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663: How I Read It

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life.

Jesper Sundnes

You can call me Jesper.

Ira Glass

Jasper?

Jesper Sundnes

Jesper, with an E.

Ira Glass

Jesper.

Jesper Sundnes

Yeah.

Ira Glass

OK, and is Peder here?

Peder Jorgensen

Yeah, hi, Ira.

Ira Glass

Jasper and Peder. Are those your actual names?

Peder Jorgensen

Yeah. It's not a joke.

Ira Glass

Peder Jorgensen and Jesper Sundnes, this is the first time they've ever agreed to do an interview about this thing that they created or even identify themselves as the creator of that thing. This thing they made, they said it all began back in 2015. They were basically hanging out, killing time together, strolling through Facebook, bored. The location for this?

Jesper Sundnes

At work, supposed to be working.

Ira Glass

Because you had a lot of free time at that job?

Peder Jorgensen

No, no, we were working all the time, working really hard. It's probably during a lunch break.

Ira Glass

I like that one of you said yes and one of you said no.

They were working in radio. They live in Oslo, Norway. Anyway, they noticed on their friends Facebook feeds, very common--

Jesper Sundnes

People were posting lots of, like, inspirational images with inspirational words. And it kind of looked like there was a system behind the whole thing. It kind of felt like a machine should be able to do this. Yeah, a robot could probably make that.

Ira Glass

Could make an inspirational quote. After all, they're so formulaic-- every day might not be a good day, but there's good in every day. You fell down yesterday. Stand up today. The secret to getting ahead is getting started.

So Jesper and Peder set out to program a computer to create these to generate inspirational sentences and paste them onto stock photos of beaches, and starry nights, and people staring into the distance. And what's interesting is just how quickly the program kind of took on a mind of its own.

At first, they said the computer really did generate very typical, kind of predictable inspirational quotes. They said that wasn't terribly difficult. But as they gave it a bigger vocabulary and taught it to string together a wider variety of sentences, the kinds of sayings that it started to crank out started to evolve.

As they got more random, they got funnier and darker and-- I don't want to oversell this, but it's true-- actually, sometimes kind of profound. The bot started to take on a personality, the personality that it actually has now.

Jesper Sundnes

Yeah, I can remember very well the moment we were looking at the quotes, and it wasn't what we had imagined. It felt like something that we hadn't created really.

Ira Glass

I've saved some of these on my laptop. Here's one. OK, so each one is a quote on top of some peaceful, contemplative image. This one, first one, the picture is a nighttime sky. And-- I don't know-- maybe that's the Aurora Borealis. And the words say, love is an animal eating your brain.

This one here is a close-up of a coin. It says, never think of it as a job. Think of it as health insurance, which, you know, people definitely feel, some people about their jobs. I love this one.

OK, so this is a picture of Big Ben. It says, when you're eating dinner, don't forget that everything and everyone will someday be gone forever. A bunch of them have this kind of cold-water-in-the-face, wake-up-to-reality, slap-you-across-the-cheeks quality to them.

There's one that says-- there's a photo of a man. This is a manager, starry sky, it says, your time on Earth is random. A woman offers a lit sparkler. It says simply, you're average. A man stands on a shore, it says, don't explore your true self. It's not worth it. But most of them are not like that.

Here's a picture of a spiral galaxy. It says, all you need in order to travel to Mars is a boy and a flag, which, in a certain way, is actually kind of true. These are all made by a machine. They're made by a bot.

And a certain number of them do seem like gibberish. An education can be like an angry child. What does that mean? Or be fine, systematized, spouse finity-- it's like, OK.

But a surprising number of these, they not only makes sense, they seem to have something on their mind. They have something to say. Celebrity is basically just another term for pretentious burglar.

Life on Earth is just one long commercial for sperm. Urinating on an electric fence could be the mistake of a lifetime, which that's true. Normies unite. Cooperate and fight your common adversary-- mass hysteria.

I reached out to Jesper and Peder, because I was wondering, how does this really work? How do you get a machine that does not understand what words mean, does not understand what it's saying at all, how do you get it to turn out sayings that mean something to us?

And neither of these guys had been a professional programmer or studied it in school. Peder had taught himself to code years before. And he made this with just kind of a grab bag of standard programming tools. He explained the recipe for an inspirational quote like this.

Peder Jorgensen

So right now, we're in the studio in Oslo. And the sun is shining outside, but the drapes are pulled down. So if I say something like, you have to pull the drapes up to see the sun, it kind of makes sense in a practical way.

However, as soon as you put something like that on a beautiful backdrop, it starts speaking to you on a different level. You have to pull up the drapes to see the sun. It sounds like the cure for depression when it's put in the right picture. But it's just a very practical, normal thing to say really.

Ira Glass

Another thing they noticed in lots of inspirational sayings, they were juxtapositions-- opposites glued into the same sentence.

Jesper Sundnes

Things put up against each other.

Peder Jorgensen

Yeah, so there are no limits to what you can accomplish, except the limits you place on your own thinking. So that's just--

Jesper Sundnes

Limits is the keyword.

Peder Jorgensen

Yeah, and then you just take the words and then turn them around after a comma. So it's, like, the two-part sentences. They can be pretty obvious, but still, it feels inspirational when you put it on a nice picture.

Ira Glass

To make the bot able to do this, the way to do it, really, they said, is just imitation. The algorithm imitates the sentence structure and the kinds of words that appear in real inspirational quotes on the internet. They fed it thousands of inspirational quotes. At first, of course, it was a little buggy.

Peder Jorgensen

The grammar, the syntax was a total mess.

Ira Glass

Here's an early failed example.

Jesper Sundnes

I can read one here. It's don't be jealous of spilled wife. Just jump.

Ira Glass

Don't be jealous of spilled what?

Jesper Sundnes

Wife.

Ira Glass

Like a--

Peder Jorgensen

Don't be jealous of a spilled wife. Just jump. So it's kind of got this structure in a way, but the words don't make any sense. It just becomes random, like gibberish.

