The Rest of the Story 2017 : Planet Money Every year at Planet Money, we take a cue from radio legend Paul Harvey and bring you "The Rest of the Story." It's a show where we check in on some of the episodes that we've done in the past year, and tell you what's changed.
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The Rest of the Story 2017

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The Rest of the Story 2017

The Rest of the Story 2017

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ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

One of the reasons why I went into reporting, why a lot of people go into reporting, is that we reporters have short attention spans. We throw ourselves into a new thing. We learn all about it. We tell our audience about it. And then we just move on to the next interesting thing. It sort of feels like being at the state fair.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

R. SMITH: I want a doughnut burger, but I want the burger patties to be the bun and the doughnut in the middle.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A little bit crazy, but, yeah, we can do it for you.

R. SMITH: As you may remember, PLANET MONEY was obsessed with the state fair for about a hot minute. Then we went down a rabbit hole on tax policy - no, wait. Puerto Rican bonds. Oh, and then, all of a sudden, we dropped everything to launch a rocket.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Two. One. We have ignition.

R. SMITH: It is fun, but it is also exhausting. And so at the end of every year, we here at PLANET MONEY like to stop for a moment to think about the stories that we've done over the last 12 months, reflect on what they meant, and figure out what happened to the people we interviewed after we turned off the microphone and went to go watch a rocket launch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

R. SMITH: Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. It's so bright.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Oh, my gosh. Whoa.

R. SMITH: Oh, it's shooting up so fast.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUTURE SATISFACTION")

FREDERIC AUGER: (Singing) I never get away from this nice place, keep them making jokes with their girlfriends.

R. SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith. Today on the show, our annual year-end tradition. It is a show that we name after the catch phrase of my favorite old-timey radio reporter, Paul Harvey. He used to say...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL HARVEY: Today, together, you and I are going to learn the rest of the story.

R. SMITH: And so we call this podcast The Rest of the Story 2017. We'll check in on Vladimir Putin's least favorite person in the world. We'll travel back to a small town in the bayous of Louisiana. And we'll have a funeral for an algorithmic trading bot.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDERIC AUGER SONG, "FUTURE SATISFACTION")

R. SMITH: Let's begin with one of the more dramatic podcasts that we did in 2017. It was about a man named Bill Browder. Browder had an investment firm in Russia after the collapse of communism. And our podcast told the story of how Browder angered Vladimir Putin, how Browder was kicked out of Russia, his company taken away and how his lawyer was detained, tortured and murdered by Russian authorities. Ailsa Chang was my cohost on the story. Hey, Ailsa.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Hey, Robert. So the Russian lawyer's name was Sergei Magnitsky. And Bill Browder has been trying to seek justice for Sergei's death by helping to pass a law in the U.S. called the Magnitsky Act. Basically, what the act does - it freezes the assets of human rights violators like the ones responsible for Sergei's murder.

R. SMITH: So that's where we left the story when we did the podcast this summer. Since then, it's gotten weirder, right, Ailsa?

CHANG: It has. I met up with Bill Browder last week. He told me he had been traveling the world, trying to persuade different countries to pass their own versions of the Magnitsky Act to go after human rights violators everywhere. And everything kind of came to a head in mid-October, when Canada passed its own version of the Magnitsky Act. Just days after that happened, Browder tried to board a flight from London, where he lives, to New York. He's now a British citizen, by the way. And when he was checking in, the airline would not issue him a boarding pass. And he discovered his U.S. visa was revoked.

BILL BROWDER: And at that point, I call up a friend who works in law enforcement. And I say, could you find out if I'm on the Interpol list. And sure enough, on the same day that the Magnitsky Act was passed in Canada, the Russians added me to the Interpol most wanted list for the fifth time.

R. SMITH: So wait a minute. The Russians can just add somebody to the list?

CHANG: Apparently. I mean, just to explain really quickly, Interpol is this organization that is used all around the world to help countries find fugitives from the law. But the problem is not all the countries that belong to Interpol put people on the list with the most noble reasons. It can get very political. And there's no robust vetting process to figure out which people actually deserve to be on this most wanted list.

R. SMITH: What was the Russians' justification for even asking for that?

CHANG: Well, the past few times, it has always been some form of tax evasion that's been alleged against Browder. But this time around, Browder says, the Russians really upped the ante.

BROWDER: So they've now accused me of being a serial killer.

CHANG: A serial killer. Those are words that actually appear in a document somewhere?

