Where Emoji Come From

Season 1 • Episode 13

Each year, the powers that be endow our phones with about 70 new emoji. For 2022, you’ll be getting a mirror ball, a crutch, an X-ray, coral, a ring buoy, and a bird’s nest—with or without eggs in it. 

But who ARE the powers that be? Why do they add the emoji they add? Why do we have a blowfish but not a catfish? Why do we have police car, police officer, and judge, but not handcuffs, jail, or prison? 

In this hilarious episode, you’ll meet the shadowy figures who choose which symbols get added to the permanent set each year. You’ll hear about the Apple bagel disaster, the Android cheeseburger kerfluffle, and the floating beer-foam episode. And you’ll meet the 15-year-old whose emoji campaign changed the world—and probably got her into Stanford. 

Guests: Jennifer Daniel, director of emoji at Google; head of emoji for the Unicode Consortium, Mark Davis, cofounder and president, Unicode Consortium, Rayouf Alhumedi, creator of the hijab emoji

Episode transcript


Emoji are those tiny, colorful pictures we use to liven up our text messages and social-media posts. Every year, our phone keyboards gain 70 new emoji options. For 2022, we’ll be getting a mirror ball, a crutch, an X-ray, coral, a ring buoy, and a bird’s nest with or without eggs in it.

But where do they come from? Who decides which new symbols become part of the permanent gallery?

POGUE:     As I understand it, you are in charge of all the emoji on every Android phone, every Google device. You don’t lie there rigid and perspiring (LAUGH) at night?

DANIEL:   Oh, I do. (LAUGH) Every night. (LAUGH)

I’m David Pogue, and this is “Unsung Science.”


Season 1, Episode 13…There are only two more episodes of “Unsung Science” after this one—so if you have any interest in persuading the big bosses to green-light a Season 2, now would be a good time to leave a review on Apple Podcasts, or give this podcast a rating on Spotify. And to spread the word about your new favorite science and tech podcast.  

Anyway: Episode 13: Where Emoji Come From. I mean, obviously, you know where emoji come from—on your phone. You tap that little smiley face key on your phone’s keyboard, usually right next to the Space bar. And boom: There are the scrolling screens full of 3,000 tiny, typable pictures—faces, things, animals, flags, and symbols…All ready to drop into whatever you’re typing, to add a little visual nuance or tone to your text message or tweet.

DANIEL: They fill in the gaps that body language or eye contact or volume are lost when you’re speaking in the immediacy of digital communication.

Jennifer Daniel is a creative director for Google—well, she’s actually a bigger deal than that. She’s in charge of all emoji on all Google software products, including the world’s 2.5 billion Android phones.

She’s not just in charge; she and her very small team actually draw the emoji. On a laptop, in Adobe Illustrator.

POGUE: As I understand it, you are in charge of all the emoji on every Android phone, every Google device. It’s you.

DANIEL: I do… dabble.

POGUE: Because by that calculation, that makes you one of the most viewed artists alive.


POGUE: Billions of people a day look at your stuff!

DANIEL: Too much– too much pressure. (LAUGH) Too much pressure.  

POGUE: You don’t lie there rigid and perspiring (LAUGH) at night?

DANIEL: Oh, I do. (LAUGH) Every night. (LAUGH) Should the nose have been pink or brown? Or the rope, well, should it have been a box knot or a different type of knot? Yeah, there’s a little bit of that.

People who use emoji use them quite a bit. As a species, we send about 10 billion emoji a day. Insert your own joke here about — “and that’s just my 12-year-old!”

Emoji show up on signs, in ads, and in academic studies. One guy rewrote “Moby Dick” entirely in emoji. Called—what else?—“Emoji Dick.”

In 2017, there was even a truly awful emoji movie… called “The Emoji Movie.”

Movie clip.

But mostly, we use emoji to accompany our typed communication online—our texts, our social-media posts.

We use them to add a little hint of emotion to our written expressions, although the Japanese word emoji has nothing to do with the word emotion. That emo prefix is just a coincidence; emoji means “picture writing.”

POGUE: If I send an emoji, that can compensate for the loss of facial expression?

DANIEL: I would say that it compensates for intent.   a lot of emojis are about how you feel and less necessarily how you look.  It’s, like, they’re up for interpretation. And so people who text me probably understand how I use emoji that might not be universal.  I use the cactus emoji all the time when I’m in a mood.

POGUE: When would you use the cactus emoji?

DANIEL: When I’m on my period. Or when I’m just, like, in a bad mood. (LAUGH)

POGUE: So it means, you know, “I’m prickly—leave me alone?”

DANIEL: Yeah. Like, oh, I’m having a bad day: cactus.  It’s like, “I’m the problem, actually.” (LAUGH) Like, “I feel a bit prickly.”

POGUE: I started out using it to take the sting off a textual response that could be taken the wrong way. Like, “That’s fine.” You know, like, that could be– “That’s fine.” Or, “that’s fine!”

DANIEL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

POGUE: a little smiley makes it clear.

DANIEL: Yeah, you can be as passive aggressive as you want. (LAUGHTER) It is– it’s true. 

In the beginning, there weren’t three thousand emoji to choose from; there were 90.The first phone with a full set of symbols was the DP-211 SW, a fugly1997 phone with a gray LCD screen. You could send any of 90 those symbols—to anyone else who had a DP-211 SW. 

Many of them are still with us today, including the heart, the surfer, the coffee cup, the 12 clock faces showing different hours, and, of course, the smiling pile of poop.

They weren’t what you’d call photorealistic. The designers had only a 12 by 12 grid of pixels to work with, and no color.

Two years later, interface designer Shigetaka Kurita drew another set for NTT DoCoMo’s first cellular Internet service. 176 emoji, this time in color. They became more famous and more widely used; in fact, they’re in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection.

But those early emoji sets were incompatible. You couldn’t send a smiling poop from your J-Phone phone and expect it to show up on a DoCoMo phone.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the computer world, the big tech companies were battling a similar incompatibility problem of their own.

DAVIS: I’m sure you remember back in the early ‘90s, you’d get a message from someone, and it’d be bunny rabbits and squares and weird symbols and stuff like that—

POGUE: Yeah.

DAVIS: That was– that was that problem. So if I sent you a message on a Mac,   I would’ve sent you a curly quote, for example, and you would’ve gotten a curly quote on your Mac.

POGUE: But if I had Windows?

DAVIS: Then you’d get some random character.

POGUE: So you guys have solved that problem?

DAVIS: Well, solved. Yes. (LAUGHTER) I mean, it’s solved as far as the– the main languages in the world. 

POGUE: So I can send a message using any letters of my alphabet, or Hebrew, or Arabic–to anyone using any kind of computer, and it’ll show up the right way?

DAVIS: Any modern computer. Yeah, yeah.

That’s Mark Davis. He solved the Tower of Babel problem among operating systems by founding the Unicode Consortium in 1991.

It’s a nonprofit group made up of reps from Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and so on. For 30 years, they’ve been getting together to agree on standards, so that a curly quote on my computer won’t show up as a random little box on yours. And for 30 years, Mark Davis has been the president.

DAVIS: So all of the math symbols that you would use, and punctuation, and all of that, is all on Unicode. And around 2000, we got the first proposal for adding emoji to Unicode. 

By this time, there were three different emoji sets from Japan. The Unicode Consortium agreed to combine them to form one, new, global, universal standard.

Now, Mark Davis is clearly the most powerful emoji man on earth. He’s the head of the organization that chooses which new symbols will appear as options on our billions of phones and computers each year. 

So this was my chance to get to the crux of my quest: To find out where new emoji come from.

DAVIS: Originally, we took these characters out of Japan.  But then what we decided to do is open up the process, so that instead of just Apple and Google and other companies deciding all by themselves what the new emoji would be, that anybody could file a proposal. So–

POGUE: The public?

DAVIS: Yeah. You.  

It’s true! All you have to do is fill in a form on the Unicode website, and write a proposal, arguing why your new emoji should become part of the permanent, global, ever-evolving set.

DAVIS: Give us some information to justify that it’s likely to be reasonably popular. What we don’t wanna do is add a new character that nobody uses. The number of emoji are limited. 

POGUE: Why are they limited?

DAVIS: They’re limited because the cost of emoji is surprisingly high. If you think of the fact that every time we add one of these, it’s multiplied by the– how many cell phones are there in the world (LAUGH) now?

POGUE: Billions.

DAVIS: And so there’s constructing the fonts, doing the designs, making sure s– everything’s consistent, and input. Input, it’s very frustrating for people to have to flip back to get all– through all the emoji. And the bigger the list gets, the harder it is to find them.

Now, keep in mind that each year, the Consortium gets thousands of proposals from the public—but only about 70 new emoji a year make the cut.

So don’t even bother proposing an emoji in one of the forbidden categories.

DAVIS: Then there are some exclusion factors.  

POGUE: No specific people?

DAVIS: No specific people– living or dead. We exclude deities. We exclude logos. We exclude also emoji that are designed to have a particular appearance that is associated with a company.  

We don’t want it to be transient. So once a character goes into Unicode, it’s there forever. So you and I will be dust, (LAUGH) okay, and it’s still gonna stick around. So it’ll be in computers into the indefinite future.

POGUE: Wow. Okay, so–so no fads.

DAVIS: No fads.

POGUE: No pet rocks.

DAVIS: Yeah. And even if we allowed specific people, we’d say, “Well, Justin Bieber, maybe (LAUGH) it’s– maybe it’s a fad.”

POGUE: He– he’s– he’s violation on two counts.

DAVIS: On two counts.

POGUE: Transient and a specific person. And a deity!

Then, you’ve got to show what the new emoji would look like. And it’s got to be legible at tiny sizes.

DAVIS: For example, we got a proposal for flaxseed. And aside from whether people are going to be busily sending SMSs with flaxseed in them, (LAUGHTER) the whole issue is, how do I tell it’s flaxseed, and not, you know, little dots?

POGUE: (LAUGH) Right, right, right. Are there any good stories of some citizen not working for a computer company, who had an idea, and now that’s an actual emoji?

DAVIS: Sure. One of my favorites is the hijab emoji. And this is a young student in Berlin, originally from Saudi Arabia. 

RAYOUF: The reason I wear the hijab is different to many others. But I– the consensus is to get closer to God, to feel closer to Him. And I think it’s also– a form of modesty that a lot of people feel empowered in, including me. 

Rayouf Alhumediwas 15 years old when she discovered a big hole in the emoji set: There was no hijab, the head covering worn byhundreds of millions of Muslim women around the world. 

RAYOUF: I mean yeah, I’ve been using emojis for as– you know, I got my first phone, I think I was 12, 13.   But I never really looked at them as– at a point of representation until the conversation with my friends on the group chat. 

She was texting two friends in WhatsApp. Just for fun, they decided to represent themselves using emoji in the name of the group chat. 

RAYOUF: And we were creating a group chat name for one another with different emojis as our– as how we looked like. And I couldn’t find a hijab emoji. 

She wound up cobbling together a kind of an equation that implied that she was wearing a hijab: a turban, next to intertwined arrows, next to a girl. But it struck her as a little goofy that the existing emoji set included two different camels, four different mailboxes—but no hijab.

