Episode 786: Rest of the Story 2017, Vol. 1

Jul 28, 2017

Have you noticed? Something strange has happened to the passage of time. Sometimes it feels like Friday... but it's still Tuesday afternoon. We've felt it at Planet Money, too.

At the end of every year, we do a special podcast; it's a holiday tradition. In that podcast we look back at the year behind us and see what's happened to places and people after we turned the microphone off.

This year, things have developed faster than expected. The Slants, an Asian-American rock band that sued to be allowed to trademark their name, won their case and unleashed some demons; the chickens might be gaining on the eagles; and our presidential bot might need a few tweaks.

We find a race against racists, hear about a weird trick to fend off raptors, and learn that for a bot to be any fun, it helps to add a little human impatience. So settle in and press play for The Rest of the Story, mid-year edition.

Here are the original stories:

Music: "Travellers Tale," "Burning In Me," and "Last Exit." Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

Subscribe to our show on iTunes or PocketCast.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

A quick warning - today's show contains profanity and offensive racial slurs.

Something strange has happened to the passage of time. And I don't know if you've noticed this, but it's just this happens to me every week. It feels like Friday. And then you're like, oh, it is Tuesday afternoon. Here's how this bizarre time warp is affecting all of us here at PLANET MONEY. Now, every year - you may know this - right at the end of the year, we do a special podcast. It is a holiday tradition. And in this podcast, we look back at the long year behind us, and we update all the stories. We tell you what happened to the people after we turned the microphones off. We call it The Rest of the Story. It's named after the immortal words of broadcaster Paul Harvey.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL HARVEY: Today, together, you and I are going to learn the rest of the story.

SMITH: But things in this world are now changing so quickly, this year - this year, we're going to do the show early. We're doing a year's worth of updates now in July. We're doing it. Hello and Welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith. Today on the show, we will tell you about a Supreme Court case that unleashed some cultural demons. We're going to check back in on the robot that was supposed to make us rich by now and a surprising new tactic in a war that we covered extensively, eagles versus chickens.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: The news world is crazy now. In fact, we're going to have to do the show super quick - this update show quickly before we have to update the update, for the rest of the story has its own rest of the story. With me in studio is Ailsa Chang.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Hey, Robert.

SMITH: Good to have you here. Ailsa did an amazing podcast back in May about a rock band, a rock band with an offensive name. The name was The Slants.

CHANG: Well, offensive, maybe, to some people. So...

SMITH: OK. Explain.

CHANG: ...The Slants are an Asian-American rock band. And they were in a battle with the federal government over registering their name as a trademark.

SMITH: Because the federal government did not want to put its sort of official seal, its official, like, R with a circle on it, registered trademark seal on a name which they felt was disparaging to Asian-Americans.

CHANG: That's right. Now, Simon Tam, the founder of the rock group - he thought, that's not fair. That's a violation of my First Amendment rights. So he took his case all the way to the Supreme Court.

SMITH: And that is where we ended the podcast. But in the last few months, a lot has happened. Catch us up.

CHANG: Right. So the court agreed with Simon Tam and The Slants. They said, yes, this is a violation of the First Amendment. The U.S. government cannot be in the business of deciding what trademarks are disparaging, which ones are not and banning only the ones that are disparaging. So...

SMITH: So coming to a store near you - Slants T-shirts, Slants hats. All money goes to the band.

CHANG: Exactly. But people have been obsessed with sort of a larger question because of this Supreme Court decision. And that is, have the floodgates opened? Does this mean that a bunch of racially offensive, misogynist, homophobic, hateful phrases are now going to be registered as trademarks?

SMITH: You're about to hear some of these words. Just another warning to you.

CHANG: I called up a trademark lawyer, Ed Timberlake. And he's been tracking all the trademark applications coming through the door since the Supreme Court decision. And here are some of the names people want to trademark.

ED TIMBERLAKE: Gutter Sluts, Chink, Damn Vegans, Nigga, Nigga, Nigga, Nigga, and Niggademus (ph).

CHANG: Wow. Wait. How many niggas did you just list off there?

TIMBERLAKE: There are at least five here. And there are probably more since then.

CHANG: So at least five trademark applications for N-I-G-G-A have been filed since the Supreme Court decision?

TIMBERLAKE: Yes - a couple on the day of the Supreme Court decision.

CHANG: It was actually three. And I was curious, you know, who were these people behind these applications to register N-I-G-G-A on the same day that the Supreme Court decision came down? Because, whoever they were, they must be pretty determined people, people who want to own the word for commercial purposes.

SMITH: And, of course, the fear is that this would be someone who has racist intentions. I'll put it that way.