BROWDER: They appear in a document from the Russian state investigative committee, which is their version of the FBI. They're accusing me of being a serial killer.

CHANG: And who are the victims you have allegedly killed?

BROWDER: There are people who were involved in the criminal group that killed Sergei Magnitsky, who died on their - as a part of their criminal group.

CHANG: Do they also allege that you killed Sergei?

BROWDER: They allege that I killed Sergei Magnitsky.

CHANG: What is the theory for why and how you killed Sergei Magnitsky?

BROWDER: Well, according to their justification, I killed Sergei Magnitsky so that I could get a Magnitsky Act passed in the United States to discredit Russia. That's their official explanation.

CHANG: Their explanation is you went through the trouble of murdering someone so you could use his name for a piece of legislation.

BROWDER: Against Russia. And, by the way - and I did this, apparently, from my home in London.

R. SMITH: So at this point, the Russians have accused him of tax evasion and being a serial killer. What else?

CHANG: I mean, what haven't they accused him of?

BROWDER: So I've been accused of serial killing. I've been accused of killing Sergei Magnitsky. I've been accused of being an MI5-CIA agent trying to do to destabilize Russia. I've been accused of stealing $4.8 billion dollars of IMF money that was destined for Russia, like, 25 years ago. Tax evasion, fraud, false bankruptcy - and those are the things I've seen the documents on. So there's literally, like, 250 people working inside the law enforcement agencies of Russia on cases against me.

R. SMITH: So, obviously, this got cleared up because he was in the United States. You talked to him last week.

CHANG: Yeah, that's right. A couple of senators intervened. And Browder's visa was immediately reinstated. And he got taken off the Interpol list a few days after that.

R. SMITH: So what is Bill Browder doing now?

CHANG: Browder is not going to rest. He is still determined to keep traveling the world to keep persuading different countries to pass their own versions of the Magnitsky Act. And right now, as we're recording this, he is targeting three countries - Ukraine, Gibraltar, a small country off the coast of Spain, and South Africa.

R. SMITH: And I take it that Vladimir Putin will not be pleased if this passes in those countries.

CHANG: Every time a new country passes a version of the Magnitsky Act, it seems like Russia comes up with a new way to make Bill Browder's life more difficult.

R. SMITH: Thank you, Ailsa.

CHANG: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARNABY ALLAN TAYLOR'S "COWBOY COUNTRY")

R. SMITH: Earlier this year, we aired a podcast called Georgetown, La. It was actually a two-part episode. And it was about this tiny town, Maringouin, La. And Noel King joins me now. Maringouin, La., had a sort of mystery to it.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: It did. The mystery was everybody in this tiny, little town in the middle of nowhere in Louisiana is related or appears to be related. And nobody knows why or how they got down to Maringouin. And then after years and years of wondering, The New York Times ran this story, and it solved the mystery. These folks were in rural Louisiana because their ancestors had been sold by Georgetown University and the Jesuit order in Washington.

R. SMITH: Yeah, in Washington, D.C.

KING: They were slaves. And Georgetown and the Jesuits were in debt. And so these 272 men, women and children were sold down to plantations in Louisiana. Georgetown paid off its debts. And all these people ended up in rural Louisiana.

R. SMITH: And this was a big news story at the time because Georgetown University, obviously a pre-eminent educational institution in our nation's capital, all of a sudden, had to grapple with their part in slavery and selling people and had to realize through this news story that there were thousands of descendants out there...

KING: Yeah.

R. SMITH: ...Who they essentially owed something to. And so what the podcast did was both visit some of those descendants in Louisiana and talk to Georgetown about what they were going to do about it. So first, like, what did Georgetown do?

KING: What Georgetown did was a lot of on-campus stuff, educational stuff. They renamed some buildings in honor of the slaves who had been sold. They started some educational initiatives. They're building out the library. So a lot of it was like atoning but atoning on Georgetown's campus. The big, concrete thing that they were going to do for the descendants, for the people who are alive today was to give them preferential admissions in the application process. So if you're a descendant, you want to come to Georgetown, we're going to give you a little bit of a boost.

R. SMITH: And one of the things I loved about your story was you went to visit young people who now had this amazing opportunity that came in a way that no one, I guess, would wish upon them, right?

KING: Yeah.

R. SMITH: It's, like, this - it's both sad, but it's a tremendous opportunity for them. And so you talked to one young woman in particular. Her name was...

