Episode 595: The Rest Of The Story, 2014 Edition
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Hey, when you're done listening to the show today, check out a sneak preview of Invisibilia. It's the newest show from NPR, and it's all about the invisible forces that shape human behavior. There's a free preview up now on iTunes, and the first full episode will be available on January 9 wherever you get your podcasts. It's Invisibilia, I-N-V-I-S-I-B-I-L-I-A.
ROBERT SMITH, HOST:
Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith. The hardest part of telling any story is the ending, especially for those of us in journalism. Real life does not provide easy endings. The issues that we cover on PLANET MONEY, they don't resolve nicely. The characters don't usually ride off into the sunset. People - the people we talk to - they just keep on living their lives. And that's why - and this is a little professional secret here - that's why a lot of the endings in journalism are a variation on the phrase time will tell.
And yeah, it is a total copout. But sometimes, all you can say is, well, we're going to wait and see. Sometimes, all you can say is time will tell, but not today. Today on the show, time has told. We follow up on our favorite stories of the year, and we find out what happened after we turned off our recorders. It is an annual tradition we have named after a certain catch phrase of the radio legend Paul Harvey.
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PAUL HARVEY: Today, together, you and I are going to learn the rest of the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN IT AROUND")
LUCIUS: (Singing) She's looking through the wrong end. She's looking through the wrong end. She's looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Turn it around. Turn it around.
SMITH: So what I was talking to the PLANET MONEY team about the rest of the story, I said, you know, pick one story that you really want to follow up on. And David Kestenbaum, overachiever that he is, came in with two.
DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: Sorry, I missed the one. I'm just a bad listener.
SMITH: It's fine. We're going to do this as a lightning round. So first up, the dulcet tones of the viola, and not just any viola, one made by the Italian master Antonio Stradivari.
KESTENBAUM: So this one was up for this very high-stakes auction at Sotheby's. It looked like it was going to be the most expensive instrument ever sold. I went to hear the viola being played, and I talked to Tim Ingles of Ingles and Hayday, musical consultant to Sotheby's.
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TIM INGLES: Everybody knows that Stradivari's work has this amazing depth of tone, but also, a silvery quality to the upper register.
KESTENBAUM: It's unique.
INGLES: The Strad' sound is unique, indeed.
KESTENBAUM: And how much do you expect it will sell for?
INGLES: We're certainly expecting an excess of $45 million.
SMITH: Forty-five-million dollars, that was the opening bid. So, David, what did it eventually go for?
KESTENBAUM: It didn't go. The minimum bid was 45, as you said, and Ingles told me last week, nobody was willing to pay that.
INGLES: We did have a good deal of interest in the instrument, but it wasn't sold. I'm pleased to say it does remain for sale, and we are waiting for the right buyer to come along.
SMITH: What happened? Like, why didn't they sell it?
KESTENBAUM: I don't know. You know, there are just a handful of people who can afford, who would be interested in buying this instrument, and none of them came forward.
SMITH: Lightning round number two. So we all know that most commercial websites end in .COM and that .COM is a pretty crowded real estate. You have to come up with all these sort of weird ways to spell your name in order to get a .COM website. And, David, earlier this year, you did a story about all these new endings.
KESTENBAUM: Yeah, there's .PLUMBING, .BIKE, .NINJA.
SMITH: Love .NINJA.
KESTENBAUM: And you know, in classic Internet fashion, the way it worked was that anybody could start up one of these new endings, one of these new domains, and try to make money selling off the individual websites. So if you own .NINJA, you could say hey Robert Smith, buy robertsmith.ninja. It's, you know, 10 bucks a year.
But the whole thing was a bit of a gamble because you had to pay $185,000 fee to get a new domain, and then you had to hope enough people signed up. So for this story, we talked to two people - this one woman, Adrienne McAdory, who bought .WED. The idea was it was going to be a home for everyone's wedding pages, you know, maryandjohn.wed, johnandjohn.wed. And we talked to this other guy, Daniel Negari, who had a very bold idea. He was going to take on .COM with his new domain .XYZ.
SMITH: And he had a really catchy phrase. I remember it.
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DANIEL NEGARI: The way I looked at it was we end the alphabet with XYZ, we should end domain names the same way.
SMITH: Love it. So how'd they both do?
KESTENBAUM: Well, here's Adrienne McAdory with .WED.
ADRIENNE MCADORY: Slow, very, very slow, we haven't had traction yet. But you know, I say it's like a tree in the forest. People don't know about it yet. So I'm on a five-year plan, small business, getting it out there.
KESTENBAUM: And how many people have actually signed up so far?
MCADORY: Oh, gosh, between the ones that we have given away and people have signed up, I can't really tell you. I think it's something over - maybe approaching 100.
KESTENBAUM: So you're not close to breaking even?