Ira Glass

How does it get to one like, if one expects a friendship, one has to prepare for a volcano?

Jesper Sundnes

Well, what it knows for sure is that expects and prepare are words that go well together.

Ira Glass

And does it know friendship and volcano will go together, or that's just totally random?

Jesper Sundnes

Does that go together for you?

Ira Glass

It does kind of go together, yeah.

Jesper Sundnes

How?

Ira Glass

It's like saying, when you have a friend, you have to prepare for the bad times when things get explosive.

Jesper Sundnes

Yeah, well, that's you adding that.

[LAUGHTER]

That's not in the algorithm.

Ira Glass

They say the same thing about the inspirational quotes that actually could be taken as inspirational by somebody, like, for instance, don't let nightmares get in the way of infinity.

Peder Jorgensen

You kind of realize, you're making them inspirational yourself. Our heads, our minds, you try so hard to give them meaning, so they start making sense in a way. What was the one you said? Nightmares are--

Ira Glass

Don't let nightmares get in the way of infinity. Yeah, to me, that's saying, don't let the things that you're scared of get in the way of the big life you're trying to create for yourself.

Peder Jorgensen

Yeah, it's true. When you said that, it was harder for me to make the same. I heard something else in the quote.

Jesper Sundnes

Yeah.

Ira Glass

So you guys really aren't just writing those?

Peder Jorgensen

No, no.

Jesper Sundnes

Oh, no, we couldn't do that. There's too many.

Peder Jorgensen

Everything is generated. We do get, like, sometimes people are-- oh, there's no way this is a bot people would say in comments and stuff like that. But we don't go in and edit any of them. We've never done that.

Ira Glass

In fact, they logged onto the website during our interview, and 60 people were on the site at the same time right then, clicking away and generating quotes, way too many for them to edit. It's over a half million people a month. And they say that they are surprised sometimes when the bot comes up with something funny or kind of vaguely profound.

Jesper Sundnes

Occasionally, it's blowing my mind really. I don't know how it came up with that.

Ira Glass

It's weird that you can get to something profound out of a machine that's actually just generating random words in sentence structures that you've given it.

Jesper Sundnes

Absolutely. Yeah, it's totally weird.

Ira Glass

It makes humans seem pathetic.

[LAUGHTER]

Peder Jorgensen

That sounds like something the bot would say. You've become too inspired by the bot.

Ira Glass

Do you know what I mean? It's like, oh, really, we are so primitive that a machine can randomly throw together words in a sentence structure. And then, I have to say, looking at them, some of them are like, yeah, that's actually pretty true.

Jesper Sundnes

Well, it doesn't necessarily mean that we're pathetic. It also is a lot of credit to you as a reader just how much you add to something when you see it, how much of the things that you see is actually your contribution.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio show, we have stories of this happening to people. They are presented with documents, some words on a paper. And how they read it, what they read into it really comes from them, and they have strong reactions. As the InspiroBot might say, it's not what the words say. It's what they say to you. I've learned so much. Anyway, stay with us.

Act One: The Veritas Is Out There

Ira Glass

Act 1, the veritas is out there.

So I just found this out that since the 1990s, if you got into college, and you decided to attend the college, at lots of schools, you can work at your own admissions file. See what the admissions people said about you when you were applying. In fancy schools that are hard to get into, you can try to figure out why they decided to admit you in the first place, which lots of kids do.

But the downside is, you might find something you didn't want to see, and then you have to deal with that. Diane Wu does the story of one Harvard student that happened to.

Diane Wu

At Harvard, going to see your admissions file has suddenly got caught up into something much bigger. As you might have heard, Harvard's being sued for allegedly discriminating against Asians. Asian applicants with high GPAs and test scores have a lower acceptance rate than other students with the same numbers.

Harvard does consider a student's race when they apply as one of many factors. The group that's suing them wants them to stop doing that altogether. It's a group called Students For Fair Admissions. They're trying to get rid of affirmative action all across the country. And this case is likely to be appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Alex Zhang is a junior, co-president of the Chinese Students Association. I met him the first week of the trial. He's solidly team Harvard in the lawsuit, because Harvard is on the side of keeping affirmative action.

For him, it was a moral decision. Of course, diversity is good, and getting rid of affirmative action is bad. So he wrote a statement for an amicus brief, and got his student group to sign on to another one.

Friends of his were looking at their admissions files. So Alex decided to go as well, partly because he was curious how his file stacked up against the claims made in the lawsuit. But also, he just wanted to see how he got in. He'd always wanted to find out.

Alex Zhang

I'm really curious about the interview component, because I just feel like that's what did it.

Diane Wu

Did you have a really good interview?

Alex Zhang

Yeah, a really good interview with a really old and experienced alumni.

Diane Wu

The way this usually works-- you meet with an alumni volunteer for an hour or so in a coffee shop or wherever in your hometown. Alex is from Portland, Oregon. He had an exceptional interview. It lasted two hours. Then even more unusual, his interviewer set up a second meeting.

Alex Zhang

He did this whole thing, where he ran through all my extracurriculars, kind of tallied up hours and stuff, just was very rigorous, even asked for some contacts for references, which, apparently, he wasn't supposed to do.

Diane Wu

He was really--

Alex Zhang

He did that because he wanted to have everything on the table for him to advocate for me.

Diane Wu

Alex wanted to know, did this guy get me in? The alumni interview is important at Harvard, because usually, it's the only face-to-face contact the school has with an applicant. And admissions officers use it, plus other information, to assign applicants this thing called a personal rating.

The personal rating is actually the crux of the lawsuit. It's basically a rating of your personality. The words Harvard uses to describe what they're looking for are things like leadership, courage, sense of humor, effervescence. It's like they want to fill the school with future senators, perky Griffindors, and Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde types.

Students for Fair Admissions says the personal rating is where the discrimination happens, where implicit bias leaks in. Because at Harvard, Asian applicants get a lower personal rating than white applicants. Harvard does not dispute those numbers, but says they don't consider an applicant's race when assigning the personal rating.

