In Search of Snowy Owls on Connecticut’s Coast

Perched upon a car tire in a clam flat at Long Wharf in New Haven on December 15, 2013, a young male Snowy Owl scans its surroundings. In the background is Five Mile Point light in New Haven harbor. (Matt Messina)

A confession — this was my first time ever spotting an owl in the wild. Check out the story for WNPR and for NPR’s Here & Now.

Newtown Residents Demolish A School, And Violent Memories

Latest story for NPR.

Generation X Tweets About Getting Old

They were gutted by the economy, saddled with existential angst, and on today’s Colin McEnroe Show, a few Generation Xers tweeted with us about what it’s like to live in a world inherited from the Baby Boomers …

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How A Few Barbershop Clippings Conned America Out Of Millions

While you probably never give a second thought to the clippings scattered about when you get a haircut, Philip Musica turned this trash into cash.

We talked about the life of Musica on today’s The Colin McEnroe Show. In 1938, Musica was busted for executing one of the biggest financial swindles in American history, sluicing a total of $135 million in cash and checks from McKesson & Robbins, a pharmaceutical giant with an operations plant right here in Fairfield, Conn.

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Why Isn’t There A Women’s Tour de France?

Earlier this week, former World Time Trial Champion Emma Pooley (who won a silver medal in 2008) explained why the women’s Tour de France failed on the BBC Radio 4 show, Woman’s Hour.

“There used to be the ‘Tour de France Feminin‘ in the 1980s that was two weeks long, with proper mountain stages, but it eventually fizzled out because of a lack of sponsorship,” said Ms. Pooley.

The death of the women’s Tour is emblematic, many argue, of a broader failure by cycling’s governing body, the International Cycling Union (known by its French initials, U.C.I.), to support its pro women riders. Yesterday, Olympian Marianne Vos filed an online petition to Tour director Christian Prudhomme saying, “it is about time women are allowed to race the Tour de France, too.” At noon on Friday, more than 3,000 people had put their names to Ms. Vos’ petition.

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Ever Wondered What It Sounds Like When A Cicada Gets Busy?

If so, I have the answer for you in this story produced for Connecticut Public Radio.


Cicada and light switch – a love story. (Photo by Chion Wolf)


Disabled Athletes Bring Bravado To The Ice In Sled Hockey

My most recent story for NPR.

Craig Brady, from Madbury, N.H., plays for the Northeast Passage Wildcats, as well as the U.S. National Team, after suffering an injury from an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. (USA Hockey)

Legendary Tales Of The First Kiss

First kiss stories are … well, I guess you can supply your own answer to that. Funny. Heartwarming. Inevitably awkward. Endlessly entertaining. I’m trying to capture all those memories in this new audio project I’m working on for WNPR. I’ve pasted the quick rundown below.

I’d love it if you participate or share this with your friends.


WNPR is starting an experimental radio project and we want you to get involved. The idea is simple. We provide a theme, you call our hotline and tell a story.

Here’s how to take part:

Step One: Check out our theme (listed below).

Step Two: Call 860-580-WNPR (860-580-9677). You’ll hear a nice pre-recorded message from me or one of our producers.

Step Three: Tell us your story. Take as long as you need, but the voicemail might cut you off after 3 minutes. So quicker is better! Be genuine. Tell us the story like you’d tell an old friend over coffee. (We’re old friends, right?!)

Step Four: Hang up your phone. Wait to hear your story online and in WNPR programming. (More on that later …)


“My First Kiss”

With Valentine’s Day coming up, we decided to collect first kiss stories. What was yours like? Who was it with? Where did it happen? How old were you? Did your braces get stuck together? Did something worse happen? Tell us!

Again, it’s 860-580-WNPR (9677). Happy storytelling!

NOTE: There’s no need to leave us your name/contact info, but we’d certainly love it if you did. Oh and if you mess up, just start over. Or call the line and start all over again. The beauties of pre-recorded radio!

More Questions? E-mail me:

Computer Programmer Aims To Help Novice Sports Broadcasters

Relax sports broadcasters – robots aren’t coming for your job. At least not yet.

“The human aspect is important,” said Greg Lee, a recent Ph.D. graduate in computer science from the University of Alberta. Mr. Lee recounted how, while watching baseball on TV, he stumbled upon Vin Scully, the Hall of Fame sportscaster now in his 59th season as the voice of the L.A. Dodgers.

“In addition to keeping you up to date on the score of the game, he drops in little tidbits about the players and will tell stories from past games,” he said. This got the self-described baseball fan thinking about how he could use his programming background to help rookie sportscasters lacking Mr. Scully’s deep knowledge of statistics and anecdotes.

The Sports Commentary Recommendation System (SCoReS) was the result. Mr. Lee said the program monitors game statistics in real time, matching those numbers to a compendium of pre-loaded stories. If a broadcaster finds they are running out of material, SCoReS provides a story related to what’s happing in on the field.

Here’s an example. Say it’s late April and a batter on the Mets just hit two home runs. SCoReS scans its database and pulls up a story about New York Mets All-Star Keith Hernandez, who did the very same thing on April 26, 1988. As the colorful (but probably apocryphal) story goes, following the game Hernandez said, “I should get a divorce every day. I’d be broke, but I’d be in the Hall of Fame.”