MCADORY: No, God no.
KESTENBAUM: So .WED off to a slow start, like a hundred sign-ups, she says. .XYZ...
KESTENBAUM: ...Over 700,000.
SMITH: I knew that guy was going to nail it.
KESTENBAUM: Part of what happened is that this big company that actually handles the sale of websites bought up a bunch of .XYZs for its customers - said, you know, you got, whatever, robertspizza.com, now you also got robertspizza.xyz for a year. Try it out. Here's Daniel Negari.
NEGARI: That was a multimillion-dollar deal that really funded a lot of the growth that we've had.
KESTENBAUM: That must've been very exciting when that happened.
NEGARI: You're telling me. I was blowing the shofar all over the office when I saw that happen.
SMITH: Blowing the shofar.
KESTENBAUM: Shofar is a ram's horn, typically used in Jewish religious services or when you've just sold hundreds of thousands of web addresses.
SMITH: You know, David, I feel like I've seen ads all over the place, especially here in New York City, for .NYC, that everyone's trying to sell these new endings. But I have yet to meet anyone - go into a business anywhere where someone is giving me anything other than a .COM or .ORG.
KESTENBAUM: Yeah, and you know - and frankly, a lot of these websites, or some fraction of them, are squatters. Basically, people who've bought up robert.xyz and...
SMITH: Ugh, hate that guy.
KESTENBAUM: ...Not developed it, but said, hey, if you want it, I'll sell it to you for more.
SMITH: Thank you, David.
KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVER AND OVER")
SMALLPOOLS: (Singing) It was a company event...
KESTENBAUM: And wait, Robert, I want to check something.
SMITH: You are typing in robert.ninja.
KESTENBAUM: Yeah, it's already taken.
SMITH: Oh, who is that guy? I hope it's by an actual Robert, and he's not just squatting on it.
KESTENBAUM: It does say robert.moby is available.
SMITH: It's just not the same as ninja.
Now, here at PLANET MONEY, we love stories of big ideas. We did a show about ending banking - ending banks as we know it. We did a show on the one-page solution to global warming. But perhaps the boldest plan that we presented this year was by a Harvard professor, Lawrence Lessig, and he had this plan to completely reform the campaign finance system in America. He wanted to deal with these things called super PACs, these big buckets of money that can sway elections back and forth. And his - I'll say it - his crazy plan was to create a super PAC in order to end all super PACs. Jacob Goldstein did this story for us and he's here to tell us how it went. But first of all, remind us, what was Lessig's plan?
JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: So basically, Lawrence Lessig created a super PAC - it's called the Mayday PAC - and he actually was able to raise $10 million, so a lot of money. And the idea was they were going to spend this money on various congressional elections and try and get elected candidates who wanted to change the way campaign finance works in this country.
SMITH: And they actually spent the money and how did it go?
GOLDSTEIN: I called Lessig up recently after the elections and asked him, how'd it go?
LAWRENCE LESSIG: It didn't go well. We won really just one competitive race.
GOLDSTEIN: They actually won two races, but in one of those races, the candidate was pretty clearly going to win anyway. They put money into eight different races, so overall, they got clobbered.
SMITH: And part of his theory for this was that people really, really, really care about campaign finance, and if you present it to them clearly, they will vote on that issue. So what happened? Why'd he lose?
GOLDSTEIN: Well, he says even more than campaign finance, people care about their party. So, like, no matter how much you care about campaign finance, if you are a Democrat, you're going to vote for the Democrat you think's going to win. If you're Republican, you're going to vote for the Republican you think's going to win. But, I got to say, there was this other really surprising to me thing that happened in the run-up to the election, as they say, after we did our story. And that was this - the Mayday PAC, Lessig and the Mayday PAC, they threw a ton of money, like $2 million, against Fred Upton, this powerful Michigan congressman. But it turned out some of the people giving money to the Mayday PAC also were supporters of Fred Upton. And Upton went to those people and said hey, why are you coming after me? And they went to Lessig and said hey, why are you going after Upton?
SMITH: You know, everyone talks about how some campaign finance is too secret, you don't know what's going on, but this is exactly why rich and powerful people want campaign finance to be secret because you don't want your friends complaining to you. You want to influence elections but you don't want to get the call from the guy.
GOLDSTEIN: Right. And there is this thing called dark money that's like a step beyond super PACs, which is a way you can try and influence elections without having to disclose who your donors are. And Lessig says maybe that's the next move for him.
LESSIG: We haven't made a decision about this, but it's something to talk about. Maybe, you know, so long as dark money is allowed you've got to use dark money to fight dark money.
SMITH: But he certainly doesn't sound like he's giving up.
