#88 Second Language

February 9, 2017

A new Yes Yes No, plus Sruthi meets her first fully-functional cyborg.

Further Reading

Norm Kelly’s Twitter
Eric Valor’s Website
Eric’s non-profit Sciopen Research Group

Show transcript

ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman

PJ VOGT: And I’m PJ Vogt.

ALEX: Welcome once again to Yes, Yes, No, the segment on our show where our boss Alex Blumberg fires up his ol’ 386, connects his —

PJ: [laughs] What a nerdy burn!

ALEX: — Connects his modem, dials into AOL, and it goes, “You got mail!” And then he’s like, “I don’t’ understand this! Why don’t you guys explain this e-mail I got to me?”

PJ: [laughs] Uh… what have you got for us?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright, so I’ve, I’ve got, um— [clears throat], so first of all, it’s a little bit like the Internet is confusing me less than normal, which I’m not sure — I’m not sure what that’s about.

PJ: I think I know what it’s about.

ALEX: We’ve been talking about this.

PJ: We’ve been talking about this. There’s such a convergence. For once, everybody is always talking about the same thing, which is basically like Trump, with like a brief, little interregnum of like, Super Bowl, which has pivoted back to Trump, which means it like —  if you don’t understand it, it’s always like Trump’s said something you haven’t heard yet.

BLUMBERG: Right. Exactly. Yeah, he has like, really, sort of, gotten us all out of our little micro-habitats on the Internet.

PJ: It’s one channel now.

BLUMBERG: It’s really weird.

PJ: Yeah.

BLUMBERG: Yeah. Um, that being said, there are still things that I’ve come across that I don’t understand. So here’s one. This is a tweet from somebody named PowerfulAura, A-U-R-A.

PJ: I follow them.

ALEX: Yeah, that’s Felix Biederman, He’s been on our show before.

BLUMBERG: Alright, well, well PowerfulAura — has a tweet that goes like this: “bad news everyone: Norm Kelly, the 95 year old Toronto politician who tweets “shoes look like a fam [crying emoji] was just convicted of genocide”

PJ: [laughing] That’s a good tweet.

BLUMBERG: [laughing] Okay. Wait, Alex Goldman, do you understand this tweet?

ALEX: Yeah, I’m a solid no on this. Alex Blumberg, do you understand this tweet?

BLUMBERG: No. PJ Vogt, do you understand this tweet?

PJ: I sure do.

BLUMBERG: Take it away man.

PJ: [sighs] Feels good. Ok, so, there is this city councillor in Toronto named Norm Kelly? And the weird thing about Norm Kelly, is that Norm Kelly is an Internet celebrity. He’s uh, I think 500,000 Twitter followers? And he has like a very particular way of using the Internet. So, he’s kind of like — he’s like an older gentleman, but it’s kinda like if you somehow went through like, some weird like, Yes Yes, No portal, and came out like, speaking constant fluent Internet all the time?

So, he makes lots of jokes that are like, either like, drenched in Internet slang, or drenched in like, African American Vernacular slang? He’s really into Drake. He’ll like, at one point he tried to start beef — like Norm Kelly, the city councillor in Toronto — tried to start beef with like… who was the rapper that Drake was beefing with, the Philly guy?

ALEX: Uh, uh Meek Mill.

PJ: Meek Mill! Like him and Meek Mill were actually like yelling at each other on Twitter. Let me give you a Norm Kelly [indistinct] —

ALEX: Get out of here!

PJ: [whispering with emphasis] — Yes! Hold on. It’s so strange, it’s truly the strangest thing. Okay, so he posted — Forbes Hip Hop Cash Kings 2015 list, which includes Drake at number three.

[Alex Blumberg laughing in background]

And then he tweeted, “Where ya at, Meek Mill?”

ALEX: [laughing]

PJ: 60,000 retweets.

ALEX: Wait, and who is this? And this guy is like a —

PJ: Let me show you him. It will help everything. This is Norm Kelly.

BLUMBERG: [laughing off-mic] Wowwww.

ALEX: Can you describe him for us, Alex Blumberg?

BLUMBERG: He looks like, he looks like a 1980s sitcom dad.

PJ: Yeah, like he might be your driving instructor, and he would smell like coffee?

BLUMBERG: Yeah. Yeah. He looks like, a, he looks like sort of an older, more haggard Greg Kinnear.

PJ: Yeah. Uh, here, you’re no, this is when Meek Mill and Drake first start beefing, he said, “You’re no longer welcome in Toronto @MeekMill.” 122,000 retweets.