I spoke with Mr. Lee about the development of SCoReS.

Hear an excerpt from our interview –

What makes for a good sports commentator?

To me, particularly in baseball, what makes a good commentator is when the action is slow, which is fairly often – especially in regular season games – they fill up that time with stories from baseball’s rich past.

When you start to design a computer program to replicate that, what are some of the first things you do?

It’s capturing what’s important about a game and a story. We call those features. What features of the current game – what numbers describe it succinctly? And the same for a story. That was a big first step – how were we going to to relate the two things? How are we going to model the problem? And that’s not a simple task.

For the game features – we mostly went with what was available from Major League Baseball’s online live updated site. For the stories, I must mention one of the books we used was Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends. He does an excellent job of getting more details on the story than what people have usually heard.

How many people did you test this on?

In total, 264 test subjects.

And you showed them Triple-A Baseball games?

Yeah, we were able to get rights to minor league baseball games. The International League provided the 2009 Triple-A All-Star game. Also, the Buffalo Bisons and Syracuse Chiefs were nice enough to let me use footage from one of their games.

Can you describe what the testing process for SCoReS was like? 

We played games with just crowd noise, games with their original commentary, and games with the original commentary plus a SCoReS selected story added in. We tried to see which clip they liked more. So subjects would sit there with a pencil and paper, watch the clips and answer the same questions for each one – how much did they enjoy it? What did they learn? Did it make them want to watch baseball more?

You also demonstrated SCoReS to professional commentators?

I had SCoReS serve up stories to them and just asked, would you tell this story at all?

Did the commentators suggest any tweaks?

Yeah. All of them did hockey commentary at one time or another. I’m in Canada, so that’s not too surprising. They said the stories are too long for hockey because the action is so much faster. There is the time between whistles, but we need faster stories, they told me. I designed it for baseball because I thought it was most applicable there, but I don’t see any reason it would’t be applicable to other sports. You just need a few tweaks and then it should work.

Looking forward – talk about the future of automated sports broadcasting. I know some news outlets already use automated reporting systems, but where do you see all this stuff going?

I don’t see play-by-play and color commentators being replaced by computers. I suppose you could get sufficiently good voice generation that it would sound real, but the human aspect is important. Going into this project my goal was never to replace anybody. It was to help. Particularly commentators who didn’t have a lot of stories to tell. I mean, if you’re just starting out – if you’re young – you don’t have as many stories as an 85-year-old who’s been doing it for 50 years. I would hope that soon you could have these stories recommended to color commentators and they could tell them.

In the future, I don’t see much changing in terms of human play-by-play and color commentators. I would personally hope, as a baseball fan, that’s the way it stays. That’s what I enjoy. I assume other people do as well.


Science: How Furry Animals Get Dry

Using high-speed video cameras, hoses, and a healthy dose of bravery, David Hu’s lab is studying the science behind how wet animals get dry.

The team sampled everything from mice to dogs and even took a trip to a zoo in Atlanta, where they sprayed down a bear and watched how it dried off. “My grad student had the pleasure of going into the animal cages with a hose and a high speed camera,” joked Mr. Hu, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Getting dry quickly is critical in the wild, Mr. Hu said. If a wet animal can’t dry itself it could face hypothermia.

Flickr Creative Commons, Fountain_Head

After studying the tapes of 33 different animals, Mr. Hu’s lab found the most effective shakers were mice, which dried off by shaking at a rate of 30 times per second. That’s enough energy to throw water with a force equivalent to about 70 times standard Earth gravity. Humans, by contrast, can only move their heads back and forth about twice per second.

“Imagine coming out of your shower and pressing this button and getting 70 percent dry in a tenth of a second.” Mr. Hu explained. “[Mice] get instantaneously get dry.”

Dogs, on average, took about three-quarters of a second to dry off. Mr. Hu said most animals gave about three shakes to get rid of excess water and that all animals closed their eyes while shaking, potentially to prevent damage to their retinas due to the high forces involved.

Mr. Hu’s team also noted the loose skin on furry animals helps increase the amplitude – and thereby efficiency – of a good shake.

“For many years evolutionary biologists had noticed that all furry animals have loose skin, but no one had known why,” Mr. Hu said.

The practical applications for studying shaking animals could be wide-ranging. Mr. Hu’s lab is working to implement their findings into robotics, where autonomous cleaning devices could potentially shake and clear the dust off the solar panels attached to a stalled rover on the surface of Mars or another planet.

Mr. Hu said he comes from a mechanical engineering background, but he’s always been fascinated by biology. Today, his lab focuses on natural ways animal repel water. And while a graduate student at MIT, he worked to build a robot mimicking the way a water strider moves across the surface of a lake.

“I think that was sort of a formative experience for me.” Mr. Hu said. “Seeing that there’s so much low-lying fruit in nature. If we want to build better devices that can tackle all this different terrain, nature’s already done it. We just need to figure out how she did it.”

For more, check out an epic-slow-motion video of shaking mammals at Nature Magazine.