Skip to main content

Graphic Literacy in the Computer Age.

Linguist Geoff Nunberg talks about a new kind of literacy test revealed by the Palm Beach County Ballot controversy.


Other segments from the episode on November 14, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 14, 2000: Interview with Vernor Vinge; Interview with Steve Buscemi; Commentary on the 2000 presidential election.


DATE November 14, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Author and professor Vernor Vinge discusses his new
novel, "A Deepness in the Sky," and the science fiction industry

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neal Conan in for Terry Gross.

Science fiction is a literature of ideas, but one necessarily tied to
Many of the great SF novels of the 1950s still work as stories, but they're
almost laughably out of date in technology. Vernor Vinge is both the victim
and the perpetrator of this conundrum. Twenty years ago, he wrote a science
fiction novella called "True Names" that projected computers powerful enough
to generate what we now call cyberspace. The Net also figures prominently
his brilliant award-winning novel "A Fire Upon the Deep." Vernor Vinge is
also a professor emeritus of mathematics and computer science at San Diego
State University, who believes that everything he and everyone else has
written will be out of date in the post-human era, which he suspects will
begin in about 25 years.

Professor VERNOR VINGE (Author): When you look at the advances in
there's one common rule of thumb that's supplied to them called Moore's Law,
which has various, more or less, precise definitions, but roughly speaking,
it's that for the same price, things get better with computers, about double
every year and a half or two years. Other people have taken this and tried
estimate how powerful is our thinking process as human beings? And in fact,
we are enormously more powerful--in case people haven't guessed, we're
enormously more powerful than any computer that was ever built. It's so
laughably more powerful that, in fact, this is probably why any discussion
superhuman computers sounds so frivolous. On the other hand...

CONAN: This is despite all the chess programs and that sort of thing.

Prof. VINGE: Right. If you tried to make an estimate of how
powerful we are as humans, it is very powerful. On the other hand, Moore's
Law is doubling every year and a half or two years. So there have been a
number of people who have tried to make some estimate of how swift and
intelligent we are in terms of what our basic hardware is like, and come to
the conclusion that if Moore's Law were to continue for another 20 years or
so, that we would hit a crossover point, that we would hit a point where it
would be possible to make computers as powerful as humans, assuming someone
could figure out, you know, how to program them. And, in fact, to me,
amazing and wonderful and so on. It's not especially shattering, because we
already know how to make things as smart as people. We can do it. It takes
about nine months.

But the important thing about the crossover point is what happens a year or
two after that? If you got critters that were smarter than humans in
significant ways, more creative, then, in a way, the thing that really
differentiates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, we have lost being at
the top of, and the thing that makes it possible for us to predict what's
going to happen technologically is our creative intelligence. Well, if the
central players are actually of a greater intelligence than that, then that
means after that sort of a crossover point, people who try to do
prognostications, like science fiction writers...

CONAN: Right.

Prof. VINGE: any sort of even a product of manager types, in a
fundamental way, they are out of the loop. One analogy I use is in the
if you were a futurologist, you could make predictions. Like if we could,
some magic way, bring Mark Twain into this studio this afternoon, take him
outside, in a weekend, he would be up to speed about our world. And I think
he'd love it, because he was sort of a techno-freak. If you were to bring a
goldfish into this studio, there's no way you could explain to it what we're
doing, much less what the rest of the world is about. And, to me, that
be the distinction between prognostication about technology as it has
in the past and our trying to make prognostication about technology after
crossover point.

CONAN: In a correlation, though, between your two worlds of mathematics,
computer science on the one hand and science fiction on the other, Asimov's
famous three laws of robotics, and that is, of course, restrictions on the

robots to make sure that they don't take over.

Prof. VINGE: Right. And basically, it's a hierarchy of laws ultimately
trying to ensure that although these robots will do what we want, that they
won't hurt us. And these are to be built into the mechanism of these human
and superhuman machines. We're talking about stuff that nobody had ever
and being done in ways that we can't understand, so this is fun, but I don't
claim it's, in any way, definitive or true. But my personal belief is that
you tried to make laws like that, ones that didn't have enough wiggle room
that a really smart robot could think around them, you might be able to do
but it would be a very uncompetitive product; in other words, very likely
way this stuff would happen would be out of competition, military
economic competition, even artistic competition. And in such a situation,
you built a critter that was strictly enough regulated so it really couldn't
think its way around these laws, I don't think it would be competitive
other people who would make things that were a little bit more loosely

