingmar Bergman film.

The Kobal Collection


hide caption

itoggle caption

The Kobal Collection

It was 1972. The Vietnam War was at its height. Craven was hanging out with a bunch of documentary filmmakers, and he wanted to make something brutal and unflinching, about violence and morality. “It was incredibly personal. It did not cut away. The victims did not often die quickly, they quite often would beg for mercy,” he said. “You know, all of those horribly unpleasant moments in actual violence.”

Craven had a knack for psychological horror that he picked up in part from studying theater of the absurd. He’d pick away at the idea of consciousness and control.

1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street was one of those horror movies that defined a generation — and redefined the genre. In the movie, teenagers are stalked in their sleep by a terrifying supernatural killer with a melted, burned face and knives on his fingers.

Craven said his famous creation, Freddy Krueger, was a reflection of some of his innermost fears — in this case, of his own father. “Not that my father chased me around with a glove full of knives, but it was just like, to me he was a scary person. He was not around a great deal, and he had a sharp anger, a bad temper, and I remember being quite, quite afraid of him.”

Craven said myths were his stock in trade. He broke down the rules of how people are supposed to behave and explored the extremes to which we can go. And here’s a little more incongruity: Craven’s hard core fans might be surprised to know the director was also a bird lover. For many years, he served on the Audubon California board of directors.

Wes Craven died Sunday; he was 76 and had been suffering from cancer.

Self-Help Author And Speaker Wayne Dyer Dies At 75


Wayne Dyer, the writer, philosopher and motivational speaker who encouraged millions of people to look at their lives in a new way, died this weekend at age 75. Over four decades, Dyer sought to motivate people to explore their passions and turn away from negativity.

Dyer died late Saturday in Maui, according to his publisher, Hay House.

“Wayne has left his body, passing away through the night,” Dyer’s family posted on his Facebook page. “He always said he couldn’t wait for this next adventure to begin and had no fear of dying. Our hearts are broken, but we smile to think of how much our scurvy elephant will enjoy the other side. We Love You Forever.”

Dyer’s career got a big boost in 1976, when he published Your Erroneous Zones, one of the best-selling books in U.S. history. Its subtitle summed up much of the philosopher’s career: “step-by-step advice for escaping the trap of negative thinking and taking control of your life.”

After that book became a runaway hit, Dyer went on to write more than 30 other books, from Your Sacred Self to The Power of Intention. He also helped support PBS, recording 10 specials that the public TV network often ran during pledge-drive season (a practice that sometimes led to debates about the religious component of Dyer’s message).

Many of his fans saw Dyer’s own life story — he grew up an orphan in Detroit — as proof of the power of his ideas. From that humble start, Dyer built a busy career as a writer and public speaker and also lectured at St. John’s University in New York.

Dyer’s work has reverberated widely. In one sign of his reach, R.J. Palacio, the author of 2013 sensation Wonder, told NPR that she borrowed an essential idea — to choose being kind over being right — from Dyer.

On his Facebook page, Dyer recently wrote what many are now seeing as a possible hint that his health was failing: “I have a suit in my closet with the pocket cut out. It’s a reminder to me that I won’t be taking anything with me. The last I wear won’t need any pockets.”

Tributes have poured forth from fans and others who were touched by Dyer’s message. His death was marked by entertainer Ellen DeGeneres, who noted that Dyer had officiated her wedding.

In another recent Facebook update, Dyer told a story that compared humans to oranges:

“It’s one of the great lessons of life. What comes out when life squeezes you? When someone hurts or offends you? If anger, pain and fear come out of you, it’s because that’s what’s inside. It doesn’t matter who does the squeezing — your mother, your brother, your children, your boss, the government. If someone says something about you that you don’t like, what comes out of you is what’s inside. And what’s inside is up to you, it’s your choice.”

Oliver Sacks: A Neurologist At The ‘Intersection Of Fact And Fable’


Oliver Sacks was an author, physician and a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine.i

Oliver Sacks was an author, physician and a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images


hide caption

itoggle caption

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Oliver Sacks was an author, physician and a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine.

Oliver Sacks was an author, physician and a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Neurologist Oliver Sacks, who died Sunday, once described himself as an “old Jewish atheist,” but during the decades he spent studying the human brain, he sometimes found himself recording experiences that he likened to a godly cosmic force.

Such was the case once when Sacks tried marijuana in the 1960s: He was looking at his hand, and it appeared to be retreating from him, yet getting larger and larger.

“I was fascinated that one could have such perceptual changes, and also that they went with a certain feeling of significance, an almost numinous feeling,” Sacks told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross in 2012. “I’m strongly atheist by disposition, but nonetheless when this happened, I couldn’t help thinking, ‘That must be what the hand of God is like.’ “

Related NPR Stories

Sacks was the author of numerous books that examined the mysteries of perception, memory and consciousness. Often his books described patients with with unusual neurological disorders and brain injuries — such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Sacks’ 1973 book Awakenings, which was adapted into a film starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro, chronicled Sacks’ work treating patients who had spent decades in a catatonic state caused by encephalitic lethargica. Some of the patients emerged from their catatonia after Sacks administered the drug L-dopa.