A couple days after I met him, Alex called me from a study lounge. He'd just gone to see his file, sat with 15 other kids around a table at the registrar's office and paged through it. He wasn't allowed to take the file with him, but could take pictures on his phone. He scrolled through the photos and read parts of it to me.

Alex Zhang

Let me take a quick look. The first sheet is the Harvard scores, so they have this weird coding jargon that I don't really understand yet. I'll probably look it up later.

Diane Wu

We got quickly to the part he was curious about-- the report from his alumni interviewer, which was the most remarkable part of his file. For starters, it was long.

Alex Zhang

My interviewer wrote, like, five pages of notes.

Diane Wu

Wow.

Alex Zhang

Which I think is kind of unusual.

Diane Wu

It is. Everyone else I checked with had only two pages. Reading through, Alex saw that his interviewer, Jim McCandlish was really going to bat for him. He told Alex that he was one of the best candidates he'd met in more than 20 years of interviewing. Though Alex learned, a lot of Jim's thoroughness-- the extra interview, the references he called-- that was Jim checking into whether or not Alex was for real.

Alex Zhang

It seems like he was skeptical of a lot of stuff I did, at least was concerned about this resume-builder mentality and wanted to verify whether I did that authentic work.

Diane Wu

Like when Alex said he worked on homelessness at the youth commission, Jim wondered, is he just saying that because he googled my law firm and read that I represent disadvantaged people? Quote, "was this a perfect for MIT mechanical engineer playing me?" Perfect for MIT, I guess, is code for too boring for Harvard.

Jim called up Alex's supervisor at the youth commission and found out, no, Alex genuinely cared about homelessness and works there even more than he'd let on. Alex read Jim's interview notes to me matter-of-factly, then paused to note this one section.

Alex Zhang

Oh, here's an interesting portion actually.

Diane Wu

Jim was writing about a conversation he'd had with that supervisor. Apparently, he had asked not just about Alex, but about Alex's mom, too. He writes--

Alex Zhang

She is far from the stereotypical, quote, "tiger mother." His mom is supportive, but not directive. So I guess there's just those two, three sentences on my mom.

Diane Wu

How do you feel about that? How would you feel about that characterization of your mom?

Alex Zhang

I mean, it's true. Yeah, she's supported, but not directive. She pushes me. She pushes me hard, but has always sort of let me push in the direction I wanted.

Diane Wu

Is it weird to you at all that the interviewer is pointing to stereotypes that you aren't? Is he a perfect-for-MIT engineer playing me, or does he have a tiger mom?

Alex Zhang

Oh, yeah. That's a good point.

Diane Wu

As soon as I asked the question, I felt like I overstepped, like I was planting the idea in Alex's head that something racial was going on. But when I heard tiger mother, I thought, there is the implicit bias they're talking about in the lawsuit in a way more explicit form than I was expecting.

Alex did have a strange feeling about it, even if he wasn't sure exactly why.

Alex Zhang

Yeah, that is really weird. I guess it kind of goes into a narrative like the Asian applicant has to disprove certain things to be considered viable for something ivy league.

Diane Wu

In other words, if you want to get into Harvard, don't be too Asian.

Alex Zhang

Hmm. That makes sense. I don't know what his motivations are, my interviewer's motivations. Maybe the interviewer was like, oh, I should distinguish him from other Asians, or maybe he just does it subconsciously.

Diane Wu

Yeah.

Alex Zhang

Yeah.

Diane Wu

There's another thing like this in Jim's notes, another spot where he points to an Asian stereotype and says it doesn't fit Alex. It has to do with the fact that Alex is quiet, which is a stereotype about Asian students. One, actually, that Harvard was called out for using in a 1990 federal investigation.

But in Alex's case, Jim casts it as a plus. He writes, "Alex is reserved, quietly confident, uses language frugally but effectively. There is no teenage patois." Perfect-for-MIT engineer, by the way, also plays into a stereotype of Asians only being interested in science and math. This one didn't bother Alex, though, since he literally wanted to be an engineer when he was applying.

Alex Zhang

The tiger mother part is definitely interesting. No other mom is called a tiger mom. That's what you call a Chinese mom. Only Chinese moms are called tiger moms. It definitely seems like he's trying to disprove what a reviewer might assume about the reasoning for why I do things.

Diane Wu

Yeah. How do you feel about that?

Alex Zhang

I don't know. So he actually has a Chinese wife.

Diane Wu

Is he Chinese? He's not Chinese.

Alex Zhang

No, he's an old white guy, very American, grew up very American, went to Harvard during the time when it was, like, four white people played baseball on the baseball team. Everything's with good intentions. But I think he might just be a little more old-fashioned.

Diane Wu

Alex actually knows Jim pretty well. They kept in touch after his interview. Their families became friends. Alex's mom helped teach Jim's wife how to drive. He gets dinner with Jim whenever he's back home.

Alex left our conversation feeling pretty fine about what he'd read. But then he stepped back into a campus caught in the force field of the lawsuit, where anything to do with race, and bias, and admissions felt hypercharged.

One of the biggest ways the lawsuit has shaken up Harvard is that certain statistics are now public, like the school said that without affirmative action, one out of two black kids wouldn't get it. Latino kids-- they'd lose one out of three. Kids whose parents went to Harvard, who are, by the way, mostly white have a seven times better chance of getting in than regular kids.

It's making students ask questions they'd rather not about how they got in. It's uncomfortable. I talked to two black students who chose not to see their files this fall. Both were worried it would say, let's take her because she's black. They didn't think it would, but still. One of them had the request form open on her computer for more than a week before she decided, nah, maybe senior year.

For Asian students, the question is the opposite. It's not am I here because of my race, but am I here in spite of it? It's cranked people's race goggles up to level 10. One of Alex's friends wrote on Facebook about a comment in her file. "She's a bright student, but what distinguishes her from other bright students?"

