Transcript

110:

Mapping
Transcript

Originally aired 09.04.1998

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/110

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Every year, about a half dozen people spend from late spring through early autumn walking the streets of New York, making a map of every crack, every depression, every protrusion, every pothole on every sidewalk of all five boroughs of the city.

Ralph Gentles

So in this section, we have cracks, we have depression, and we have a broken curb.

Ira Glass

Ralph Gentles is looking at a crater the size of a manhole cover. He draws on a map he's carrying with a red felt pen.

Ralph Gentles

So that triangle would cover the fact that you have a depression there.

Ira Glass

So what you do is two triangles with a line in between them, another line, and then two x's with a line in between them?

Ralph Gentles

Yes, to indicate that the curb is also defective.

Ira Glass

Under New York law, if you trip on the sidewalk and hurt yourself, you cannot sue the city unless somebody had informed the city beforehand that there was a problem with the sidewalk. If no one told authorities to fix it, there was no negligence. And so years ago, a group of attorneys simply decided to hire a map company to go out each year and chart every foot of sidewalk in New York. They turn in the maps to the city, which makes it possible for injured New Yorkers to do what nature apparently intended for them to do, which is take their city to court.

Ralph Gentles

On this street, I would also look at the crosswalk. It's uneven, so we usually use some rectangles to suggest that.

Ira Glass

It's an unusual job. Ralph says that wherever he goes now, he notices the sidewalk. We stand at the corner of 44th and Lexington. The window of a health food store there has a big sign that says "Juices in Sickness." It tells you what kind of juice you should drink for a long list of diseases-- diarrhea, hypertension, impotence, hair loss. Ralph, meanwhile, is looking at a hole in the ground where some water has collected.

Ralph Gentles

And we have these cracks here.

Ira Glass

I'm just going to name some of the things that you're not putting on the map. There's a perfume and gift shop. There's a natural foods place. There's the passport photos place. In front of the perfume shop, there's a guy sitting on an crate trying to fix a gold watch. Not very well. None of this goes on the map.

Ralph Gentles

No, none of it goes on the map.

Ira Glass

And this gets to the very heart of what mapmaking is all about. Creating a map means ignoring everything in the world but one thing. That one thing could be the bus routes or the air traffic control patterns. It could be the homes of Hollywood stars, or it could be the cracks in the sidewalk. Maps have meaning because they filter out all the chaos in the world and focus obsessively on one item.

And this is the age of maps, though you might not normally think of it that way. Denis Wood is a cartographer in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Denis Wood

Something like 99.99% of all maps that have ever been made have been made in this century.

Ira Glass

This century now?

Denis Wood

This century that we're in right now.

Ira Glass

What are those maps? And what proportion of them, do you think, are the maps that most of us civilians usually use, which are just road maps to get us one place to another?

Denis Wood

But you see, I think you've missed all the maps right off the bat as soon as you go to the road map because you've forgotten about the maps you see every night on television, the maps that litter the newspapers.

Ira Glass

The weather maps.

Denis Wood

The weather maps, the maps all over the magazines.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, Mapping. Every map is the world seen through a different lens. And today on our program, we bring you five different stories, five different ways of looking at the world, each story about somebody who is mapping the world using a different human sense.

Act One, Sight. Act Two, Hearing. Act Three, Smell. In that act, we pay a visit to Cyrano Sciences, makers of an electronic nose.

Act Four, Mapping the World Through Touch. And Act Five, Mapping the World Through Taste. Stay with us. You will not be disappointed.

Act One. Sight.

Ira Glass

Act One, Sight. Ordinary people using a map. According to cartographer Denis Wood, that is a very recent development in human evolution. Up until a few centuries ago, people went to war, built empires, sailed the seas, all without maps. We do have some ancient maps, a Babylonian map which seemed to be used by authorities for tax assessment, things like that. But early maps are relatively few, and usually exist to accomplish some specific purpose.

That has changed, of course. Denis Wood brought into the studio a set of maps that he has been working on for years, maps of his own neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina, a neighborhood called Boylan Heights. Denis Wood begins with a regular locater map showing how the streets of Boylan Heights fit within the streets of the surrounding city.

Denis Wood

And then there's a map of part of what would be seen if you were to look through the surface of the Earth into the neighborhood that we don't usually experience but that the sewer men and the gas men and so forth and so on expose whenever they-- so it's a map of manholes, gas lines, water lines, and sewer lines.

I'm looking at a map now that's got all of the overhead lines mapped on it, and it is a crazy star field. It's the power lines, the telephone lines, and the cable lines. And there's a hierarchy, of course. They flow into the neighborhood from outside the neighborhood. And as they move into individual homes, they break down. They shatter, so that the homes are all like the ends of little, teeny capillaries.

Ira Glass

Which makes the neighborhood sound like a living organism.

Denis Wood

It is a living organism. It's absolutely what it is. Here's a map that shows the pools of light cast by each one of the street lamps at night. And it's black, and you have these pools of light.

Ira Glass

Keep going. What else have you got?