In a 1985 interview, Sacks told Gross that watching the patients emerge from the catatonic state was like standing at “the intersection of fact and fable. You see infinitely moving, dramatic, romantic situations, but also clearly based on the state of the nervous system.”

Fresh Air remembers Sacks with two interviews from 1985 and 2012.

Interview Highlights

On the catatonic state of the patients he described in Awakenings

I suppose the first impression was that I had entered a museum or waxwork gallery. They were motionless figures who were transfixed in strange postures — sometimes rather dramatic postures, sometimes not — with an absolute absence of motion, without any hint of motion. So everything looked frozen, and then, very suddenly, sometimes one of these patients would be released from this state and would speak and move, then you could see what a vivid, alive, real person was there, imprisoned in a sort of way by some strange physiological change.

On the sudden and gradual reactions to the L-dopa

The suddenness was incredible and nothing which I had read about gave me any hint of this. Patients with ordinary Parkinson’s disease don’t respond in this sudden way. They tend to warm up gradually, maybe one had seen, as it were, a built-in tendency to suddenness with these patients in the way in which they might suddenly snap out of things if there was a fire engine or a sneeze or something like this. Some of the patients came out more slowly, some instantly changed. With the patients who came out more slowly, one would see over a period of days a sort of melting of the rigidity of the frozen picture. There would be the beginnings of spontaneous movement, the beginnings of speech, the beginnings of attention and looking around, the beginnings of animation.

On the fable-like qualities of neurology

There was a quality of a fable about this in the spring in the summer of ’69. I thought of the Sleeping Beauty, of Rip Van Winkle and all the others in a sort of way. … There was great joy and a sort of lyrical delight in the world which had been given back. I remember one patient stroking leaves and looking at the nightlights of New York on the horizon and everything was a source of delight and gratitude. It was like seeing frozen figures thawing. And with this, a great delight as an awakening or sort of resurrection might be expected to have.

On a patient communicating with a spelling board before the L-dopa, “I have no exit. I’m trapped in myself. This stupid body is a prison with windows but no doors.”

I think illness and deep illness may force one to think, even if one hasn’t been a thinking person before. And perhaps force one to think in the terms in which all people think of, which are terms of metaphor, of the imagination, of myth. If you just catechize patients, if you give them the usual neurological catechism, if you interrogate them in a narrow way, you get narrow answers. Sometimes one has to do this sort of medicine, but I think this sort of quick interrogatory medicine is too common. At least in a chronic hospital you have in some sense, for better or worse, all the time in the world.

On trying hallucinogenic drugs

I think I sometimes just wanted pleasure. I wanted to see a visually and perhaps musically enhanced world. I wanted to know what it was like … . I would often keep notes when I got stoned.

On a memorable hallucination while taking LSD

I had been reading about the color indigo, how it had been introduced into the spectrum by [Isaac] Newton rather late, and it seemed no two people quite agreed as to what indigo was, and I thought I would like to have an experience of indigo. And I built up a sort of pharmacological launchpad with amphetamines and LSD, and a little cannabis on top of that, and when I was really stoned I said, “I want to see indigo  now.” And as if thrown by a paintbrush, a huge pear-shaped blob of the purest indigo appeared on the wall.

Again it had this luminous, numinous quality; I leaped toward it in a sort of ecstasy. I thought, “This is the color of heaven.” … I thought maybe this is not a color which actually exists on the Earth, or maybe it used to exist or no longer exists. All this went through my mind in 4 or 5 seconds, and then the blob disappeared, giving me a strong sense of loss and heartbrokenness, and I was haunted a little bit when I came down, wondering whether indigo did exist in the real world.

I would turn over little stones. I once went to a museum to look at azurite, a copper mineral which is maybe the nearest [to] indigo, but that was disappointing. I did in fact have that experience again, but when I had it the second time, it was not with a drug, it was with music — and I think music can take one to the heights in a way comparable with drugs.

On hallucinations that accompany bereavement

With any hallucinations, if you can do functional brain imagery while they’re going on, you will find that the parts of the brain usually involved in seeing or hearing — in perception — have become superactive by themselves. And this is an autonomous activity; this does not happen with imagination. But hallucination, in a way, simulates perception, and the perceptual parts of the brain become active. … There’s obviously a very, very strong passionate feeling of love and loss with bereavement hallucinations, and I think intense emotion of any sort can produce a hallucination. …

With hallucinations one remembers them, unlike dreams, and on the whole they’re not like dreams because dreaming, you’re asleep, you’re only a dreaming consciousness, whereas here you’re awake and observing yourself.

On the connection between drugs, hallucination and religion

I’m very intrigued by the relationship between drugs and religion and hallucination and religion. There’s a long chapter [in Sacks’ book, Hallucinations] on epilepsy, which, at one time was called the “sacred disease” — although Hippocrates said there was nothing sacred about it. … There is a sort of seizure, which some people get called an “ecstatic seizure,” when there will be a feeling of bliss or rapture, a feeling of being transported to heaven, sometimes of hearing angelic voices or seeing angels or communing with God.