To her, this was racially coded. When she read it she saw, she seemed smart, but is there anything that makes her different from other Asian students? Well, if that was racially coded, Alex thought, you should see mine. He texted some close friends from his freshman year Chinese class.

Alex Zhang

I sent a couple screen grabs from my admissions file to them. I was like, hey, I can't get this off my mind. I didn't react that strongly to it until after I saw this stuff online. And now, I'm starting to feel pretty troubled by it.

Diane Wu

What was the part that was troubling to you?

Alex Zhang

My main trouble was, oh, does he feel like he needs to prove that I'm not like other Asians to the admissions office? And is that what it takes to get in nowadays? Most other college interviewers, I just talked for, like, an hour, an hour and a half. But Jim was doing a background check, you know? Why did he feel the need to do so rigorous of a background check?

Diane Wu

Alex's friends saw his screen grab saying tiger mom and perfect-for-MIT engineer and texted him back, oh, my god and that's kind of horrible. Tiger mom was actually a lot more explicit than any of the examples of bias that came up at the trial. It was really a fight over statistics and economic models, but a few stereotypes did come up. They were subtle. Things like Harvard referring to Asian applicants as one-dimensional or book smart.

Alex wanted to see what Jim was actually thinking when he wrote tiger mother. See if it really was a racial thing, like his friends were saying. So he gave him a call. Alex taped the call and with Jim's permission, sent it to me.

First, they catch up a little bit. Alex tells Jim about how he went to go see his file. He mentions an op-ed he co-wrote for the student newspaper.

Alex Zhang

Did you read the op-ed I wrote, by any chance? I don't think I sent it to you.

Jim Mccandlish

Yes, you did send it. I read it, and I totally regret that I did not respond. It was very well done.

Diane Wu

It was very well done, Jim says.

Alex Zhang

Oh, really? You thought so?

Jim Mccandlish

Yes.

Alex Zhang

I'm glad you thought so.

Diane Wu

They talk about the lawsuit. And before Alex can even bring up tiger moms, Jim volunteers his own ideas about implicit bias in admissions. He's been thinking about the effect of the interviewer's biases because--

Jim Mccandlish

Most likely, at least certainly from a place like Oregon, the interviewer is Caucasian. And we know there are stereotypes. I'm just curious how that plays out. If you have an expectation that an Asian interviewee is going to have a drab personality or meek and mild, you may play into your stereotype and not develop the rapport that would defeat the stereotype or at least resist it. You're in a really gray area of human nature.

Diane Wu

Jim, of course, went above and beyond to spend the time with Alex to get that rapport, to make sure he really understood Alex as an individual, not to write him off immediately.

Alex Zhang

So I'm actually kind of curious about some stuff you wrote. Yeah, so you wrote five pages of notes. There's probably 2,000 words at least.

Jim Mccandlish

[INAUDIBLE]

Alex Zhang

Yeah, and most of that was in the personal quality section, which I was the most curious about reading.

Jim Mccandlish

OK. So here I am right on the edge. What do they say?

Diane Wu

It takes another eight minutes for Alex to get the nerve to bring it up-- tiger mom.

Alex Zhang

You mentioned that you asked her about my parents.

Jim Mccandlish

Yeah, I was trying to figure out whether or not you were basically driven by the parents in any way.

Alex Zhang

You use the term tiger mother, saying my mom's not like that. That's very much affiliated with Asian parenting. So when I read that, it just was a little unexpected.

Jim Mccandlish

Well, recall, I live with one.

Diane Wu

I live with one, Jim's saying. He's talking about his wife, who is Chinese. They have a young daughter.

Jim Mccandlish

I live with a tiger mom and fight it all the time.

Alex Zhang

You think that's a particularly Chinese thing?

Jim Mccandlish

I think the Chinese on the west side have a very definite, strong influence that way.

Diane Wu

West side-- Jim's talking about the wealthier side of Portland where he and Alex lived.

Jim Mccandlish

No question in my mind.

Alex Zhang

Huh, gotcha. Because for me, it's kind of like, if you had a Chinese applicant, would you be suspicious that perhaps their parent or their mom was like that?

Jim Mccandlish

If I saw somebody, Alex, that had their fingers in a lot of pies, and I had no way to ascertain the depth of what they were doing-- what I'm looking for and looked for was the person who was thriving on their own, that is self-motivated. And it isn't just Chinese. I use that term because I'm an Amy Tan Fan.

Diane Wu

Amy Tan wrote The Joy Luck Club. Apparently, after this conversation, Jim's wife told him that she did not also write Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. That was Amy Chua. His wife offered to buy him the book.

Jim Mccandlish

But anybody I interview, the longer I did it, the more suspicious I was.

Diane Wu

After doing these interviews for 20 years, Jim was not naive to kids puffing up their extracurriculars or getting coached on how to act in the interview. He's saying he was tough on everyone.

I talked to Jim later. He didn't want to be recorded, but he was open about what he wrote. He told me, yeah, part of what he was doing was overtly pointing out to the admissions officers that Alex was different from other Chinese-American applicants. That this young man did not fit whatever stereotypes that he or the admissions officers might have. And his no-holds-barred strategy to get Alex in, it seemed to work.

The first reviewer, who went through Alex's file before his interview, wrote, "hope the alumni interview can add." The next reviewer saw Jim's report, then wrote, "interview in and is pretty remarkable for its in-depth review, comes out in the right place and is reassuring."

Besides his write-up, Jim gave Alex a personal rating of 1, the highest possible score. He gave Alex ones across all categories. The official admissions officers were not as effusive. They gave him a 2 for his personal rating, twos and threes for the rest. Wrote that his personal qualities seem to be still evolving.

Alex Zhang

After I read mine, my impression was that if you hadn't written such an in-depth, positive review that I probably wouldn't have gotten it, which is kind of an interesting thought.

Jim Mccandlish

That's surprises me. You were at the top of everything. That surprises me. I thought I was a gravy.