GOLDSTEIN: No, he's not giving up. I mean, he has a whole thing about how he hopes to enlist, like, citizen activists to lobby their congressmen, and maybe they're going to do dark money. Although, frankly, he doesn't seem to think he can raise the sort of hundreds of millions of dollars the way he talked about before. He seems like he's trying to figure out how to sort of scale back the tactics by still having this grand vision.
SMITH: Jacob Goldstein, thanks.
GOLDSTEIN: Thanks, Robert.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "TIME")
JUNGLE: (Singing) Time and time again. Ooh. Ooh. Ooh. Time and time again.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Hey, Robert, how's it going?
SMITH: This is the disembodied voice of Steve Henn. And I say disembodied because most of the PLANET MONEY team works here in New York City. Steve Henn works out of his home in Menlo Park, California.
HENN: That's right, which is why I cover so much tech stuff.
SMITH: And the podcast you wanted to update, explain it to us.
HENN: OK, so you might remember back in the fall, I did this podcast about two people who wanted to change the way the Internet economy works.
SMITH: And it was funny because when you brought these two people up - I'm just going to say it - they sounded like kooks. There was a woman who kept her iPhone wrapped in a silver scarf so that she couldn't be, you know, tracked by the government or bad guys. And then there was a man who had one of the more memorable names we've put on the air this year.
HENN: Right, Moxie Marlinspike.
SMITH: This guy is a former hacker, and you try - you tried to find out his real name.
HENN: I did. I grilled him on it.
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MOXIE MARLINSPIKE: I'm Moxie Marlinspike.
HENN: Is that your real name?
MARLINSPIKE: It is.
HENN: Was it on your birth certificate?
MARLINSPIKE: No, it was not on my birth certificate. But it's what almost everyone I've known has called me my entire life.
HENN: What's on your credit cards?
MARLINSPIKE: Which credit card?
HENN: You have a credit card that says Moxie Marlinspike?
MARLINSPIKE: Well, OK, I'm curious why you want to know.
SMITH: One of the things I loved about this podcast is that Moxie Marlinspike is so clearly paranoid about technology and about people spying on him. But at the same time, like, he is a hacker. He is someone who writes code and he has this hope that technology is the thing that's going to save us from bad people or the government spying on us.
HENN: Right, and thing about Moxie is he's kind of, like, a cryptographic genius. I mean, there are lots of encryption systems out there, and Moxie's building another one. But most of those others, they have this big, long, complicated mathematical equation, and someone has the key to unlock the message - right? You have to have a key to read a message after it's encrypted. Moxie created a system where no one has the key.
SMITH: And most importantly, like, he would not have the key.
HENN: Right, so if people are using his text messaging system, the NSA could come to him - someone could come to him with a gun, hold it at his head, say tell me what they're saying to each other and he won't be able to answer.
SMITH: And he also had an unusual business plan.
HENN: He decided that he couldn't re-create Facebook, that if he founded a company, the chances of him being like the global message service provider were about zero. So he decided to give away his code for free, to make it open source and let anyone use it.
SMITH: So that's where we left him at the end of the podcast with this sort of utopian vision, this idea that it might work. And so, what happened?
HENN: So the big update is that his plan to give this stuff away, it worked. Right around Thanksgiving, WhatsApp - which is this incredibly popular global text messaging service, it has like 600 million users all over the planet. Facebook bought it for $19 billion - WhatsApp took Moxie's code and plugged it into their system. And now billions of messages are completely encrypted. WhatsApp can't read them. Facebook can't read them. You know, theoretically at least, the NSA can't read them. And WhatsApp actually says this is probably the largest deployment of what they call end-to-end encryption in the history of the world.
SMITH: So wait, what does Moxie Marlinspike get out of this? I mean, a $19 billion company uses something you invented and...
HENN: You know, the only thing he gets here is, you know, the joy and satisfaction of knowing that billions of messages are now private and secure.
SMITH: Thanks, Steve.
HENN: Thank you.
SMITH: Hey, Zoe.
ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: Hi.
SMITH: How's community college going?
CHACE: I think it's going really well for some people. And for some people, it's not.
SMITH: I should say that we sent Zoe to community college this year - not to go there, of course, but to report on it. And one of the things that you became fascinated with was this one particular class.
CHACE: That's right. The class is called Anatomy and Physiology. Anybody who wants to study nursing has to take this class. And it's the first class you take.
SMITH: And it's hard, and it's high-stakes.
CHACE: Yeah. I mean, if you don't pass this class, then you can't advance to the rest of the nursing program. And you can't get to this kind of promised land of jobs on the other side.
SMITH: Because we've all heard this is one of the most popular and growing professions.
CHACE: Yes, lots of people want to be a nurse these days.
SMITH: Including one character you wouldn't think of as a nursing student - someone unusual.