Denis Wood

I've got a wonderful map that's every traffic sign in the neighborhood. And the traffic signs are each one of them drawn on the map. And the thing that's fascinating about this image is that the traffic signs are, of course, by and large for people who don't live in the neighborhood. So their density reveals those streets where strangers are going to move through the environment.

Ira Glass

And when you draw it on the map, do you represent each stop sign with a the little red stop sign and each yield sign with a little yellow triangle?

Denis Wood

Absolutely. Each one of these things has been drawn here. I have a map of the pumpkins that were on the porches at Halloween.

Ira Glass

What's that one tell you?

Denis Wood

Well, that's an extremely interesting map. And I like to relate it to the map that shows the number of times each residence was mentioned in the Boylan Heights newsletter over the past 25 years.

Ira Glass

You've made a map of that?

Denis Wood

Yeah. You take all the newsletters, and you just note every address that appears in it, whether it appears as the name of an individual in the neighborhood or as a specific address, and you just do frequencies attached to each one of the residences.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Denis Wood

And the thing that struck me about that map when I first did it was that some locations-- that is to say, some dwellings-- are frequently mentioned no matter who lives in them. And I imagine that the people who are going to be movers and shakers in neighborhoods pick homes that are in important locations in the neighborhood or are architecturally significant or historically significant in the neighborhood.

Ira Glass

Or they've just got more money, and then they buy the big place.

Denis Wood

Well, believe me, money is what's behind both the pumpkin map and that map.

Ira Glass

Now, as you're telling me this story, I'm thinking, so where are the pumpkins? I'm trying to guess in my mind where the greatest proliferation of little orange pumpkins would be.

Denis Wood

Oh, that's not how the map looks. What I did was photograph the pumpkins at the face. And then I printed them black on black, so all you see are the eyes and the mouths of the pumpkins on the black background. John Carpenter would love this image.

Ira Glass

So the map of the pumpkins is just a map where there are just little eyes and pumpkin mouths floating by the houses which have them.

Denis Wood

But they're just floating on the black background, just as the traffic signs were floating. And the map of the traffic signs, there are just traffic signs. There's no streets or anything. On the map of the streets, there are just streets. On the map of the trees, there are just trees. And what you do as you go through these maps is you begin to build up-- even though it's never said-- you begin to build up the kind of structural knowledge that you take away as the residents of that neighborhood. So the idea that we have to have the pumpkins drawn against the street only makes sense if you don't have any other images.

But as soon as you have other images, you say, oh my lord, look. Look where these pumpkins are. Why, they're exactly where-- and I'm going to answer your question-- they're exactly where people are mentioned all the time in the newsletter. And as you go away to the edges of the neighborhood, where the people aren't mentioned in the newsletter, by golly, they don't have pumpkins on their porches.

Ira Glass

And are the people who are mentioned in the newsletter, do they tend to be the people in the bigger homes?

Denis Wood

Yeah.

Ira Glass

They do?

Denis Wood

Oh, yeah.

Ira Glass

Is it true you've also done a map of the graffiti in the neighborhood?

Denis Wood

Oh yeah. The graffiti in the neighborhood, the things carved into the cement as it was setting in the neighborhood, patterns of leaf light on the neighborhood, that is to say the light coming through the leaves of the trees in the summertime.

Ira Glass

What does that tell you?

Denis Wood

They are what it is to live in the neighborhood. The neighborhood is experienced as a collection of patterns of light and sound and smell and taste and communication with others.

Ira Glass

Denis, if most maps, historically, have tended to be maps organized around some thing which had to be done or some purpose that people needed a map for, it seems to me that the maps that you're describing of your own neighborhood are about something very different.

Denis Wood

Yeah, they are. And they're very much involved with this sort of search that I have for a poetics of cartography.

Ira Glass

Well, it's interesting. It's taking the premise of the map, which is that it's a way to describe the world, and then pointing it at things that we usually don't think of as being mappable.

Denis Wood

Yeah, and I guess one of the contentions that I would make as a geographer-- also as a person-- is that there isn't anything that you can't map. There isn't anything that doesn't have some kind of spatial dimension or spatial character. And that spatial character is interesting. I live in this dream of maps. And I keep looking for the map that's going to really realize the potential of this thing.

Ira Glass

But Denis, I understand this impulse of wanting to capture the whole world in a map, but do you have moments where you think that it actually is not within the power of a map to do that?

Denis Wood

Yeah, I know it's not. [LAUGHS] I know it's not within the power of a map to do that.

Ira Glass

Because in fact, a map, it seems like what a map is, in a certain sense, is the opposite. A map gets its meaning by not giving you all the information about everything but by selecting, like, this map will be about this slice of the world, and this map will be about this.

Denis Wood

Sure, and that's why I've produced an atlas in which I have, on one map page, just the faces of pumpkins, and another map page, all of the drawings of the street signs, because every map is selective. But I guess what I'm pushing for here is selecting subjects for cartographic display that are other than those that are typically done.

Ira Glass

It's almost like you're trying to write a novel--

Denis Wood

I am.

Ira Glass

--but with pure symbols.

Denis Wood

Maps.

Ira Glass

Right, with maps.