CONAN: It would also assume that if you're building in these
laws, that you're intending actually to build something that is smarter than

Prof. VINGE: Yes. And I think it's very likely that when this really
happens, it will not necessarily be because of someone's proximate conscious
effort to make it happen. The whole issue of human-computer
know, keyboards, mouses--all of this stuff is really a long, long path
dedicated to the same thing: making it easier for us to use these devices
get answers that we want. And so as we move into more and more easy
interactions with machines--wearable computers, implantable computers, very
large systems, say, that are automatically controlling highway systems and
things like this--it's a slide that I don't think has any one particular
moment where you can say, `Oh, we don't want to do that. That might be

CONAN: So it's likely to happen almost by accident.

Prof. VINGE: Yes. Now I think there are arguments for saying that it
wouldn't happen. In fact, one thing has been fun for me over the years is
collect all the reasons why people say this is all impossible. And some of
them are just sort of gut level things about, you know, machines and people.
I think that if it doesn't happen, the most likely apparent reason will be
that we never figure out how to write these really big computer programs
would be necessary to do all this wonderful stuff. So...

CONAN: And...

Prof. VINGE: Go ahead.

CONAN: ...incompetence would be in our way.

Prof. VINGE: Our incompetence with software complexity or the complexity of
large systems. Moore's Law is one thing. But if you talk to a programmer
about Moore's Law and about some of the things we're talking about, most of
them will roll their eyes, and they'll say, `Have you ever worked on any
really large program?' I suspect that in order for this stuff to work out
way I'm talking about, we would have to have some fundamentally different
of looking at creating large systems. It wouldn't be programming. It would
be more biological. And, in fact, the problem has been solved. I believe
human brain has about a hundred billion neurons. And each of those neurons
arguably as powerful as a computer CPU. And they all do work together. So
there actually are working models that have solved these massive parallelism
problems. That's the strongest reason to believe there's some way of doing
it. I don't think it will be done by anything like what we think of as
software engineering or programming.

CONAN: Well, such speculation inevitably leads you into philosophical, even
religious questions.

Prof. VINGE: Yes. In fact, I think the analogy with the standard
you know, the coming of the New Age religious stuff or as I think science
fiction writer Ken McLeod put it, `the techno-rapture,' referring it to his

CONAN: That's a great word.

Prof. VINGE: Yes. It really has--psychologically, the hierarchy of ideas,
you just look at what is being said about conclusions, it looks isomorphic,
looks the same shape as many of the religious transcendental type things in
the past. I think that's a valid descriptive criticism. I think there is
still kind of the necessity of sitting down and looking at this case and
looking at what is actually going on and deciding whether the similarity of
shape is an accident or it's a mental failure of the people running around
talking about the techno-rapture.

CONAN: But we feel intrinsically that there is something beyond simple
computing power that translates to that quality of being human; that simple
accumulation of computing power in a machine will never make it human.

Prof. VINGE: I think that's actually the strongest internal gut criticism
the notion. For me, I think that criticism is not really valid. We have
seen really powerful machines. And furthermore, I would certainly grant
the organization of the machine in the way the different parts work with
other, talk to each other, is supremely important. If we don't do this, I
think it will be because we just don't figure out how to get very large
numbers of these devices to coordinate the way our brain cells coordinate
one another. But you've put your finger on kind of the internal reason
why--sort of hard-wired reason within us that this whole thing looks very

CONAN: Yet, if you get a machine that, I guess, has enough computational
power to it, it'll acquire--well, they used to say about, you know, the
difference between the US Air Force and the Soviet air force, the US Air
had much better quality planes, but the Soviets had much more of them. And
they used to argue that, you know, quantity has a quality all its own.

Prof. VINGE: There are some people who think that if we just made a
that, say, had as many processors as the human brain and did fairly routine
things with it, that it would eventually, quote, "wake up," unquote. I
know whether that's true or not. I really sort of doubt it. I suspect that
it's very likely we're going to get to the point where we make machines this
large, because you look at Moore's Law and you look at market forces. The
demand is there for other reasons for machines to get this powerful. There
are a couple things that could go wrong. We may have misestimated,
underestimated how powerful single neurons are. There are some people who
think that single neurons are as good as the largest computer that was--ever
been built. But...

CONAN: Well, that seems just to postpone the date, not to change it.