BLUMBERG: [laughing]

PJ: Or like, uh, Meek Mill criticized Drake because Drake supposedly uses ghostwriters? And so then, Meek Mill put out this track called “Wanna Know?” and Norm Kelly tweeted: “This is the reason people hire ghostwriters, #wedidntwanttoknow”  76,000?

BLUMBERG: Wow!

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: Wow.

PJ: Um… [long pause] it’s really strange. And it’s like—

BLUMBERG: That’s awesome.

PJ: And it’s kind of like, I think, the thing that — people mostly really like him, and with anybody who — here’s like a, there’s a half life to enjoying anybody on the Internet, where, they’re like a hero for a day, and then somebody finds out like something problematic about them, and by the next day they hate them. Like, Ken Bone was like a meme for 10 seconds, then like —

BLUMBERG: Oh, Ken Bone was the guy who was in one of the debates, and everybody loved him because he —

ALEX: He stood up, he stood up and, and was just he — it was like he was very socially awkward.

BLUMBERG: Yeah, he was just like this really, then your heart went out to him and he was like, stammered his question for the candidate, and was very — he was very, it was very heartwarming and everybody loved him.

ALEX: And his name was Ken Bone.

BLUMBERG: And his name was Ken Bone.

ALEX: And then in very short order, the world found out his, um, Reddit posting history? And he posted some pretty sketchy stuff.

PJ: Right, and the whole thing is just, like, to take it back to this tweet, the joke they’re making is that you can never love anybody on the Internet, because they will immediately disappoint you in some way.

ALEX: Right.

PJ: And if you look at the actual text of it, ‘bad news everyone, Norm Kelly, the 95 year old Toronto politician who tweets, quote, ‘shoes look like a fam, smiley, crying emoji’ was just convicted of genocide,’ it’s like oh, the avuncular, uh, twitter Canadian politician— killed a nation of people.

BLUMBERG: Got it.

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: And then, the other thing that is going on, I think, the person who says the tweet, says, ‘who tweets, quote, shoes look like a fam”? That’s like not — [laughs] that slang doesn’t parse at all.

BLUMBERG: Right.

PJ: I think this person in particular is maybe not super charmed  [laughs] by Norm Kelly. Like I think he perhaps finds use of youthful black slang, as an older white Canadian politician— maybe disingenuous.

BLUMBERG: OK. I got it.

ALEX: Alright. Right, got it—”bad news everyone: Norm Kelly, the 95 year old”, so it’s like —

BLUMBERG: Ready to have it back? This is a, this is a Yes Yes No quickfire!

PJ: Yeah!

ALEX: Bring us to yes yes yes.

BLUMBERG: Alright, so, uh, the tweet, once again, Powerful Aura tweets:  “bad news everyone: Norm Kelly, the 95 year old Toronto politician who tweets, quote, ‘shoes look like a fam,’ laughing from crying emoji, was just convicted of genocide.”

So, the tweet is in reference to Norm Kelly, who I now know is a Toronto City Councilman, who stans hard for Drake and against Meek Mill, but sometimes doesn’t get the lingo exactly right, as evidenced by the tweet: “shoes look like a fam.”

[laughter off-mic]

Uhh — and then, but basically everybody loves because, doggone it he’s trying, and, and like, he’s on the right side. But it imagines a future when he’s 95 years old, and he gets convicted of genocide. And it’s a tweet that is commenting on, the seemingly inevitable half life of, Internet, um… what is it the half life of? Of like, of our ability, of like, of anybody to stay good—

PJ: Yes!

BLUMBERG: — on the Internet.

ALEX: Nothing good can stay.

BLUMBERG: Nothing good can stay.

ALEX: Alright, so we’re at Yes Yes Yes, but I feel like we haven’t answered what is probably the the most essential question, which is like, why did why did a 75 year old city councilman from Toronto insert himself in the middle of a huge rap beef with Meek Mill and Drake?

PJ: Right. That is a very good question. I have no idea.

[MUSIC]

PJ: Alex Goldman.

ALEX: … PJ Vogt?

PJ: You ruined our Yes Yes No on Monday—

ALEX: —By asking the tough questions?

PJ: I stewed about it on Tuesday. Wednesday morning, I realized that you were right.

ALEX: Ooh, that is a rare admission.

PJ: Yes. It was not a complete Yes Yes Yes, and so, I called Norm Kelly’s office.

ALEX: Really?

PJ: Really.

