The 7th Avenue Project

The 7th Avenue Project


A weekly radio show exploring questions in science, culture, music, philosophy and more. Life as we know it, or would like to. The content varies from week to week and includes interviews, music and the occasional sound-rich story in the tradition of This American Life or Radio Lab. Produced and hosted by Robert Pollie at NPR-affiliate public radio station KUSP in California.


Remembering Comedian Garry Shandling with Paul Provenza  

There are a lot of comedians whose work I’m partial to, but I have a special place in my pantheon for Garry Shandling. He was funny, unsparing, compassionate, psychologically acute and epistemologically astute all at once, an uneasy combination of entertainer and truth-seeker. When I learned of his untimely death on March 24, like many fans I felt bereaved, and I sought out someone to talk to who loved his work as much as I do: Paul Provenza. Paul is a comedian and a sort of comedy curator, chronicler and catalyst, and he was responsible for one of Garry’s more memorable public appearances, which I was fortunate enough to attend thanks to Paul. We talked about Garry the person and the performer – and the complicated relationship thereof.

Gravity Waves Explained by Physicist Anthony Aguirre  

If the news coverage of recently discovered gravitational waves left you with lingering questions, you’ve come to the right place. Theoretical physicist Anthony Aguirre, our go-to guy on all things general relativistic, provides some great insight into the details and subtleties that popular accounts ignored or glossed over.

Gwendolyn Mok: Pianist and Musical Medium  

Gwendolyn Mok may have flunked her first Juilliard audition at the age of 5, but that was just a speed bump en route to a distinguished recording and concert career. Gwen sees herself as a kind of medium, doing her best to channel the spirit and intentions of composers such as Brahms, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, and particularly Ravel. Her brand of originalism extends to playing historic pianos like those the composers themselves knew and wrote for, and Gwen demonstrated with some exquisite renditions on an 1868 Erard and 1871 Streicher as we talked about her life as a student, performer and teacher. Also discussed: her school days with Yo Yo Ma, apprenticing with Ravel’s last living student, performing with Astor Piazzolla, driving the Silk Road in a 1940 Chevy, making mistakes in concert, and the best place to listen to a piano.

George Yancy: Philosophizing While Black  

“As a black male in the United States,” says George Yancy, “to do philosophy in the abstract would be to deny the reality of my own existence.” Yancy grew up in a tough North Philadelphia housing project, where young men were far more likely to end up in early graves or jail than in academia. He beat the odds and now enjoys the status of a tenured professor at a major university, but he hasn't forgotten where he came from, or the racial realities that made his story so unlikely. George and I talked about his beginnings, becoming a philosopher and using his brand of "down to earth" philosophizing to explore the structure of blackness, whiteness and lived experience in a racialized society.

Molecular Biologist Kevin Esvelt: Gene Drives, CRISPR Critters and Evolutionary Sculpting  

It’s one thing to genetically modify an organism in the lab. It’s another thing entirely to spread those modifications in the wild, altering whole populations or even species. A new technology, the “CRISPR gene drive,” promises to do just that, giving human beings an unprecedented ability to fine-tune the natural world and nudge evolution in new directions. Malaria-resistant mosquitoes? Lyme-blocking ticks? Those are just a few of the applications floated so far, but the possibilities are endless. I talked to molecular biologist and “evolutionary sculptor” Kevin Esvelt, who first proposed the CRISPR gene drive, about its potential, perils and steps to ensure that we use our new powers wisely. Topics covered include: The CRISPR revolution: fast, cheap gene editing Gene drives: CRISPR on auto-pilot Using gene drives to fight disease and suppress pests Safeguards, controls and oversight More evo-sculpting: Kevin’s PACE system, harnessing viral evolution to create novel biomolecules Personally, I find the implications of gene drives to be fairly head-spinning. Imagine self-propagating genes that spread inexorably even when they offer no selective advantage – even when they’re maladaptive! Of course, like a too-virulent pathogen, really maladaptive CRISPR drives might put themselves out of business by killing off their hosts, and selective pressures would favor mutations that incapacitate the drive, but still…

Comic Book Artist Dean Haspiel: Superheroes, Antiheroes, Fantasy and Autobiography  

If you’re going to tell cool stories in comic books, it helps to have had a colorful life and interesting friends. Dean Haspiel has had both. His dad was a writer, occasional street vigilante and confidante of Marilyn Monroe. Mom’s pals included Shelly Winters and the young Bobby De Niro, who was one of Dean’s babysitters. Dean worked with Harvey Pekar and Jonathan Ames on their respective graphic novels, and won an Emmy for his title work on Jonathan’s HBO sitcom "Bored to Death." He was also the inspiration for Ray the cartoonist, played on BTD by Zack Galifianakis. We talked about all of the above, plus Dean’s beginnings as a comic artist, his love of superheroes and his own hero complex, his residencies at the Yaddo artist colony, and his latest comic memoir, "Beef with Tomato."