KING: Elizabeth Thomas. Elizabeth Thomas is 23 and wanted to go to grad school at Georgetown. And when I talked to her, she had just put in her application. And she'd written about being a descendant in her essay.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ELIZABETH THOMAS: In the beginning, I kind of talked about, you know, my connection to Georgetown, how it'd be an amazing opportunity not only to go to a, you know, excellent, top-tier university but to go to the place where my ancestors helped build.

KING: Did you, like, slip it in. Or were you - I mean, were you applying as a descendent, and you sort of were like, and, by the way...

THOMAS: I mean, I thought it was interesting that there's nowhere on the application to put that you are descendent.

R. SMITH: That was in March that you talked to Elizabeth. And so the rest of the story?

KING: And the rest of the story is Elizabeth got into Georgetown. She's going to go to grad school for journalism.

R. SMITH: That's great.

KING: She starts next month. She's super excited. She's super nervous. And one of my big questions to her this whole time has been, when you get up there, are you going to tell people that you're a descendant?

THOMAS: Yeah. I definitely think that I will be telling people. I mean, it shouldn't be a secret. However, I don't think I'm going to walk around with a, you know, reparations T-shirt on.

KING: (Laughter).

THOMAS: I don't know if I'm going to take it that far. But I definitely am going to let people know that I'm here and why I'm here and my special, unique relationship to this school.

R. SMITH: She's going to make a great journalist.

KING: She is.

R. SMITH: Are they are they paying her money to go?

KING: No, they are not.

R. SMITH: OK.

KING: Here's what's interesting. She did get a scholarship, the dean's scholarship for academic excellence. It'll cover about half of her tuition, which is $14,000 a year. But she was like, this is not a scholarship that I got for being a descendent. And I think I should get to go to Georgetown for free because my ancestors built this place. She was really disappointed by this.

R. SMITH: You know, we've all met people who have the sort of historical connection to some college. Like, you know, my daddy went here. My grandfather went here. Or this building is named after my family. But what an interesting way to relate to a place, knowing that this institution you're going to owned your ancestors. How does she expect to feel when she's there?

KING: She actually already knows how she's going to feel because she's been to visit the campus. And she was telling me about this night she spent walking around.

THOMAS: And, like, wow. Is this the brick that, you know, my ancestor laid? Is this the door? Is this the - you know, is this the road? Is this the path? Where did they live? It's going to be definitely an eerie, sad feeling.

KING: And look. By nature, Elizabeth is very optimistic. She's very, like, let's just push through this. She's really excited about going. But there's obviously some mixed feelings here.

R. SMITH: All right. Thank you so much, Noel.

KING: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALEX GOLDMARK, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

R. SMITH: That sad voice is Alex Goldmark, our senior producer. And he's here because he has some very serious news about something that we love deeply in 2017, our trading bot, the BOTUS, the bot of the United States.

GOLDMARK: Our lives are all a little fuller for having known dear BOTUS, who was created to read Donald Trump's tweets and then trade stocks every time he mentioned a company.

R. SMITH: Everyone at staff put in money into an investment account that we turned over to you and the whims of a computer program, a bot. I don't even know how to describe it.

GOLDMARK: The highly thought-out, carefully crafted algorithms of practiced Wall Street trading professionals are what was behind our trading bot, OK?

R. SMITH: (Laughter) Yes.

GOLDMARK: And I think I'm going to need a little bit of music for this update...

(SOUNDBITE OF KEITH BLAINVILLE'S "SOLVEJGS SONG (FROM PEER GYNT)")

GOLDMARK: ...Because on Nov. 21, 2017, we pulled the plug, turned off the switch, stopped the little circuits on our bot BOTUS.

R. SMITH: Here - one second. I can have some Kleenex here in case you need it.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEITH BLAINVILLE'S "SOLVEJGS SONG (FROM PEER GYNT)")

GOLDMARK: BOTUS was filled with heart. It lived for one purpose and one purpose only, and that was to trade. It put everything it had into trading - also tweeting but mostly trading. And it wasn't very good at it.

R. SMITH: No. No, it was not.

GOLDMARK: So I'm here to tell you the final portfolio of BOTUS and how it did.

R. SMITH: OK.

GOLDMARK: We've gotten a lot of questions on this. I have all two of the trades that BOTUS made.

