The vocoder, the linguistic robot and the Dead Rabbit

This is how it didn’t happen: Winston Churchill is at home tapping his toes to his favorite Afrika Bambaataa number. The robot-like distortion of the vocals means that Britain’s most famous cigar afficionado cannot make out the lyric. “Hmm,” he thinks. “If only FDR and I could speak through a device like that during our top-secret transatlantic phone conversations.”

Writer Dave Tompkins will tell you how it really went down in this week’s pod (For one thing, Afrika Bambaataa was seven years old when Churchill died). Tompkins’ book tells the the story of the vocoder, from World War Two-era voice scrambler to Hip Hop toy.  Along the way, it was used to give voice to daleks, the mortal enemies of British TV sci-fi hero Doctor Who.  You may laugh, but for my generation of Brits, who grew up on Doctor Who,  daleks were way scarier than Darth Vader.  And just like Darth Vader, it was all about the voice.

Also in the pod: English teachers in South Korea don’t come cheap. Schools often have to fly them in from abroad, and then house them. The Hagjeong Primary School in Daegu is trying a cheaper alternative: a robot.  The rotund yellow and white device — think of it as a benign dalek — is  hooked up via teleconference to the Philippines, where an English teacher conducts the class through a video monitor. (I don’t know whether the robot’s “face,” a picture of a female, is a photo of the outsourced Philippino teacher, or just a generic image).  The students like the robot and its teaching style,  though it may be many years before its effectiveness can be measured. Check out this video.

Press freedoms ebb and flow around the world. We ran a report recently on the improved situation in Tunisia. In China, authorities  relaxed limits on the foreign reporters before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Now, with the uprisings in the Middle East and a would-be uprising in China, many foreign reporters are hounded, even roughed up, by the Chinese government. We check in with our correspondent Mary Kay Magistad.

Finally, the “marketing genius” who transformed the fortunes of the German herb-and-spice flavored digestif, Jägermeister.  This was a drink originally marketed to German hunters (Jägermeister means  senior forester or gamekeeper). But how many German hunters are there? Company executive Günter Mast decided a rebranding was in order. The rest is barely-remembered history, an alcoholic haze of campus parties, fuelled by mixed drinks with names like the Jägerbomb, the  Mexican Afterburner and the Dead Rabbit.

Listen via iTunes or here.

Photos: Wikicommons, Jason Strother


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9 responses to “The vocoder, the linguistic robot and the Dead Rabbit

  1. Jonathan

    I think the vocoder is a great piece of machinery. Over time it has evolved so much, from being used as a essential tool during World War II to musical applications from the 1950s to even today. If you listen to any hip hop/ r&b radio station today over 45% of hip hop and r&b songs the artist uses a vocoder to enhance the tone and make the song more catchy. The most recognizable artist who uses a vocoder is T-Pain, he is the one that actually made the vocoder famous in this genre of music.

    The linguistic robot is a very interesting teaching tool and i think it will help a lot. Also i believe it will be a very effective device down the road, it broadens for teaching.
    Jagermeister has come a long way, from Germany to liquors stores worldwide. The “jagerbomb” in recent time has become one of the most popular mixed drinks at the bar, containing Jagermeister and Redbull


  2. Today we all relay on technology, without it life will be miserable. But we have to think where this great tech will take us. If technology does everything for us what will human do. Every thing should have a certain limit. Human shouldn’t be pushed back because of new inventions. I am not saying the use of tech is not a good idea.

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