Jonathan Gottschall: "The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch"  

Jonathan Gottschall’s career as a college English prof was on the rocks, and he was desperate to do something completely different. So in his late 30s he left the classroom for the cage, taking up mixed martial arts and training for an amateur bout. It was more than a mid-life escapade, though. Jonathan had some unresolved issues around bullying in his own youth, and wanted to better understand the relationship between violence and masculinity, including his own. We talked about MMA, male aggression and Jonathan’s book "The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch," as well as his ill-fated stint as a literary scholar with an evolutionary bent.

Jonathan Ames: From Writer to Sitcom Showrunner  

"I was an obscure novelist and then I was given the keys to this production, and I had to learn on the spot.” And learn he did, helming HBO’s "Bored to Death" for three hilarious seasons and now "Blunt Talk" on Starz. Jonathan Ames describes the delights and terrors of television auteur-dom, the dubious distinction of being TV’s first showrunner to go Full Monty, being manhandled by Zack Galifianakis, his friendship with Jason Schwartzman, the comedic excellence of Patrick Stewart and more, while making decorous use of euphemism.

Is Most Scientific Research Wrong? Psychologist Mike Frank on the "Reproducibility Crisis"  

It’s been called the "decline effect," "the proteus phenomenon," and "the reproducibility crisis": the startling realization that a lot of seemingly solid scientific research doesn’t pan out under repeated testing. The latest blow to scientific confidence comes from the Reproducibility Project, which attempted to replicate 100 published psychology studies and found that, when the experiments were repeated, half or more failed to uphold the original findings. So is it time to start doubting the credibility of research in general? Stanford University psychologist and Reproducibility Project participant Mike Frank joined us to explain what the results really mean, misconceptions about statistical rigor in science, the various ways experimenters blunder and sometimes delude themselves, and the gradual, cumulative nature of scientific progress.

Policing: Myths Vs. Realities with Seth Stoughton  

Cop shows and tough-on-crime rhetoric often depict a world so brutish that police have no choice but to play rough and kick butt, but Seth Stoughton says we’ve been misled. The former cop turned law professor and policing expert contends that civility, a cool head and patience are far more effective in fighting crime and reducing risks to the public and police than the warrior mentality getting so much emphasis these days in popular culture and some police departments. Seth and I talked about the psychology of police-civilian confrontations, alternatives to deadly force, and some recent cases where things went famously wrong, including the Walter Scott shooting, the Sandra Bland arrest and the McKinney pool party.

Huang Ruo: A Composer’s Journey  

Huang Ruo’s career wasn’t his to choose. His fortune-teller grandfather and composer father did that for him, and at the age of 12 he was bundled off to a distant music conservatory in Shanghai as his mother wept. Sad as that may sound, it all worked out remarkably well. Huang Ruo’s path eventually took him from China to the U.S., to Oberlin and Julliard, and today it’s hard to imagine him as anything other than the prolific and exuberant composer he’s become. His work draws on all the music he heard growing up in China and in the years since – from ancient ritual chants and folk songs to classical, rock and pop (both Chinese and western) – to create something that feels integral, vibrant and new. He’s also a wonderful singer, as you’ll hear in this very musical interview. I met Huang Ruo when he was in town for the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, and getting to know him and his work was a highlight of the festival for me. Here are some of the things we talked about as we listened to a selection of his incredibly varied oeuvre.

Anil Ananthaswamy on Neuroscience and Our Sense of Self  

People suffering from Cotard’s Syndrome think they’re dead. Victims of body integrity identity disorder believe their own limbs don't belong to them, and schizophrenics feel their thoughts aren’t their own. By chipping away at our sense of a unified, stable self, these and other mental conditions hint at how selfhood might be assembled in the first place. What exactly is a self, anyway? Is it the product of specific neural mechanisms, or perhaps a psych-social construct? Does it ever go entirely away? Science writer Anil Ananthaswamy examines the evidence from neuroscience along with theories of the self from psychology, philosophy and spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, in his new book "The Man Who Wasn't There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self."

Composers at Cabrillo: Hannah Lash, Missy Mazzoli and Nico Muhly  

The Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music brings together some of the best and brightest composers working today. I spoke to three from this year’s lineup as we listened to some of their pieces. Harpist/composer Hannah Lash confided her love of tuned percussion and hidden structure. Missy Mazzoli discussed her "River Rouge Transfiguration" – inspired by the iconic Ford auto plant–and "Vespers for a New Dark Age": secular music with sacred sources. Nico Muhly reflected on cartoon travelogues and Disneyfied gamelan in his piece "Wish You Were Here" and his "technical exercise with a heart of gold," "Étude #3" featuring violist Nadia Sirota.

Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer on “The Look of Silence”  

Viewers of Joshua Oppenheimer’s jaw-dropping documentary "The Act of Killing," about the men who conducted Indonesia’s genocidal anti-communist purges in 1965, might well have concluded that it was an impossible act to follow. Yet its sequel is, if anything, even more accomplished and affecting. While "The Act of Killing" gave us a portrait of mass murderers refracted through their own anamorphic imaginations, The "Look of Silence" performs a kind of perspectival correction by introducing the victims’ POV that was missing from the earlier film (and from public discourse in Indonesia). We follow Adi Rukun, whose brother was one of the massacred, as he confronts the killers and dares to speak the truth. That Adi happens to be an optometrist, who prescribes corrective lenses even as he restores moral clarity, is just one of many metaphorical harmonies that make "The Look of Silence" such a rich and layered experience. Joshua and I talked about the making of the movie, its visual and sonic poetry, how violence distorts the psyche, the possibility of reconciliation, and the resolve that kept him working during years of difficult filmmaking. Josh is uncommonly thoughtful and eloquent on these questions, and this interview is well worth a listen whether you’ve seen his films or not.

The Civil War Isn’t Over: David Blight and Tony Horwitz  

I used to think that the Civil War ended at Appomattox. But the next 150 years of conflict – including the events of recent months – make it clear how naive I was. Yale historian David Blight explains how the nation dropped the ball when it abandoned Reconstruction and set about reconstructing history itself, embracing some convenient myths and turning its back on civil rights and African Americans. In the second part of the show, Pulitzer prizewinner Tony Horwitz reflects on confederate nostalgia, the Lost Cause tradition and "How the South Lost the War but Won the Narrative.”

Racial Passing in the USA: Historian Allyson Hobbs  

The recent case of Rachel Dolezal – the “black” activist outed as white – may have seemed novel, but she’s actually part of an old tradition of racial passing in this country. How long has passing been going on and how has it changed over the years? What’s it tell us about racial categories and color lines? Why are we so fascinated with passing stories? I spoke with historian Allyson Hobbs about her book A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life.

Sara Solovitch: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright  

Sara Solovitch grew up playing classical piano, a dedicated student and aspiring performer. But she quit at 19, undone by chronic jitters. Thirty years later, she decided to face her old fears, start over and brave the concert stage again. She tells the story in her new book, "Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright." Sara and I discussed the psychology of stage fright, its sufferers and treatments, how perfectionism and pressure set us up for failure, and the culture of classical performance.

Astronomer Robert Kirshner: Supernovas, Dark Energy and The Fate of the Universe  

Astronomer Robert Kirshner is an expert in supernovae – those spectacular exploding stars that can outshine a galaxy. It's a specialty he chanced on in grad school, and his timing was perfect. The field was really taking off, and it was supernovae that would lead to the biggest cosmological surprise of the last 20 years: the revelation that mysterious "dark energy" os pushing the universe apart at faster and faster rates. Bob and I talked about his career, the discovery of dark energy and what it might mean for the future of the cosmos.

Writer-Illustrator Sydney Padua: Babbage, Lovelace and the First Computer  

A century before the first electronic computers, there was the Analytical Engine, a giant, coal-powered mechanical brain. Sounds like a steampunk fantasy, but it was the real deal: a general-purpose computer capable not only of number-crunching but also logical operations. Not even its inventor, the brilliant and eccentric Victorian-era mathematician Charles Babbage, grasped its full potential. It was his friend and fellow visionary Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, who had that critical insight. Alas, though worked out in painstaking detail by Babbage, the Analytical Engine was never built. But now it’s been drawn – at least parts of it – by the illustrator and animator Sydney Padua. Sydney’s new book, "The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer," mixes comics, explanatory footnotes, historical documentation and some wonderful cartoon diagrams. It’s a funny and absorbing portrait of one of history’s great intellectual partnerships – and the magnificent machine that brought them together.

Biophysicist Jeremy England: A New Theory of Evolution  

We know life is made of molecules, but how did those molecules come together in the first place? Was it more than a series of rare and highly improbable coincidences--the parts just falling into place? MIT biophysicist Jeremy England thinks so. He says that under the right circumstances, which aren't rare at all, matter tends naturally toward greater organization, complex structures and adaptive behavior, making life a likely, even inevitable result of physics. His theory of pre-biological evolution provides a much-needed complement to Darwinian biological evolution.

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