Prof. VINGE: Yeah, that would just postpone it. So the more likely failure
scenario would be, you know, you make something this big and don't figure
how to make the parts talk. Probably the way--if we do succeed in doing it,
it will be a matter of growing certain sorts of behaviors into it and
the thing, much as what happens, say, in the first nine months of a fetus'
life and in the first year or two after that, where there's an awful lot of
sort of formation that occurs. There are very serious people around who
believe that that's not the way it is, that it can be done very directly
with a few relatively simple rules that we haven't figured out. They're
optimistic in this direction than I am.

CONAN: My guest is Vernor Vinge. His most recent novel is "A Deepness in
Sky." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Vernor Vinge's most recent book is "A Deepness in the Sky." He's
guest on FRESH AIR.

In that book, "A Deepness in the Sky," you managed to set a book in the far
future involving space-faring species that come across a first astronomical
phenomenon and set the story, to a large degree, seemingly in the 1930s.

Prof. VINGE: Yes. I did what has been done in science fiction a lot. I
this alien race. The alien race is about at the level of technology that we
were in the '30s. And for me, the other fun thing about it, another fun
about it was that I turned the "Men in Black," you know, the movie and the
whole thing about UFOs--I turn it upside-down. Because in this story, the
humans are the UFOs. We're lurking around at the edges of this non-human
civilization, and we're waiting to take over. And we're watching these guys
and watching what they're doing, and they're essentially going through a lot
of the stresses that we went through in the 20th century, except in a
intensified form because of their peculiar problems. So this made it easy
me to do a lot of things and play on a lot of issues that are meaningful to
us and still do it realistically in the sense that it is thousands of years
from now.

CONAN: One of the most attractive elements, of course, to people in my
business is that one of the most interesting elements of this world is a
children's radio program.

Prof. VINGE: Yes. The children's radio program, of course, this is the
non-human race. The children of that race have this radio program, and the
aliens--I mean, the humans--remember, the humans are the flying saucer

CONAN: Are the ETs, yeah.

Prof. VINGE: Yeah. The humans are the ETs. Anyway, the humans are lurking
up in space, and they're listening to this radio program, because radio
programs, in particular, are good for them because they can study the
of the non-humans; you know, just like the reverse in flying saucer stories.
And they especially like children's radio programs, because there, the
language is simpler, depending on, you know, the age range. So they had
stolen a bunch of children's textbooks earlier in the story to kind of get a
start. And then they listen to this children's radio program. And because
various plot stresses in the story, the humans are in a very stressful
situation and they're going to be there for a number of years, and they
have any children, and they can't see these non-human critters, who actually
don't look very nice at all. They're not humanlike.

CONAN: Spiders is what they are, yeah.

Prof. VINGE: Yeah, they look like large spiders. They're not, you know,
really spiders, but they have that physical appearance. And so the humans
really are getting wrapped up in the radio show. They have all the reasons
that I just said for why they're interested in the radio show, but they also
have character-driven reasons why they're interested in it. And one of the
most fun, but trickiest scenes of the book is I have the radio show going
the children's radio show, the humans are listening, the humans are doing
live translations for their own people--you know, like the UN, and that's
being just sort of shunted through all the human space station. And there's
this interaction as they're trying to figure out what's going on on the
ground. Then I also have scenes on the ground sort of intermixed with how
radio show is being seen topside amongst the humans. And so there's a
tricky interaction of motivations there that ultimately do have some
connection, it turns out, rather deep in action moving connections.

CONAN: Your wife wrote science fiction as well.

Prof. VINGE: Ah, my ex-wife.


Prof. VINGE: We were married from '71 until '79.

CONAN: This is Joan Vinge.

Prof. VINGE: Right, Joan D. Vinge. And so we still actually vet each
work and, you know, talk about the work that each other is doing. So I'm
pleased that she continued with the name Vinge, both for personal and
professional reasons.

CONAN: Did you guys meet in the world of science fiction or how did that

Prof. VINGE: I was an invited speaker, as a science fiction writer, at an
English course about science fiction. It was, I think, an extension course.
And she was attending it. This was like 1969. And so that's where we met.
So she had been doing some--she had already been into writing science
At that time, she had not sold any. And it really was fun. You know, any
time two pros get to talk about the work they're working on, that is fun.
in this case, since it was also the romance angle, that was also very fun.

CONAN: But a lot of science fiction writers have a lot of trouble with this
little world of conventions and these awards. You know, they almost cringe
the idea of hanging out with people with Spock ears.