POGUE: But at that point, you didn’t yet know that mere citizens are allowed to propose emoji.

RAYOUF: Not at all. The idea of, you know, being a creator of an emoji   did not pass my mind until I read a Mashable post on Snapchat.  And the opening page was, “You wanna create your own emoji? Here’s how.” 

POGUE: All right, so what was the process of making this proposal?

RAYOUF: I spent around three to four days in my room, you know, curating the perfect proposal for the folks at Unicode Consortium, while my parents thought I was– typing away a lab report or something. (LAUGHTER)

POGUE: Wow. And so eventually, you heard back, at some point, that, “Congratulations, your emoji proposal is accepted, and it’s going to be on billions of phones around the world.” Do you remember that moment?

RAYOUF: I like– I didn’t know what to do with myself, exactly.  But slowly, I think after it was released officially, I saw it pop up randomly in places that I wouldn’t expect, like celebrities would be using it, or just even on– just generally on Instagram.

And then I– have this moment in my head, like, “Whoo. I– I– I did that. That’s– that’s insane.” Especially that it’s something no one thinks about. Like, when they click an emoji, no one thinks, “Oh– wait, that’s who– did this.” 

Now, any organization that calls itself a consortium is, of course, going to have…subcommittees. And there is an emoji subcommittee. And Jennifer Daniel of Google is now in charge of it.

Once she, the subcommittee, and the consortium have approved a new symbol for admission to the standard set, that’s not the end of it. Believe it or not, there isn’t one standard hijab emoji, or one standard eggplant emoji. Each tech company has its own staff of artists, and its own house style for the artwork itself. 

POGUE: How would you characterize them? What’s Google’s?

DANIEL: Well, we’re cute, (LAUGH) humble. I would say cute and simple. We tried not to show off with lots of detail. It really is supposed to be as simple as possible.  

POGUE: Okay. And how about some of other companies?

DANIEL: So Apple tends to rely more on, like– high resolution, fancier, more– more detail. It shows off the retina screens on their phones, (LAUGH) right? It really sells the hardware.   It is a real– it’s a real object that you can touch. 

Microsoft is flat, very flat. And they have this,  like, big black outline around them.

Twitter’s great. Twitter has a really interesting font. It’s really simple, much more simple than Google’s actually. 

Even Rayouf’s hijab emoji is different on each kind of phone.

RAYOUF: I remember– working on the tiny details, like what color the hijab should be. Should it be beige to keep it neutral and, you know, have the vendors think of how it should look like? Or like– a dark blue just for contrast?

POGUE: And what did you choose?

RAYOUF: A dark blue for contrast. (LAUGHTER)

POGUE: Yeah, the one in my iPhone is– is it purple or–?

RAYOUF: It’s purple, yeah. Apple decided to make it purple, which I personally really like, because it– it’s– adds a   different– color palette to the emojis, especially since the turban emoji’s white, it’s cool to have a different color.  


So yeah. The public makes proposals; the Unicode Consortium members vote on which ones should make the cut; and then the individual tech companies draw them. That’s how it works—in theory.

But what happens if two companies draw the same emoji in different ways—like the time Apple’s emoji for “pistol” was a squirt gun, but Google’s was a real handgun? What happens when the emoji doesn’t reflect equality or diversity? What happens when the public objects to the implications of the way a character is drawn?

And how long will it be before we can design emoji that look exactly like ourselves? 

My guests and I will answer all of the above—after the break.


Welcome back! Before the break, I was describing how each tech company is invited to draw its own version of each emoji.There’s this fantastic website called Emojipedia.org, where you can look at the various companies’ emoji styles side-by-side. 

For many years, some of them looked incredibly different. Apple’s emoji for cookie is very obviously a chocolate-chip cookie: Round, brown, with chocolate chips. But until 2018, Samsung’s cookie emoji was a pair of square saltine crackers.

Sometimes, the different interpretations led to some amusing message confusion—or not so amusing. 

In 2016, following a series of police shootings, Apple changed the illustration for its pistol emoji from a standard handgun to—a plastic squirt gun. You might have texted someone, “There’s only one way we’re gonna solve this. Show up tomorrow at the dock. Bring your—squirt gun emoji.”

But if they had an Android phone, what they’d get was: “Bring your—actual, bullet-firing, revolver emoji.” Which you could argue is a very different meaning.

Mark Davis says that the other tech companies were forced to follow suit, if only to avoid having some playground fun turn into gangland slayings.

DAVIS: If you’re using any modern Google phone, then you’ll see also a squirt gun.  

POGUE: So they’ve all become squirt guns?

DAVIS: And they’ve all become squirt guns, yeah.

POGUE: So the– the squirt gun example, was that sort of a political statement? An anti-gun statement that– that Apple was making?

DAVIS: I can’t speak for Apple on that.

POGUE: Well, Google followed suit–

DAVIS: Google followed suit, but the primary reason why we followed suit is to avoid incompatibility.  

These days, the tech companies’ art departments don’t go rogue like that anymore. The Consortium tries to keep their emoji drawings a little more harmonized.

That doesn’t mean there’s not still conflict, though.

POGUE: Is there such thing as pushback, controversy?

DANIEL: Oh, of course.

POGUE: Is there hate?

DANIEL: Oh, people hate emoji. Of course, they do. Everyone h– loves and hates everything. I mean, come on. (LAUGH) Go on the internet. You know, everyone’s angry about something.

POGUE: Well, has anyone ever been angry about something that you did?

DANIEL: Probably right now while we’re talking there’s someone angry at me right now. (LAUGH)

POGUE: Like what? 

DANIEL: I don’t know. I removed an egg from the salad.

POGUE: Oh, tell me the vegan egg story. Go. (LAUGH) This is my favorite story. 

DANIEL: Well,   you can file bugs against emoji, right?   you can send a complaint and say, “This isn’t working. Please fix it.” So people send that for emoji all the time.


DANIEL: So I collected all of those complaints. And I read them.  For salad, someone pointed out that the standard description for salad was, “a leafy bowl of greens containing tomato and lettuce.”

And they pointed out that every salad on all the other phones were leafy greens with tomatoes. But ours had an egg, and that we should remove it to be consistent. And I was like,   “Well, let’s try to opt for consistency.” Well, that did not go as planned. (LAUGH)

POGUE: What do you mean? (LAUGH)  

DANIEL: People were really upset about the egg (LAUGH) removal. People have strong opinions about salads. (LAUGH)

POGUE: It’s an emoji, people.

DANIEL: Yeah, yeah. It’s like our bagel. Remember when Apple rolled out their bagel emoji?

POGUE: With no cream–

DANIEL: It was untoasted.

POGUE: –cheese.

DANIEL: No cream cheese. It was, like, no one had been to New York before. It was ridiculous. (LAUGH) And they toasted it. They put a little schmear on there. Now it’s authentic.

POGUE: So they fixed it.


POGUE: And– and what’d you do about the salad kerfuffle?

DANIEL: Oh, there’s no egg.  

POGUE: So the egg went away. And the haters just had to deal with it.


Then there was the Great Burger Scandal of 2017, in which it was discovered that Google had drawn the cheese under the burger patty. Come on, Google. Who does that!? I mean, it’d get the bun all gross!

Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai had to get involved. He tweeted, “Will drop everything else we are doing and address on Monday.”

think he was kidding, because he did include a smiley in his tweet. Not an emoji, but an emoticon—the old style, where you type a colon followed by a parenthesis, so if you turn your head sideways it looks like a smiling face.

Mark Davis still remembers the day.

DAVIS: Actually, I loved that. I loved his response to that. And I love the fact that I think afterwards, there was one of our cafés at Google (LAUGH) served a version of the hamburger with the cheese on the bottom. (LAUGH) They called it, I think, the Android Hamburger or something like that.

From his point of view, though, the real crisis was the Beer-Mug Episode of 2017.

DAVIS: Even more embarrassingly, nobody noticed the problem with the beer mugs. You ever seen what the old beer mugs were?


DAVIS: Well, they had a beer mug and they had the foam on the top. But the foam was kind of sitting on air. (LAUGH) There was no beer in there. 

Google fixed that one in Android 8.1—and shortly thereafter, hired Jennifer Daniel.

She and the Unicode Consortium quickly became aware of some other problems with the standard emoji set, especially when it came to social representation. For example, every emoji had the same color skin: yellow. 

DAVIS: Well, remember, this came out of Japan and the first images were– targeted to the Japanese market.   the images were also people with very light skin.   ideally, the people should’ve been all represented with an– unnatural color like a Homer Simpson or John Boehner color. (LAUGH) So it was– at that point, what we had to do was we had to look at how to address the system. 

What they came up with was a way to choose any of five skin tones for every single emoji that depicts a person. You hold your finger down on the symbol, and a little menu of skin colors pops up.

DAVIS: It wasn’t as simple as adding more emoji. What we wanted to do was add a mechanism so that we could handle all skin tones over all the existing characters and into the future.  

So you can combine a character with a skin color. So you can say, well, I want a runner and   I want her to have a dark skin color.  

POGUE: How many skin tone options do we have now?

DAVIS: Well, there’s the– the generic “no skin tone,” which is kind of orange, yellow orange-ish. And then you have– five other tones. So you have, you know, very light, medium, dark, and then in– in between.

The skin-tone menu appeared in 2015, but the standard emoji still weren’t a paragon of equity. This 2016 Stephen Colbert monologue made the point nicely:

Colbert: Let me show you how uneven it is. If you’re a man in the world of emoji, you can be a police officer, a British palace guard, a Santa with a weird flesh beard, a private investigator, a, I wanna say, bike helmet salesperson, a swami, a construction worker who also sells pot, and the saxophone player for Stay Human.

That was a visual joke. The mustachioe’d emoji he showed kind of resembles the sax player for Colbert’s own house band.

COLBERT: Now, on the female side, you could be a, let’s see, a princess bride, a princess, a flamenco dancer, or the two slices of bread in a Hugh Hefner sandwich.

That’s right: As late as 2016, the only professions depicted as women in the standard emoji set were: princess, bride, dancer, or two Playboy bunnies.

Jennifer Daniel set about fixing it.

DANIEL: I noticed that it was reinforcing stereotypes. So all the male– all the construction workers, not construction man or construction woman, construction worker were all men. And all the emotional ones like “shruggy” or “face palm” or I don’t know, like, “hair flip” were all female.

POGUE: Really?

DANIEL: So rude! So   that’s when I kicked off an initiative to– to fix it. like, “We are doing it. We’re gonna change 60– under 70 emoji to be more ge– to present themselves to be more gender inclusive.”

POGUE: And that was your project?

DANIEL: It was.  

The emoji set gained two men holding hands in 2015; became gender inclusive in 2016; got gender-neutral emoji in 2019; and mixed-race couples in 2021.

But come on—you know how people are. With each of these steps toward inclusiveness, there’s been unpleasantness and pushback. In Rayouf Alhumedhi’s case, even rape threats and death threats.