Alex Zhang

Yeah, I really appreciate how much you did.

Jim Mccandlish

Well, I appreciate you. So how was New York?

Diane Wu

They go on to talk about Alex's summer job in Manhattan, the classes he's taking this fall. Jim starts in on a story about his kid before telling Alex, oh, hey, turn that recorder off.

I met up with Alex again after that phone call. He wasn't totally satisfied by it, thought Jim didn't get the gravity of tiger mother, hadn't thought it all the way through. But he had no hard feelings.

Though when Alex thought more about tiger mother, he realized, it was not just the use of the term that unsettled him, but also, the assumption that it was a bad thing in the first place. Something that Harvard would want to make sure none of its students had.

Alex Zhang

This idea that a tiger mom would even be-- I know it is a thing in our culture for a lot of parents, but also is weird that there's a fixation on that by American society. Also, the question is, why does it matter if your parents pushed you in that way? Is that not part of your upbringing and who you are now?

I don't know. There seems to be these very negative connotations about the way Asians are raised or the way that they behave growing up. And it just seems like there's this very deeply ingrained prejudice and misunderstanding.

Diane Wu

Alex, personally, was grateful for when his mom pushed him when he was younger.

Alex Zhang

I remember in high school, my mom was gave me a lot of pressure. Make sure you connect with the teachers and talk to them during break time, so they can get to know you, because it's really important. They're going to have to write you recommendations. And I didn't want to do it, but I guess I had to.

Diane Wu

Your mom was on the ball.

Alex Zhang

Yeah, she's really on top of stuff, which is really good. Because she did it without killing me, overworking me. She's a really good mom.

Diane Wu

In race-conscious admissions, it's not just the university that's conscious of race. It's also the applicants themselves. Almost all the students of color I asked had considered whether and how to portray their race in their package. Just one white student had.

Alex is from a mostly white neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. Growing up, his classmates often couldn't see past his race. They teased him for having a flat face, about being a nerd. One girl exclusively called him Asian instead of Alex.

In middle school, he started playing basketball, partly to downplay his Chinese-ness, fit in with the white kids. Out on the court, though, someone would still always call him Yao Ming. But he didn't write about any of that in his personal essay.

Instead, it's about how he transforms from a lonely elementary school kid playing video games by himself to big man on campus at his high school.

Diane Wu

You didn't talk about race in your essay. That's not the topic. It doesn't mention race at all. Was that part of the subtext of what you were writing, looking back on it?

Alex Zhang

Probably, yeah. In high school, I had a lot of internalized hatred about being Asian. I had this whole perception that I needed to differentiate myself. So I think one of my views is that, oh, we aren't seen. This also goes to myself being really cautious of the system or potential biases.

So I was like, oh, I probably need to show that I have been more social, or I have been a leader, have done these cool things.

Diane Wu

It struck me that it might be that while you were preparing your application, you were making some similar-ish calculation to maybe what Jim was making.

Alex Zhang

Yeah.

Diane Wu

Not I want to differentiate myself from all other applicants, but I extra want to differentiate myself from other Asian applicants.

Alex Zhang

Probably. And again, looking back, I don't like it in the same way that I don't like if Jim would have had to talk me up just because I'm Asian. I don't like that I [INAUDIBLE] that way if it was because of that.

Diane Wu

I asked Alex if what he saw in his file shifted his position at all in the lawsuit. No, he said. To him, tiger mom was weird for sure, but it wasn't discrimination. It didn't sway the argument one way or another. For Alex, what he saw in his file, what his friends have been seeing, it's more personal.

Alex Zhang

A lot of the comments my friends have been making and stuff, they're not things that make as much of an argument for either side as much as, like, oh, this is what being Asian is like.

Diane Wu

In other words, even when you make it into one of the fanciest colleges in the world, when you finally feel like people see you for who you are, your whole complicated self, just one word or phrase can snap you out of it. Remind you, right, right, this is how they see me. This is how it really works.

Ira Glass

Diane Wu is one of the producers of our show. Coming up-- quoting Snoop Dogg fails to impress state regulators in New York. What a shocker. That's in a minute. From Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's show-- how I read it, stories where people look at words on a page or words on a screen and see something of the rest of us might not always see. We've arrived at Act Two of our show.

Act Two: Know That You Are Unprecedentedly Negative

Ira Glass

Act Two-- I'm just going to see if the InspiroBot can come up with a good title for this act. Hold on.

Pushing the button, and the thing is flashing. And there's a picture of a tree and a night sky. It says, know that you are unprecedentedly negative, which, I have to say, that's actually a shockingly decent title for the act that we're about to do. We were going to call it side effects may include bankruptcy or whatever the thing came up with. And then the bot actually did a really good job.

Act 2, Know That You Are Unprecedentedly Negative. One of our producers, David Kestenbaum, recently came across this kind of amazing collection of documents on a government website. These documents-- letters and emails, like thousands of them-- they're part of the usual machinery of bureaucratic decision-making. But David saw something more in them.

David Kestenbaum

I found these letters about four clicks deep on a website for the Department of Financial Services for the state of New York. I was digging around, looking for some numbers on a different story, and there they were-- page after page of detailed, handwritten letters and emails going on, at length and with great passion and precision, about their health insurance plans.

They'd been buying them through the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. And every year, their plans were getting more expensive and not just by a little. I printed these letters out. They filled two binders, and I read them all.

There's something about the intimacy of these letters that makes them hard to stop reading. You can feel people sitting down to write them in their homes, coming face to face with the cost of their insurance, and just searching for the right words. Some are desperate. Some are exhausted. Some people are funny.

It's this record of our fellow citizens shouting into the abyss. And they got to me in this way that news stories about this never have. These are people reacting to a situation that would drive anyone crazy.

The first year, 2015, the cost of their plans increased 6% on average. Next year, they went up again by 7%. Then the next year, up again by 17%. Then the next year, another 15%.

That's a 50% increase over just four years. So if you were paying $12,000 a year at the start for your family, the price might have gone up to $18,000. And the reason these people were writing this year is that it looked like prices were going to go up again.