[Ringing, hold music]

NORM: Yo.

PJ VOGT: Hey, is this Norm Kelly?

NORM: It is!

PJ: Hey, this is PJ Vogt, thanks for talkin’.

NORM: Oh, it’s my pleasure.

PJ: Where are you right now?

NORM: I’m at the center of the universe, city of Toronto.

PJ: [LAUGHING] So yeah, I was just wondering, like, how did all this happen?

NORM: I began tweeting to show, uh, show that an old dog like me can learn new tricks, so that the chief executive office of the city was, uh, cool and current.

PJ: Uh huh. And so do you— I feel like part of what people like about you is that they do not expect a Canadian city councillor to talk in a way that seems so drenched in like, hip hop culture?

NORM: [laughs]

PJ: So, how did that happen?

NORM: Well, um, in order to make sure that I, I knew the— the millennial generation, uh, I did some research into uh, hip hop culture.

PJ: What did that research look like? I mean were you googling, um, you know like — rap slang? Were you on Urban Dictionary? Was it, were you watching movies? How’d you do that?

NORM: Listen I did little bit of everything; even went to the library and got some books out.

PJ: Really?

NORM: Yeah! I loved it.

PJ: OK. So, to understand what I think Norm was up to with this plan, you need to know, first of all, that Norm loves the city of Toronto. Like, really loves it. It’s all he really wants to talk about.

ALEX: OK.

PJ: And at the time he was deciding to get on twitter and to behave unusually on twitter, Toronto was kind of the laughingstock of the Internet. The reason Norm was de facto mayor was because Rob Ford, the old mayor, had been this huge international embarrassment.

ALEX: Right.

He had been caught smoking crack while in office, videos had circulated of him saying outrageously racist, homophobic things; he was painting Toronto in his own image, which was extremely unflattering. And so Norm gets on Twitter, and he starts talking about the other famous Torontonian: Drake.

NORM: He’s the most accurate personification of modern Toronto. He’s young, he’s multicultural, and he’s talented. And I think that sums up this city as it’s emerged over the last few decades, accurately and persuasively.

PJ: And when you say that, like, were you consciously thinking, ‘Drake is a person who should represent the city, and this is the small thing you can do—

NORM: Yep, absolutely.

PJ: Really!

NORM: Yeah. Well you know, when I last saw Drake at the Air Canada Center, a basketball game, and he’s the ambassador for the Raptors — as I approached him, he was talking with someone, and as I approached him, he looked up and saw me, and I go, “Six God!” And he replies, “Six Dad!”

PJ: [laughs]

NORM: And a big hug.

PJ: OK So, talked to him about that; he basically — like, talking to him i forgot about the fact about how crazy his twitter account is, and it started making a lot of sense. I was like, oh, the thing you are doing is some smart tourism board outreach or whatever. And then I remembered that he chose to start a fight with Meek Mill.

ALEX: [laughs] Right, right.

PJ: And, so, I asked him about that.

NORM: Well, um, I innocently entered the battlefield, the hip hop battlefield, when Meek was dissing Drake. I said to him you know, you’re not welcome in Toronto. And Meek took umbrage at that, and he—

[PJ laughs over Norm’s speech]

— came back at me, and then and I, you know, I’m a Canadian kid that grew up playing hockey. If you’re going to body me, expect to be bodied back.

PJ: So that is why Norm Kelly Because he likes to fight.

ALEX: [laughs[]

PJ: Oh, before we hung up, I read the Yes Yes No tweet about him, and he was very quiet. It was kinda dissing him—

ALEX: And not only that, it’s like, in 20 years he will commit genocide. [laughs]

PJ: Yeah. So, long pause, and he was like I get it, I just think it was kinda clumsy.

ALEX: Ohhhhh! Shots fired! [laughs] What do you gotta say about that, Felix?

[MUSIC]

ALEX: Next up, Sruthi interviews a cyborg.

[AD BREAK]

SRUTHI PINNAMANENI: Welcome back to the show. So, last month, I reported a story about ALS. Which is this terrible disease. While reporting this story, I met several ALS patients for that story, they were all different, but they all felt the exact same way about the disease. Like they were slowly just being pulled further and further away from the world. Since that story came out, though, I’ve kept talking to this one patient. And he describes it diferently. For him, it’s like the disease has pushed further him into the world. and the more we’ve talked, the more it’s made me question literally what it means to be a person. I’m gonna get to all that, but first let me tell you about him:

His name is Eric Valor. And back in the early 2000s, he was living in Santa Cruz,, had a job he loved; he was an IT specialist at this big car company. He was a huge surfer, would surf all over the world with his friends, there are are all these videos —

Looks like the swell dropped a little bit and we’re actually sorta happy! [laughs]

You can see this tall, lanky guy, who’s just so at ease with himself, you see him just taking these giant waves.