RAYOUF: When I proposed the hijab emoji, I knew the unnecessary political connotations that came with the hijab. I wasn’t blind to that.   I knew the discussions about how it was a symbol of oppression; I knew the discussions of how, “oh, they limit a woman’s freedom,”  You know, it’s a symbol of oppression, why should we give it space? 

And– to that I say– how ‘bout the– woman like me, millions of women like me who wear it by choice and wear it proudly? Like, your– a lot of their views were also you know, taken from– the media outlets and not from discussions within other Muslim women or, you know, their own personal research.

POGUE: You had enough support that the hate didn’t make you lie awake nights terrified?

RAYOUF: Yeah, the source of hate I knew came from ignorance. . It was– you know, a f– it was– the person sending the hate not having enough knowledge on the topic they’re talking about, and just  regurgitating the echo chambers they’re in. So I knew a lot of the times people disagree with the hijab is because it’s something foreign, something different.


Now, even after 20 years of expanding the emoji set, people complain that there’s still no hot-air balloon emoji. No triceratops. No glass of white wine. No tumbleweed, no stork, no anvil.

And yes, we can now choose a gender, or no gender, and a skin tone. You can now represent yourself if you’re deaf, blind, in a wheelchair, or equipped with a prosthetic limb. 

There are now emoji for redheads, bald heads, and old people. 

But those options aren’t as flexible as the gender and skin tones. You can’t combine them. You can’t make a redheaded old person, or a bald person in a wheelchair. You can’t add freckles, or a mohawk, or a gold tooth. No tattoos or scars.

In other words, these aren’t like Apple’s Memoji, where you can make an emoji that looks exactly like you. And the Unicode Consortium says that’s how it’ll stay.

POGUE: So we’ve now added more gender options. We’ve added more skin tone options. So how far is there pressure to go in making emoji look like us?

DANIEL: It’s an alphabet. It’s not an avatar system, right?   Like, how many eye colors can you really add to an emoji? And then what can you actually discern on emoji sizes, right?

POGUE: I mean, you’d have to do hair colors, eye colors, hair styles… so there’s no goal to make all the tools you need to make you look exactly like yourself.

DANIEL: I would say not. I think we are trying to prioritize what are the meaningful ones that we can do that can scale,   making sure that we’re future-proofing it, basically.

And speaking of the future: Unicode president Mark Davis is quick to shoot down the idea that emoji are some kind of new universal language, no matter how much that notion has become a trope among bloggers and pundits.

DAVIS: One of the myths is that it’s a language.  It’s– it’s a guessing game. It’s– it’s a puzzle. There aren’t verbs. There aren’t really adjectives. I mean, it’s not a language; it’s a way I think of kind of making up for the lack of gestures and intonation. 

In fact, in the really long term—the Unicode Consortium would love to get out of the emoji business entirely. 

In the documentary “The Emoji Story,” Unicode vice chair Craig Cummings puts it like this:

From “The Emoji Story,” 

GUY: I’m stepping in a pile of poo emoji here, but the future of emojis will not necessarily still involve Unicode. We only hope that there would be a better answer for emoji, and one that actually could cater more to the endless imagination of the human mind.

In the meantime, people will keep submitting their ideas, and the Consortium will keep giving us our 70 new winners every year. The 2020 set included two new emoji that came from somebody you know—Jennifer Daniel herself.

DANIEL: Oh, my first emoji proposal finally rolled out. Like, proper proposal.   I brought the proposal for “smile with tear.”


DANIEL: So that was– that was my first. And hugging– “two people hugging.” 

POGUE: Wait, wait, wait. But– but those aren’t new.

DANIEL: They came out this year.

POGUE: But there’s been a smile with a tear forever.

DANIEL: (WHISPERS) In your mind. In your mind.

POGUE: There weren’t two people hugging until 2020?

DANIEL: Well,   for “two people hugging,” we do have “hugging face.” Are you familiar with “hugging face?”


DANIEL: Oh, it’s creepy emoji. It is, like, this big old smile with these two little jazz hands. And it’s like–

POGUE: Oh, that’s supposed–to be hugging?


POGUE: I thought it was “jazz hands.”

DANIEL: I thought it was groper. (LAUGH) Like,   it’s bad news, 

POGUE: I– I had no idea that was even supposed to be hugging. That’s–

DANIEL: It isn’t anymore. (LAUGH) And that’s great.  

In other news, Rayouf Alhumedhi’s hijab emoji didn’t just give millions of people a new representation option. It also gave her an obvious topic for her college admissions essay. She got into Stanford.

POGUE: So is– is there a larger takeaway, a moral of the story from– from your whole adventure with this trip?

RAYOUF: The moral of the story spans different facets. One– people have a lot of opinions, and they love to share them on the internet. 

And B) was, if I wanted to tackle a certain problem-  I should just go ahead and do it, even if there’s problems ara– along the way. I shouldn’t let the potential thoughts of these problems stop me from pursuing it.

No, Rayouf, you shouldn’t. And now you’ve got the rest of the world looking forward to whatever you tackle next. 

UNSUNG SCIENCE with David Pogue is presented by Simon & Schuster and CBS News, and produced by PRX Productions.  

Executive Producers for Simon & Schuster are Richard Rhorer and Chris Lynch.  

The PRX production team is Jocelyn Gonzales, Morgan Flannery, Pedro Rafael Rosado and the project manager is Ian Fox.

Jesi Nelson composed the Unsung Science theme music, and fact checkerKristina Rebelopositioned herself nobly between my scripts and certain humiliation. I’d like to thank my research assistant Olivia Noble, for spending hours trolling through movies to help me find my examples.

For more on Unsung Science episodes, visit unsungscience.com. Go to my website at David Pogue.com or follow me: @Pogue on your social media platform of choice. Be sure to like and subscribe to Unsung Science wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

How the Fitbit Knows You’re Dreaming

Season 1 • Episode 12

Over the last decade, a group of California scientists has quietly amassed the biggest sleep database ever assembled. It includes every dozing off, every wakeup, every REM-cycle, every chunk of deep sleep, from 15 billion nights of human slumber. It can tell us the average person’s bedtime, whether men or women sleep longer, and which city is really the city that never sleeps. These scientists work at Fitbit—the company that sells fitness bands. And for them, revealing your sleep patterns is only the beginning. The longer-term goal of these scientists—and the ones working on the Apple Watch, Garmins, and other wearables—is to spot diseases before you even have symptoms. Diseases of your heart, your brain, your lungs—all picked up by a bracelet on your wrist. But how? 

Guests: Eric Friedman, cofounder and CTO of Fitbit. Conor Heneghan, senior research scientist, Google.

Subtitles for the Blind

Season 1 • Episode 11

You already knew that you can turn on subtitles for your TV show or movie—handy if you’re hearing impaired, or just want to understand the dialogue better. But there’s a corresponding feature for people with low vision: audio description tracks, where an unseen narrator tells you, in real time, what’s happening on the screen. But who creates them, and how, and when? And how do they describe the action during fast dialogue, fast action, sex scenes, and screens full of scrolling credits? A deep dive into a bizarre art form most people didn’t know exists.

Guests: Lauren Berglund, consumer relations coordinator at the Guide Dog Foundation. Bill Patterson, founder, Audio Description Solutions. Rhys Lloyd, studio head, Descriptive Video Works. Bryan Gould, director of the National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH.

Episode transcript


You’re probably familiar with closed captions—subtitles—on TV shows and movies—an essential feature if you have trouble hearing. But what if you have trouble seeing?

Jaws clip

Narr: The great white’s massive head pops up above the surface as Brody chucks another scoop of chum into the water.

Brody: You’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Audio description is a mysterious alternate audio track that’s been sitting right under your nose for decades. Today, you’ll meet the people who create those tracks: describing fast action, by multiple characters, without ever intruding on the dialogue. I’m David Pogue, and this is “Unsung Science.”


OK, here we go: Season 1, Episode 8: Subtitles for the Blind. 

In the mid-90s, I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. One fine night, I flopped on the couch, turned on the TV—and the weirdest thing happened.

MORGAN:       Eileen Saxon was wheeled into the operating room.

NARR:              In a re-creation, white sheets cover the tiny baby on a gurney.

There was something clearly wrong with the audio. It sounded like there was some offscreen interloper, saying out loud everything that was happening in the show. But in a super weird way. Like, it was leaving some things out. And saying some things before they’d happened. And the tone was kind of, like, clinical; whoever was talking seemed really neutral about the drama on the screen.

PBS clip

NARR: In a sterile operating room, the surgical team wears white lab coats, caps, and masks. An attendant wheels a tray holding gleaming instruments and a stack of white cloths.

That was my entirely accidental first encounter with audio descriptions for the blind.

Just as closed captions were invented for people who can’t hear well, audio descriptions were developed for people who can’t see well. They’ve been right under your nose for years. 

Lauren I’ve had vision loss my whole life, so I don’t know what normal vision is or what I’m missing.  

David: Gotcha. 

Lauren I see color. Things aren’t blurry. They’re just not as sharp and in focus. 

Lauren Berglund is the consumer relations coordinator at the Guide Dog Foundation. 

David So before audio description came along, what would you be able to get out of a movie? 

Lauren I would get the color and kind of the movement, but I couldn’t recognize the people, I couldn’t necessarily recognize the scenes or what was happening. If there was any text on the screen, I couldn’t read that.  So really, I was just reliant on the audio cues of what was happening in the scenes, but really was not able to pick up what was going on visually. 

With audio description, I’m really able to get a full picture of what’s going on in the scene. I know who’s doing what,   who’s saying what, and what the characters look like and —  and where the scene is even taking place.  

Let me play you a scene from the classic 1994 Disney movie, “The Lion King.” The original animated one, not the live-action version that nobody asked for.

Pretend you’ve never seen this movie. Pretend you’ve just sat down in the theater with your friends and your popcorn. And now, for the first four minutes of the movie, there’s not a single word of dialogue. Because this is an audio podcast, you’re about to get exactly the same information that a blind person would get. See how much you can follow by listening to this:

“Circle of Life” from Lion King clip

I mean, great song. But what is going on in the story

A lot, actually. There are characters interacting, there’s a phenomenon of nature, there’s crowd action—but you wouldn’t know any of that. Now, here’s the same scene with the description track turned on:

Lion King clip

NARR: Simba dangles from Rafiki’s arms, looking small and scared. A ray of sparkling sunshine beams down on Simba like a spotlight. Far below, the animals bow down, their heads nearly touching the ground. From far away, we see every animal from the savannah paying respect to their king’s new son.

Makes a big difference! 

Shortly after my freak TV night in 1996, I figured out what I’d been hearing. But I had a lot of questions. Like, Who invented audio description? Who does the talking? Who hires them? What do they do about sex scenes? Do they mention people’s race? Can you get the descriptions if you’re streaming movies? How ‘bout if you’re in a movie theater?

Let’s start at the very beginning—with Margaret Pfanstiehl. Kind of a cool spelling: silent P-FAN, S-T-IEHL. Pfanstiehl.