Insurance companies wanted to raise prices another 24%. So for a family that started at $12,000, that would bring you to $22,000 a year for insurance. People were not pleased.

The approaches varied. There were the, I'm a serious person, this is a serious letter about a serious matter ones. Dear sir, or sometimes, dear sir or madam, or to whom it may concern, they begin. And then something like this one-- a premium rate hike is unconscionable. I'm appalled that such a significant premium increase is being sought after my first year of coverage. There is clearly no consumer protection for the public. I object strenuously to this requested rate increase for mediocre coverage. So formal.

Another letter ended, I will pray for an acceptable solution of this horrible situation and that good sense, goodwill, and fairness prevail. But honestly, those are the minority. This one's more typical. Are you freaking kidding me about letting them raise the rate $88.29 per month? That was in all caps.

And then there's this one. If this happens, I will drop this plan and company faster than Snoop Dogg drops it like it's hot. That was basically the whole email. Another started, ha, ha, ha, this is a joke, which was a common thought. Is this a joke? I don't think any additional comments are needed. That person then went on to give quite a number of comments.

The reason all these people took the time to write to their state government about this is that in New York, like in a lot of states, actually, when a health insurance company wants to charge people more money, it can't just do it. For policies that are sold directly to individuals, as these were on the Affordable Care Act exchanges, the insurance company has to get approval from government regulators to raise its prices.

And in New York, health insurance companies have to be really clear they are proposing raising their rates. They have to send out a letter to everyone who has their insurance saying they want to raise their prices, exactly how much. And toward the end of the letter, they have to stick in this paragraph. It feels kind of perfunctory.

It mentions there is a 30-day public comment period. It gives an address and a website. So if people have any comments or questions, they can write to the state of New York, which they do. This year, New York got 754 letters in 30 days.

Most states, as far as I can tell, do not go out of their way to make these letters public, but New York does. Someone there carefully scans them all, organizes them, and puts them online. I went through the letters from years past. The government has blacked out people's names to protect their privacy. But sometimes, you get this little window into someone's life.

One person is a Pilates teacher in Long Island. Another said her husband had died. Another was contemplating a knee replacement and was in pain. One wrote that the family had just gotten back from vacation. You can kind of imagine the person finding the notice of rate increase in the mail, then sitting down in total anger to write, maybe not even taking their coat off.

And you can feel people struggling with the fact that a bunch of keyboard keys do not seem adequate to express their emotions. They'll throw an extra exclamation point in, or two, or 46. Yes, 46. I imagine the person sticking their finger on the key and just leaving it there for a while, thinking, there, that's about right.

And reading these letters, which took a day, I realized, it is not just names that are getting blacked out, other things too. Where the blank do you people get off raising health insurance almost $200 a month? You have to be blank kidding me, you blank. But you know that already.

Which made me wonder about this other letter that was entirely blacked out. People were so angry. It was like reading Yelp reviews for a bad restaurant, but where the meal cost $20,000 and in some cases, you don't even get to eat it, which of course, is the nature of insurance, but still.

I don't like writing these letters, as I feel like a ranting old man, one guy wrote. But between watching premiums rise out of control and seeing the insurance I have not cover actual costs, I am that ranting fool. His insurance company wanted to raise rates by 40%.

One question a lot of people had, why were prices going up so much? I don't get a raise, one person wrote. Why should they?

Nobody got back to these people with an explanation. So if any of you letter writers are listening, here's what happened. When the Obamacare exchanges launched in 2013, the premiums for that first year were a lot lower. And after a rough start, things seem to be working. People who couldn't afford health care suddenly could. And in some places, there were lots of options to choose from.

Man In Ad

Let's say a grizzly bear escaped from the zoo. Now let's say he gave you a hug. Well, you might be needing some health care right about then.

David Kestenbaum

This is an ad for a health insurance company called Oscar that launched around this time. Its animated, children's book style, which, can I just say, I admire the ingenuity of this advertising strategy. It's better than, you should have insurance in case you get cancer or get in a car accident, which honestly, is what I think about. I never thought about getting hugged by a well-meaning bear, who then later visits me with a get well balloon that says I'm sorry. It's a much better sell.

Man In Ad

Introducing Oscar, individual health insurance that's simple, intuitive, and maybe even fun. So you can focus on the important things, like staying healthy. We're Oscar, a new kind of health insurance company.

David Kestenbaum

The next year, Oscar, like most insurance companies on the exchanges, raised their rates. I dug into some of the older letters to see what the reaction was back then. Stop counting my money. Stop trying to figure out how much more I should owe your company. And stop writing stupid cutesy blurbs about bears hugging you and crushing your ribs. Adults are reading this, not 12 year olds. Do not raise my premium. Not to pick on Oscar, but I think, as a new insurance company, people hope things might be different.

In the years since 2013, insurance companies in New York and around the country raised their prices on the Obamacare exchanges.

Donald Trump

You know, I said from the beginning, let Obamacare implode.

David Kestenbaum

That, of course, is President Trump with his diagnosis of what was going on, or maybe it was a prescription for what he wanted to happen.

Donald Trump

Let Obamacare implode.

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

David Kestenbaum

But according to economists who study these things and, frankly, the insurance companies themselves, the exchanges were not imploding. What was going on was that the insurance companies had set premiums too low at the beginning, some combination of wanting to attract customers and genuinely not knowing how sick or healthy the people who signed up were going to be.

So the prices had been going up to correct for that. But contrary to Trump's claim, the exchanges seemed unlikely to implode, unless of course, someone did something to make that happen.

Donald Trump

The individual mandate is being repealed.

David Kestenbaum

Here is that someone, which of course, is the same someone as before-- President Trump. This was last year just after the Republicans passed the tax cut bill. Tucked into that bill was this other thing that did not get a lot of attention.

They had done away with a mandate to buy health insurance. This was a key part of Obamacare, the thing that was supposed to encourage people to sign up, even if they were healthy. That was gone as part of the tax bill.