Denis Wood

Yeah. Why not?

Ira Glass

Denis Wood is the author of the book The Power of Maps. If you want to see his maps of Boylan Heights, they're not published anywhere, but he's allowed us to post a few of them on the This American Life website. That address-- grab a pen-- www.thislife.org. That's "thislife," one word, no space.

Act Two. Hearing.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Hearing. Since every map is just a chart of one small slice of the world, most of the people in today's program tend to be people who decide to view the world through one small, specialized window. At some point, Toby Lester started to map the sounds in his world, the everyday sounds that surround us all the time, that most of us do not even bother to notice, much less analyze. Our contributing editor Jack Hitt visited him outside of Boston. And Jack put together this story.

Jack Hitt

What's on right now? I don't mean the radio. I mean, is your air conditioning on? Is your car engine idling? Is your refrigerator running? Just take a moment and listen. Listen to the droning around you. Map the landscape of your background noise. See if you can hear what Toby Lester heard one day a few years ago. I'll wait.

Toby Lester

I arrived in a new job at a new office. And in those sorts of situations, you're always kind of hyper-aware of everything. And it was quite a cold week, and the heater was just humming along very loudly to the point of distraction. And I started paying attention to it. And it was a very musical hum, and I found myself humming in the key that the heater was playing, essentially.

Jack Hitt

Once he heard his heater, then Toby was in the unenviable position of not being able to not hear his heater. You too will have this problem shortly. But Tobey, who's an editor at the Atlantic Monthly, is a musical guy who hums at work. So he began to play with it, literally harmonizing with the heater, creating interesting intervals and chords, a kind of barely audible musical score to his life in the office.

Toby Lester

And then I started to work myself back and realized that I had probably been singing in the key of my office as long as I had inhabited an office.

Jack Hitt

Was it a good one for you? Your high notes weren't too high?

Toby Lester

No, it suited me pretty well, actually. I was able to appropriately reproduce whatever mood I happened to be in. But that's when I started wondering whether it actually wasn't working the other way around. Rather than my knowing this note was there and playing a minor third or a major third, whether, in fact, there was something else playing a note on top of the heater that would, in effect, create my mood for me.

I found myself sitting in this little office listening to the heater and staring at my computer and suddenly realizing that yes, in fact, the computer was humming as well. Not nearly as strongly, but it was indeed humming. And that brought me to bring a little pitch pipe into the office and figure out what the two notes were.

And at the same time, for some reason, I'd been thinking about why is that we seem almost universally to assume that a minor chord is sad and a major chord is happy. If a minor third just is somehow inherently sad, then if I were sitting in an office having a minor third played at me all day long, then it's indeed possible that I could be made sad by just sitting in my office, which, of course, everybody is.

Jack Hitt

You're saying that the heating system in your office and the computer hum of your machine created a certain interval.

Toby Lester

Right.

Jack Hitt

Right. So can you show us on the keyboard what was the basis of that interval?

Toby Lester

It was essentially-- [PLAYS KEYBOARD]

Jack Hitt

So the first note, this one-- [PLAYS KEYBOARD] --that was like the heating system. And then your computer was doing this. [PLAYS KEYBOARD]

Toby Lester

Yep.

Jack Hitt

So together, what you're saying is that the interval it created was this. [PLAYS KEYBOARD]

Toby Lester

Right. And that happens to be a major third, which happens to be what's traditionally interpreted as happy.

Jack Hitt

So you're loving your new job, then.

Toby Lester

Well, except for the fact that I was spending a good deal of time on the phone. And the dial tone played a note above that, which was then constructing a three-note chord. [PLAYS KEYBOARD] That was the heater, that was the computer, and then that nasty little one was the telephone.

Jack Hitt

So all together, they were-- [PLAYS KEYBOARD] Ooh.

When played against the tonic-- or foundation note-- of his heater, the telephone created an interval known as an augmented fourth. Toby began to do some research and discovered that the Catholic Church had assigned different meanings to numerous musical intervals back in the Middle Ages. And the augmented fourth was the most reviled sound of its time-- feared as the "diabolus in musica," the devil in the music.

Toby and I were sitting in his kitchen when I was talking to him. And suddenly I was afflicted with the same keenness of hearing that Toby had been. I heard something, and felt compelled to identify it.

Jack Hitt

What is that, now that we're sitting here?

Toby Lester

That is the tonic of the kitchen, the refrigerator humming.

Jack Hitt

Let's see if we can get that. Where's the motor? Oh yeah, here. Down here. [PLAYS KEYBOARD]

Toby Lester

That's the note.

Jack Hitt

So what note is that?

Toby Lester

B-flat.

Jack Hitt

So that's the tonic of your kitchen?

Toby Lester

Essentially.

Jack Hitt

Not long ago, Toby had come across a critic named Deryck Cooke, who had written a book updating the church's musical classifications. Rather than finding the devil in the music, Cooke assigned quite modern interpretations to each sound. One interval, for example, seemed to inspire, quote, "a spirit of anguish." Another sound was "violent longing in a context of finality." Apparently, any combination of notes conjured its own specific mood and sensation.