She was born in Virginia in 1932, grew up in Maryland, and went to a music conservatory, intending to become an opera singer. But in her thirties, she developed a degenerative disease called retinitis pigmentosa—and lost almost all of her sight. And with that, she also lost her ability to see plays, go to museums, watch TV, or even read the paper.

So in the early 1970s, Margaret Pfanstiehl became obsessed with finding technology that could restore those cultural options. With some government grants, she founded a nonprofit radio reading service called the Metropolitan Washington Ear. A radio reading service is where volunteers read the news each day over the radio, so that blind people can, in effect, read the paper. 

Her next target was the live-theater problem—and here’s where our story really takes off. 

Bill Well, audio description actually started in 1981 in Washington, D.C. It was a project between the Metropolitan Washington Ear,   and Arena Stage. 

Bill Patterson is the founder of a company called Audio Description Solutions, and he was there at the birth. Which took place in Washington, DC, at the Arena Stage theater.

BILL: The House manager at Arena Stage, said, “Hey, we’ve got this wonderful new system of assistive listening devices for people who are hard of hearing: Point the microphone at the stage, and boost the sound for people who are hard of hearing.” And he said, “I don’t know why we can’t point a microphone at a person who describes, for people who are blind, what’s going on.”   

So he spoke with Margaret Pfanstiehl.  And she went, “Wow, that sounds like a great use of some new technology.” So she enlisted—actually, he was not her husband at the time, but he became her husband within a year or so, Cody Pfanstiehl. And the two of them created audio description. 

The idea here was that blind people in the audience would wear headsets, and a professional describer person would quietly speak into a microphone what was happening onstage.

Live theater clip

Narr: Cassandra looks around her, takes out a snow-white-dressed voodoo doll. Takes a hatpin out of her turban—STAB. Looks up the stairs, eyes wide.

Bill They began to try doing it from, like the sound booth, the lighting booth, that kind of thing, because typically those are walled off with a glass window. 

So that was the very first audio description. The describers didn’t use scripts; they just wung it, live, just describing what they were seeing. But from that experiment, they established the ground rules for working around the dialogue.

Bill They realized, you know, almost immediately, “No, nobody can listen to two people talking at the same time.”   And so, you know, there was one of the original rules of audio description. Don’t speak over the dialogue unless you absolutely, absolutely have to.  We’re at the mercy of where the silences are. 

In the early 80s, Bill Patterson met the Pfanstiehls. He was a professor at the University of Maryland, and he wanted to get descriptions going for the university’s own theater productions. But he kept running into theatrical situations that hadn’t come up before.

Bill There was an occasional something that had never presented itself.   Boy, was it handy to have Margaret at the other end of the phone line to call up and say, “OK, I got a new one for you.” And —and she loved, you know, being part of that problem solving. 

Eventually, Bill became a describer himself. He teamed up with the Pfanstiehls, and helped to perfect this strange new dramatic art. 

Bill Good audio description is a lot like police reporting. It’s well-observed, it’s factual, it’s accurate, it’s efficient, it’s matter of fact, no-nonsense, it’s useful information.  

David So, so I shouldn’t write, “There’s an awesome explosion.” I could write, “There’s a huge explosion.” 

Bill Exactly. Exactly. And, you know, what are the colors in the explosion?   

Yeah, I wondered about that…the colors. 

I gotta you, I really sacrificed for this episode. I watched a lot of movies. All for research. All for you. 

And I discovered some super weird things about description tracks. Like, they’re constantly mentioning the colors of things. Here’s just one line from “Legally Blonde.”


Narr: Wearing sparkling pink heels, and sporting a magenta dress with a fuchsia satin sash, she sports a pink bag and sports pink lipstick and pink nails and she strolls down the central aisle and approaches the defense table.

And I wondered: How useful is that going to be for blind people?

Bill: (cont’d)   many people who lose their sight have been sighted, and have memories of color. But also people who were blind from birth but learned about color. They, they know that red is hot and tempestuous and so forth, and the blues and greens are serene and restful. 

Also, remember that 90% of blind people actually have some vision. Yeah—true. Almost nobody sees complete blackness; it’s far more common that you can detect some light, or maybe blobs of color. In that case, a description track that identifies what the blobs of color are is hugely helpful. 

Bill: (con’t)   if somebody has limited vision, describing the blazing orange sun at the upper left   lets them clue in to—that’s what that is up there! I just thought it was a blur.

OK. So when you’re writing a description track, the first thing you have to decide is—what to describe.   

BILL: I find description challenging because there are about 47 things I would like to describe right here. And I have time for five words. 

 Really important is to describe things that keep people connected to the plot, and its changes, absolutely entrances and exits, who’s here and hearing this, and props.  

Yeah, we may as well admit that audio describers have to leave out a lot. Sometimes, a really lot. 

David There’s this great movie, animated movie on Netflix called The Mitchells versus the Machines, and—

Rhys We did that one. 

David Did you really?! Oh my god! 

Rhys Lloyd is the studio head for Descriptive Video Works, one of the busiest audio description companies going. They’ve described TV shows like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, House of Cards, Friends, The Office…movies like Crip Camp, Mank, Uncut Gems, and The Beatles Get Back on Disney+…and live events, like the last few Olympics and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

Thanksgiving Parade clip

Narr: Santa continues to dance in his sleigh. Below him, his elves wave and dance.

David: (continued)   And there’s a scene where the dad has set up, basically, an animal trap that’s a lasso, a rope on the ground tied to a tree branch, that will snap upward when someone steps in there.

Mitchells clip

Dad: To survive in the outdoors, you’ll need to learn how to trap wild game. Now this is very sensitive…

Neighbor: Hey, Mitchell! (commotion)

Dad: Hey, who’s this curious guy?

David (cont’d) And he’s having a conversation with the neighbor who walks in and is about to step into that loop. So the dad, in order to save the day, steps in and gets caught in the loop himself . None of that is in the audio description. 

Mitchells clip

Dad: To survive in the outdoors, you’ll need to learn how to trap wild game. Now this is very sensitive…

Neighbor: Hey, Mitchell! (commotion)

Narr: The dad dangles from a tree.

Dad: Hey, who’s this curious guy?

Narr: Four possums attack him.

Rhys Yeah,   you’re —you’re not wrong.  I mean, the limitations of what you can get to are significant. And —and so we are often making the choices of like it’s like, you know,   what can you describe?  

You’ve also got to figure out when to do your describing. Here’s Bill Patterson again.

Bill For instance, in a mystery play,  at a critical moment, the cat nudges a vase off the mantel. It crashes to the floor. And behind it are the jewels that have been missing. And so at the moment all that happens, you can’t start talking about, “Oh, there was a cat there,” and so forth. No, you need to get the cat established, just, you know, matter of factly, you know.  

David So you can’t say, “Oh, I forgot to mention, there was this cat!”

Bill Exactly. 

OK. So audio descriptions were chugging along in live theater performances here and there, and describers were gradually figuring out how to make them work well. But descriptions didn’t make the leap to TV until 1988, when WGBH came a-callin’. 

WGBH logo

WGBH is Boston’s public-broadcasting station. I’ve actually been there, in that building. Because by pure coincidence, GBH also produces “NOVA,” the science show that I sometimes host. 

Bryan Well,  part of our mission is to provide programming to the largest audience possible, and that includes people with disabilities. So that accessibility story starts 50 years ago, with WGBH inventing broadcast captions for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. 

David Inventing!? 

Bryan Yeah, the first program that aired broadcast captions was Julia Child’s “The French Chef,” 50 years ago.

This is Bryan Gould. He’s the director of the National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH—the department that invented not only closed captions for the deaf, but also TV audio descriptions for the blind. 

Bryan GBH also invented descriptive video service.   

David I had no idea. I’m a fan of that science show they do. 

Bryan Oh, “NOVA?” I’ve heard of it. Yeah. 

To develop audio description for TV, WGBH went straight to the source.

Bryan: While we were trying to bring this service to television, worked closely with The Washington Ear and took  many of their practices and guidelines and applied it to television and got some grants. 

It’s this guy, Bryan Gould, who reopened my own cold case—The Mystery of Pogue’s 1996 TV—and solved it.

David I was really weirded out, like, “who’s talking!?” 

Bryan So many people have that happen, where all of a sudden the TV starts talking to them and telling them everything that’s happening. And they say, “But I can already see this!”

You had somehow stumbled on to something called the second audio program channel, or the SAP Channel, originally intended to broadcast usually Spanish translation of a show. 

So the decision was made to broadcast descriptions on the second audio program channel. And so you stumbled on that, and that—that started happening more and more as remote controls started to have an SAP button on them. 

By the way, most people call this feature audio description. But you also run across the term “video description.” And in Canada, they call it described video, or DV. 

David So is it, is the terminology—I’ve heard it referred to as audio description, I’ve heard it video description. 

Bryan I think it actually comes down to acronyms, because AD is better than VD. 

For those under 40, let me explain that reference: VD was the term for what we now call STDs. 

David That’s funny, because—because VD is really what it is. They’re describing the video, they’re not describing the audio

Bryan That’s right. That’s right.  it comes down to,  what’s the little bug on your on your website or on your publication going to be? And it’s going to be AD, it’s not going to VD. 

David And this is how technology is made.

For many years, WGBH was the only game in town. Of course, they made description tracks for PBS shows. But in the early two thousands, GBH also went into the business of describing Hollywood movies—another first.

Bryan Any movie that was described, yeah, it was described by us. No one else was doing it. 

David Really!? Oh, wow. 

Bryan We probably did every movie that was described up until, I don’t know, 2005 or something like that. 

In 2010, President Obama signed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act—or as insiders don’t call it, “2CCVAA.” It mandates that the big TV broadcast and cable networks produce description for at least 348 hours of shows a year, and that movie theaters of a certain size have to offer wireless headsets for the description track. 

On broadcast and cable TV these days, most of the popular dramas and kid shows have descriptions. You know: Shark Tank, The Bachelor, Family Guy, The Simpsons, Law and Order, and NCIS: Whatever. And, of course, just about everything on PBS. 

Bryan And all your episodes of NOVA, I’m sure, are described  . 

David Oh my gosh!

Bryan Wait—have you, have you never watched? Of course they are. 

Turns out—he’s right! Here’s what one my NOVA shows sounds like with audio description.

Nova clip

DAVID: And I run a few comparisons myself.

NARR: David hammers a banana. It smushes. He hammers a LineX-coated banana; it doesn’t crack. He whacks it with a baseball bat. In slow motion, David wields a sledge hammer. 

DAVID: Finally, bringing out the big guns.

NARR: He drives a truck over the coated objects. They hold their shape.

I had no idea! Man, those sound like pretty good shows!

Anyway, yeah. Audio description has become a thing.

Bryan We did a dozen movies a year, and now there’s dozens of movies a week or even a day that are coming out with description. It’s it’s —it’s fantastic. 

So how do you hear these audio tracks? On a TV, you use your remote to choose that SAP audio channel, Second Audio Program. It’s probably in the menus.