Prof. VINGE: Oh, I think actually, the science fiction convention part of
society is an extraordinarily interesting thing. It is fairly large. It's
large enough so that there are people who are intensely interested in
particular stories and series of stories like "Star Trek," but then also
interested in other things. Overall, I don't think it has been done, but
be very interesting for some anthropologists to do a thesis on the science
fiction convention, the people who go to science fiction conventions. I am
very admiring, actually, of the phenomenon of the science fiction
There are situations where it brings together, really, the most creative
people in the world in a variety of fields.

For instance, the World Science Fiction Convention, I remember wandering
around LA con in 1984 and just seeing what was going on. There were older
people, but there were the sort of young Turks from the movie industry, from
the writing industry, from the comic book industry, from the general
technology industry and even from the military. And to be able to sit down
a bar or sit in the exhibits and be talking to people who were actually
the brightest and most creative, even if not yet the most recognized, is a
very extraordinary thing. On balance, I think the science fiction
have been an enormous help to young people who have certain sorts of intense
concentrated interests in certain creative and technical fields.

CONAN: Vernor Vinge, thank you very much.

Prof. VINGE: Oh, thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Vernor Vinge is a professor emeritus of mathematics and computer
science at San Diego State University. His most recent novel is "A Deepness
in the Sky." This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) My baby's gone on a trip to the moon, and she
won't be back too soon. She doesn't write me and I can't sleep. All I hear
from her is (musical instrument noises). My baby's up in a rocket machine.
Since she left, she ain't been seen. She doesn't call me and I can't sleep.
All I hear from her is (musical instrument noises). I wonder if (musical
instrument noises) means I miss you. Or maybe (musical instrument noises)
means I want to kiss you. I'm hoping that (musical instrument noises) means
love you and she's coming down to Earth again. My baby's high in the
stratosphere. I'm so low because I'm down here. My love for her is going
keep till she comes back and whispers (musical instrument noises). I wonder
if (musical instrument noises) means I miss you...


CONAN: Coming up, actor and director Steve Buscemi on the differences
independent and blockbuster films. Buscemi's newest movie is called "Animal
Factory." And Geoff Nunberg on literacy and the Palm Beach County ballot

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Steve Buscemi discusses his new film, "Animal
Factory," which he produced and directed

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neal Conan in for Terry Gross.

My guest, Steve Buscemi, is an actor who's appeared in more than 60 movies.
He's probably best known for his work with the Coen brothers in "Fargo,"
"Barton Fink" and "Miller's Crossing," and in Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir
Dogs." There he played a member of a gang. A leader assigns code names to
protect the thieves' identity, but Buscemi's character is unhappy with his

(Soundbite from "Reservoir Dogs")

Unidentified Actor #1: Here are your names: Mr. Brown, Mr. White, Mr.
Blonde, Mr. Blue, Mr. Orange and Mr. Pink.

Mr. STEVE BUSCEMI (As Mr. Pink): Why am I Mr. Pink?

Unidentified Actor #1: Because you're a faggot, all right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUSCEMI: Why can't we pick our own colors?

Unidentified Actor #1: No way. No way. Tried it once--it doesn't work.
get four guys all fighting over who's going to be Mr. Black. But they don't
know each other, so nobody wants to back down. Now way. I pick. You're
Pink. Be thankful you're not Mr. Yellow.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Yeah, but Mr. Brown, that's a little bit too close to Mr.
(censored). Mr. Pink sounds like Mr. (censored). How about if I'm Mr.
Purple? That sounds good to me. I'll be Mr. Purple.

Unidentified Actor #1: You're not Mr. Purple. Some guy on some other job
Mr. Purple. You're Mr. Pink!

Unidentified Actor #2: Who cares what your name is?

Mr. BUSCEMI: Yeah, that's easy for you to say. You're Mr. White, and you
have a cool-sounding name. All right, look, if it's no big deal to be Mr.
Pink, you want to trade?

CONAN: Steve Buscemi gives himself a small part in the new movie, "Animal
Factory," which he directed. The film introduces us to Eastern State
Penitentiary through the eyes of Ron Decker, an attractive young man who

to learn the rules of prison life if he's to survive. He quickly learns
he will need allies, and he turns to an older convict, Earl, for protection.
The film has many familiar elements: rape, murder, drugs, escape, politics
and protest, but it's driven by the unusual relationship between the two
characters. In this scene, Earl, played by Willem Dafoe, explains to Ron,
played by Edward Furlong, why he's decided to help him.

