The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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What Makes a Good Podcast?

In the two Radiolab podcasts "Darkode" and "The Ceremony", the producers make exceptional use of conversation and sound effects to make an effective podcast. Part of what made the podcasts more interesting is that the people speaking are not really talking directly to the speaker, which is what I'm pretty sure most of us did in the podcasts we made. Instead, they had an actual conversation. I liked the Darkode episode especially because of this. The conversation also wasn't scripted, so the speech sounded normal and human, and not like it was written first. You could tell because the people speaking actually had to think about what they were going to say next, and because there were times in which they would hesitate or laugh in the middle of a sentence, which made it all sound very natural and appealing.

Another way in which these podcast were made more accessible was the way in which the producer told one long story throughout, and then branched off to explain certain parts of it. Each of these episodes really only revolved around a few topics, but they made sure to explain every detail of the things they talked about, which is what allowed them to create a 40-50 minute long podcast episode without running out of content.

Effective Podcasting

In the Darkode episode, the podcast producer structures the podcast as two narratives scattered with technical information to make the material more interesting. The first story told in the Darkode episode is about Alina Simone, who was extorted by a cybercriminal. The producer invited all the people involved in her story, including herself, her daughter and the Coin Cafe employee to join the podcast so, there were many different voices telling their side of the story. Additionally, the producer only introduced a new guest at the point in which they had entered Alina’s story. For example, when Alina was telling the listener she had called her daughter, Inna Simone, that was the point when Inna was introduced in the podcast. This technique contributed to creating a feeling as though the listener was in the moment with Alina, watching her disaster unfold. As the two narratives in the podcast unfold, there are technical explanations and terms thrown around such as botnet, script kitty and installs. The producer ensures there is an explanation of all the technical terms which might be unknown to the average listener. Furthermore, the podcast host makes metaphors to simplify more complex concepts. For example, to explain the function of the website Darkode, the narrator compares the Darkcode to a fair where people purchase goods. He simplifies the transaction between Darkcode users as, “I have a burglar's tool. Do you have a door you want burgle?  I’ll give you my tool.”

Similarly, The Ceremony episode also uses sound to maintain the audience’s interest. For example, at one point when describing the creation of cryptocurrency, the narrator says “BOOM!” which is followed by the sound of waves crashing. These sounds are meant to illustrate how instantaneously cryptocurrency can be created.

The Thoughtful Production of the RadioLab Podcast

The producers of the RadioLab podcast episodes, "Darkode" and "Ceremony," implemented several elements in order to make the material more interesting and engaging.  First of all, the introductions did a good job grabbing the attention of the audience, with unique sound editing techniques.  Furthermore, the producers continued to add immersive sound effects throughout the duration of each podcast.  In the "Ceremony" episode, I really liked how they added amplified computer processor noises to imitate what it would be like to listen through the high-tech microphones that they were worried hackers might be using in the next room.  This made it clear just what these microphones were capable of and the extent that hackers sometimes go to.  I never knew such technology existed, and I would have thought it was ridiculous to worry about someone listening to the sounds your computer makes from another room.  Hearing how it is possible made me realize that sometimes being paranoid is justified.  There were also a variety of other sound effects that made the audience feel like they were part of the experience.

Another aspect that made the podcasts more interesting was that they told stories.  In the "Darkode" episode, they got a victim who was hacked using Cryptowall to give a firsthand account of what happened to her.  Her story helped make it easier to understand how Botnets work and how hackers can use them to infiltrate millions of people, encrypt their data, and make them pay ransom to get it back.  In the second half of the episode, they got one of the original creators of Darkode to explain its backstory and how it worked.  His account gave an interesting perspective on its original intended use, and how people twisted it to serve other purposes.  Personally, I found this content fascinating, and the way it was presented made it even more engaging.

