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Decoder Ring

Society-and-culture • History

Decoder Ring is the show about cracking cultural mysteries. In each episode, host Willa Paskin takes a cultural question, object, or habit; examines its history; and tries to figure out what it means and why it matters.

Popular episodes

You Just Lost The Game

Nov 23 • 26:40

When you think about the game, you lose the game. When you lose the game you must declare that you have lost the game, causing all others in your vicinity to also lose the game. That’s it, that’s the game. ...

The Alberta Rat War

Nov 16 • 42:04

Rats live wherever people live, with one exception: the Canadian province of Alberta. A rat sighting in Alberta is a major local event that mobilizes the local government to identify and eliminate any hint of infestation. Rat sightings makes the local news. Alberta prides itself on being the sole rat-free territory in the world, but in order to achieve this feat, it had to...

The Great Helga Hype

Nov 9 • 56:02

In the summer of 1986, both Time Magazine and Newsweek ran blockbuster cover stories on the same subject: a secret cache of provocative, intimate paintings by Andrew Wyeth, one of America's most famous artists. These paintings were completed over fifteen years and all featured the same, often-nude model named Helga, and had been hidden from his wife and the public for 15 y...

Selling Out

Aug 6 • 50:06

In 2001, Oprah Winfrey invited Jonathan Franzen to come on her show to discuss his new novel The Corrections. A month later she withdrew the invitation, kicking off a media firestorm. The Oprah-Franzen Book Club Dust-Up of 2001 was a moment when two ways of thinking about selling out smashed into each other, and one of them—the one that was on its way out already— crashed ...

Tattoo Flash

Jul 27 • 50:32

Time does funny thing to everything, but especially to tattoos. Today, four stories about tattoos whose meanings have shifted with the passage of years, decades, or centuries: first, a look into an archive of 300 preserved tattooed skins, then a personal investigation into into the Tasmanian Devil tattoo, the story of the Zune tattoo guy, and finally mistranslated Chinese ...

The Tootsie Shot

Jul 20 • 39:17

You know the Tootsie Shot. It’s that shot from the movies: a really busy midtown street, protagonist smack in the middle of it all, everyone going somewhere. It’s one of the most recognizable shots in film. It can be found in Working Girl, Midnight Cowboy, Wall StreetHeartburnElfBridget Jones’s DiaryThe Devil Wears PradaThe Wolf of Wall Street, and so many more. ...

Who Killed The Segway?

Jul 13 • 45:40

In the year 2000, Dan Kois was a junior book agent working on selling a secretive book proposal called IT, a codename for what would eventually be revealed as the Segway personal scooter. This is the story of the invention and development of a potentially revolutionary device, how Dan may or may not have doomed it, how the hype got out of control, and how that speculation ...

The Sign Painter

Jul 6 • 58:45

Ilona Granet was a New York art-scene fixture who won the praise of the art world when she put up anti-harassment street signs in lower Manhattan in the mid- 1980s. Her career seemed like a sure thing, but three decades on, and so much more art later, it still hasn’t materialized, even as her contemporaries are now hanging in museums. This episode is not about the familiar...

That Seattle Muzak Sound

Jun 29 • 44:11

If you love the show and want to support us, consider joining Slate Plus. With Slate Plus you can binge the whole season of Decoder Ring right now, plus ad free podcasts, bonus episodes, and much more....

The Invention of Hydration

Jun 22 • 37:17

To say that hydration is an invention is only a slight exaggeration. Back in the 1970’s and ‘80s, no one carried bottled water with them, but by the ‘90s it was a genuine status object. How did bottled water transform itself from a small, European luxury item to the single largest beverage category in America? It took both technological innovation, but even more importantl...

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