(Soundbite from "Animal Factory")

Mr. WILLEM DAFOE (As Earl): Of course, if I'm to be completely truthful, I
probably wouldn't help you at all if you were ugly. But that's my problem,
not yours. Little I've seen tells me you're neither stupid nor weak.

Mr. EDWARD FURLONG (As Ron Decker): I'm just not in my element in here, you

Mr. DAFOE: I know. Best way to explain this--it's a need, to feel
something I don't get from Paul or Vito or T.J. I mean, I love those guys,
but it's different. This is different. It's not about fucking you. I
have done that already, if that's all I wanted. The last thing I want is
you to get a jacket as a punk. You do, and you carry that wherever you go,
any prison you go to, even 20 years from now. All a convict has is his
among his peers. Remember that.

CONAN: It's an extraordinary performance, I think, by Willem Dafoe. He


CONAN: ...both scary--I couldn't help but compare him to Mark Messier, the
kind of--that almost symbol of bald-headed toughness...

Mr. BUSCEMI: Right.

CONAN: ...but shows so much--you don't expect to see such a tender side.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Which is why I really wanted Willem to play the part, because
Willem has all of that in him, you know. To look at him--I mean, he's not
really a big guy, but he's...

CONAN: He can carry himself as big.

Mr. BUSCEMI: He does. He does, and he looks menacing, and he, you know,
certainly looks like he could command the respect of the other convicts in
prison yard. And yet, he also has the intelligence and the sensitivity that
was required of this character, as well.

CONAN: The prison itself is almost a character. When you went looking for
location, what were you looking for?

Mr. BUSCEMI: Well, the book takes place in San Quentin, which has the--you
know, the classic five tiers. So we were looking for a place like that, but
it's hard to find. I mean, I knew that I didn't want to shoot in a real
prison, because you're at the mercy of their schedule, and...

CONAN: A little inflexible, at times.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Yes. And then somebody told me about this place in
Philadelphia, Eastern States Penitentiary, which is the first penitentiary
that was built in the United States by the Quakers in, I think, the early
1800s. And we went and we looked at it, and it's a great place, but it's
a museum, and you can shoot there, but you can't change anything, and so the
place was just a little bit too--looked too run-down to be a working prison,
but they said that there's one that looks exactly like it that was designed
the same way a few miles away in Holmsburg, and this had been vacant for
five years, so it was in much better shape, and they told us that we could
anything we wanted to it. So that became our location, and I fell in love
with the look of it, because it's a very unusual place. It's designed like
wagon wheel, and the main guard center is in the center of the facility, and
all the cell blocks, which are just single house cell blocks, are like
off the main hub, and surrounded by 30-foot stone wall.

CONAN: There are some extraordinarily vivid characters, including two
by Mickey Rourke, Jan, the actress...

Mr. BUSCEMI: Right.

CONAN: ...and Tom Arnold, who is really menacing.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Right. Yeah, we were really fortunate to get both of them in
the film. Mickey I had worked with before, so we knew each other a little
bit, and I knew that he was interested in working with me. I think he was a
little surprised when we offered him this part, but once he committed, he
just amazing. I mean, he practically showed up dressed the way that he is
the film. I mean, he brought his own wardrobe, did his own nails, and even
wrote a monologue that I used in the film about becoming--you know, wishing
was a butterfly and flying out through the bars and flying to Paris, which I
find--found really moving, and I only had him for a day and a half, so I
didn't have a lot of time to work with him, but I think I used just about
almost every frame that I shot of him, and he was so much fun to work with,
and to watch.

And Tom Arnold, I didn't know, but we have the same agent, and my agent said
that he was--he, too, was interested in working with me, and was there
anything in the film? And I thought, well, if I'm--you know, and that idea
intrigued me, because he is such a character, Tom. And even in his comedy,
you know, to me there's a sense of, you know, anger that lurks beneath it,
you know--and he definitely has an edge. And I wanted to see him do
something, you know, really different from what we're used to seeing.

CONAN: You're a character actor of no small reputation yourself, and yet
give yourself a role in this film, which--excuse me if I characterize it as
somewhat gray role, as a prison official. Why didn't you take one of the
really meaty ones?