Jack Hitt

For example, let's just do one. This refrigerator's in B-flat. So when you come in in the morning and you put a bagel in your microwave over here, what note are we adding to the tonic here?

Toby Lester

Let's listen to the microwave. Even the beeping--

Jack Hitt

What was that beep, do you think?

Toby Lester

Let's press it again and see. A C.

Jack Hitt

Right. So it's a B-flat to a C just to turn on the microwave.

Toby Lester

Well, and let's look at that. Let's examine that. A B-flat to a C is a major second. And Mr. Cooke refers to it as "pleasurably longing and has a context of finality."

Jack Hitt

So play that on the keyboard here. Let's hear it.

Toby Lester

[PLAYS KEYBOARD]

Jack Hitt

OK, yeah, finality. There's a sort of closure to that. And so then the bagel is ready. So let's run that microwave.

Toby Lester

[STARTS MICROWAVE] And that hum is an F-sharp, very identifiably. So the B-flat and F-sharp. [PLAYS KEYBOARD] Not a great way to start the day, really. And let's see, what would that be? "Active anguish in the context of flux," according to Mr. Cook.

[LAUGHTER]

Jack Hitt

Active anguish in a context of flux. Did Sartre write this? [LAUGHS]

Toby's research led him to Plato, who once wrote, "When the modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state change." It sounds preposterous at first, but might there be a connection between the low, constant humming of our industrial culture and the dissonant mood of anxiety and irresolution that seems to characterize our century?

Toby Lester

We're the first generation of people to live in an environment in which there are lots of devices buzzing, whirring, humming at us. I'm entirely a product of it. I have no awareness of a life led without some sort of humming appliance lurking somewhere behind me.

Jack Hitt

Of course, there must've been noises in the 16th century that were musical. If nothing else, just nature.

Toby Lester

But what appliances do that I don't think other natural world things have done is provide a steady drone. It's the droning that is really novel. My guess is that people these days find themselves a lot more bored, in general, than they used to be, partly because their appliances are taking care of things for them. But the payoff is that there's this drone behind everything. And the drone is sort of a symptom of modern life. We're very acutely aware of our own boredom, and we've been eased into our boredom by all these machines.

Jack Hitt

So let me restate my first question. Listening to your own background noise, do you hear what Toby Lester hears? Try it again.

Now that I can't stop hearing it, I wonder if every exercise in mapping is really such a good thing. When I sat at my keyboard composing these lines, the computer hum and fan were droning a minor third at me, an interval associated with sorrow. Before Columbus's day, the old maps simply showed an arrow pointing to the mysterious West, and then the words, "there dragons be." Maybe not every terra incognita needs discovering.

But, of course, this is America. We don't just explore, we profit. Any day now, I expect a house tuner to be ringing my doorbell, some failed telemarketer who'll promise to harmonize the whir of my toaster with the flush of the toilet, and thereby guarantee me an inner peace worthy of the millennium.

Toby Lester

And you could obviously select from-- like you might select from paint chips-- from a variety of different house moods, happy, sad, active anguish in a context of flux.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt lives in New Haven.

[MUSIC--"WAY OVER YONDER IN THE MINOR KEY" BY BILLY BRAGG AND WILCO]

Act Three. Smell.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Smell. Well, traditionally, there are maps of things you can see. And sometimes, there are even maps of things that you can hear, for example, those government maps of where the jet noise is in the neighborhoods around airports. But finding somebody who has a need to understand the world-- to chart the world's objects-- through smell, this was not easy.

And then we found Cyrano Sciences, a Pasadena company that's trying to make an electronic nose. Ms. Nancy Updike headed out to their offices. She prepared her report in the form of those "frequently asked questions" pages on the internet. Quick warning to listeners before we begin. We have no idea if these are, in fact, the questions that people most want to know about the nose. We just like the sound of it. Here then, her report.

Announcer

Hello, and welcome to Frequently Asked Questions About the Electronic Nose. Does the electronic nose look like a nose?

Nancy Updike

Actually, no. It looks like a tiny table. It's a green, three-by-five plastic circuit board like you'd see inside a computer. And it's sitting on steel legs a couple inches high. It does not go on your face, needless to say. Sitting on top of the circuit board, there's something that looks like a black stamp. It's a microprocessor, the computer that runs the thing. At the other end of the circuit board, there's a white box about an inch high with the name Durante printed on it in black letters. I'm not joking. It says Durante.

And then there's a clear plastic tube, thinner than a pencil, that the nose uses to sniff. But that's just the guts of the thing. Richard Payne is the project's chief technical officer, and he showed me a mock up of what the outside of the final product, which is going to be a handheld electronic nose, might look like when they finally give it an outside.

Richard Payne

So one would be able to push the black buttons to give it instructions as to start or stop.

Nancy Updike

And these are black buttons that are sitting on a yellow disc, almost like-- not a dinner plate but the next size down.

Richard Payne

It's a dessert plate.

Nancy Updike

A dessert plate. Thank you.

Announcer

What can the electronic nose smell, and what can't it smell?