It might be Eric … Oh yeah Eric, that’s a big one. Whoooo! 

SRUTHI: And then in 2005, when Eric was 36, he found out that he had ALS. The disease hit him hard and fast. Within three years, he was almost fully paralyzed. And he had to have this surgery called tracheotomy to keep him from choking to death. So, one day, in the summer of 2008, doctors put him under. And, about an hour later, Eric woke up.

He was looking right at the ceiling. And he couldn’t move his neck; he couldn’t move his body. He could feel this bandage on his neck where doctors had cut a hole in his throat, and put this tube into him, and there was this machine that he couldn’t see, but he could hear the hiss of it. It was the ventilator, pushing oxygen into his lungs.

He was just completely paralyzed. Like, just trapped inside his body. Except the ALS had left Eric one tiny escape route: his eyes. And this is the crazy thing about ALS. Nobody knows why this is, but for most ALS patients, the disease shuts down every muscle in your body that you can move, except your eyes. And so, Eric uses just his eyes to communicate with the world.

 

Here’s how it works: a technician set up a computer with an infrared camera a couple feet in front of him that tracks the motion of his eyeballs. And there’s a virtual keyboard which he’s looking at, and any time his eyes rest on a key for 0.3 seconds, it counts as a click.

[click sound]

That’s one letter. And then his eyes move a millimeter to the left—

[click sound]

— another letter, and this is how he spells a word, and that’s how he was able to do an interview with me.

SRUTHI: And so, first off, I wanna say, I mean you must be the fastest typist in the world. It’s been really incredible communicating with you.

[clicking sounds as Eric types with his eyes]

ERIC: [with Eyegaze software voice] I am a rather high-functioning Person with ALS.

SRUTHI: Uh, yeah, to say the least. Um, so can you tell me, like when you got the Eyegaze software for the first time, was it harder to use than it is now? I imagine, was it frustrating in the beginning?

ERIC: The learning curve can be quite steep for most, but I am a bit of a freak. The technician who brought me this system went out to his car to retrieve a tool, and by the time he came back I had already configured a few settings and was installing my desired e-mail client. He was flabbergasted. He was obviously used to senior citizens who had no experience with computers, not some 38 year old punk who had been intimately working with computers since he was 12.

SRUTHI: So we’ve edited this conversation, basically took out all the clicks, because as good as Eric is at using this software, what you just heard took several minutes for him to type up. But for Eric, the time it takes to communicate, he does not mind, because it’s his lifeline.

ERIC: Without the technology, I likely would have taken the morphine train to dirt nap town. But I long ago realized that the essence of my being— that which makes me a person— is my mind, not my body.  I like to call myself the world’s first fully functional cyborg.

SRUTHI: Can you explain to me what that means? Like, what’s the feeling of being a cyborg? Because in my head, I’m imagining, like, I have these images, which I’m sure are totally wrong, of a perfect brain in a glass jar.

ERIC: Sure I can. Tape your mouth shut, and tie your arms and legs to a chair while wearing a rigid cervical brace. That’s how I feel with my computer off. But with my computer on and functioning, I firmly believe I am even more powerful now than when I was healthy and moving. Like Professor Stephen Hawking famously said, my body is a prison, but my mind is free.

SRUTHI: Knowing what I know about Eric, this was really surprising to me. He spends all day propped up in a bed, lives with his mother, and requires 24/7 care. So I asked Eric, how is what does it mean that your mind is more free? And his answers got pretty trippy.

ERIC: We are not our physical bodies. Our physical bodies are merely life support and communication manifestation systems, along with vessels for procreation of the species. Homo sapiens, and whatever we may later evolve into. Ourselves, our beings, are just the collection of the electrochemical processes in our brains called thought.

These thoughts over a lifetime, and their shifts in focus, make up who we are. So it’s not that my physical body was holding me back, so much as my existence at the time was focused on my family, and my career, and how much I enjoyed what I was doing. But, as so often happens, life threw me quite the nasty curveball, which completely changed my focus. Rather than surrender, I used it as an opportunity for learning and improvement. 