Experiences like this can happen with seemingly quite irreligious people who have — who don’t seem to have an iota of religious disposition, but the experience may be rather overwhelming and may lead to conversion.

How Shows Like ‘Will & Grace’ And ‘Black-ish’ Can Change Your Brain


Janet Hubert (left), James Avery, Tatyana Ali and Will Smith in the first season of Fresh Prince of Bel Air.i

Janet Hubert (left), James Avery, Tatyana Ali and Will Smith in the first season of Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Alice S. Hall/NBC via Getty Images


hide caption

itoggle caption

Alice S. Hall/NBC via Getty Images

Janet Hubert (left), James Avery, Tatyana Ali and Will Smith in the first season of Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Janet Hubert (left), James Avery, Tatyana Ali and Will Smith in the first season of Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Alice S. Hall/NBC via Getty Images

Will Smith from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was my first American friend. Ours was an unlikely friendship: a shy Indian kid, fresh off the boat, with big glasses and a thick accent, and a high school b-ball player from West Philadelphia, chillin’ out maxin’ and relaxin’ all cool. And yet, I was with Will all the way, unnerved when he accidentally gave Carlton speed, shaken when he got shot in Season 5, and deeply embarrassed every time he wiped out in front of Veronica.

Psychologists say it’s not uncommon to think of fictional characters as your friends. They call these attachments parasocial relationships, and a growing body of research suggests there may be more to these connections than we realize. It turns out that as we grow emotionally attached to characters who are part of a minority group, our prejudices tend to recede.

It was rare to encounter black people where I lived in Mumbai. When my family moved to the States, we settled in a neighborhood of mostly white and Asian families. The Banks family on Fresh Prince was the first African-American family I felt like I “got to know.” Of course, these were highly stylized, focus-group tested, fictional characters. But could it be that watching a show like Fresh Prince helped mold my broader world views?

That’s the sort of thing Edward Schiappa, a media studies researcher at MIT, wanted to figure out. He looked into whether shows that prominently feature gay men could lower prejudice toward LGBTQ people. He and his colleagues surveyed people who watched Will & Grace, measuring whether or not they agreed with statements like “Sex between two men is just plain wrong” and “Lesbians are sick.” Sure enough, Schiappa found that those who watched the show most often were least prejudiced toward the queer community.

But how do we know the show was really behind the responses? What if Will & Grace simply attracts viewers who were already open-minded about sexuality? To test that, Schiappa and his colleagues rounded up 175 college students and assessed their attitudes toward the LGBTQ community. Then, the researchers had all the students watch a season of Six Feet Under over the course of five weeks. When the researchers surveyed the students afterward, the students felt more positive toward gay men. Another study on the effect of watching Queer Eye for the Straight Guy yielded similar results. “At this point, it’s a pretty unequivocal finding that TV can affect how people feel and think about others,” Schiappa says.

What’s more, these findings square with the way people overcome prejudice in the real world. Psychologists have consistently found that the most effective way to rid people from majority groups of bigoted ideas about, say, black people, immigrants or queer folks, is to have them interact with people from those groups. They call it the intergroup contact theory: When majority and minority groups mingle — under the right circumstances — negative feelings about each other tend to dissipate. “What happens when you’re exposed to a wide variety of people in a certain minority group is that your ideas about that group get more complicated,” says Schiappa.

So does this mean we can eradicate racism and homophobia through a series of strategic dinner parties? Not quite. Back in 1954, psychologist Gordon Allport found that the intergroup contact theory holds true only when everyone in a social situation feels safe, comfortable and respected. In the real world, if we were to round up a few proud homophobes and lock them in a room with a bunch of queer folks, it would probably look something like, well, MTV’s The Real World.

Debra Messing, Eric McCormack and Sean Hayes in a scene from Will & Grace.i

Debra Messing, Eric McCormack and Sean Hayes in a scene from Will & Grace.

Chris Haston/NBC via Getty Images


hide caption

itoggle caption

Chris Haston/NBC via Getty Images

Debra Messing, Eric McCormack and Sean Hayes in a scene from Will & Grace.

Debra Messing, Eric McCormack and Sean Hayes in a scene from Will & Grace.

Chris Haston/NBC via Getty Images

In the first season of that show, which debuted in 1992, the producers brought together a disparate group of 20-somethings and encouraged sparks to fly. Julie, the Southern belle, offends Heather, a black rapper, by joking about how she could be a drug dealer. Eric, the white dude with boy-band hair, has a blowout with Kevin, who’s black, after Eric insists that white privilege isn’t a thing. None of this was accidental; as the intro to each episode says, the goal is — say it with me now — “to find out what happens when people stop being polite, and start getting real.”