Nancy Updike

If the electronic nose could draw, oh, I don't know, a map, say, of its world, here's what wouldn't be in the picture-- blueberries, movie popcorn, candle wax, pretty much every smell you can think of. The electronic nose is still a baby. It has to learn each smell for the first time, just like we had to do as we grew up. It has to build up a smell archive in its computer brain that it can compare new smells to.

Here's what its map would include. Here are the smells it can identify so far. And be forewarned, It is a small, sad world, frankly, for the electronic nose. In preparation for its life as an industrial workhorse, the electronic nose has been sniffing mostly nasty solvent vapors and decaying bacteria. But when scientists want to show it off, they let it identify two perfumes-- the lovely Chanel Coco and the, in my opinion, overly sweet Bal A Versailles.

Richard Payne

We've opened up the bottle of perfume and inserted the sampling tube. The first sound you heard was clean air being drawn in to purge the sample chamber. And now it's on the draw mode when it's identifying. And it has successfully identified Chanel Coco because it was trained to identify Chanel's Coco.

Announcer

What will the electronic nose be used for?

Nancy Updike

By you and me? Not much. It's going to cost $2,000 to $5,000 at first. But Richard really, really wants you to have one. So they're going to spend the next five years coming up with a model just for you, the consumer, for under $10.

Meanwhile, the electronic nose will have other assignments. Detecting landmines. Factories could put electronic noses throughout their plants to detect dangerous gases that might be leaking during the manufacturing process. Doctors could use a handheld electronic nose to diagnose pneumonia and other conditions that have distinctive smells. Smell, actually, used to be a much bigger part of medical diagnosis decades ago. Richard tells me about one nation-- not the United States--

Richard Payne

A more neurotic nation, shall we say.

Nancy Updike

--that wants to use the nose in an elaborate scheme to detect counterfeit money. This unnamed nation--

Richard Payne

Oh, it was actually the German printing office.

Nancy Updike

--wanted to inject a smell into their money, a smell that would be detected by "die nase elektronisch."

Announcer

How does the electronic nose work?

Nancy Updike

Before we get to that, let me explain how actual noses work. The inside of your nose is filled with millions of little sensors, like sponges. A smell, meanwhile, is made up of a whole bunch of different chemicals, in the form of gases, that combine to create one specific odor.

As you breathe in-- let's all breathe in-- the gases enter your nose, and each chemical is absorbed by a different sensor that's primed to respond to that type of chemical. The sensors-- the little sponges-- then send signals to the brain. And the brain combines all the data from all the different sensors and identifies their combination as a particular smell.

Announcer

Right. I'll repeat the question. How does the electronic nose work?

Nancy Updike

So the electronic nose works almost the same way. Remember how I said it looks like a little table? Underneath the table, it has a pump, like a tiny set of lungs to draw smells in through the plastic tube. The air goes up the tube into the white box named Durante, and the box holds all the sensors. Then some of the sensors swell depending on whatever chemicals are in the air being drawn in. Electrodes measure the amount of swelling, and the microcomputer acts as a brain to coordinate all the information from all the sensors and to compare the new pattern to smells its learned before.

Announcer

How does the electronic nose compare to a dog's nose?

Nancy Updike

Dogs are used at airports to detect explosives, and they're also used in detecting landmines. Maybe you've seen them in the movies. Their nose, at this point, is pretty unbeatable for mapping smells. It has 10 times as many sensors as the human nose. And human noses have 300,000 times as many sensors as the current version of the electronic nose. But the electronic nose does have one significant advantage over dogs.

Announcer

Dogs, they tend to have a very short attention span. They usually are good for 15 or 20 minutes, and then it's time for another dog. An they're expensive to train. And they're very good--

Nancy Updike

I didn't know that. You always see the dogs being so focused.

Richard Payne

No, they stay focused for time frames on the order of 15 minutes, maybe a good one, a half an hour.

Nancy Updike

And is the electronic nose going to be as good as a dog's nose?

Richard Payne

It will be a long time before it's as good as a dog's nose, but it will be someday.

Announcer

Does the electronic nose have a soul?

Nancy Updike

A few hours into my visit at Cyrano, I found myself, inevitably, thinking about that dilemma at the heart of so many science fiction movies. At what point does a machine achieve humanness? A machine whose sense of smell consists of counting up all the chemicals in a particular odor and naming them, is that really smelling?

Real smelling seems different. It seems human. Real smells have associations. They evoke memories and feelings. We don't just count molecules floating through the air. What we do and what we call smelling seems fundamentally different from what the electronic nose does when it smells.

Richard, like any good scientist of course, has no interest whatsoever in this idea. I won't play for you any of the five minutes of tape of our going back and forth about it, except to say that he ended with--

Richard Payne

I'm happy I'm a person and not a computer.

Nancy Updike

Yeah, me too. You know, at moments like this, you really need an omniscient narrator with a deep voice to come in and wrap it all up. And I have one.

Announcer

Yes, there are similarities and differences between the human nose and the electronic nose. The key difference is that powerful human computer we call the brain, which lets us sift through thousands-- even millions-- of different odors as we map our world.