The streaming services, like Netflix, Disney Plus, HBO Max, and Amazon Prime, commission descriptions for just about everything they produce: The Crown, Tiger King, Succession, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Atlanta, Ted Lasso, Game of Thrones, and on and on. Here’s a little bit of “Game of Thrones:”

Thrones clip

NARR: Drogon shoots a second jet of flame directly at the iron throne. The spiked fringe, ablaze, glows red hot and bends backward. The swords begin to melt under the immense heat. The iron throne liquifies into a bubbling mass of molten steel.

On those services, the description track is listed in the same menu with the other language soundtracks. Right there, beside Spanish, French, and whatever, you’ll see English (AD). Audio description.

And I have to mention this incredible smartphone app called Spectrum Access, formerly called ActiView. It plays the description tracks for movies and shows—over earbuds, if you like. But here’s the cool part: It figures out how to sync up with whatever is playing, in your home or in a theater, by listening to the soundtrack and figuring out where you are. Here’s the app finding its place in “Black Panther.”

Black Panther clip

NARR: He activates his mask. Okoye points her spear at Killmonger.

Spectrum Access is free and it’s amazing. 

Now, if you’re a sighted person, you might be going, “Oh, how nice that there’s a technology solution for blind people.”

But anyone in the accessibility world can tell you: It’s a very rare accessibility feature that doesn’t also go mainstream. 

Like, you know curb cuts? Those ramps at street corners? They were designed for people in wheelchairs. But nowadays, who uses curb cuts mostly? People with bikes. Or strollers. Or rolling luggage. Or carts. 

Or take subtitles. Nowadays, I watch everything with closed captions on. You just get so much more out of the writing. You miss a lot less. 

Rhys Lloyd is convinced that audio description will break out, too.

Rhys: If you’re anything like me,   a lot of my viewing is done distractedly with a laptop in front of me or my phone, and audio description can fill that gap for you if you’re cooking. 

I mean, I used to live in Los Angeles. I know the traffic there. And people sometimes want to keep enjoying that show they were watching. They could potentially listen to it on their phone as they’re stuck in traffic and— and with audio description, they can– they can not miss some of the visuals. 

So yeah: audio description has been a big success. And the concept seems simple enough in practice. 

But in the real world, things can fall apart pretty quickly. After the break: the seven nightmares of highly effective describers. They are as follows: Short deadlines, fast action, subtitled scenes, sex scenes, racial issues, long credits …and synthesized voice software.


OK. We’ve been talking about audio description tracks in TV and movies, which I like to think of as subtitles for the blind. Bryan Gould’s department at WGBH creates descriptions for all kinds of visual culture.

David: Let’s talk about how these get made.

Bryan The typical situation is that we receive a final show, a finished program.   [00:16:31]  And typically, a describer will watch the program and maybe watch it several times so that they know sort of—if it’s, for example, if it’s a mystery sort of program,   you don’t know what the red herrings are until you know the end of the mystery. 

David And then what? You fire up Microsoft Word and start typing?

Bryan Well, we use some specialized software that helps doing what we call timing out.  

Once the script is written, edited, and approved, it’s time to record the audio. Description companies hire professional voiceover actors, the kind of people you hear on audiobooks. And this is the part that blew me away: they read it stone cold. Without ever having looked at the script first.

Bryan It’s an amazing process.   They’re in their recording booth with a microphone and a little monitor and their headphones on, and they’re watching the program or even the movie for the first time and reading the script live. Now, of course, if they flub or they read too fast or too slow, they can edit.   

And presto: A description track is born.

Seems like it’s pretty easy, right? Seems like creating a description track for people with low vision shouldn’t be any harder than creating subtitles for people with weak hearing.

Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong. Audio description is a lot trickier to make than subtitles—for seven reasons.

First: You generally have very little time to create the track. 

Bryan Iif you’re doing a movie that’s coming out Friday night and we get a copy of the movie on Wednesday, it’s two and a half hours long, you need six people to write the script as fast as humanly possible. 

David That happens? 

Bryan Oh, sure. Oh, sure. I can tell you way, way back in the day,   the second theatrical-release movie that GBH ever described was “Titanic.”

David Oh, no way!

Bryan Yeah, so we had to do it very fast. It was like 24 hours of writing like crazy. But it also was in theaters for like a year and a half. So it had a very long tail.  


Jack: I’m the king of the world!

Narr: Jack tilts his head back and closes his eyes as the enormous ship surges across the ocean.

The second problem comes with the territory: How do you describe action that’s happening faster than you can narrate? Well, one way is to pre-narrate.

David In “The Matrix,” they say, “Neo, in slow motion, does three cartwheels, grabs a submachine gun and fires into the chest of the guard.” And that hasn’t happened yet.

Matrix clip

Narr: Neo drops the submachine guns and runs directly toward the troopers. He flips a cartwheel and grabs an M16 rifle from the ground. (RAT-A-TAT-TAT!)

Bryan [00:21:21] that’s a great example, because in a fast paced action scene— this is an audio experience.   if the sound effects for   what you just said are about to happen, and they’re quite loud and pretty frankly awesome to listen to—

Matrix clip continues

Bryan (con’d)   you want to create that image and you want to, you know, preload it with those words, and then it happens. Because if you’re just describing, “well, this just happened,” you’re never going to catch up. 

Narr: Trinity picks up the duffel bag and drops the shotgun. Together, they walk to the elevator.

Ding! Click!

Problem number 3 is foreign-language subtitles. Remember, the golden rule for a describer is that you never talk over dialogue. But what about…

David What about when the entire movie is in another language? 

Bryan Then you have to talk over, obviously, because you have to provide the information. There’s no other way to watch the movie.   We’ve gone to the lengths of actually hiring three different people to do the job, one person just to read descriptions, one person to read male parts that are—or male characters, read that with subtitles, and another to read female character subtitles.  

I wanted to hear what that’s like, where the describer just speaks right over the dialog. So I spent 4 bucks to re rent the fantastic Korean movie “Parasite,” which won four Oscars in 2019, including Best Picture. Here’s what it sounds like:

Parasite dialogue clip

It doesn’t have a description track. Nobody bothered to make one! For a Best Picture-Oscar movie! What the heck!

I did a little Googling. Turns out that subtitled foreign movies almost never have description, because they tend to do so pathetically at the U.S. box office. 

Apparently there was a described version of “Parasite” in the U.K. But the American distributor, Neon, decided to just blow off Americans who have impaired vision. Seems kinda dumb.…You’re gonna write off 26 million viewers because you don’t want to spend a few grand getting the description track done?

OK, now the fourth challenge: Sex scenes. Like this one, from the 2015 Brangelina movie “By the Sea.” And parents, just a warning here: The following audio clip acknowledges the existence of bathtubs.

By the Sea scene

Narr: Still clothed, Roland climbs into the tub. He holds her close as they share a gentle kiss.

David OK, so how about sex scenes?  What happens there? 

Bryan Well, when a man and a woman love each other very much, David— 

David This interview is over. 

Bryan You asked! In all scenes, description writing must take in the context.   And if it’s a—adult drama or an R-rated film, it’s going to be described in the context of the film, in the quote-unquote language of the film. And we have used, you know, not X-rated words, but we’ve used racier words depending on what the— the level of passion is, I’ll say.  

David Would you use body-part names? 

Bryan Of course. Of course.   if you’re being, I’ll say, prudish, about a sex scene in an R-rated movie about two people who are being very passionate about what’s going on there—well, why should someone who can’t see a scene but is   listening to it, not understand what the director is providing ? 

And while we’re on the topic of evolving awareness …Here’s Rhys Lloyd again.

Rhys Historically, the guidelines around race and audio description was to describe the character’s race if it’s relevant to the plot,which, I mean, on the surface, it makes a certain degree of sense. 

A case in point: “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s 2017 social-satire horror movie. It’s a movie about race. Every single character is either black or white, and their race matters to the story in every single case. And so, sure enough, the describer almost always lets you know. Here are some examples:

Get Out clip

NARR:              A thin young African-American man walks while on his phone… A brown-eyed African-American man faces the steamy mirror…A Caucasian brunette stares at pastries…Walter greets a white couple.

Except in one kind of surprising case: When the white cop starts harassing the Black main character. They mention that the cop is bald, but not that he’s white.

Get Out clip

NARR:              Rose faces a bald police officer.

COP:                Sir, can I see your license, please?

Of course, this was back in 2017. Bryan Gould says that the world is always changing.

Bryan When I started writing descriptions way back in the mid-nineties,   skin tone or race was only mentioned when someone was not white. 

You know, if you’re describing a film where, or a —or even a documentary, where someone is a NASA scientist, for example, or in a position of power, but is a person of color… I always think of the the situation where a young person is seeing someone who looks like them in a position where they don’t expect them, right?  Well, if they don’t hear their, the person’s race or skin tone, that’s  a missed opportunity there, I think.  

I asked Rhys Lloyd about this.

David I mean, it occurs to me that the conversations have already been had by the makers of the movie in their casting. I mean, you couldn’t you just punt and say, for every character, “he’s white, he’s fat and bald, he’s 45 years old,” you know, and so on?

Rhys:  100 percent. You can definitely include that.  But what are you– what are you omitting that’s also relevant in those in those in those precious seconds that you have?  That nut hasn’t been cracked yet. That— that’s still a challenge, and these are good challenges to have, the things that keep this fluid and interesting and ongoing.

Challenge #6 kind of cracks me up. It’s the closing credits.

The credits for “Avengers: Endgame” are 12 minutes long, and include over 10,000 names—and their job titles. Assistant Depth Supervisor. Choirmaster. Propmaker gang boss.

(And yes, ten thousand. I actually pasted them into a spreadsheet to see how many rows there were. I don’t kid around when I write my podcasts.)

David I’m so confused. Sometimes—they, they seem to name some people and not others. 

Bryan So that comes down to what—what does a contract say?  There was one movie studio that required every single credit to be read. And so you could sit in the movie theater for, you know, another hour and a half and listen to the credits.  

David No! 

Bryan Because, you know, sometimes it’s three columns of credits going, you know. Animators and everybody else.  

Seems like the trend is not to expend quite that much effort anymore. When the first Avengers movie came out in 2012, the describer didn’t read all the credits—

Avengers Travis clip

Narr: Kim Donoyan. Tannoy Read. Troy Robinson. Debbie Rondell…

…but he read as many names as he could during the credits. He left out all the walls of animator names and song credits—and skipped right to the copyright notices and, of course, his own credit.

Narr: This  film has been described by Deluxe Digital Studios, with funding by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Voice by Travis.

Nice job there, Travis.

Endgame music

But by 2019, when “Avengers: Endgame” came along, with its ten thousand names…

Travis was sent home early. In “Endgame,” you don’t hear a single line of the credits.

Now, I promised to outline the seven challenges of describers, and if you’re in the audio-description business, this last one might be the scariest of all. If you remember “Unsung Science” episode 3, you know that synthetic speech is coming on strong. These days, text-to-speech systems sound scarily real. Like this:

Voice: This is a synthetic voice. My mission is not to put human describers out of work. Really!

So the obvious question is: What place is there for human describers, when a text-to-speech app could do the same job for free? 

Rhys Our stance on synthetic voiced audio description isn’t that it’s inherently bad. It has its limitations today as a technology. I think some of those limitations are in its ability to subtly carry emotion in the way the human voice can do.   