Mr. BUSCEMI: Well, actually, I wasn't so interested in being in the film,
my financier said that if I did take a role, that my name would mean
in securing the financing. So I gave myself a small part, and it was tough,
because I didn't want to play a convict. I feel like I've done that before.
I didn't want to play a guard because in a uniform I look like Barney Fife,
and so I wasn't sure what to do, and I saw this role of this prison
and I thought, well, I get to wear a shirt and tie and you know, sort of act
like a director...

CONAN: You do.

Mr. BUSCEMI: the film, and I just thought that that--you know, that
that would be the best role for me, and I enjoyed playing it, as well.

CONAN: But the suggestion came from the financial side. Are you telling us
you're a bankable name now?

Mr. BUSCEMI: I'm not a--I mean, if I, you know, said to them that I was a
lead in the film, I don't think that would have worked. But because I had
Willem and Eddie Furlong and Mickey Rourke, you know, they said, well, you
know, that--I mean, actually I think my name means more in Europe and other
foreign territories than it does here. And, you know, that's one of the
that the financier is able to finance the film. They pre-sell it in Europe.
And, you know, it just comes down to who's in it. You know, what does the
poster look like and how many names are on the poster? And, unfortunately,
mean, these--this is how lots of films get made.

CONAN: And if it means taking a part, I guess that's no great sacrifice.

Mr. BUSCEMI: It was easier for me to take a part than to ask, you know, a
famous friend of mine, you know, to say, `Can you just come in and do this
for me?' It was, you know--I mean, I wasn't, you know, that opposed to
taking a part. I mean, it's something that I did in "Tree's Lounge" and
scene, like, was a piece of cake.

CONAN: "Tree's Lounge" was the other--the first mov--feature that you

Mr. BUSCEMI: It was the first film I directed in which I was one of the
leads. So, I mean, that was exhausting. But in this I knew that I would
have to work a few days and so it didn't seem like it would take, you
didn't seem like it would take my energies away too much from the directing

CONAN: My guest is actor-director Steve Buscemi. His latest film is
Factory." We'll be back in a few moments. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: My guest is Steve Buscemi, who's graced dozens of movies over the
past 15 years or so and has just directed his second picture, "Animal

You grew up in and around New York City. Did you start out to be an actor?

Mr. BUSCEMI: Yeah. I mean, I--it wasn't until my senior year in high
that I started doing the school plays. Before that it was something that I
had always, you know, sort of dreamed about and fantasized about but was too
shy to really do in high school. But by the time I was a senior, I didn't
care what anybody thought and I said, you know, now I'm going to do it. And
my plan was to somehow get to LA because I thought, you know, if you wanted
be an actor, you had to be in Hollywood. This was when I was 18. And I was
living in Long Island. And it was my dad who said, `Look, if you really
to do this, then you should go to an acting school. And there's plenty of
good schools in New York.' So I checked out some and ended up going to the
Lee Strasberg School for a six-month period, and then studying with John
Strasberg and Sabra Jones.

CONAN: At the same time, though, weren't you working as a firefighter?

Mr. BUSCEMI: Well, that was--that came a little bit later. I had taken the
test for the fire department when I turned 18, while I was living in Long
Island. And then I had since moved to Manhattan. And it was about four
later that my name finally came up on the list.

CONAN: That's still...

Mr. BUSCEMI: But I was also still doing theater.

CONAN: Back to firefighting.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Yeah.

CONAN: I mean, that's not--everybody knows that's not an easy job. It's a
dangerous job. Did you enjoy it?

Mr. BUSCEMI: Yeah, I did. I mostly liked working with the guys that I was
working with. My first year on the job I decided that I should, you know,
really devote my, you know, energies into learning this job. And so I
doing the comedy. I was not taking acting classes. And I didn't tell
in the firehouse that I had any aspirations of, you know, being anything,
know. I was just like the quietest guy in the firehouse. And there was
another firefighter named Dean Tulipane who worked at another house who I
had heard about who was an actor. And after about eight months of being on
the job, I finally met him. And I was living in the East Village. He was
living on MacDougal Street. And he totally busted me. He said, you know,
`Why do you live in the East Village? What do you do? What are you, a
painter, actor, musician, what?' you know.

CONAN: Had to be something.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Had to be something because most, you know--the rest of these
guys lived in Long Island or Staten Island. And so I told him. And, you
know, the guys from my house looked at me astonished. And after that, they
sort of forced me to perform at the firemen parties, so I got of got back
doing stand-up that way. And then I met a couple of actors--Mark Boone Jr.,
who's in--who was in "Tree's Lounge." He's also in "Animal Factory." Boone
and I started working together. We didn't do stand-up, but we wrote and
performed our own one-act plays; eventually did some full-length plays. And
that's really how I learned not only to be a better actor, but it's where I
learned to write as well.