Ira Glass

Well, coming up, learning to map a city using your mouth your guide. Our little radio experiment in the five senses continues. Taste and Touch are left. In a minute, from Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Four. Touch.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers, documentary producers, and performers to tackle that theme. Today's program, Mapping. We're bringing you five stories, five ways of mapping the world, one through each of the human senses, sight, hearing, smell, and now touch and taste.

We've arrived at Act Four, Human Touch. This is a story about somebody mapping her own body using the sense of touch. Deb Monroe is a magazine writer and contributor to public radio shows like Marketplace and The Savvy Traveler. If mapping means that you're charting only one aspect of the world, there is a good side to being obsessed with one thing. And, of course, there is a darker side.

Deb Monroe

This whole thing began seven years ago. I remember the day. At a park with my daughters-- babies back then-- I came across a magazine article about breast cancer. It listed the warning signs. It suddenly didn't matter that I was in a crowded public place. I had to check. So I stuck my hand under my blouse and checked for lumps. Nothing. Then I stretched out my T-shirt and peeked inside.

What was that? I'd never noticed it before, a sort of puckering on the pale skin of my breasts. Grabbing the kids and carting them to a phone, I called my doctor. Come in today, he said. At the office, the nurses watched the babies while the doctor examined me. He looked like he was trying hard not to roll his eyes. Stretch marks, he said. Those are stretch marks.

That experience would have stopped most people from panicking and running to the doctor. Not in my case. It catapulted me straight into the world of hypochondriacs. When life gets stressful, I do five or six breast checks a day. When things get really intense, that number goes up to 30 or 40. I've pushed and prodded my flesh so hard that I've actually bruised myself. I've done self-exams at the dinner table, in the middle of a performance at the Hollywood Bowl, and I hope they're not listening right now, but in the studios of PRI's Marketplace. I can't control myself.

But it's not just the breast exams. My husband Jim can tell you when it all began.

Jim

Probably about seven years ago. Probably when we were living in Dallas and Michaela was not very old. She was really pretty young. A few months old, maybe. That's when you had your first tumor. I can't remember where it was. Was it a brain tumor? You went through so many. I think you thought you had a brain tumor.

And then we moved to Chicago, and then you had stomach cancer. I believe you had another brain tumor, a couple of cases of breast cancer. Quite a survivor.

You have actual physical pain. That's the weird part. You're convinced that you have had a headache for three weeks. You are convinced that your stomach has been killing your for three months, and that's got to be a developing tumor somewhere between your knees and your shoulders. You've got this cancer that's eating you alive. You're convinced of that, and it's bizarre, truly. I'm sorry. It doesn't sound very sympathetic.

Deb Monroe

The weird thing is that I'm so afraid I might actually find something that I don't really do my breast exams correctly. My hand darts in here, there, feels around and then, relieved that there are no obvious lumps, my hand pulls away as if it's just been burned. But knowing that I did a lousy job, I must do it again, and the cycle just repeats itself.

The cycle spiraled out of control two years ago. It was a bad time in my life. The kids were worried about starting school, and my father was on the verge of a nervous breakdown as my mother continued her decline into Alzheimer's. So when a magazine offered to send me to write about a weekend getaway for stressed-out moms in the mountains two hours south of LA, I jumped at the chance.

Well, instead of being a relaxing, pampering experience, I kept sneaking off to the bathroom to check for lumps. I went to the bathroom so many times, one lady asked if I had food poisoning. I wonder what she would've said if she could see me, hunkered down on the grimy toilet lid under the fluorescent light, stripping to the waist so I could check myself.

Fast forward to Halloween. At a friend's party filled with children and music and wine, I was walking by a bookshelf when I spotted the Merck Manual. It's filled with descriptions of diseases and their symptoms. I tried, but I couldn't resist. The book was suddenly in my hand. My friend's husband, John, sauntered up, interested. He was sure he had a brain tumor. The repeated CAT scans must've missed it, he said.

We spent the next two hours pouring over the book, following the trail of little gray boxes of symptoms to their frightening conclusions. Hodgkin's disease, stomach cancer, Ebola. John's wife marched over, grabbed the book away, and pointed meaningfully at the children bobbing for apples. My husband ordered me to stop reading medical information in books and magazines.

He forgot about the information that comes with prescription drugs. In teeny, tiny print on the skinny piece of paper that comes with birth control pills is that bit warning women over the age of 35 about the possibility of blood clots in the leg, which can shoot up through your veins and kill you. At 3:00 AM, I woke up with a leg cramp. It had to be a clot. I paged the doctor.

Well, since I ruined all the goodwill in that relationship, I had to move on. This time, I switched to a woman doctor. Turns out we had a lot of common-- both 37, third generation Mexican-American, even grew up in the same neighborhood. She asked about the stress in my life.

Doctor

Because a lot of times, women with pain in that area will have a psychological cause for it. I would say maybe 50% of the time.

Deb Monroe

50% of the time? I'm not alone?

Doctor

No, you're not alone.

Deb Monroe

What's this about?