How to Combat the Perils of an Online Identity

As we all know, in modern society we are being watched and surveilled by companies, individuals, and governments that want our data. Through the course of these podcasts, I think there are some key takeaways that we as students can implement to make our selves more secure and immune to major breaches to our online identity. It is very hard to stop everyone from seeing anything you post on the internet, but it is easy enough to put in a few safeguards so that major harm is mitigated. One thing that you can do is use secure passwords that vary from site to site. Password security is a big thing that students should be aware of, and using tools like apple keychain or another password creator/sorter is an effective way to combat against people trying to steal your identity. We saw earlier in the year that when a website's database is breached, it is only the 90% of the least secure passwords that are compromised because it is not worth trying to hack extremely secure passwords since they take to much time and computing power to crack.   Also, I know that certain products like iPhones are better about security than androids because of some of the safeguards that they put in place to make their phones and devices more secure. These are a few ways to keep yourself more immune to attacks on the internet, although, in matters like these, nothing is certain, so you also have to be careful what you put online as a student.

Another smart thing to do as a student is to have external backups to important files on your computer in the event that you are hacked. As shown in the first podcast, if a device is compromised it can be very hard (and expensive) to recover your data. Having an external backup will make you have a failsafe in place.


An Engaging Podcast Format

In the first Radiolab episode, "Darkode", hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad tell entertaining stories that are based on hacking, from a remote hacking of Inna Simone, to a highly optimized and well funded organization of hackers in Europe called Darkode (stylized as dark0de), where the episode gets its name from.

Right off the bat, the hosts pose a rhetorical question that grabs the listener's attention, which gives the audience something to think about while the guests tell their story. The producers waste no time in putting in distinct soundbites that keep the listener on their feet. Throughout the episode, sound effects are used even more effectively to mirror and augment the natural emotional reactions to fluctuations and climaxes within the story, for example intense music when the story comes to a particularly exciting moment or silly music when someone says something funny.

In addition, the way that the episode was edited made the conversation flow better, but I'm not sure if it seemed more natural. Different parts of the conversation were spliced together so that there were almost no pauses between when people spoke, and although this started to stray away from the cadence of natural conversation, it somehow made the episode flow better. This made the episode both more interesting and more accessible, because the conversation was more engaging and never got boring.

Also, the format of the episode in which several "sub-episodes" were put into one big episode was interesting. It certainly didn't drag on in the same way that shorter episodes dedicated solely to one topic tend to be, and even though the episode was very long, it didn't get boring to listen to.

A Good Podcast By Using Excellent Introductions and Voices

After listening to the podcast “Something Out of Nothing” by Maria Sellers, I found many interest points about this podcast, both the content and the structure. Also, I learned several useful ideas about the production of a podcast.

First of all, The title of the show notes of the podcast,  “Something Out of Nothing”, would definitely draw everyone’s attention in a series of titles and push the audience to click into the podcast. After that, the show notes provide a great introduction to the whole story. We could know that the story is about the true identity of Shakespeare and the hide secrets in his plays. However, in order to learn more about the interesting story, we have to move on.

I have to admit that the introductory music is excellent. It successfully builds a mysterious atmosphere of the whole story and it is also used between every section of the whole story. Each time this little period of music shows up, I am looking forward to learning about a new interesting part of the story of Shakespeare.

Another voice she combines in her podcast is the monologue of Shakespeare. This part after the intro music also helps to build the atmosphere and leads to the topic. She also read several pieces of Shakespeare’s work to enrich the elements of the whole podcast.

To summarize, the podcast “Something Out of Nothing” helps me a lot on the producing of my own podcast. I learn about the use of music between each part and introduce various elements in the story. Also, an attractive title and proper show notes could attract more audience to listen to my podcast. I really appreciate the reasonable structure and exquisite production of this podcast.

Numbers Station Podcast

Numbers Stations is particularly interesting for me for many reasons. In the intro part, the author starts by talking about his personal connection with the topic, thus making his listeners more engaged in the subject. And then, the author uses a mixtape of different radio waves to create a context for the listeners. The author then wastes no time to dive right into a very simple and elegant introduction of the topic, starting with an example of the spanish numbers station.