Rhys Lloyd from Descriptive Videoworks is generally not a fan. But he’ll allow text-to-speech in some situations.

Rhys: There’s some content for which synthetic voice might be a reasonable solution, like information-based programming that is less emotional or less about it being evocative. 

If your program is a medical show, like literally a documentary about medical procedures, your level of evocative requirement is lower.  

Bryan Gould of WGBH would agree.

Bryan I mean, there’s millions of hours of video being uploaded every single day, and having that read by synthetic speech just to have access to it is absolutely appropriate and even welcome. Why put in all of the production time and budget into, you know, a How To video? But if you’re sitting down to watch a movie, you know, there’s a cognitive load that that happens when you’re listening to synthetic speech, and human speech is much more natural and is easier to process. 

For now, though, the seven challenges of creating descriptions today shrink to insignificance compared to the biggest problem of all: Getting shows and movies described in the first place. 

Lauren I stream 99 percent of everything.  so it would be, you know, picking something and then going into the menu and the audio settings and seeing, “Oh, does this have audio descriptions?”—and hoping it does.   

Lauren Berglund again.

Lauren (cont’d) Like Netflix has a section of only audio-described titles, so sometimes I’ll start there if, like, you know, I want something that is audio described.   Sometimes I’ll find that like certain seasons of a show are described, but not the whole thing. Or sometimes I’ll go to like, ACB has a full list of audio described titles, so sometimes I’ll go there and look through the list and try and pick something out as well. 

By ACB, she means the American Council for the Blind. They have a site called the Audio Description Project—ADP. At their website, adp.acb.org, which I’ll link to at unsungscience.com, you’ll find an incredible resource—they have an up-to-date master list of every single TV show, movie, DVD, live show, museum, park, and tour that has audio description.

David So overall, if you had to guess a rough percentage of how often you strike gold these days, what would you say? 

Lauren Maybe 40 percent?  Like on Hulu, it’ll be described if you watch it on live TV, but when it’s on Hulu, it’s not described.   Gray’s Anatomy is described on live TV. But if you watch it on Hulu, it’s not. 

David Weird!

Lauren I wish more places would audio describe. 

So that’s the thing. Audio description is here, and it works great—we just need more of it. Rhys Lloyd sees no reason we can’t expand our definition of “described video.”

Rhys   I think there’s also ways in which we can stretch the service beyond what it exists today in order to achieve more. 

 And so we’re starting to see interest from broadcasters in including audio description in sporting events. We   did some work ourselves on the Olympics and Paralympic Games previously. [00:31:46]  we did live audio description of the Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks. 

Hold up—Fireworks? How on earth would you narrate—

NARR: Above the lights of Manhattan, a trio of red fireworks illuminates the dark sky. They are overtaken by three golden explosions that expand out like fiery flowers. Their golden streaks cascade toward the Hudson River, dissolving into twinkling sparkles.

Oh—OK! I guess that’s how you do fireworks! Rhys, go on…

Rhys There’s no reason those can’t be described.   why wouldn’t you want to connect to everybody? Like, if you’re a creative and you’re passionate about what you produce, why wouldn’t you want everyone to consume it? 

That’s a great question. Lauren Berglund is especially baffled by advertisers who leave millions of potential consumers in the dark.

Lauren The thing that gets me is like commercials. Because I’m like, “you’re leaving out a whole audience of possible consumers by not making your commercials accessible. Because like, I have no idea what’s going on in your   visual-based commercial with just music in the background.”

And if you’re an advertiser, don’t give me the excuse that, “We’ve only got 30 seconds to get our message out! We don’t have time!” Because there’s a hack for that.

Rhys: There’s also a service called extended audio description where —where the video either gets paused, to allow description   to take its course, or the video can be looped over the course of while the descriptions happenin. And so the actual duration of the described version is actually different than the duration of the nondescribed version. 

David Wow! 

Rhys I honestly think the inevitable convergence of gaming and linear media into some hybrid interactive format is going to allow the viewer more latitude  to make some choices about that. Like what if instead of just pressing Pause, there was a way you could press “Pause, tell me more?” And those technologies are possible. I think you’re going to start to see a little bit more of that—that ability to control it. 

In all of the time I spent making this episode, that “Parasite” thing really bugged me. Best Picture Oscar, and not a single blind American will ever get so much as a taste. 

But wait a minute—I now have some of the world’s most experienced audio description companies on email autocomplete!

What better way to wrap up this episode than asking them to fill just a little void—by creating a description that’s never existed before. A custom track for the best scene in the entire movie “Parasite.”

It happens to be a really challenging scene to describe. There are ten characters in this scene, tearing around three stories of a house, and there’s dialogue in Korean with subtitles. 

Here’s the setup: It’s a story of two families: one rich, one poor, each with two children. The rich Park family has cut a trip short, and will be returning to their luxurious home in a matter of minutes. But the lower-class Kim family has made itself comfortable in the house during their absence—and actually, made a mess. The Kims have a matter of minutes to erase all evidence of their presence there. 

If you were blind, here’s what you’d get out of the scene:

Parasite clip

[all dialogue in Korean]

You can follow that, right? Uh-huh. 

But now…

timpani roll…

…the world premiere of that famous scene from “Parasite”—with a new, custom description track, written and produced by Descriptive Video Works. You’ll hear a lot of character names—I told you, it’s a frantically choreographed scene—but listen in particular for Chong-Sook, the matriarch of the poor Kim family, and Kee-Tek, her husband. Oh, also, at the end—you’ll hear the fate of Mon-Kwong, the housekeeper who is threatening to blow the secret of the Kim family’s real identity.

Good luck!

Parasite clip with English dub and AD

Narr:                Chong-Sook: “Then you’re almost here?” 

Yeon Kyo: “8 minutes, according to the GPS.” Chung Sook: “You arrive in eight minutes?” Yeon Kyo: “Start boiling the water right away.” Chong-Sook hangs up and turns to them.  “What the hell is ramdon?”

Chung Sook races into the kitchen with her cellphone. She grabs a bag of flank steak from the fridge, then slides her arm across the counter and sweeps the mess into drawers. 

“Move quickly!” Ki Taek forces Geun Se through the kitchen. “Hurry!” He pins Geun Se’s arms behind his back and takes him downstairs.

Chung Sook fills a pot with water and puts it on the stove next to packaged ramen noodles.

Ki Woo drags Moon Gwang downstairs. “Dad! I can’t drag her any further!”

Ki Jung sweeps broken glass under the sofa and cuts her hand. 

Ki Taek drops Geun Se to the concrete floor, then grabs an electrical wire off the wall. 

Chung Sook chops the steak. Ki Taek binds Geun Se’s feet. “What are you doing?” Ki Woo drags Moon Gwang by her arms. “Dad!” Ki Taek rushes up the narrow steps and down the hall. “Go quickly! Help upstairs!” Moon Gwang slumps against Ki Taek. 

Chung Sook puts the seared meat into the pot. 

Ki Woo runs upstairs, then into the living room. Ki Jung tosses Da Hye’s diary. “Take this!” He catches the yellow diary, then races upstairs. 

Ki Jung stuffs garbage into a trash bag. She spots the family returning, then stuffs the bag under a large wooden coffee table. She rolls underneath the table, as the family walks upstairs. Da Song and Da Hye wear headphones and walk through the living room.

Chung Sook steps out of the kitchen. “Welcome home!”

Yeon Kyo: “Da Song, look! Let’s eat ramdon!”

Upstairs, Ki Woo puts the diary away. “Da Song!” Da Hye flops onto her bed. Ki Woo locks the case. “Dasong!”

Downstairs, Moon Gwang kicks Ki Taek and he falls backwards. She runs out of the bunker with her hands bound behind her back. “Madam!”

In the kitchen, Chung Sook fills the bowl with ramdon and turns her head sharply. Moon Gwang nears the kitchen, and Chung Sook kicks her backward down the stairs. Her head strikes a concrete wall. 


Every now and then in this life, it’s nice to know what’s going on..

UNSUNG SCIENCE with David Pogue is presented by Simon & Schuster and CBS News, and produced by PRX Productions.  

Executive Producers for Simon & Schuster are Richard Rhorer and Chris Lynch.  

The PRX production team is Jocelyn Gonzales, Morgan Flannery, Pedro Rafael Rosado and the project manager is Ian Fox.

Jesi Nelson composed the Unsung Science theme music, and fact checkerKristina Rebelopositioned herself nobly between my scripts and certain humiliation. I’d like to thank my research assistant Olivia Noble, for spending hours trolling through movies to help me find my examples.

For more on Unsung Science episodes, visit unsungscience.com. Go to my website at David Pogue.com or follow me: @Pogue on your social media platform of choice. Be sure to like and subscribe to Unsung Science wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

Chainsaws, Women, and the Cape Town Drought

Season 1 • Episode 10

In 2018, following a historic three-year drought, the water sources in Cape Town, South Africa ran dry. It was the first major city to face Day Zero: when you’d turn on the faucet—and nothing would come out.

The town leaders discussed expensive, environmentally disruptive projects like pipelines and desalination plants. But then an environmental nonprofit, the Nature Conservancy, proposed a radically different approach that could win Cape Town 13 billion gallons of water a year, cheaply and perpetually, using a method that worked with nature instead of against it. All they needed was a helicopter, some ropes and saws, and some of the poorest women in Cape Town. 

Guests: Louise Stafford, Director of Source Water Protection in South Africa, The Nature Conservancy. Thandeka Mayiji-Rafu and Asiphe Cetywayo, Greater Cape Town Water Fund tree-cutting contractors.

Episode transcript

Unsung Science: Cape Town Drought

Theme begins.

In 2018, Cape Town, South Africa became the first major city to run out of water. The drought was so bad, nothing but muddy water came out of your faucet.

Louise The residents would go and collect their daily supply of seven gallons of water every day, seven gallons of water per person per day. 

So the scientists at a nonprofit proposed a solution that worked with nature instead of against it. All they needed was a helicopter and an army of women with chainsaws.

Thandeka Those areas are very mountainous.   Verrrry steep. Very steep.  So just imagine.   

And here’s the crazy thing: It worked.

I’m David Pogue, and this is “Unsung Science.”


Season 1, Episode 10: How women with chainsaws saved Cape Town.

That would be Cape Town, South Africa, a rapidly growing city of 4.7 million people. 

The continent of Africa looks like a dog’s head, nose down, like it’s drinking from a bowl. Well, it looks like that if you squint. And you haven’t had much sleep. There’s even a lake where the eye should be—Lake Victoria. 

Anyway, Cape Town is on the southernmost tip of South Africa, on the west side. It’s basically the dog’s mouth. 

It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous city. I mean, it’s parked right at the union of two oceans, and it’s bordered by majestic mountains. It looks like a CGI city somebody made for a “Lord of the Rings” sequel or something.   

Anyway, like everywhere else on earth, Cape Town has been feeling the effects of the climate crisis. The city’s water comes from its mountains. In the winter, it rains, and the water runs down the slopes into six huge reservoirs. 