“People can feel immediately put off or threatened when they meet someone they don’t normally interact with,” Schiappa says. “And that can sometimes even increase prejudice.” In the real real world, most people tend to hang out with others who look and think like them. Last year, a big survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that most white Americans have just one black friend, one Latino friend and one Asian friend — overall, 91 percent of their friends are white. And the social circles of African-Americans were 80 percent black.

“It’s not easy to get different types of people to just organically become friends,” Schiappa says. So how do you get the benefits of intergroup contact theory in a socially segregated world? That’s where television and my good friend the Fresh Prince come in.

Media researchers say it counts for something that on TV, we can meet all sorts of people who may be nothing like us: a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher desperate to pay his medical bills, a 10-year-old Chinese kid who loves hip-hop, a black woman with a high-powered political career, or a couple of gay men raising a daughter they adopted from Vietnam. “When I really get into a TV show, I start to feel like I know the characters,” says Bradley Bond, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of San Diego. “These characters almost become my friends.”

And Bond says it’s easy to connect with them precisely because they live inside your TV screen. “You meet these characters in the safety of your own home,” he explains. The TV screen offers a sense of separation and security that can help people lower their defenses and connect with people they might try to avoid in real life. And as Schiappa’s research has shown, that connection can lead to boosts in people’s ability to empathize with people they might not otherwise relate to.

Of course, just because television can encourage acceptance and open-mindedness doesn’t mean it always works out that way. “It’s not enough to just have a diversity of characters portrayed on TV,” says Srividya Ramasubramanian, an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University. “How the minority characters are portrayed really matters.” Often when minority characters are portrayed on-screen, she says, they’re in demeaning roles. The Big Bang Theory is one of Ramasubramanian’s favorite shows, but she bristles at the character of Raj, an Indian astrophysicist, who has a thick accent, overbearing parents and zero game.

Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis star in ABC's Black-ish.i

Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis star in ABC’s Black-ish.

Nicole Wilder/ABC


hide caption

itoggle caption

Nicole Wilder/ABC

Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis star in ABC's Black-ish.

Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis star in ABC’s Black-ish.

Nicole Wilder/ABC

In her work, Ramasubramanian has found that those sorts of one-dimensional representations can actually reinforce prejudice. In a 2011 study published in Communications Research, she polled a bunch of college kids on whether they admired or disliked a bunch of widely recognized TV characters and personalities, some white, some black. In the results, David Palmer from 24 and Oprah were widely admired. Flavor Flav and The Apprentice‘s Omarosa were widely disliked.

Then, she rounded up a different group, composed of 450 young Caucasian people. She showed some of them pictures of the admired characters, and some of the disliked characters. Then, she put the pictures away and gave everyone in that group a survey measuring how likely they were to associate the words “lazy,” “criminal” and “uneducated” with black people. It turns out that being exposed to the lesser-liked black characters made people more likely to associate negative stereotypes with black people, and less likely to support affirmative action policies.

As researchers begin to understand more about how TV can both advance and regress our ideas about race and sexuality, the challenge, Ramasubramanian says, is convincing mainstream TV networks that a diverse set of well-rounded characters can make for popular — and profitable — entertainment. She says highly rated shows like Black-ish, Orange Is the New Black, Scandal and Fresh Off the Boat are a start. But there’s still work to be done. That’s why, in 2013, she founded Media Rise, a nonprofit group that aims to connect the folks behind the camera with social scientists, teachers and activists. The idea is that bringing these people together will result in socially aware television that’s also highly rated.

Winning over network bigwigs is the challenge, says Brad Bond, the social psychologist at the University of San Diego. “The media industry has become more concerned with what we refer to as social responsibility,” he says, but as NPR’s Linda Holmes recently pointed out, that has yet to translate to widespread diversity on-screen or in writer’s rooms. “Our discipline is still trying to figure out how not to just preach to the choir,” Bond says, and “translate the research into actual change.”

The Glimmering Sheen Of A Wide World Seen From Inside A Bubble


Teenagers often feel bound by their parents’ rules, and many young people feel isolated at some point, separated from the rest of the world.

But what would life be like for a young woman who was literally isolated — and bound by rules designed to save her life?

It’s a question that author Nicola Yoon explores in her new novel for young adults, Everything, Everything. For 18 years, her lead character, Madeleine, has been kept inside a sterile house, interacting only with her mother and her nurse.

“She’s not sure exactly what she’s allergic to — so they take no risks,” Yoon tells NPR’s Arun Rath. “They basically live in a bubble.”

All of Madeleine’s teenage angst, desire and rebellion must eddy within those limits. Her story is told through prose, diary entries, text messages, online chats and even illustrations — and all the while, the reader is inside Maddy’s head.

“There are all these boundaries that she wants to push against,” Yoon says. “She’s a normal teenager in an extraordinary situation.”

Interview Highlights

On the way Madeleine relates to the wider world outside

Madeleine is in her house, and she sort of daydreams out the window sometimes. And one day a moving truck comes by, and a new family moves in. This supercute boy comes out. He’s dressed in black. He does parkour, so he’s very physical in a way that Madeleine is not. You know, he’s very a part of his body, whereas her body sort of traps her — so she immediately notices him across the street. …

Nicola Yoon's Everything, Everything is her first novel. It has already been optioned to be made into a film.i

Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything is her first novel. It has already been optioned to be made into a film.