CHACE: Yes. I met a couple people in this one class in Kentucky at West Kentucky Community College. I'm going to remind you of this one guy that I introduced you to a few months ago. His name is Jonathan Harned. He is 40 years old. He's a former Marine. He has a crew cut. He sat in the front row of his Anatomy and Physiology class. He is currently a billboardist. He puts up billboards that you see...
SMITH: I didn't know that was the name.
CHACE: I don't know if it is. They - he puts up billboards on the side of the road. And he does not like putting up billboards.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
JONATHAN HARNED: I make $17.61 an hour right now. In February, I'll make over $18. And if I lose this job for any given reason, I'm back to $10-12 an hour. I have no security. I've had 22 years of reasons why I want to be here.
CHACE: So that's Jonathan's situation. Someone else that I met was Samantha Spiegel. Unlike some of the other students, like, she was just going through the work super quickly in class. Like, she seemed like she was going to be fine.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
CHACE: Have you taken this class before?
SAMANTHA SPIEGEL: Mm-mm. No.
CHACE: So how do you know this stuff?
SPIEGEL: I've taken other classes that are, like, medical terminology and stuff like that.
SMITH: We've heard that in classes like this, half of the people are going to drop out. And you were scanning around, thinking, well, this guy Jonathan Harned - he's a nontraditional student. You're somewhat worried about him. You've got this other woman who has done a lot of math and science before. And you recently checked back in with both of them. How did Jonathan and Samantha do?
CHACE: OK. So I was always planning to check back in with them at the end of the class. But Jonathan, I happened to call from just a couple weeks after I had left. I was at a friend's wedding in Easton, Pennsylvania, like, right in the middle of putting on my dress for the wedding. And Jonathan calls me, and I'm like, what? And he's, like, I just want to tell you how I did on the first two tests.
CHACE: I told him don't tell me. I'm going to call you back and tape it when I'm at work.
SMITH: OK. Give it to us.
HARNED: It was actually a 94. So and then the lab, it was 49 out of 50.
CHACE: Straight As.
HARNED: So far.
CHACE: He did so good, Jonathan. Like, through the entire semester, he has straight As in all his classes. He finished basically at the top of his class, not only in Anatomy and Physiology but in all the other sort of prereqs for nursing. And he was pretty thrilled.
SMITH: And what about Samantha?
CHACE: Samantha did not perform the way Jonathan performed. And when I talked to her, I asked her about that first test also. And when she got it back, she got a 63. And she was totally shocked. Like, she thought that because she, you know, already worked as an EMT and stuff that she would know this stuff. But she has problems that are super common for community college students and for, you know, lots of kinds of students. Like, she's a single mom. She has two jobs. She also happened to attend four different high schools 'cause she had a difficult upbringing. And she just kind of found out that the science was too much for her. And that's a serious, actually big problem that holds a lot of people back from getting this degree and advancing economically the way they want to.
SMITH: So after following this class, do you have a better idea of what the secret to success in community college is?
CHACE: I have some thoughts about it. And my main thought is that Jonathan, the one who was so successful - he has a couple of things going for him. His kids are grown and almost out of the house. He lives with someone else - his wife. And so there's two people that are kind of working on maintaining the household together. The main thing, though, that I think made Jonathan so successful is that he was super desperate. He worked every job that you can get without a college degree in west Kentucky. Like, he drove trucks - all kinds of trucks - garbage trucks, sanitation trucks. He was a concrete finisher. He did all these jobs. And he just kind of knew the lay of the land. And he was very clear that this is, like, his last move to build a career that has benefits, that's stable, that he's going to be able to advance and save money for retirement. And I think it's the desperation that kind of gives you the focus that you need to get through a class like this.
SMITH: Thank you, Zoe.
CHACE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN IT AROUND")
LUCIUS: (Singing) She felt comatose waiting for this thing to grow.
SMITH: Hey, stay with me. I need someone to help me do the end - the rest of the rest of the story. OK. We love to hear what you think of PLANET MONEY and not just this episode, but any of the 104 episodes that we did this year. High five. Our email address - email@example.com.
CHACE: Also I have something pretty exciting that I want to tell you guys, which is that NPR is debuting a new show called Invisibilia. It's hosted by Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller. She used to work at This American Life. Now she's an outstanding science correspondent. Lulu Miller used to work at Radiolab. It is one of the best shows I have ever heard. I can't wait for it to air. It is going to launch in early January.
SMITH: Believe me, everyone's going to be talking about this podcast. So you should make sure you're one of the first people to get it.
CHACE: Our producers are Phia Bennin and Jess Jiang. I am Zoe Chace.
SMITH: And I am Robert Smith. Thanks for listening, and happy new year.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN IT AROUND")
LUCIUS: (Singing) She closed the door with the intention of not looking back, but missed her step because she didn't have a steady track. She can't be bothered by the mistakes she's made. But she's forgetting that's what guides you to the rightful place.
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