In 2014, the reservoirs were in great shape—97% full. But that year’s rainy season was a not-very-rainy season; the reservoirs fell to 71% full. 

Hmm… could this be anything to worry about?

2016: Another dry rainy season. Now the reservoirs are 60% full. Uh-oh.

2017: 38% full. That got people’s attention. Especially when that  summer was baking hot and brutally dry. The city logged six inches of rain over the entire year 2017that’s only 2 inches more than the Sahara Desert gets. The news wasn’t good:

News: Last year was one of the driest on record here, in the midst of a 3-year drought that officials say was impossible to predict. 

By the beginning of 2018, the reservoirs were below 20% full. The biggest one, the Theewaterskloof reservoir, usually supplies about half of the city’s water; it was about 12% full. You can find pictures on Google. It looked like a huge, gross, sandy mud puddle, with these naked branches sticking up from what once had been the underwater floor.

And keep in mind that at about 10%, the reservoirs are basically worthless; the dregs of that water are too muddy to be useful. 

Cape Town was becoming the first major city in the world to completely run out of water. The countdown had begun to a scenario called Day Zero: when you’d turn on the faucet—and nothing would come out. 

Newsman: The city has entered a phase where it is anticipated a real possibility of Day Zero.

Nobody could talk about anything else.

Helen Zille video message Jan 2018: 

Zille: “The projection is that Cape Town will run out of water sometime early in April. That means you have to save water as though your life depends on it.”

This is Helen Zille, premiere of the Western Cape district, in a 2018 news broadcast.

News: There are fears of anarchy and chaos as people, of course, begin to scramble for water. Have you talked about how that will be managed?

Zille: Yes, absolutely. There’s a safety and security plan, involving the Metro police, the police, private security, and the South African Defense Force. 

If anyone understands Cape Town’s water situation, it’s Louise Stafford. She’s the Director of Source Water Protection in South Africa for the Nature Conservancy. She’d spent decades studying and managing water use in Cape Town, but she’d never witnessed anything like this. 

Louise Agriculture was really affected quite badly.   Many farmers lost their farms, and over 33,000 people lost their jobs on farms in the Western Cape or in this region.   They have extended families. It’s whole all households that’s being affected. 

DP So what —what did it feel like among the residents? 

Louise There was elements of people saying, “This is a conspiracy theory.” Then you get a portion of the communities that felt really fearful with that reality.   The majority of residents in Cape Town really was really concerned about it. 

As of February first, 2018, you weren’t allowed to use more than 13 gallons of water per person per day. 13 gallons to cover everything: Drinking, cooking, showering, laundry, toilets, dishes, pets—everything. Get caught using more than that, and you’d be slapped with fines up to $700.

And if you had trouble even getting water…the government was happy to help out.

Louise The residents would go and collect their daily supply of seven gallons of water every day, seven gallons of water per person per day.   There were about 200 pods, what they call pods, those temporary places. It’s almost like little gas stations where we would have to queue every day to get our daily supply of water. 

Standing in those queues to fill up your water jug every day wasn’t just inconvenient; it was a major disruption to your day.

Louise: In addition, you know, children need to get to school, people need to get to work. And now you have to queue for your daily supply of water. 

If you live in the U.S., you probably grew up taking water for granted. You consider it basically free. I mean, if you told someone from, like, Kenya that we take thousands of gallons of purified, filtered, chlorinated, fluoridated drinking water —and water our lawns with it…flush your toilets with it…they’d think we’re crazy.

But during the Day Zero episode in South Africa, water became incredibly precious. 

Louise It became a status symbol to have a dirty car because it shows that you’re complying, and you are not wasting water. We couldn’t water our gardens. Many people just lost their lawns. 

Radio and TV ads played, offering tips to save water: 

Woman: We only flush after every three pees in our house. (laughs).

Woman: I make sure to boil just one cup of water, instead of filling the kettle to the max.

Ad: I save water  …By not doing the dishes. If you lick the plates clean, then they look clean, and you can use them again.

Woman: Water is a limited resource, so we should all be aiming high to save it. 

To take a shower, you’d stand in a plastic bin to catch your runoff. Later, you could lift up the bin and carry it over to the toilet to use for flushing. You didn’t wash your hands with soap and water; you used hand sanitizer. Women got shorter haircuts, so they’d need less water to rinse out the shampoo. If police caught you washing your car with municipal water, they’d hit you with a fine—and they’d confiscate your hose and your buckets, so you couldn’t do it again. 

Pop singers recorded free, two-minute versions of their hits—just long enough for the two-minute showers the government encouraged citizens to take.

This YouTube video from The Guardian profiled more citizen tactics:

Man: “We had to take all the grass out. And this is the plastic grass, which has become very common in the neighborhood and everywhere. Plants that require water is just a no-no.”

Guy: If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, let it drown. Yeah, that. It’s a mess. It’s terrible. I hate it. (laughs)

In the end, Day Zero didn’t refer to one particular day. It referred to the whole period of desperate restrictions and panic. It lasted for about six months—and then finally, finally, it rained. The restrictions had made the water last just long enough for the rains to start refilling the reservoirs. Here’s Louise again:

Louise: And when it started raining that winter, so we received 70 percent of the rain, so it brought that relief.   So it’s a combination of water savings, more weight of water, rainy seasons. 

The city of Cape Town celebrated with TV ads.

Ad: It was tough. But together, we’ve refused to waste water. Now we’re the #1 water-saving city in the world. Come and see for yourself. It might just change the way you think about water.

But Louise says that Cape Town’s water emergency still isn’t over.

Louise We cannot say that the crisis ended.   because we didn’t up until now, since the 2018, not one of the years, not one of the winters, Cape Town had its hundred percent rainfall. It’s on average between 70 and 80 percent of our annual rainfall that we had since, since 2018. That’s the first thing that we should know. 

The second thing is that the population in Cape Town increases. The population is growing. 

The Cape Town drought was the worst in 100 years. But everybody knows that it won’t be the last. Even during the Day Zero episode, city leaders held urgent meetings to consider ways to avoid another crisis. They launched construction of two desalination plants, designed to convert sea water into drinking water. They began digging deeper to reach even more remote aquifers—underground water stores.

And—even before the crisis was over—they were meeting with The Nature Conservancy, the nonprofit environmental charity where Louise Stafford works. They had a crazy idea that could buy Cape Town two months of water a year, cheaply and perpetually, using a method that worked with nature instead of against it. All they needed was a couple of helicopters, some ropes and saws, and some of the poorest women in Cape Town. 

After the break, I’ll tell you about it—and whether it worked.


As you now know, the 4.7 million people who live in Cape Town, South Africa, get their water from the mountains around the city. It runs down and eventually flows into six giant reservoirs—that by February 2018, were essentially empty. 

Thandeka: We were quite panicking. I don’t want to lie to you.

That’s Thandeka Mayiji-Rafu, who lives in a small town near Cape Town.

Asiphe: [00:10:40]   You would open your tap, and then you would get water that smells muddy. Sometimes the color of the water, you would see that it’s brown, meaning that it’s coming straight from the bottom of the river or the dam. So it was really a difficult time for us, really. 

And that’s Asiphe Cetywayo. I’ll tell you what Thandeka and Asiphe are doing in this story in just a moment.

Anyway, the first solutions that occurred to Cape Town’s engineers were what environmentalists call gray infrastructure: Stuff you build, like desalinization plants. Pipelines. Deep drilled wells to aquifers.

But Louise Stafford at The Nature Conservancy raised her hand to propose a different approach: Green infrastructure. Work with nature, instead of against it.

To understand the gist of the idea, we need to shift our focus from the city of Cape Town—to the magnificent sandstone peaks surrounding it. These mountains draw a million tourists a year—but they’re also host to a remarkable ecosystem called fynbos. That’s F-Y-N-B-O-S—loosely translated from Afrikaans as fine bush. It’s a narrow belt of incredibly diverse plant life, spectacular weird flowers, shrubs, grasses that give the mountain a sweet herby smell.

According to Louise Stafford, the fynbos is really something special.

Louise It’s got   about nine and a half thousand different plant species. Over 70 percent of those plants are found nowhere else on Earth. 

As a handy bonus, the fynbos isn’t very thirsty.

Louise: [00:21:33]  Because it was evolved over time for this environment, it also lives with the environment. It doesn’t take too much water and it’s in balance.

But something else grows on the mountain slopes around Cape Town—something that shouldn’t be there. Ominous music please?


Thank you. Those mountains have been pretty much taken over by an invasive species that might not strike you as especially evil: Pine trees. 

Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, European colonists brought pines and acacia trees to Cape Town and grew them in plantations. They couldn’t very well build their homes and repair their ships with Fynbos shrubs. So they set about growing their own timber. 

But in the process, they triggered a classic story of unintended consequences: an invasive species running wild.

Louise It’s human induced. They arrive, they’re without natural enemies. That gives them a competitive advantage, because they can grow without any predators or insects that eat them or pathogens. 

So what happens   is that the trees, the pine trees escape from the plantations. And it started growing up high up in the mountainous areas. 

These pines have huge root systems. They’re incredibly thirsty trees—a single tree can drink 400 gallons of water a day. 400 gallons—remember, the people down below were trying to get by on 13 gallons a day.

Louise: If  it rains, the pine tree roots take that water up and —and evaporate. It evaporates and it doesn’t allow the water to get into the streams. 

DP So the trees are stealing the water up high in higher elevations mountains before it can reach the city?

Louise Yeah,  the invasive trees steal water from high up in the mountains and from lower lying areas where they would infiltrate aquifers and replenish the rivers. 

Louise and the Nature Conservancy put together a public-private partnership—a coalition of environmental groups, government departments, and corporate donors—called the Greater Cape Town Water Fund. 

Its proposal to the city was simple but incredibly ambitious: Hit Undo on the 150-year-old pine-tree mistake. Cut them all down.  

Louise Looking at the trees is a science that’s been coming for a long time. We always knew that invasive trees steal water. 

But what is new is the urgency, the fact that the dams and the reservoirs ran dry, the urgency and the realization changed. 

DP What was the hardest part of getting this to happen? 

Louise The hardest part was to convince a city that was facing a situation of taps running dry …to think beyond the short term of getting of a rainy season and of pipes and reservoirs. But to think that nature can become part of the solution. 

DP So the hardest part wasn’t the engineering or getting people into rough, dangerous mountainous areas to cut down trees. It was the people part…the political part. 

Louise Yeah. 

DP You make it sound like anybody would need to be convinced. I mean, who wouldn’t want an inexpensive nature-based solution compared with building a desalination plant? 

Louise I think the reason why is because the figures aren’t there. Municipal manager or municipal water utility, their main function is to make sure that the taps are open.   And it’s mostly run by engineers. 

How do you convince engineers, whose first instinct is to build stuff, that the better, cheaper, longer-lasting solution is to cut down stuff?

You meet them on their own turf: With surveys and research. In 2018, the Nature Conservancy conducted a study. 

Louise: We said, “ if we clear the  invasive trees in certain areas, how quickly can we get the water back in the system, and at what cost?”

And the business case, I believe, was a game changer. 