SRUTHI: And here’s what he means by that. Eric has a very busy life. He’s a night owl, so usually he wakes up a little late—

ERIC: My daily routine usually starts around 12:30 in the afternoon, when my first shift caregiver gives me a range of motion and stretching exercises. He then turns on my computer, and initiates the calibration process so the computer knows where I am looking. I then begin my workday.

[clicking noises continue of Eric typing with his eyes]

SRUTHI: Eric’s mom told me his workday essentially involves Eric being a volunteer reference librarian for anyone on the Internet who needs it. He’ll visit all these different web forums.

JOAN: — working with people from all over the world who have ALS, or other diseases, that have problems with their computers, and so Eric remotely goes into their computers, and fixes their problem, or he’ll, or— 

SRUTHI: He’s like tech support!

JOAN: Oh yeah, he’s totally tech support!

ERIC: Oh yes. Once an information technology professional, always an information technology professional.

SRUTHI: Eric is also one of the top writers on this Q&A site called Quora, where he answers questions like ‘can a piece of code feel pain?’ How did Stephen Hawking have children? Or, ‘how can I come up with the new Ice Bucket Challenge?’ (His answer: you can’t.) He’s also on Twitter a lot lately, basically shouting at the government.

JOAN: he drives me insane with this politics! [laughs] He’s, you know, very abrasive with it.

SRUTHI: But here’s the thing that Eric is most passionate about: For the last eight years, he has, using only his eye muscles, taught himself neurology and biology to the point where he’s turned himself into this one man research lab. In 2012 He started this nonprofit he’s using to look for a cure.

ERIC: We have three novel molecules in the pipeline, including one which is especially exciting.

SRUTHI: A protein. I ask him to explain how it works, and he says it’s insanely complicated.

ERIC: The pathway is called necroptosis, a much more recently understood cousin to the more familiar apoptosis.

SRUTHI: Basically, there seems to be this very particular way that cells die in people with ALS. And it requires this one protein. And Eric is trying to target that protein to see if he can stop the cells from dying.

And Eric is really optimistic. He feels like it might not be this one, but there’s gonna be some treatment out there that is going to work. And he believes that he’s going to get his body back.

ERIC: That determination gives me the strength to keep going. It’s just like surfing dangerously large waves. You have to make the determination that you will make the wave safely and with style, and that if caught inside you will punch your way back without drowning.

SRUTHI: I get that, but I’m just curious if there are any moments where you do feel frustrated? Like and if you do, is there anything, like, what do you do then?

Eric: In my few moments of downtime, I reflect on future plans. The trick is to keep occupied and not let your mind drift to the dark places. I have a lot of earlier experience with that and learned how to avoid it, so I do.

SRUTHI: And so like, what are the conversations that you would have with yourself back then?

ERIC: It was over a decade of deep depression. Before I understood the true values in life, I was very self-defeating. But that is behind me, and I prefer not to dwell on it.

SRUTHI: I asked Eric if he would send me a recording, some recording, of his voice before he had ALS. And he said basically he just doesn’t have anything. And he said you know ‘my voice right now, it basically sounds like my old voice.’ And I realized like, Eric can’t control his body. But what he’s done, more than anybody I’ve ever talked to, is taken control of his mind. He’s like a drill sergeant. And the only time he lets his guard down, is when he sleeps.

ERIC: I do dream frequently of surfing. Often the dreams are post-ALS where I am back charging with my brother Scott and our good friend Don. But I don’t dwell on such dreams because nothing good comes of that. Rather, I take them like a fun movie, then get on with the business of living and doing something useful with my life.

SRUTHI: You can find Eric on Twitter at @surfiving, and his non-profit is called Sciopen Research Group.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Sruthi Pinnamaneni is one of the producers for our show.

[MUSIC, FOLLOWED BY CREDITS]

ALEX GOLDMAN: Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt, and me, Alex Goldman. We’re produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Chloe Prasinos, and Damiano Marchetti. We’re edited by Tim Howard and Jorge Just. Fact checking by Thom Cote. Production assistance this week from Sangita Rayasam. We are mixed by Rick Kwan.

Special thanks this week to Peter Smith, who co-reported our original story about ALS, The Reversal. And thanks also to Emily Kennedy.

Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder, and our ad music is by Build Buildings. Matt Lieber is driving with the windows down, singing your favorite song as long as he can.

You can find more episodes of the show at itunes.com/replyall or wherever you get your podcasts. Our website is replyall.diamonds. We’re taking a week off to do some reporting, thanks for listening.  

[ADS]

 

PJ VOGT: Alexa… play Yakety Sax.

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