Sonya Sones/Courtesy of Delacorte Press


hide caption

itoggle caption

Sonya Sones/Courtesy of Delacorte Press

Nicola Yoon's Everything, Everything is her first novel. It has already been optioned to be made into a film.

Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything is her first novel. It has already been optioned to be made into a film.

Sonya Sones/Courtesy of Delacorte Press

In the book there are a lot of text messages and IMs, lists and charts, and they eventually get in touch via email and then IM. And then they started to fall in love.

On Maddy’s attitude toward her condition

I thought it was important to make her a person that has accepted her life as it is. Because it would be hard for her to be angry and rail against this disease for 18 years, right? I mean, it’s the only way for her to cope. So, I mean, I think a lot of teenagers will relate to trying to push against your parents’ boundaries. Madeleine has an extreme situation, but I feel like teenagers all go through this.

On the awkward early moments of Maddy’s budding relationship

Those were the most fun parts to write, I have to tell you. I’m totally in love with my husband; I’m, like, crazy about him. So writing about falling in love, and remembering the awkwardness of when I first met him, that was pretty fun and pretty easy to write.

On incorporating illustrations drawn by her husband, David

I write from 4 to 6 a.m. in the morning. When I first started writing, [my daughter] was 4 months old, and that was the time I had to write.

And I had this idea that Maddy would draw her world as a way to understand it. And I cannot draw. So I drew this terrible rendition of the Hawaiian state fish, which is called the humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa.

I went to my bedroom and David was still asleep, and I woke him up and it was 4 a.m. and I was like, “Honey, will you please, please draw this fish for me?”

And he got up! He made coffee, he gave me a kiss and he drew the fish. And that is the fish that is in the book to this day. That’s what started sort of those nontraditional elements in the book.

The very fish itself: the humuhumunukunukuāpua'a that Yoon's husband, David Yoon, drew for her in the wee hours.i

The very fish itself: the humuhumunukunukuāpua’a that Yoon’s husband, David Yoon, drew for her in the wee hours.

David Yoon/Courtesy of Delacorte Press


hide caption

itoggle caption

David Yoon/Courtesy of Delacorte Press

The very fish itself: the humuhumunukunukuāpua'a that Yoon's husband, David Yoon, drew for her in the wee hours.

The very fish itself: the humuhumunukunukuāpua’a that Yoon’s husband, David Yoon, drew for her in the wee hours.

David Yoon/Courtesy of Delacorte Press

On Maddy’s multicultural background

I think we live in a very diverse world, and we need to represent that world that we live it. There are a lot of beautiful people in the world, and they need to get counted. They need to be the heroes in stories, as well.

I’ll say, for me, it’s very personal. I’m African-American, my husband’s Korean-American, our daughter’s mixed. When I grew up, I didn’t really see myself in stories, and it was important for me, for my daughter to be able to see herself in stories, as well.

An Aerobatics Pilot Spins (And Rolls, And Loops) A Career From A Crash


Patty Wagstaff is a fixture at air shows. She became the first woman to win the U.S. National Aerobatic Championship in 1991, and her winning plane (not pictured) is on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C.i

Patty Wagstaff is a fixture at air shows. She became the first woman to win the U.S. National Aerobatic Championship in 1991, and her winning plane (not pictured) is on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C.

Doug Gardner/Patty Wagstaff Airshows, Inc.


hide caption

itoggle caption

Doug Gardner/Patty Wagstaff Airshows, Inc.

Patty Wagstaff is a fixture at air shows. She became the first woman to win the U.S. National Aerobatic Championship in 1991, and her winning plane (not pictured) is on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C.

Patty Wagstaff is a fixture at air shows. She became the first woman to win the U.S. National Aerobatic Championship in 1991, and her winning plane (not pictured) is on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C.

Doug Gardner/Patty Wagstaff Airshows, Inc.

As part of a series called My Big Break, All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

Patty Wagstaff performs incredible maneuvers in her small aerobatic airplane: rolls, loops and spins. She’ll fly straight up, put the engine in idle, free-fall down, fire the engine back up and roar past crowds at air shows across the country.

But that’s not the scariest part of her routine.

“Every air show pilot will tell you the most dangerous part of their job is getting to and from the show,” Wagstaff says.

Aerobatic stunt planes aren’t equipped with the instruments that allow pilots to navigate through clouds. When it gets soupy up there, Wagstaff says, she gets nervous.

“You can scare yourself a little bit. You don’t have a lot of fuel in these planes, you have to get low under the clouds sometimes,” she says. “I’ve never had any catastrophic accidents or anything like that. The only accident I had was in Alaska where the other pilot was flying. So I try and avoid it.”

Wagstaff goes vertical at this year's EAA AirVenture Oshkosh Airshow in Oshkosh, Wis.i

Wagstaff goes vertical at this year’s EAA AirVenture Oshkosh Airshow in Oshkosh, Wis.