CHANG: Potentially. So I tracked down this one guy in Mississippi who was behind two of the applications to register N-I-G-G-A on the same day as the Supreme Court decision. And his name is Curtis Bordenave. And I asked him, why do you want to register this word so badly?

CURTIS BORDENAVE: I thought that I had a duty - you know what I'm saying? - and a responsibility to protect that word, to secure that word - you know what I'm saying? - and to make sure that it's used in a way that I think would not disparage people.

CHANG: In case you're wondering, Curtis is African-American. And he is now in this race against the racists.

SMITH: Because if he can trademark the word, then he can keep other people from making products with it.

CHANG: Bad people from making products with it.

SMITH: OK.

CHANG: So what Curtis wants to do is basically brand T-shirts with N-I-G-G-A. And emblazoned on the front of the T-shirt will be themes like unity or brotherhood, so people will associate those good positive ideas with the brand nigga. I mean, he - you know, he says, this is a way of reclaiming the word.

SMITH: Which is exactly what Simon Tam said about the name of the band The Slants.

CHANG: And Curtis was especially grateful that he pounced so quickly, that he moved in right on the same day as the Supreme Court opinion because what he noticed was another guy wanted to register N-I-G-G-A as a trademark. And what gave Curtis a really funny feeling about the whole thing - a bad feeling - was that same guy also wanted to register the swastika as a trademark. So Curtis is sitting there, thinking, this can't be good. One guy wants to register N-I-G-G-A and the swastika? So I called him up.

SMITH: His name is Steve Maynard.

CHANG: Why swastikas?

STEVE MAYNARD: Because the term has an incendiary meaning behind it.

CHANG: Yeah.

MAYNARD: And it's currently used in as a symbol of hate. And if we can own the brand, we will be able to control the sale of the brand and the use of the brand, as well.

CHANG: Oh. So you're trying to basically grab the swastika so real, actual racists and haters can't grab the swastika as a registered trademark.

MAYNARD: Correct. Correct.

CHANG: So this guy Steve Maynard is actually trying to do the exact same thing that Curtis Bordenave is trying to do.

SMITH: So very good people are buying very bad work.

CHANG: Exactly. But there's a catch. In order to register the swastika as a trademark, you have to sell a swastika product. So Maynard has figured out a solution to this problem. He is going to sell blankets, duvet covers, socks, apparel with the swastika all over it. But he's going to totally overprice them.

SMITH: I have reservations about this plan (laughter). First of all, duvet covers with swastikas should not exist in the world. But, also, it's such a loaded, emotional, offensive symbol that, even if you're doing it for good, even if you're putting it on something, even if no one buys it, the very fact of its existence seems wrong.

CHANG: And you just put your finger on a fundamental problem with Steve Maynard's strategy. So under trademark law, the government will only approve your trademark application if consumers connect your trademark with the product that you are selling. But the swastika - it's so well-known. There's so much terrible history behind it - the Nazis, Adolf Hitler, the Holocaust - that it's unlikely anyone would connect that symbol to some brand of blankets. So Maynard will probably never get to trademark the swastika. But then again, neither will anyone else.

SMITH: Ailsa Chang, thank you so much.

CHANG: You're welcome.

SMITH: Amazing story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUNNER JAMES AND RYAN MARCIANO'S "ZWEEPSTOK")

SMITH: I'm going to be honest with you all. We here at PLANET MONEY are not supposed to be here this week doing this show because we, PLANET MONEY, were supposed to be rich. I don't know if you remember the episode we did back in April, but PLANET MONEY developed a a stock-trading Twitter bot, a little program that reads Twitter and trades stocks based on tweets from the president of the United States, Donald Trump. Alex Goldmark led our development team. What happened? What happened?

ALEX GOLDMARK, BYLINE: (Laughter) Yes. We call that BOTUS, Bot of the United States, being cued after president of the United States. It watches Donald Trump's Twitter feed. And if the president mentions a company by name, BOTUS will buy or sell stock of that company, depending on if the tweet is positive or negative.

SMITH: And, Alex, you passed the hat. We all put money into it so that we have a thousand dollars in an online stock brokerage account that is all connected up to BOTUS. And it's ready to invest and make money and double and double and double again. But what happened?

GOLDMARK: BOTUS has not made a trade yet. It has not sold or bought a single share of stock.

SMITH: (Laughter). Now, when we developed this, it seemed like such a great idea because Donald Trump was tweeting about these companies. He would toss off an insult or an attaboy. And the market...

GOLDMARK: Or threaten to tax them.

SMITH: Or threaten to tax them. And the market would immediately move up or down - and that, hopefully, we would be on the right side of that trade. But, I mean, at least I've noticed Donald Trump is not tweeting about companies as much.

GOLDMARK: He is still tweeting about companies. But he's doing it very early in the morning. And...