CONAN: When did you get into movies?

Mr. BUSCEMI: That came towards my fourth year on the fire department. Just
from doing, you know, a lot of stage work, some filmmakers would come to
out our shows. And it was when I was doing "Parting Glances." I was also
doing a play with John Jezeran, who was a writer--who is a
that I've worked with a lot. I was doing his play called "Red House." I
doing "Parting Glances" and still trying to make it to the firehouse. And I
was, you know, about ready to collapse. So something had to go. So I took
leave of absence from the fire department and I just never ended--I just
went back.

CONAN: Been a long leave.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Took a very long leave, yes.

CONAN: My guest is Steve Buscemi, the actor-director. His new film is
"Animal Factory."

One of the possibilities that opened up to you when you were in an
movie was one that seems most unlikely. You got a chance to sing in the
"The Impostors." We're going to play a clip from that movie now. You play
guy who's a suicidal lounge singer...

Mr. BUSCEMI: Right.

CONAN: the name of Happy Frank. And...

Mr. BUSCEMI: Happy Franks.

CONAN: Happy Franks. And you're just about to go on stage and it's getting
little emotional for you. Here's the clip.

(Soundbite from "The Impostors")

Mr. BUSCEMI (As Happy Franks): (Singing) It's not the pale moon that
me; that thrills and delights me. Oh, no. It's just the nearness of you.
When you're in my arms and I feel you so close to (sobs). All my wildest
dreams come true (sobs). I need no soft lights.

(End of soundbite)

CONAN: Shortly afterwards, Happy Franks goes sobbing off the stage. When
were growing up and fantasizing as a kid about being a movie actor, did you
ever think in your wildest dreams you would see yourself up on the big

Mr. BUSCEMI: No, but it was certainly a lot of fun. And I do like to sing.
Mark Boone and I used to have a band. And I used to sing in this sort of--I
won't call it a joke band, because we did write songs and we had real
musicians and we got real gigs, you know. But it was--sort of grew out of a
theater piece that we did where we played two guys in a band. And our band
was called the Pawns of Love and was sort of described as psychedelic
music. And so, I mean, I do like to sing. And I was really happy that
Stanley gave me that opportunity.

CONAN: Was there a time when you made your first couple of movies that--did
you buy a ticket and go in an watch yourself on screen?

Mr. BUSCEMI: Yeah. I mean, I remember doing that for "Parting Glances."
I think the last time I did it was with Adam Sandler. He hadn't seen
"Reservoir Dogs." And we were in LA and it was showing--there was a midnight
showing of it. And he convinced me to go along with him and a few of his
buddies. And he said it was the only way that he would see it was if I went
with him. So we went. And it was, you know--and it was fun because I
you know, really get a chance to see films with, you know, sort of a regular
audience. I mean, I see my films either at special screenings or in a film
festival where it's--you know, you're getting real film lovers at a film
festival. But just to see it with a regular, general audience is nice.

CONAN: When you look at yourself, I mean, are you agonized; just
all your mistakes or swept away by the fact that that's you up there?

Mr. BUSCEMI: You know, I'm sort of used to it. But I still cringe every
once in a while. I still am amazed at how crooked my teeth are because, for
some reason, when I look in the mirror it doesn't--they don't seem that
crooked. When I see myself on screen, it looks worse than I could ever
imagine it. So there are those things. But, I mean, I'm fairly used to it.

CONAN: Your dentist hasn't...

Mr. BUSCEMI: And plus from--my dentist?

CONAN: Yes. I...

Mr. BUSCEMI: He hasn't--I have had a lot of dentists try to straighten
teeth out. And I say, `You're going to kill my livelihood if you do that.'

CONAN: We wish you good luck.

Mr. BUSCEMI: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

CONAN: Actor-director Steve Buscemi. His new movie is "Animal Factory."

Up next, the butterfly ballot and the terminology of the Florida recount.
This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Evolution of literacy

The confusion over Palm Beach county's butterfly ballot has linguist Geoff
Nunberg thinking about graphic literacy in the computer age.


