At 12:30ET: Ask NPR Politics Editor Charlie Mahtesian Anything

…about November’s midterm elections, that is!


NPR Politics Editor Charlie Mahtesian is getting ready to answer all your questions. The midterm elections are just five weeks away (Nov. 4th!), and he’s a junkie for all things campaign, politics & digital so ask away! 

The Q&A will be over at Reddit - posted here at 12:30ET.

UPDATE: Will this be a ‘wave’ election? Will Nov. impact 2nd amendment rights? Will Texas turn blue? Great questions…@charlienpr is answering here:

Last night I attended “Ready, Wait Wait, Go,” a fun run and public-radio fundraiser for WBEZ Chicago. I was forced to listen to public radio during my childhood, but I must have developed Stockholm Syndrome because I quite enjoy it now (as you do). I like a good fun run and was happy to donate to this cause to do it.

The run was led by that guy up there, Peter Sagal, the host of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” and a multiple-year Boston qualifier who was still humble enough to work the registration table. (He’s also the columnist for Runner’s World who admitted to banditing the Chicago Marathon a few years ago, but I think we have all forgiven him for that.) He went around chatting with everyone and joking about how much pizza and beer we were going to eat after the run. Naturally, he is so super fit I lost him right at the start, but when I was heading back in I saw him running back to pick up some stragglers.

Our loop, which started and finished at a local brew pub/ restaurant, was a windy, chilly, dark affair, which was kind of exciting. The pack thinned out pretty quickly and I did most of it alone, but I expected that would happen. I finished in time to get my free beer (included) and that was good enough. 

This is a taper week for me so I won’t be running that fast again until, with any luck, mile 12 of my race on Sunday, but I felt good — really comfortable. For the rest of the week I’ll be focused on chilling out, trying to get more sleep and eating the stuff I normally eat. It’s boring but hopefully it’ll be worth it. 

In a perfect world, there have been so many Asian-American male romantic leads that this casting choice is hardly worth noting as unusual or counter-intuitive, but as Cho himself acknowledges we don’t live in that world. There’s a reason we still have to call it “colorblind casting” instead of just “casting.”

How the Nuremberg Trials changed translation forever

Photo: From left, Capt. Macintosh, British Army, translates from French into English, Margot Bortlin, translates from German into English and Lt. Ernest Peter Uiberall monitors the translations at the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

Lynn Visson was a UN interpreter during the height of the Cold War. She can still rattle off grandiose Soviet titles like it was yesterday.

“General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party — you had that practically memorized,” Visson recalls.

After 23 years, she’s still at it, interpreting from French and Russian into English. She’s witnessed — and spoken for — some pretty heavy hitters. “I remember Castro spoke for all of eight minutes, but the charisma was incredible,” Visson says. “The electricity the man generated — Bill Clinton could do that too, Gorbachev could do that. Some other delegates were great speakers, but they didn’t light that spark.”

These days, we’re long used to seeing diplomats at the UN plugged into earphones, listening to speeches that are instantaneously translated into one of the six official UN lanugages — English, French, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish and Russian, but simultaneous interpretation is actually a rather recent invention, developed in 1945 for a very different global event: the Nuremberg Trials.

Before the Nuremberg Trials, any kind of interpretation was done consecutively — talk first, and then wait for the interpreter to translate. But at the end of World War II, the Allies created the International Military Tribunal, which was charged with an explicit mission: "fair and expeditious trials" of accused Nazi war criminals.

“Those two words put enormous constraints on the people organizing the trial,” says interpreter and historian Francesca Gaiba, who has studied the origins of simultaneous interpretation at the Nuremberg Trials.

She says holding a trial that was “fair” and “expeditious” meant speeding up translations of the four languages of the nations involved: English, German, Russian and French. The solution was thought up by Col. Leon Dostert. Born in France and a native French speaker, Dostert became an American citizen and a foreign language expert for the US Army. 

“He was the person who thought it was possible for a human being to listen and speak at the same time,” Visson says.

Possible, yes, but far from easy. And then there was the problem of transmitting all of those languages in real time. This was 1945, so digital recordings and tapes weren’t around. But Dostert pressed on and consulted with IBM to develop a system of microphones and headsets to transmit the cacophony of languages. He hired interpreters and practiced this new type of interpreting with them. 

And somehow, despite a few episodes of tripping over cords in the courtroom, Dostert’s system worked.

Even before the Nuremberg trials were over, Dostert had taken his system to the UN in New York. It’s still the model being used today, albeit with some minor upgrades in technology.