Jeff Berlin/Patty Wagstaff Airshows, Inc.


hide caption

itoggle caption

Jeff Berlin/Patty Wagstaff Airshows, Inc.

Wagstaff goes vertical at this year's EAA AirVenture Oshkosh Airshow in Oshkosh, Wis.

Wagstaff goes vertical at this year’s EAA AirVenture Oshkosh Airshow in Oshkosh, Wis.

Jeff Berlin/Patty Wagstaff Airshows, Inc.

That accident happened before she was a pilot. Wagstaff used to live in Dillingham, Alaska, and would travel to tiny villages as a passenger on tiny planes. One flight she chartered never made it off the muddy runway.

“The pilot, who was pretty young and didn’t instill a lot of confidence, didn’t use the full length of the runway, and we had a full plane,” Wagstaff says. “I knew there wasn’t going to be enough speed and enough lift to get us off the ground.”

As the plane bumped and bounced along the muddy ruts, Wagstaff says she could see the end of the runway fast approaching.

“I think [the pilot] must’ve hit the brakes and the thing just went sliding off the end, kind of down an embankment,” she says. “Into the brush — and it slowly flipped upside-down.”

She was covered in the boxes they were hauling and mail had spilled everywhere. Fortunately, no one was injured. Wagstaff and the other passenger were able to climb out of the overturned plane.

“I really don’t remember the pilot,” she says. “Who knows what he was doing. He was probably thinking about how to disappear forever at that point.”

And that’s when Wagstaff had a sudden moment of realization.

“I decided, ‘This guy’s an idiot. I can do a lot better than this, I’m going to take up flying — I’m going to start learning,'” she says.

That thought, she says, was her big break: “Sometimes you just need that little push.”

But Wagstaff wasn’t interested in flying straight and level. She wanted to fly upside-down.

Wagstaff runs her own aerobatic school in St. Augustine, FL. "Flying aerobatics is, to me, the most freedom you can ever have in an airplane — or really anywhere," she says.i

Wagstaff runs her own aerobatic school in St. Augustine, FL. “Flying aerobatics is, to me, the most freedom you can ever have in an airplane — or really anywhere,” she says.

Mosley Hardy


hide caption

itoggle caption

Mosley Hardy

Wagstaff runs her own aerobatic school in St. Augustine, FL. "Flying aerobatics is, to me, the most freedom you can ever have in an airplane — or really anywhere," she says.

Wagstaff runs her own aerobatic school in St. Augustine, FL. “Flying aerobatics is, to me, the most freedom you can ever have in an airplane — or really anywhere,” she says.

Mosley Hardy

It took her years to find the right instructor, but once she sat behind the controls of a stunt plane, she was hooked.

“Flying aerobatics is, to me, the most freedom you can ever have in an airplane — or really anywhere,” she says. “It’s really three-dimensional. When you can put the airplane into something like a loop in the sky or roll … around the axis of the airplane or go vertical, it’s really total freedom.”

In her performances, Wagstaff says she’ll pull up to 10 Gs.

“There’s one point in the routine where I’m going fast and I pull really hard, it’s an eight-sided loop with half-rolls on each side,” she says. “And we also push negative-Gs which is where you’re upside down and you push the airplane … to an outside loop like going over a waterfall. So all the blood goes up in your head. That takes a lot of conditioning to do.”

Wagstaff is the first woman to win the U.S. National Aerobatic Championship and her winning plane is on display in the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.

“I’ve been really lucky that aviation’s been a great career,” Wagstaff says. “I’ve had so many opportunities through it, met so many people, it’s taken me all over the world. I’d say anybody that’s thinking about a career in aviation — go for it. Especially girls. There’s a lot of opportunity.”

Television 2015: The Future In Questions


The channel button on a remote.i
The channel button on a remote.

This is one in a series of essays running last week and this week about the state of television in 2015. The series is based on developments at the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., where broadcast and cable networks, along with streaming services like Netflix, presented new and existing shows to TV critics and reporters. The entire series is available here.

So now that we’ve taken a look at some of what’s going on in television now, it raises the natural question: what’s next?

How do viewers find what’s good?

Whether or not you think there’s a quantity problem with great television or good television, there’s certainly a large enough shift in the sheer quantity of all television that people really do need strategies to find both the very best stuff and the stuff that’s suited to them.

The traditional ways of organizing recommendations are things like “What’s On Tonight” columns in newspapers and now on general-interest web sites, which certainly have a place in surfacing what people might have missed. But they’ve only got a handful of slots a day, and they have a funny reliance on airdates that feels out of step with the direction that on-demand viewing is going.

Recommendation engines like the one at Netflix – a part of their functioning in which they take enormous pride – can help inside of a particular service, as can “Recommended For You”-style functions on a cable box or an Amazon account. But as long as the record of what you’ve watched lives in separate places (streaming accounts, cable box, YouTube), no one source is even getting the right raw data to apply an algorithm to determine your taste, no matter how good that algorithm gets. And relying on this kind of data assumes you even want there to be some central location that knows about everything you’ve ever watched on TV. There’s a whole tricky relationship between personalization and privacy that would gum up the most blue-sky version of what an automatically generated list of recommendations would look like.