Doctor

Knowing you as I have, I think perhaps you're just nervous and anxious about the possibility of having a problem. And with everything going on your life, it's easy to focus on something else to put your anxiety into. And at one point, it was the pelvic pain. And that resolved once you knew that maybe this is what was causing it. Now it's the breast situation. And maybe once you resolve whatever is in your life that might be triggering that fear and anxiety, that will resolve itself as well.

Deb Monroe

Ah, fear and anxiety. They are so '90s. It's all so self-absorbed. And it's this part of hypochondria-- the self-absorption-- that I hate the most. I feel enormously guilty having such thoughts when millions of people are suffering from real problems.

Jim

Everything is going along fine, and then it's like, oh, I remember the syndrome. Suddenly, we're back into it again. I think you're doing fine, you seem to be doing fine, and suddenly, I catch you feeling for a lump or something. I find it a little depressing. Suddenly, it's like what I thought was sort of a normal pattern has now come to an end, and now we're going to go through this difficult time with you being distracted and sort of self-absorbed and worried. And yeah, I almost want to slap your hand like you're a two-year-old reaching for a cookie.

The trouble is, I think, that it takes your mind away from other things that it seems to me should be more important, because they actually exist, for one thing. I mean, the tumors don't exist and I do, your other things do, that sometimes get shunted aside when you're busy obsessing about these maladies.

Deb Monroe

Would you have ever suspected when we got married that I would end up doing this?

Jim

No. It's a great question. No. Not at all. You were smart, kind of fun and liked to have a good time, seemed to be very much capable of enjoying life. You were good at what you did. Now you still are good at what you do, but your enjoyment of life has to be hampered by your constantly searching for lumps and believing you have them. That definitely doesn't seem like the kind of thing the person I married would have done.

Deb Monroe

But this is the problem. When you start mapping your own body while consumed with fear, the map's inaccurate. The picture that you get of yourself is inaccurate. It's filled with landmarks that seem huge but really don't exist. It's a road map that always sends you driving down the wrong road.

Ira Glass

Deb Monroe in Los Angeles.

Act Five. Taste.

Ira Glass

Act Five, Mapping the World Through Taste. Jonathan Gold's life was changed after he decided to map his city-- one part of his city-- by relying mostly on his sense of taste. His story begins in the early 1980s. He went back to where it all happened to tell the tale.

Jonathan Gold

This is the historic site of Mr. Coleslaw Burger, which now is a neon sign shop specializing in Hangul characters for Korean signs. Mr. Coleslaw Burger is on Pico Boulevard. And at the time, I lived on Pico Boulevard about three or four miles down over a kosher butcher shop in a Jewish-Iranian section of town. And I took a bus down Pico Boulevard every day for my job, which was an incredibly boring legal proofreading job at a downtown legal newspaper.

My goal in those days, I suppose, was to be Elliott Abrams, who was at that time the undersecretary of state under Reagan, who seemed to have the glamorous life of flying around from Latin capital to Latin capital, meddling in everybody's economies and exhorting them all to try University of Chicago-style economics.

I had some vague idea that I wanted to be a government bureaucrat. I took every civil service test that it's possible to take. I took the country civil service test and the state civil service test. I took the post office test. I took the National Security Agency test. I took a CIA test. And finally, but probably not least, I took the foreign service test. And I got a fairly high score on it. So I assumed that I was going to, at some point, join the foreign service.

At some point during this year, my friend, Ken, took me to this place on Pico Boulevard-- Mr. Coleslaw Burger. And Mr. Coleslaw Burger wasn't much, I guess, in terms of restaurants. It wasn't the most magnificent place I'd ever been to, and it wasn't the best-smeling place I had ever been to, and sort of a surly guy behind the counter who insulted his clients and liked to be known as Mr. Coleslaw Burger himself, although his name was probably Miller.

And the thing that struck me about Mr. Coleslaw Burger was that here was a man who had found his mission in life. And his mission in life was to put coleslaw on hamburgers. I'm not sure if he was the very first person to put coleslaw on hamburgers, but the first person I'd ever seen. And somehow, thinking of Mr. Coleslaw Burger and thinking of the other restaurants I'd eaten at on Pico, I came up with this sort of half-baked coleslaw-inspired idea to eat at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard and to create sort of a map of the senses that would be able to get me from one end to the other.

The next week, as I was coming home from work and I had really nothing else planned for the evening or, realistically, the week or the rest of my life, I decided to do that. And I came up with a set of rules. I had to go to each restaurant in order. If the restaurant was closed, I could go to the next restaurant on the list, but means the next time I was out, I had to go back to the one that I had missed the first time.

If a restaurant was really bad, I could skip out after a bite or two. If a place wasn't really a restaurant but, say, a candy store that also happened to sell hot dogs, then I'd have to try the hot dog, but I wouldn't necessarily have to make it part of my meal. And as often happens with these kind of restaurants, they'd close down. So if I'd gone two miles and then a restaurant that I had gone to had closed down and opened up again, then I would have to go and eat at that restaurant before I would be able to go to the next one. Street vendors, push carts selling tacos or mangoes were optional. I usually tried to eat at them, but I didn't consider it a fault if I didn't.