“When I started, all interpreters were lugging around heavy dictionaries,” Visson remembers. “Now they’re lugging around iPads and notebook computers because most glossaries are in those.” She says TV monitors in the back booths also let interpreters watch the expressions of diplomats and the movements of their mouths.

But technology still hasn’t advanced enough to replace the interpreters themselves. “The computer can’t pick up the intonation,” Visson says.

But one of the biggest challenges for interpreters is often not the tone, but simply figuring out what a diplomat is saying.

“People with foreign accents for example, you want to be careful that when you hear somebody saying, ‘Mr. Chairman, we wish to congratulate you on your defective leadership.’ You know he didn’t mean his ‘defective leadership,’ he meant his ‘effective leadership.’” Visson says. “But you’ve got to not be simply auto-translating word for word, because heaven help you if you say we congratulate you on your defective leadership.”

Of course, relaying the words of world leaders also means not mincing them, be they Holocaust denials, carefully crafted insults or strongly worded Cold War rhetoric.

“One of the things you are taught is that you’re like an actor on stage,” Visson says. “There are plenty of actors who play the part of people who are absolutely vile. So I think if you look on it as acting, it can almost become fun — even if you are saying things that you personally find repugnant or hateful.”

His take on The Doctor’s new personality is also quite specific. “This character presents himself to those around him a certain way, but in fact, there’s a completely unknown Doctor that is rarely revealed to those around them,” Capaldi says. “Because that other Doctor probably exists on a whole other plane and has a relationship with the universe that is probably beyond the ken of human beings.”
I Want to Know What Love Is (Foreigner cover)
  • I Want to Know What Love Is (Foreigner cover)
  • Ryan Adams
  • NPR World Cafe

Ryan Adams and The Shining
"I Want to Know What Love Is" (Foreigner cover)
NPR World Cafe Sessions - August 14, 2014

I gotta take a little time
A little time to think things over

I better read between the lines
In case I need it when I’m older

Your paper brain and your Kindle brain aren’t the same thing

Photo: A commuter reads on a Kindle e-reader while riding the subway in Cambridge, Mass. Neuroscience says the way his brain treats reading on the Kindle is different than the way the brain processes the newspaper next to him.

Would you like paper or plasma? That’s the question book lovers face now that e-reading has gone mainstream. And, as it turns out, our brains process digital reading very differently.

Manoush Zomorodi, managing editor and host of WNYC’s New Tech City, recalls a conversation with the Washington Post’s Mike Rosenwald, who’s researched the effects of reading on a screen. “He found, like I did, that when he sat down to read a book his brain was jumping around on the page. He was skimming and he couldn’t just settle down. He was treating a book like he was treating his Twitter feed,” she says.

Neuroscience, in fact, has revealed that humans use different parts of the brain when reading from a piece of paper or from a screen. So the more you read on screens, the more your mind shifts towards “non-linear” reading — a practice that involves things like skimming a screen or having your eyes dart around a web page.

“They call it a ‘bi-literate’ brain,” Zoromodi says. “The problem is that many of us have adapted to reading online just too well. And if you don’t use the deep reading part of your brain, you lose the deep reading part of your brain.”

So what’s deep reading? It’s the concentrated kind we do when we want to “immerse ourselves in a novel or read a mortgage document,” Zoromodi says. And that uses the kind of long-established linear reading you don’t typically do on a computer. “Dense text that we really want to understand requires deep reading, and on the internet we don’t do that.”

Linear reading and digital distractions have caught the attention of academics like Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University.

“I don’t worry that we’ll become dumb because of the Internet,” Wolf says, “but I worry we will not use our most preciously acquired deep reading processes because we’re just given too much stimulation. That’s, I think, the nub of the problem.”

To keep the deep reading part of the brain alive and kicking, Zomorodi says that researchers like Wolf recommend setting aside some time each day to deep read on paper.

And now that children are seemingly growing up with a digital screen in each hand, Wolf says it’s also important that teachers and parents make sure kids are taking some time away from scattered reading. Adults need to ensure that children also practice the deeper, slow reading that we associate with books on paper.

“I think the evidence someday will be able to show us that what we’re after is a discerning ‘bi-literate’ brain,” Wolf says. “That’s going to take some wisdom on our part.”

Spooning is not sexual. Spooning is comforting. Spooning is loving. I want you to first go into the kitchen […] and look at the spoons. Take them out. Take two spoons out and fit one bowl into the other bowl of the spoon and you will see the bowls are very snug and together and very closely aligned. Whereas the bottom of the spoon, the ladle of the spoon, are straight and hardly touching. This is what we wish in a spoon.
—  Kate Mulgrew on…spooning (NPR: How To Do Everything podcast, November 22, 2013)