There remains a need for good matchmaking between willing eyes and good content, beyond best-ofs and reviews of pilots. Where will it come from?

What kinds of viewing numbers are meaningful?

As we’ve talked about, measuring who’s watching what is really difficult when you consider the sheer number of ways people can choose to watch things and how long it can take them to get around to it. But it’s not even clear which of those numbers we should be trying to get. It’s not clear which ones journalists who are interested in tracking “success” from a commercial standpoint should be willing to report on, or what they should expect in the way of evidence before they call something a hit.

In a sense, Nielsen ratings have always been two things at once: a cultural measure of what’s striking a nerve and a business measure of what’s making money. Without one number that combines everybody who’s watching, it’s harder to get to that cultural measure than it’s ever been. Without carefully broken-out numbers and a more detailed understanding of different outlets’ business models than it required to roughly translate broadcast eyeballs into advertising, it’s harder to get to the business measure than it’s ever been. Whether you’re into the horse race or the capacity of TV to stand for What We’re Into Right Now, numbers are slippery and complicated.

What’s the best version of fan engagement?

Shows that are successful on social media are sometimes really successful. At the same time, everyone has watched as stars of struggling shows lifelessly live-tweet episodes as if there’s a network publicist standing over them, glowering menacingly. While there are exceptions like Scandal where the social-media plan seems to have worked out perfectly, efforts to force hashtags into use by flashing them in the corner of the screen are often embarrassing and pointless. How ordinary shows without social-media superpowers should try to incorporate Twitter, for instance, can seem like a head-scratcher, because there’s no way to fake or force the kind of enthusiasm that bubbles up naturally, but they sure keep trying.

Similarly, Twitter in particular allows fans to interact with creators and actors in a way that can be a lot of fun, and for the right creator or the right actor, can be key to building the kind of passionate base that little shows need. But there’s ugliness, too, around the way the need to react at all costs can beat down nuance. We haven’t had direct fan engagement at the level that Twitter allows it for long enough to really know whether it takes a toll on creative people in a broad sense, but there are certainly individual creative people who have either made it clear that it does or acted out in a way that tells you it does.

What about the never-pay problem?

Cable companies have long suffered from (1) bad reputations for customer service, (2) resentment over lack of choice of providers, (3) discontent about bundling that requires people to pay for more service than they use, and (4) the sheer frustration of bills that go up and up. In some cases, cord-cutting is a matter of shifting who you’re paying – if you’re still paying the same company you were paying for cable, only now you’re paying it for broadband and a variety of subscription services and a la carte episode purchases, that’s more a redistribution of your money than anything.

But there’s a whole separate problem of people who are checked out of a lot of these systems entirely, where part of what they watch is just downloaded from torrent sites. When people are currently paying zero and they’re happy with what they’re getting, how do you persuade them to pay something, even if you put in place the kinds of a la carte systems they’ve been asking for? Why pay anything when you can pay nothing and you’ve had time to get used to paying nothing?

What’s the right role of a network?

There was a great piece from Maureen Ryan the other day in which she expressed some skepticism about the claims from Netflix in particular that they never interfere with the work of their creators. What, she wondered, about quality control? I can’t say it better than Mo did, so I’ll leave it there.

What is success?

Maybe the most interesting question as we head into the 2015-16 season is this: what constitutes success on television?

Americans have a habit that people in many other countries do not have at all, which is to define a successful show as one that runs for years (or at least for absolutely as long as anyone wants to do it), is hugely popular, remains great forever, and then leaves at the very top of its game. In other words: we define the enormous majority of shows as unsuccessful, creatively or commercially or both. For a while, it seemed like the “limited series” might be an answer to some of this – take Under The Dome, for instance, which appeared to have an undeniably limited appropriate life, since there’s only so long you can keep people under a dome. Networks are too hard-up for successes to deny themselves more of just about anything that works, and that means the open-ended model is very hard to walk away from.

But to step back a little in time, what about a show like Arrested Development? It ran for three seasons on Fox and walked away beloved, as something that people spoke about in largely glowing terms, despite the fact that it was never massively popular. It launched or boosted careers. That seems like a successful project to me. It then came back for a fourth season on Netflix that got, it’s fair to say, more of a mixed reaction, and they’re talking about doing more. Is the show really becoming more successful merely by finding a way, any way, to continue? We can get excited about a show like The X-Files or Twin Peaks returning, but are all endings automatically undesirable?