SMITH: Yes, he has that 5 a.m. demon that seems to hit him.

GOLDMARK: Right. His thumbs go as the sun is rising. And you know what is not going on at that time? Stock trading.

SMITH: Stock trading. Because...

GOLDMARK: Stock market does not open until 9:30 a.m. I ran the numbers, and I checked. And only about 15 percent of President Trump's tweets happen while the stock market is open, at least since BOTUS has been watching him.

SMITH: Probably good for the stock market but bad for our trading pot.

GOLDMARK: At least less fun. So I want more action. And so do all of the people following BOTUS on Twitter. They've been sending us a ton of different ideas for changing up the computer code and making them trade more. So I called up Mani Mahjouri, the head of investments at Tradeworx. He is one of the people who helped us build our bot. And I went over some of the ideas with him.

MANI MAHJOURI: Sounds like you really want to do this.

GOLDMARK: Well, I want BOTUS to get a chance.

MAHJOURI: That is fair. I want BOTUS to trade, too. But the reason we have BOTUS and we don't have a person doing this is because one of the big advantages is that, you know, BOTUS can be patient and disciplined.

GOLDMARK: This whole experiment was supposed to teach us about algorithmic trading. So letting my dumb human impulsiveness get in the way just completely defeats the purpose.

SMITH: So literally, this bot is keeping people like us from, like, getting emotional and just being like, I want to make money, I want to make money, I want to make money.

GOLDMARK: That is one of the benefits of having a stock-trading robot.

SMITH: (Laughter) OK.

GOLDMARK: But I still had two ideas for how to do it, and I wanted to do it. So one, we can trade in what is called after-hours trading.

SMITH: And you hear about this all of the time, right? There is - the U.S. stock markets are basically open from 9:30 to 4:00. But, you know, if there's somebody in another place in the world, they decide they really need some cash in the middle of the night, there are places where you can trade stocks after hours.

GOLDMARK: Mani said letting BOTUS trade in the after-hours markets, it could work, technically. Like, he could make the bot do that. But it would probably backfire because there are so few people trading after hours that it just costs more to trade and it's just a really risky place for a little bot like BOTUS.

So, like, on a scale of 1 to 10, how good of an idea is this?

MAHJOURI: It's really bad.

SMITH: (Laughter) OK, this is my money, so I agree with him. What else you have?

GOLDMARK: My next idea was what if BOTUS reads Donald Trump's early-morning tweets and then it waits until the market opens and then buys or sells right then?

MAHJOURI: Well, it's not a good idea. Let's call it a bad idea.

SMITH: (Laughter).

MAHJOURI: A bad idea but with less potential to be a disaster.

GOLDMARK: Because the whole logic of BOTUS was that when Trump tweets, he moves the stock price right away. So we would buy right away and then get out 30 minutes later so that we minimize our risk. But if we wait hours after the tweet, then all kinds of other things could move the stock price in between Trump's tweet and when the stock market opens.

SMITH: So we lose our advantage because something happened in the world to move stocks and our bot didn't detect that because it only detects Donald Trump-isms (ph).

GOLDMARK: Right. There could have been a big thing the night before that's ready to burst onto the scene when the market opens.

SMITH: It is obviously a bad idea to change your trading strategy in the middle of your experiment. But you know what? We should do it anyway.

GOLDMARK: We're going to do it anyway.

SMITH: Let's do it anyway.

GOLDMARK: Yeah. BOTUS is going to change. Starting right now, if President Trump tweets about a company before the market opens, BOTUS will see it, make a decision to buy or sell the stock and then jump into action right when the market opens and get out 30 minutes later.

SMITH: I don't know if we should have told all the other stock traders our strategy at this point.

GOLDMARK: BOTUS will be looking to make a deal at 9:30 in the morning sometime soon.

SMITH: (Laughter) We're suckers on this one. Thank you, Alex.

GOLDMARK: Thank you, Robert. Oh, one more thing, if you want to follow the trades, you can follow BOTUS on Twitter. It is @BOTUS, @-B-O-T-U-S.

SMITH: And stay with us because coming up after the break, we have an update on the eternal struggle between our national bird and our national delicious bird - eagles versus chickens. A new technology has shifted the balance. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: Robert Smith, I'm here for the summer rest of the story.

SMITH: Jacob Goldstein, of all of the many, many, many, many fine stories you've told, what is the most important thing you have to tell us right now?

GOLDSTEIN: I've got an update on eagles versus chickens.

SMITH: I'm in.

GOLDSTEIN: So OK, as you recall, early this year I went down to Georgia where I met Will Harris. Is a farmer who raises you know free range all natural chickens. He took me out into one of his fields and he showed me his one big problem. Bald Eagles keep killing his chickens. So this. So this what we're looking at here is basically the back half of the chicken right there's feet and legs but the top half is and you the eagle ate his way into the body cavity.