Who'd have figured a week ago that the whole nation would be locked in a
debate about literacy requirements? I'm not thinking of those literacy
that Southern states used to use where the registrar would selectively
African-Americans to answer questions about obscure points of constitutional
law. Congress tossed those out with the Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s.
the Palm Beach county ballot was a new kind of literacy test, if an
inadvertent one. In this case, of course, opinions tend to follow party
lines. Democrats have been depicting the Palm Beach ballot as a kind of
Chinese maze. One cartoonist published an official Florida ballot that
Bush's name connected by a straight, short arrow to one hole, while the
after Gore, Nader and Buchanan's names were tangled up so you couldn't tell
which was which.

Whereas Republicans were putting the blame on voters who were simply too dim
to punch the right hole. A demonstrator in Tallahassee was carrying a sign
that read, `If you can read this, you must be a Republican.' And a
did a version of the Palm Beach ballot that replaced Buchanan's name with a
declaration next to the punch hole that read, `I am clearly too stupid to be
included in the process of electing a president.'

Politics aside, the debate isn't really that different from a conversation
that's repeated a couple of million times a day every time somebody calls a
(800) hotline for help in installing a printer driver or filling out a
benefits form. The people at the help desk may be more polite about it than
those Republicans have been, but they usually manage to convey the same kind
of message: You're clearly too stupid to be included in the process of
installing a printer.

In the old days, we thought of literacy as a purely verbal skill. That was
implicit in the school curriculum, which was anchored in the assumption that
you could master all of the linguistic skills you needed to function as a
member of modern society in the course of learning to write a
book report. Teachers spent a week on pie charts and bar graphs, but apart
from that, they never delved into the higher mysteries of document layout.
But then in those days, it didn't matter as much. Most documents were a lot
simpler. And the more complicated ones were usually designed by
professionals; people who knew their way around all those exotic features
fonts, faces, columns, tables and the rest. It was a more innocent age when
terms like `line letting' and `page break' were as recondite as hanging chad
was before last weekend.

But the world has acquired a lot more complicated interface since then. It
started with the punch cards and the standardized tests of the '50s, and by
now we've reached the point where you have to negotiate an elaborate
interface every time you want to buy gas or a bus ticket or take money out
the bank, with a microchip on the other end that's not in a position to make

And the new forms of electronic documents add another level. In place of
bare text that came out of a typewriter, now we have to navigate desktop
publications, PowerPoint slides and Web pages, most of them created by
who know as much about designing a page as they do about drawing a horse.
Nowadays, anybody's free to explore the uncharted frontiers of typographic
design and that's pretty much what anybody's been doing.

Think of the unfortunate Theresa LePore, the Palm Beach County supervisor of
elections. According to press reports, she was simply trying to help out
older voters by increasing the font size on the ballots, using templates
some 12-year-old MS-DOS software. And then when the text got too big for
column, she started moving things around to make it fit. That's the
emblematic predicament of the post-modern writer. It's one thing to compose
coherent text and another to get it to print out right. And it's no wonder
readers are so often led astray these days, particularly if they're
from a trusting nature that's left over from an age when you could assume
typographers knew what they were doing.

One of the most poignant things about accounts of illiteracy is just how
the world can be when every sign and piece of paper seems an
obstacle. That's the same way a lot of people feel in the face of all of
these new interfaces and documents. Age has something to do with it, of
course, but you can find a lot of young people who have this feeling of
anxiety tinged with shame. I suspect that that's one thing behind the
distress that many of those Palm Beach voters felt when they discovered
voted for Pat Buchanan. And it may explain why a lot of them didn't ask for
another ballot, the same way illiterates don't like to admit that they have
trouble reading.

I heard somebody on CNN say, `Well, soon we'll all be voting on the Internet
and we won't have these problems.' I'll grant you there's something to be
said for any solution that would send the word chad back to the obscurity it
deserves. Still, I have my doubts about online voting. I'm not thinking
about the security problems or the unfair advantage it gives to people who
have Internet hookups in their homes, but what's going to happen when every
county has a different Theresa LePore putting up its ballot on a Web page
all the opportunities for confusion and misdirection that the technology
affords. It's hard to see how the process won't disenfranchise even more of
those people who are slow off the typographic mark, only this time around
it'll be even worse. You'll log into vote and click on what looks like the
right button and then a minute later you'll suddenly realize that you've
bid on a fondue set at eBay.

CONAN: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox
Alto Research Center.

(Credits given)

CONAN: Terry Gross is back tomorrow. Thanks for listening. I'm Neal
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue