October 10, 2008

A Better Mousetrap (2008)

Stories about people trying to find new solutions to age-old problems—solutions that sometimes cause problems of their own.

An updated version of an episode from 2006.


Host Ira Glass talks with Andy Woolworth, an executive vice president in charge of new product development at the world's largest manufacturer of mousetraps, Woodstream Corporation, in Lititz, Pennsylvania. About once a month, Andy is contacted by someone who thinks he's invented a better mousetrap. He and Ira review some of the ideas that seemed particularly bad. (7 minutes)
Act One

Mother Of Invention

Karen Sosnoski's one-year-old son, Anton, was born with what's known as Mosaic Down Syndrome, a rare condition where some of his cells have the extra chromosome that causes Down syndrome and other cells don't. So as he grows, he could end up having all the health risks and challenges of Down syndrome...or just a few of them. Through a website, Karen found a kid with the same diagnosis, named Tim Colvin, who was doing really well...perhaps because his mother, Kristy, invented a surprising and unusual way to raise her son. When some people hear about what Kristy did, they're shocked. Karen went to talk to Kristy and Tim about how Tim was raised. (14 minutes)

Act Two

Financial Mousetrap

Looked at one way, the current flailing economy is a victim of invention—Wall Street invention. Investors and banks and brokers created all sorts of stuff the world would've been better off without. In the aftermath, Democrats have blamed Republicans for the mess, and, naturally, Republicans have blamed Democrats. Ira talks to Charles Duhigg, whose been covering the subprime mortgage crisis for The New York Times, to find out who we should really be mad at. (10 minutes)

Act Three

Everything Must Go

Nellie Thomas sold ammunition illegally on the South side of Chicago. He made a good living—in cash. And that was his problem. The money was driving him crazy. He was ashamed to tell his family how he earned it, he was afraid he'd be robbed, and he didn't know how to get rid of it. So he kept it in big black garbage bags which he hid around his house and yard. Then one day, he came up with the perfect way to get rid of the money. Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh tells Nellie's story. Sudhir is a sociology professor at Columbia University and author of Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. (15 minutes)

Act Four

The Not-for-profit Motive

To deal with the financial crisis, our own government has also had to reinvent itself, with questionable consequences. This American Life producer Alex Blumberg and NPR's financial reporter Adam Davidson talk to Brad Setser, an economist at the Council on Foreign Relations who used to work at the U.S. Treasury. Together they explain what happens when the government reinvents itself as a bank—and not necessarily a successful bank. Alex and Adam are part of an NPR's Planet Money project. (6 minutes)