R. SMITH: Two trades. But they were big ones.

GOLDMARK: Yeah. So the biggest problem was that Donald Trump stopped tweeting about companies shortly after we began this experiment. And then when he did, he did it at like 4 in the morning, when the markets aren't open. So we changed the algorithm so that when Donald Trump tweeted, it would then trade first thing when the market opened. That gave us a little bit of action. On August 23, a day that will remain enshrined in memory and glory for our dear bot, the president tweeted, thank you, Arizona. Beautiful turnout of 15,000 in Phoenix. Full coverage of the rally via my Facebook page.

R. SMITH: Facebook. (Imitating computer tabulating). Facebook is a corporation.

GOLDMARK: And the bot thought that's a positive tweet. When it was a positive tweet, it would buy stock. Negative - it would sell. So positive tweet on Facebook. It bought five shares. Half an hour later, it sold five shares.

R. SMITH: Yes.

GOLDMARK: And we lost a total of $1.50. Down $1.50.

R. SMITH: OK. It could've been worse.

GOLDMARK: And November 3...

R. SMITH: Yes.

GOLDMARK: ...Donald Trump tweeted, today, we are thrilled to welcome @Broadcom CEO Hock Tan to the White House to announce he is moving their headquarters from Singapore to the U.S.

R. SMITH: Broadcom. (Imitating computer tabulating). Buy, buy, buy, buy, buy, buy, buy.

GOLDMARK: Bought three shares, sold half an hour later, lost 6 cents.

R. SMITH: I'm no math genius, but this does not sound like we made a hefty profit off of our investment.

GOLDMARK: No. We put in a thousand dollars as a team. And we lost a $1.56. And that's not even counting the fees, which were waived by the brokerage. So that means of your hundred dollars, you get $99.84 back.

R. SMITH: This is what I'm going to fess up. When you were getting money from all the members of the PLANET MONEY staff, I disappeared and did not give you the money. I overlooked. I meant to do it. And I never invested in the bot, which means that my hundred dollars...

GOLDMARK: Free rider, freeloader.

R. SMITH: Which means that my hundred dollars was invested in the stock market, which had about a 14 percent gain during this time. So I made 14 bucks.

GOLDMARK: OK. Well, I learned something.

R. SMITH: OK.

GOLDMARK: And what I learned was that it is really hard to maintain a algorithmic trading bot because it takes a super-talented computer programmer to constantly be looking at the code and constantly updating it. That was a thing that happened. BOTUS should have traded a lot more. But almost every time it was supposed to trade, something was wrong. And we didn't know because we didn't have somebody full time looking at our bot.

R. SMITH: A lesson worth every cent. Thanks, Alex.

GOLDMARK: Thank you, Robert.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. SMITH: Stay tuned after the credits, everyone. A much-demanded update from our show about produce. Have we found the answer to keeping fruit fresh forever?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. SMITH: Just in case we didn't do a follow-up on your favorite podcast of the year, let us know what it was, and let us know what you want to know, and we will go find out the answer. We do this show every year. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and email. We're planetmoney@npr.org. And if you'd like to see the rest of the story about our little satellite, Pod-1, we've been posting some of the pictures it's been taking. And you can track where it is right this second. Let me check. Oh. It's over Pakistan. You can check on Pod-1 on our website npr.org/spacemission.

Today's show was produced by Nick Fountain. Alex Goldmark is the senior producer. Bryant Urstadt is our editor. And if you are desperately, desperately trying to get a few more donations in before the end of the year, may we suggest public radio? I'm no tax accountant, but it may be better to do it this year. You should go to donate.npr.org/planetmoney. And your donations will go to your local member station with a little thank you to PLANET MONEY, so everybody gets credit - donate.npr.org/planetmoney. I'm Robert Smith. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC WILLIAMS AND PATRICK STURROCK'S "WASTING AWAY")

R. SMITH: Hey. One last thing. I left for vacation before the show was actually finished. But there was one more story. There was an experiment, really, that we wanted to check in on. You may remember when we went to the produce show. Our producer Sally Helm found a magical hologram filled with nanocrystals - whatever those are - that purported to keep fruit from rotting. Well. She's been testing out this card. Take it away, Sally.

SALLY HELM, BYLINE: Hey. So I left some tomatoes and some strawberries in some file cabinet drawers in our office, one set with this card, one set without. And I just checked. And the tomatoes are actually looking OK on both sides. Not too bad. But one of the strawberries that was actually in with the card has grown a bunch of mold. It's looking sort of blue. I don't know. I'm not a scientist. I don't really know how to set up a controlled experiment. But that is mold. That is mold. I know that that is mold.

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