What's particularly interesting to me is how the author went a long way to quote a lot of different sources. By stating everyone's name and position, he successfuly convinced his audience the credibility of his sources and brought many different perspectives to the podcast. He managed to keep all his examples authentic, despite the fact that they are all in different languages. The audience was provided with a great historic context. The author also ended by exploring the contemporary development of the topic, creating a sense of entirety for the topic.

The music use throughout the podcast was very intriguing. The tone of the music remained almost unchanged, and he adjusted different tunes to fit with the plot line. Overall the podcast is a mixture of many elements and its audience would never get bored.

A Killer on the Loose

"A Killer on the Loose: The Zodiac Ciphers" gives an extensive history of the Zodiac Killer and the attempts of the officials at Vallejo at capturing him. I believe that the producers were successful in making a good podcast and kept a balance between the content and the theatrical aspects of it.

The title itself gives the impression of an interesting podcast and serves as a good hook for the audience. Additionally, the background music complements the eerie tone set by the podcast and betters the experience of the audience. The structure of the podcast is such that it seems like an interesting story but is also filled with information and facts which seems like a good way of sharing raw information without causing much boredom. To refer to an example, the segment about cracking the Zodiac cipher seemed to come right out of a dramatic movie but was filled with precise information on the cryptanalytical steps taken.

Finally, I also felt that the conclusion was done in manner that inspired the audience to look up the focus of the podcast. By mentioning different unlikely theories, the producer was able to spark an interest in the different theories behind the identity of the Zodiac Killer. All these factors contributed in making this podcast a good production.

Zodiac Killer on the Loose

I thought that the podcast about the Zodiac Killer was extremely interesting and very well done. I think that one of the most important aspects of this podcast was the use of music. The creator of the podcast clearly knew how dark the subject matter was and chose music accordingly. I liked how the music was not overpowering either so that the voice of the narrator was crisp and clear. I think that finding this balance is difficult, and I think they did a very good job with it.

I also really liked their use of storytelling. Nowadays, we are so used to the movies where everything is shown to us, so explaining in words the gruesomeness and eerieness surrounding the Zodiac killer's murders is a difficult task on a podcast especially. They did a very good job with the storytelling, and overall their podcast was pretty stellar.

If I had to make one small critique though, it would be that at a couple of places there were a few short pauses/ stumbles that drew away from the rather fluid nature of the podcast, if these were cleared up, I think it would be very hard for me to tell their podcast apart from the professional ones.

Takeaways From an Engaging Podcast

One of the podcast episodes I chose to listen to was "Numbers Stations" from 99% Invisible.  The episode is hosted by Roman Mars, who discusses mysterious shortwave radio frequencies used to broadcast endless strings of numbers, also known as numbers stations.  Something I found very interesting about this topic was the degree of mystery and obscurity behind these broadcasts.  It is assumed that the numbers represent coded messages, but nobody knows who is meant to receive them.  The most popular theory is that these shortwave frequencies are used by government agencies such as the CIA to communicate with spies around the world, but there's no way to be certain.

The producer does an excellent job at keeping the podcast interesting and engaging through the use of various sound clips.  He sprinkles in recordings of numbers station broadcasts throughout the episode, allowing listeners to feel like they are directly tuning in to them.  Additionally, there is a lot of creepy background music which serves to reinforce the sense of mystery behind numbers stations and make the listener want to know more about them.  Finally, the content is explained in a way that is relatively easy to understand.  The producer avoids using heavy jargon in order to keep his audience as broad as possible.

After listening to this episode, I realized how important it is to have good background music and other appropriate sounds.  It adds a whole new dimension to the experience.  Depending on the topic I choose, I plan to implement strong auditory elements into my own podcast to hopefully make it more engaging.

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