The study revealed an astonishing statistic: Within five years of clearing the invasive trees, the city would gain over 13 billion gallons of water …every single year.

Louise The city would gain two months water supply every year if we clear 157,000 acres. Two months water supply every year, into perpetuity, for as long as we maintain the areas. 

And by 2050, keeping the invasive trees cleared would gain the city of Cape Town four months of water every year. 

And I’m guessing that this is the part that caught the eye of the city engineers: the price.

Louise: Cutting down those invasive trees has shown a return on investment of 351%. In other words, it’s 351% per cent more cost effective to clear invasive trees from the watersheds than it is to set up and manage and operate the desalination plant. 

As a handy bonus, clearing the trees is a more or less permanent fix. As long as you stop by every couple of years for a little cleanup, Louise says that…

Louise: It will carry on forever.  Whereas if you look at an engineered infrastructure, they have dams or reservoirs have a lifespan, pipes have a lifespan. So one always have to maintain or rebuild. 

DP And  did nobody say, “wait a minute, this is the first time in history that the Nature Conservancy is suggesting cutting down a lot of trees?”

Louise We understand that it’s important to have trees to—to help with carbon sequestration and mitigate climate change. But if you have the wrong tree, or the right tree in the wrong area—In other words, the tree that doesn’t evolve in an area, and become invasive, the cost of having that tree in a watershed is outstrips the benefit.   where we remove trees, we allow the native vegetation to restore. And by doing that, you— you enhance the environment as the natural environment rather than then looking at it just simply removing trees. 

Now, you might consider cutting down 250 square miles of pine forest on steep, dangerous mountain slopes, in blazing heat and whipping winds, to be a fairly ambitious project. But Louise and her team decided to make it just a little more ambitious yet.

And to understand the significance of this twist, we have to acknowledge a particular dubious distinction held by South Africa: On the list of the world’s countries, sorted by wealth inequality, South Africa is in first place. Or dead last, depending on how you look at it.  


Until 1994, of course, South Africans lived under the legal and political system called apartheid: official racial segregation and economic discrimination for the benefit of the white population. Strict laws literally dictated separate neighborhoods for each skin color. If you were black, you lived in what are called townships: very poor, ramshackle, crowded neighborhoods, on the outskirts of town. 

Apartheid ended 27 years ago—but the townships are still there. Each neighborhood does have running water now—a single public spigot out by the road. They have toilets, too: one porta-potty for each dozen families or so. 

Now you have the context for the choice of workers that Louise and her team chose for the tree-cutting project: 

Louise We target women and young people under 25. And through creating these job opportunities, we improve livelihoods. We help alleviate poverty. We give additional skills and dignity to people who don’t  have work. 

That’s right: The plan was to hire women—poor women—from the city to do the work. 

Louise So the added benefit of the work that we do is job creation and poverty alleviation. 

DP Wasn’t that considered an added complication to an already complicated project? Because you’re— you’re hiring people who have no experience in forestry. 

Louis: But people are highly trained. We make sure that safety is first. And we’re really very excited about this opportunity that’s been created for small businesses and for women. 

Here’s where Thandeka and Asiphe come in. They were among the workers hired to undertake the tree-cutting on Cape Town’s mountain slopes. 

Thandeka When I started with the program, I didn’t have any other job. I was always jobless, so I didn’t have a choice. When Nature Conservancy came along, they advertised, and they say they are looking for people that will be doing invasive species clearing in the catchment areas. 

Asiphe This is new for me, especially of the nature conservancy.  Because in the town that I am from, the only kind of jobs that we could do, it’s farming or in farms. So alien invasive plant removal was the new, was a new project for us. 

Thandeka was hired as a contractor, charged with building a team of other women to join her up on the mountain.

Thandeka: I’ve got chainsaw operators, the people that are operating the machines, ladies operating machines.

David This idea of hiring women is not something that might occur to a lot of people.

Thandeka: Yes. 

David Are there some ways that you would rather have women on your team than men? 

Thandeka We do need men in our teams, but I prefer more ladies than men. I’m not —I’m not like a feminist, but they are loyal. I don’t want to lie to you. They are very loyal. And they are so reliable. Women are reliable. 

The people that can stand on anything are women. I promise you. And if things are getting tougher, you will stand with women.  Most of them, they are single parents that are the heads of the houses. So even if somebody is —feels like I can give up, who is going to assist? 

And so, early in 2018, the work began—to clear 250 square miles of invasive pines from the mountains of Cape Town. 

Now, there are no roads up into those mountains. The only way up there—is by helicopter. 

The pilot flies each team high up into the mountains, where they’ll live and work for two weeks at a time. They set up low, wind-resistant pup tents, with solar panels to power the radios and lights. 

They use clippers to snip the baby invasive trees; chainsaws to cut down the ones they can walk to; and hand saws to cut the ones on steep slopes or sheer vertical walls. (It was considered inadvisable to equip workers with chainsaws while hanging by ropes from the cliff side.)

The process begins with training, where Thandeka introduces prospective workers to the work they’re signing up for. 

Thandeka It’s sort of an orientation.  You teach the person about their job, from, from the beginning. And you do some awarenesses about like snakes, the steep areas that you are working—going to work on—  

David It sounded like you said snakes. (laughter)

Thandeka I did mention snakes, because when you are working in the veld, there is snakes. 

That word there is veld, V-E-L-D. It’s the Afrikaans word for field—in this case, the work areas up on the mountain.

Thandeka You must be aware that there will be snakes.   you must also be able to identify the snake. What kind of a snake that you saw?  Also how poisonous is the snake? Even if maybe somebody has been bitten by the snake, you must know what —what was what kind of snake was it? 

And do you know what they teach them to do to a snake when they find one? Nothing.

Thandeka You can’t beat the snake, because the snake belongs in the velds. That’s where it belongs. You can’t take anything from the velds.   And you mustn’t chase snakes as well. 

David Wow. So they’re not allowed to hurt the snake?

Thandeka No, they are not. They are not. We are we are conserving the nature.   because it’s their territory. It’s us that are coming to them, in their own space. 

David OK, well now the good stuff. Tell me about the work. 

Thandeka OK, all right.   In the morning,  the team leader or the crew leader, will brief the people about the hazards on the site and which area, then they will present the plan of how are we going to tackle the site?  

[radio sounds and preparations run under]

Then after that, they put on the harnesses, it’s a belt, and then they put on all the equipment on, and then the health and safety of the group. We’ll take each and every person before they go that they’ve got everything with them, because it’s safety, safety, safety all the time. 

  because those areas are very mountainous. They are very high—high areas. 

David And steep sometimes?

Thandeka Verrrry steep. Very steep.

David Is it like a wall? or is it just more of—

Thandeka No, it’s like a wall. It’s like a wall.   It’s like five-thousand feet from the from— from the sea level. It’s five thousand feet up. So just imagine.   Sometimes the ropes that they use, it’s two hundred meters going down. 

[sounds of buckle and rope]

David Yes, so are you are you basically hanging from this rope?

Thandeka Yes. Like you can move around, but a little bit from this side to this side and also, yeah, a little bit sideways, but not too much. Just like, for instance, you have a portion that you can clear, like maybe two meters. That’s your area. 

David And is your heart just racing, or are you used to that now? 

Thandeka When we started the heights, some of them, they were afraid of heights.    they are used to it now. Sometimes when they are working, you will even hear them singing. 

David Is it chainsaws? Is it —is it handsaws? 

Thandeka In some areas where it’s not that steep, they use chainsaws. Otherwise, if the area is too steep, they do a ringbarking. 

Ringbarking is removing a band of bark from all the way around a tree, like a belt. Once you’ve ringbarked a tree, it can’t drink water anymore—you’ve basically cut its water-intake pipes—and it dies where it stands. 

David So Asiphe, when you’re —when you’re up there, can you give me a list of all the things you have to be careful of? 

Asiphe: When you are in the mountain, first of all,   you can get into a rock and then you slip and then you fall.   It can be very hot, that maybe one worker falls because of dehydration. 

Also, you can be up there and then fire starts. And then there’s no escape routes, that you will have to wait for the Rangers to come and get you.   And also it sometimes happens that your chainsaw operator is busy cutting a tree, then a worker is passing while the tree is falling, so they don’t see.   Also, I can say maybe when one person is busy cutting a tree and then they cut their fingers, like maybe just open a small cut, and then they start bleeding.  

There are reptiles up there and there are other animals, wild animals that can be scary. For example, there are baboons and stuff. Those are the things that happens up there.

David OK, I’m never going to complain about my job again. (all laugh) 

In 2020, the COVID pandemic slowed the Cape Town work only slightly; the teams cleared 90% of the area they’d targeted for that year. Now, the work is getting back up to speed.


But there have been other Day Zero crises in recent years; Cape Town’s not alone. In 2008, the Spanish drought was bad enough that the city of Barcelona had to import water from France. In 2014 and 2015, São Paulo in Brazil the biggest city in the Western Hemisphere faced a similar crisis; citizens were given water only two days a week. And, Australia, of course, has been in more or less perpetual drought since the 2000s, which led to the devastating 2020 wildfires. Those fires killed over three-billion animals, and burned an area the size of Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Hawaii—combined.

That’s why, in the last 20 years, the Nature Conservancy has set up similar green-infrastructure projects in 40 cities around the world, producing more water, cleaner water, at a fraction of the cost of building gray infrastructure—and conserving habitats in the process. 

By the way, I have no connection to the Nature Conservancy, other than being a fan; I just love the ingenious way they work. They come up with environmental projects that operate within the system instead of against it—devising ways to make it more profitable for stakeholders to conserve land and sea than to continue destroying it.

From a water perspective, the Cape Town project has been a splashing success. 

David And how much progress have you made so far? Can you —can you see it? 

Thandeka Yes, because in some areas, when we started working there, you could see the area is a wetland, but it’s dry. But now —now that we’ve cleared, it’s damp now. You could see that there is a difference. It is damp.

The water now are running down to the rivers to the dams, to the rivers, because also when —when there is invasive plants, they like to grow like together like this, then the area is dense. So now the penetration of water, it doesn’t go —like easily. But now— now that they are cut down, then the water will penetrate easily. 

And from a social and economic perspective—well, here’s Thandeka to bring it all home. 

David You spoke earlier about empowering women. 

Thandeka: Yes.

David: Does it work? Do you see growing confidence? Do you see women earning a living? 

Thandeka Yes, I can see they, they are —they they are confidence. And also they they, they, they are leadership skills that I couldn’t see before. And yeah, they’ve changed a lot. And also like, they can afford other things that they couldn’t afford before.   this program has made a difference in their lives. 

David How about your life, Asiphe —any changes?

Asiphe This program has changed me a lot. And also women in my town. For them, it’s like a new life has began.  I’ve listened to them when they were planning what they are going to do, how they’re going to achieve most of the things that they wanted in life. So this program really, really changed a lot of people’s lives. 

David And the last question, how long will this go on? How long will you keep doing it? 

Thandeka At the moment, there is no end point.  I will do it as long as I still— I still can, like I’m until my pension. (laughs)  I’m— mentoring other people so that it doesn’t end with me.