I became obsessed with the idea of Pico Boulevard. Almost every ethnic group that exists in Los Angeles, you can find on Pico. There's specific blocks that are Guatemalan and Nicaraguan blocks and Salvadoran blocks. There are parts of Pico where you can drive for probably a mile without seeing a sign that isn't in Korean.

There's big sections that are Mexican, and not just Mexican but some are Oaxacan, and some are so solidly aligned with Jalisco, with Guadalajara that you see the little symbol-- the goat of the Guadalajaran soccer team, which is the Chivos-- in almost every window. And it's center for a huge concentration of Persian Jews that came over here around the time the Ayatollah took power. I don't think there's another street in Los Angeles that's quite like it.

This is the El Parian, and the thumping you hear is a man butchering goats. El Parian is probably the best place in Los Angeles to find the dish called the birria, which is sometimes translated as "ugly stuff" and in Arizona is made with beef. But in Los Angeles and in Guadalajara-- where the dish comes from-- it means goat stew.

When you come to El Parian, usually people won't ask you what you want. They know what you want. There's only one reason you come here, and that's for the birria. You start off with some chips and beans, and then they bring it out-- a big plate of goat roast. Still has the crispy parts and the savory parts and some stewy parts. And they'll our over it this broth called consomme, which is essentially a very strong broth made with amplified goat drippings and lots of chile.

First sip of the-- oh, my. The first sip of the consomme-- the first taste that you get is the taste of salt. And then almost immediately, like a kick in the back of the throat, the chile comes in. It's a very specific feeling. And then sort of like the round, almost arc-shaped flavor of the goat, which is gamy but not too gamy, and the meat's sweetness comes through. It's a wonderful taste. It's really well balanced. Really, I like eating the goat fine. But the goat soup that you're able to scoop out from around the goat is the best part of the whole thing.

Birria may seem like a strange thing and sort of an isolated specialty, but birria's actually hugely popular in Los Angeles, especially among immigrants from Zacatecas state and from Jalisco, whose capital is Guadalajara. And there may be as many as 100 places specializing in the dish.

This is the last remaining location of the world famous Oki Dog, the more famous branch of which used to be on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. The original Oki was notorious because it was where everybody went after punk rock shows at the Starwood. So you'd go there at 1:00 in the morning, and there'd be a line of 300 people with mohawks and cherry-red hair and rings in their noses and Doc Martens on their feet, flying the flag, hanging out with the freaks. The famous punk rock singer, Darby Crash, who was the lead singer of The Germs, was reputed to have had his last meal at the Oki Dog just a few hours before he OD'd.

That one got closed because it was the site of about half the crime in the city of West Hollywood. The Pico Oki, though, was the one that always had the better food. Los Angeles has always been famous for its fusion food, its multicultural concoctions of things. But the same sort of thing that was happening in much fancier restaurants like Chinois and Chaya Brasserie across town, here, Oki Dog was doing almost the people's version of it.

My favorite item, the pastrami burrito-- which is a truly fearsome creation capable of feeding four people for four days-- is a greased bun made with fried pastrami, fried cabbage, fried peppers, a glob of chili, pickles and onions if you want them, and wrapped inside a burrito, which is to say food with influences of Chinese food, Jewish food, and the Los Angeles chili tradition, wrapped in a burrito which is Mexican style, cooked by Japanese guys for an almost exclusively African-American clientele.

This is the Magic Carpet Restaurant, which is a black kosher Yemenite restaurant. Mmm. Smell that mint tea. That just smells great. Magic Carpet was sort of on the end of my year on Pico. I had eaten in perhaps 150 restaurants. But at some point during the year, I started relaxing the rules a little bit. I started passing by the mango carts. I started becoming less interested in the places that serve chili burgers that looked exactly like the place that served chili burgers a block away. And after a while, all pupusas started to look alike to me.

During the course of this year, I'd gotten the results of the first Foreign Service exam. I did pretty well. And on the second Foreign Service exam, I did better than I did on the first part. I'd been through my FBI search and had been fingerprinted and had been checked out by government physicians. I was ready to go. I was waiting for a posting somewhere. And it occurred to me that what I was looking for in the foreign service, that the sort of adventures I was hoping to have, that the sort of people I was hoping to meet, I was already having right there in my own hometown.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Gold is now the restaurant critic for the LA Weekly and for Los Angeles Magazine. His food column "Counter Intelligence" was in the Los Angeles Times for eight years. His mission-- to help readers everywhere be less afraid of their neighbors using the medium of food.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder, senior editor Paul Tough, contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Laura Doggett and [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Davenport. The deep voice behind the electronic nose frequently asked questions was Mr. Paul Friedman, Chicago voiceover man who also happens to be the official voice of the Chicago Cubs.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

If you want to buy a cassette of this program, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago. 312-832-3380. Our email address, radio@well.com, where you can listen to most of our programs for free on the internet at our website, www.thislife.org. Don't forget the special maps you'll find on the site this week. Thanks to Elizabeth Meister who does the site for us for free. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia.

Announcer

Does management oversight require the electronic nose?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

Does Torey Malatia have the electronic nose?

PRI, Public Radio International.