Look at something like Bunheads, a show on ABC Family that did remarkable work in 2012 and 2013 for 18 episodes and then was canceled. As someone who loved it, I’d have loved to see it continue. I’d have loved to watch more. But casting the show as somehow a failure feels bizarre to me; it succeeded in just about every task it set for itself: it was weird and fun and moving and different. It failed only in the one sense that the person making a show has absolutely has no control over, which is that not very many people watched it. That’s a shame (mostly for them), but … so what? That show isn’t a sad story – it’s a great story. People got together and made a thing that was wonderful. People who loved it can (and do) shake fists over not having gotten to see more of it, but particularly now, with shows available more easily for longer than ever, that work isn’t wasted. You can still show your kid or your best friend Bunheads – I recommend it! And Trophy Wife, which I would have watched more of. And Happy Endings, which is manic and strange and not everybody liked it, but boy, I did, and they made a bunch of it. And maybe the only way to make it something everybody would have watched would have been to make it something the people who did watch it wouldn’t have liked. So aren’t there times when small audiences are expected, normal, functional and correct for shows that are creatively successful?

A creative work gets made, it connects with people who get something from it, and it ends. Not everything becomes a franchise, and not everything becomes a hit. We (and here, I mean critics and fans both) can be very outcome-oriented and do too much scorekeeping about TV in a way that serves it poorly. A seven-season series becomes all about “sticking the landing” at the end. A one-season series full of great work somehow becomes something to be sad about. In reality, everything that makes it onto anybody’s television that’s interesting, thoughtful, artful, funny, inventive – everything like that is a win. You get your weird little show on TV for 10 or 13 or 22 episodes, that’s a win, and it can still be a win even if not every decision you make is one your audience would have made. (If it were, they might as well write and make it themselves.) You somehow put your passion project in front of people in anything like the form you imagined, that’s a win. And it’s easier than ever for it to be a win that lasts, at least somewhere.

Oliver Sacks, Renowned Neurologist And Author, Dies At 82


Neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks speaks at Columbia University in June 2009 in New York City. Sacks, a prolific author and commentator, has died at age 82.i

Neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks speaks at Columbia University in June 2009 in New York City. Sacks, a prolific author and commentator, has died at age 82.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images


hide caption

itoggle caption

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks speaks at Columbia University in June 2009 in New York City. Sacks, a prolific author and commentator, has died at age 82.

Neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks speaks at Columbia University in June 2009 in New York City. Sacks, a prolific author and commentator, has died at age 82.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Oliver Sacks, the famed neurologist and best-selling author of books such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, died of cancer today in New York City at the age of 82, a long-time friend and colleague has confirmed.

The London-born academic’s 1973 memoir Awakenings, about his efforts to use the drug L-Dopa to bring patients who survived the 1917-1928 encephalitis epidemic out of their persistent catatonic state, was turned into a 1990 Hollywood film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. He was the author of a dozen other books.

A friend and colleague, Orrin Devinsky, who is a professor of neurology at New York University, where Sacks worked for many years, emailed NPR to confirm the death.

The New York Times writes:

“As a medical doctor and a writer, Dr. Sacks achieved a level of popular renown rare among scientists. More than a million copies of his books are in print in the United States, his work was adapted for film and stage, and he received about 10,000 letters a year. (‘I invariably reply to people under 10, over 90 or in prison,’ he once said.)

“Dr. Sacks variously described his books and essays as case histories, pathographies, clinical tales or ‘neurological novels.’ His subjects included Madeleine J., a blind woman who perceived her hands only as useless ‘lumps of dough'; Jimmie G., a submarine radio operator whose amnesia stranded him for more than three decades in 1945; and Dr. P. — the man who mistook his wife for a hat — whose brain lost the ability to decipher what his eyes were seeing.”

Author Lisa Appignanesi, writing in The Guardian earlier this year, said of Sacks that he could transform his subjects into grand characters.

“For all their lacks and losses, or what the medics call ‘deficits’, Sacks’s subjects have a capacious 19th-century humanity, ” Appignanesi wrote. “No mere objects of hasty clinical notes, or articles in professional journals, his “patients” are transformed by his interest, sympathetic gaze and ability to convey optimism in tragedy into grand characters who can transcend their conditions. They emerge as the very types of our neuroscientific age.”

In his later life, Sacks began studying hallucinations, partly inspired by his youthful experimentation with LSD. He wrote a book and conducted lectures on the subject. In an interview with Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air, in 2012, Sacks said:

“I was fascinated that one could have such perceptual changes, and also that they went with a certain feeling of significance, an almost numinous feeling. I’m strongly atheist by disposition, but nonetheless when this happened, I couldn’t help thinking, ‘That must be what the hand of God is like.’ “

Sacks did a TED Talk on the subject in 2009:

In an Op-Ed that appeared in the Times in February, Sacks announced that what had started out as a melanoma in his eye had spread to his liver and that he didn’t have long to live.

“It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can,” he wrote.

“I have been lucky enough to live past 80, and the 15 years allotted to me beyond Hume’s three score and five have been equally rich in work and love,” Sacks wrote. “In that time, I have published five books and completed an autobiography (rather longer than Hume’s few pages) to be published this spring; I have several other books nearly finished.”

And, in an opinion piece published in the Times earlier this month, Sacks wrote:

“[N]ow, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”