Donald Trump

We didn't want to bring it up. I told people specifically, be quiet with the fake news media. Because I don't want them talking too much about it, because I didn't know how people would-- but now that it's approved, I can say, the individual mandate on health care where you had to pay not to have insurance-- think of that one. You pay not to have insurance. The individual mandate has been repealed.

David Kestenbaum

When this happened, the health insurance companies went, uh-oh. They ran the numbers and predicted that a bunch of healthy people would drop it like it's hot, go without insurance, meaning the remaining pool of people would be sicker. And so premiums would have to rise again. That is what was driving a lot of the requested price increase this year and all those letters begging the state of New York to somehow stop it.

This one letter stood out to me, in part, because the person wasn't demanding anything, just explaining. It was from a woman whose husband had died. So she was getting a little money from Social Security, but still having to work.

Quote, "I do not live above my means. I can't. The expenses of living leave me little to spend on luxury items, such as eating out, going to a movie, or taking a vacation. It seems this year, everything has gone up. Car insurance-- I drive a 14-year-old car that is starting to need more costly repairs, groceries, cable, electric, rent. When this insurance was first introduced, it was called affordable for whom?

I have worked since I was 16, minus a few years I was home raising children. I have faithfully paid my taxes every year. At this point in time, I am at a loss on what to do. I am so discouraged. There's not much more I can give up just to afford to live. Can you suggest any options? Thanks for your time." I wondered if anyone read these letters and if they made a difference.

David Kestenbaum

You get a lot of mail.

Maria Vullo

I get a lot of mail?

David Kestenbaum

Of public comments.

Maria Vullo

Oh, I get a lot of mail that I never even see. There's lots of mail that's addressed to me.

David Kestenbaum

This is Maria Vullo, the superintendent of the Department of Financial Services for the state of New York. And yes, when I requested the interview, I'd said I wanted to talk about the letters. But I get that reading all these letters and the others she receives-- probably not the best use of her time.

David Kestenbaum

Do you want to see what these look like printed out? Here. These are all of them. That's one book.

Maria Vullo

OK, sure. We receive comments from the public on a whole number of issues, and we believe in the receipt of public comments. And my staff reviews them all.

David Kestenbaum

So I ask this without judgment. I'm literally just curious. Do you ever read these?

Maria Vullo

Some I do.

David Kestenbaum

So I read through all these. I found them really interesting. Some of them are funny. Some of them are sad. A lot of them are just really angry. People took the time to write in by hand.

I received this letter and have been so upset since. This thing goes on for pages. There's-- what if it was your mother? Help, cannot pay what I have now.

Richard Loconte

I will say that this year,

David Kestenbaum

The person jumping in here is Richard Loconte. He was in the room for the interview. He heads the communications department.

Richard Loconte

That this year in particular, the tone definitely was angrier. That I knew. I would hear from Ron on my team on an almost daily basis saying, you have to see these letters. People are angry.

David Kestenbaum

Did you read any of these?

Richard Loconte

I have read through some of them. Ron would forward me some of the more-- some of the particular ones.

David Kestenbaum

So they got all this mail, and they had to decide what to do. Maria Vullo, the superintendent, said the decision about whether to let insurance companies charge more comes down to numbers not letters. While people were writing in with the exclamation points, the insurance companies were sending in all kinds of financial data. The state had actuaries who went over it all.

Maria Vullo

We look at what their claims were last year. We look at what their administrative expenses are, what percentage of profit. We look at risk adjustment. We look at a whole bunch of things.

David Kestenbaum

And here is what they decided. Some of the increase the insurance companies were asking for was unavoidable. But about half the increase they were asking for was because the mandate was being taken away.

And here, Vullo and the others made an interesting decision, which is basically, look, you may be right that the mandate going away is going to really mess things up. Maybe lots of healthy people will drop their coverage, but you don't know. We don't have any data. And if we let you raise rates as much as you are asking, for sure, people will drop coverage.

Maria Vullo

But I was not going to allow it to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because if you raise rates, people will drop insurance.

David Kestenbaum

Vullo also made this other point. What if you did let them raise rates now, and it turns out a year later, they didn't need to.

Maria Vullo

And what if I gave them the 20%, and then it doesn't turn out to be that? Then who's got the money? The consumer or the insurance company?

David Kestenbaum

The insurance company. Yeah, the insurance company. Fair point. And of course, next year, the insurance companies might come back and say, look, our projection was right. We do need to charge more. I hate to think of the letters if that happens.

And good news-- it might not happen. The cost of insurance on the exchanges seems like it might finally be leveling out. On average, across the country, rates are dropping by 1% next year. And the policies on the New York exchange right now, they're not really more expensive than other plans.

It's just that, unlike most of us, people who get their insurance through their employer or who are on Medicare, Medicaid, which are paid for by the government, these people are really seeing the full cost of their insurance. Some get tax credits to help, but lots don't. Those people have to write a check each month. For a lot of them, it's more than their mortgage or their rent. They are writing the letters we might all be writing if we actually got the bill.

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum is one of the producers of our show.

Act Three: Bladen Runner

Ira Glass

ACT 3, Bladen Runner.

OK, so up until now, in our show, we've had stories about people reading words. Now, we have a story about somebody looking into some numbers and noticing things that the rest of us haven't. Ben Calhoun tells the story.

Ben Calhoun

This election cycle, it wasn't strange for voters to have to wait for races to be called. Seems like there were so many squeakers. Among the squeakiest, still unresolved a month after the election, North Carolina's 9th congressional district. The district is this long stretch of eight counties along the state's southern border. It's so gerrymandered, it looks like a hockey stick.

In that district, a Republican former Baptist pastor named Mark Harris narrowly beat his Democratic opponent. The Democrat was this Boy Scouty, former Marine named Dan McCready. The margin of victory in that race-- 905 votes-- crazy close, but a win.

Until the North Carolina State Board of Elections had a meeting-- the board is four Democrats, four Republicans, one unaffiliated member-- and the board decided in a bipartisan unanimous vote not to approve the results in the ninth congressional district.

Michael Bitzer

That late Tuesday afternoon decision by the board not to certify the ninth really kind of sent shockwaves through the state.

Ben Calhoun

This is Michael Bitzer, PolySci professor at Catawba College in North Carolina.

Michael Bitzer

To say, this is something that looks pretty serious.

Ben Calhoun

Trouble in River City.

Michael Bitzer

Yes.

Ben Calhoun

Bitzer says he can't remember this ever happening before. It turns out, behind this bipartisan emergency break-throwing-- voter fraud allegations, specifically funny business with mail-in absentee ballots. So Bitzer did what PolySci professors do in a crisis like this. He dove into the data, downloaded it from the state. And in it, he saw one thing that didn't look like the others.

One county, Bladen county, only 19% of the people voting by mail were registered Republicans. But among the mail-in ballots, the Republican candidate got 61% of the vote. Mathematically, this just seems super unlikely. He'd have to win all the Republicans, and all the independents, and some Democrats.

Normally, professors quantify how unusual something is in statistics, standard deviation and that kind of thing. But I have trouble following that.

Ben Calhoun

If you were Luke Skywalker in this situation, how big was the disturbance in the force?

Michael Bitzer

Alderaan.

Ben Calhoun

For those slightly less nerdy than Professor Bitzer and myself, that's the planet that gets destroyed by the Death Star.

Ben Calhoun

The destruction of a planet?

Michael Bitzer

Yes. And just eyeballing it, this is not normal.

Ben Calhoun

So Bitzer writes a blog post explaining what he was reading in the data that most people had not. Then it spreads rapidly through the internet. And then around the same time, news starts to trickle in.

There's stories of voters who say there were people coming and telling them to give them their mail-in absentee ballots before they filled them in. And they handed them over, and then they don't know what happened to their ballot.

Reporters started digging around, and they zeroed in on this one particular character who might be behind all this.

Reporter

Liz, this is McCrae Dowless. Here's a picture of him on the left there. He's being sworn in as the Bladen county soil and water conservation district supervisor. Now it's Dowless who finds himself in potentially hot water.

Ben Calhoun

And when we around this office heard those stories, we were like, wait a minute-- Leslie McCrae Dowless? You mean, the vice chair of the Soil and Water Commission of Bladen county? We know that guy.

Leslie Mccrae Dowless

Would you like a cigarette, Zoe?

Zoe Chace

No, I'm OK. Thank you though.

Ben Calhoun

This is tape of my colleague, Zoe Chace, doing a story in North Carolina two years ago. She's talking to Leslie McCrae Dowless. Zoe was there because Dowless had filed complaints alleging Democratic voter fraud, absentee ballot fraud. She went to this hearing about those complaints, where Dowless' complaints actually got dismissed, found unsubstantiated.

But then-- this gets wild-- in the hearing, Dowless gets questioned. And he starts describing things that he and Republican campaign workers have been doing.

Attorney

So you keep saying GOTV. Does that mean--

Leslie Mccrae Dowless

Get out to vote.

Attorney

You did pay her--

Leslie Mccrae Dowless

Get out to vote.

OK, and what exactly was it that she got paid to do?

Ben Calhoun

Dowless ended up being accused of paying campaign workers to gather absentee ballots from people, fill them out, and fraudulently vote in their place.

Zoe Chace

That is illegal.

Ben Calhoun

One family signed an affidavit saying Dowless' workers had them request absentee ballots. Those ballots never showed up. And then when they went to vote on election day, they were told they already voted.

Dowless insisted he'd done nothing wrong. But this, this is exactly the kind of thing that, if it happened this year, would explain the statistical weirdness that Professor Bitzer found when he was reading the data from Bladen county.

In the last few weeks, there have been affidavits from voters in the county, describing what Dowless partially confessed to two years earlier-- campaign workers showing up, asking for their mail-in ballots, offering to fill them in for them. And it turns out, Leslie McCrae Dowless spent this last year in Bladen county, working for the Republican candidate, Mark Harris.

We all know the wah-wah-wah of the voter fraud election fraud conversation. Democrats say it's proven not to be happening. Republicans say it does happen. We need tougher laws. Researchers say, no, actually, it's not a problem, to which Republicans say, you're a bunch of liberal academics. We don't trust what you say.

Like so much of our political conversation, so enjoyable. So for once, or, I guess, twice now, in North Carolina, we see, when we dive into the data that everyone's wrong and everyone's right. The Democrats must concede that fraud is, apparently, quite possible. The Republicans must concede, at least in this case, it is not the product of a democratic scheme made up of non-ID-having double voters. But if the facts bear out, the largest voter fraud scandal to hit North Carolina in recent memory is the work of a Republican operative bringing votes for a Republican candidate.

Ira Glass

Ben Calhoun is one of the producers of our show. Zoe Chace is away this week.

Credits

Ira Glass

This program was produced today by Nadia Raymond and Anna Martin. The people who worked on today's show includes Elna Baker, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, David [INAUDIBLE], Sean Cole, Jarrett Floyd, Stephanie Foo, Damien Grave, Jay Caspian Kang, David Kestenbaum, Seth Lind, Miki Meek, Katharine Mae Mondo, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu, our senior producer, Brian Reed, our managing editor, Susan Burton.

Special thanks today to Heidi Schreck, Larry Levitt, Jeremy deVine, Matt Ross, Josh Gerstein, Ilya Mouzykantskii, Lee Chen, Danielle Eisenman, Derek Wang, Kevin Moy, Daniel Wu, and all the students that Diane talked to at Harvard, our website, ThisAmericanLife.org, where you can listen to our archive of over 600 episodes for absolutely free or get our app.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thank you as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. I have trouble with calculus. No matter how many times Torey tells me over and over--

Torey Malatia

Limits is the keyword.

Ira Glass

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