WILL HARRIS: 'cause you've seen that happening, which I've seen thousands of times, the eagle - it's just sticking its head into that body cavity.

GOLDSTEIN: Now the problem, as I remember, from the podcast (laughter) was he can't kill the eagles.

SMITH: This is a national symbol. It's a protected bird.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, it's against the law. Yeah (laughter). He did have this permit. He got this special permit that lets him harass them. And he showed me all these things he tried. He tried nets and noise cannons and these special guns that shoot firecrackers in the air. None of it worked.

SMITH: And that's how we ended the podcast.

GOLDSTEIN: That's how we ended the podcast.

SMITH: He was he was losing to the eagles.

GOLDSTEIN: And our listeners - God love them - felt like this was an opportunity for them to solve his problem. So many people wrote to us and, I found out, wrote to Will - dozens of people with all these suggestions, you know. One person was like, I was hiking in Peru, and the chickens have had little red capes tied around their necks. And somebody else was like, I work in this botanical garden and we had bagpipe music at a wedding, and that made the eagles go away.

SMITH: (Laughter) Of course it did.

GOLDSTEIN: Like, just an incredible array of suggestions. I actually called up one of the people who heard the story and wanted to help. He's a mechanic from Southern California named Brian Hawley (ph). And when he heard the story, he immediately thought of this really astonishing thing that happened to him 20 years ago. He was working at a landfill, and the landfill was just infested with seagulls. And if you know seagulls, you know why this is a problem.

BRIAN HAWLEY: If you're working on the equipment at those landfills, you get shit on.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) Covered with droppings.

SMITH: Covered with droppings.

HAWLEY: You never seen any (unintelligible) shit until you've seen a seagull shit.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

SMITH: So gratuitous.

GOLDSTEIN: And the people at the landfill, like Will back in Georgia, had tried all these different ways to try and get rid of the birds. In fact, they had tried those same guns that shoot fireworks. And none of it worked until...

HAWLEY: Out of the blue, somebody came to us. And they said, put up poles and run a piece of fishing line - OK? - just one string of fishing line up in the air between the two poles, and they won't be able to land.

SMITH: Wait. What?

GOLDSTEIN: So - OK.

SMITH: Just one line?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. So here - so they actually try it. And I'll explain what they did. They put up two 20-foot poles - right? - up into the sky, one on each side of the area where they were working at the landfill. And then they strung a single thick piece of fishing line, you know, monofilament line, between the poles, up 20 feet in the sky.

HAWLEY: And then the weirdest thing happened.

GOLDSTEIN: The seagulls stopped flying over the area where they had strung up the line. And then the seagulls - they just stood around in a circle outside where Hawley and the other guys were working.

HAWLEY: It was really weird. It was really eerie, you know, because you've got, like, a thousand seagulls standing around the edge looking in on you. And you just think, OK. Where's Alfred Hitchcock.

SMITH: Amazing.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. And a month later, the seagulls just left.

SMITH: Do we know why this works?

GOLDSTEIN: No, it's - so it's something of a mystery. We actually even called a few scientists. It's not clear. Apparently - somehow, the line confuses the birds. Like, maybe they see the light glinting off it. But in some way, they feel like they cannot land in the area underneath the line. Nobody really knows. It just works. At least it worked in California with the seagulls. And then when Holly heard our show, he thought, well, maybe it'll work in Georgia with the eagles. And he really, really wanted to get this message to Will - to the chicken farmer. He reached out to us. He had one of his sons go online and figure out the phone number for Will's farm.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

GOLDSTEIN: He called the farm. He got voicemail.

HARRIS: Thank you for calling our farm, White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga.

GOLDSTEIN: Finally, Hawley gets on the phone with somebody at the farm, tells them about the fishing wire. And Will Harris, who runs the farm, thinks, what do I got to lose (laughter), right?

SMITH: Yeah, yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: I've tried everything else. I may as well try the fishing wire. So a few days ago, I called down to Georgia to see how it's going.

HARRIS: It's the first thing we've tried that we've felt good about. And it appears that it's working.

SMITH: What? What? This is impossible.

GOLDSTEIN: I know. I know. Now, to be clear, Will says he's not ready to declare victory yet. Those are his words. There's a few, like, big caveats. One is - so they've strung the wire up over two of their sort of groups of chickens. And the eagles just went to the other chickens on the farm. The other big thing Will is worried about is this is the low season for eagles. There are only a few eagles that stay for the summer. The big influx comes in the winter when the eagle migration comes. So the real test is going to be in a few months when they got all the wires in place and when all the migratory eagles come in. So I told Will, OK, great. I will check back with you in a few months.

SMITH: We never solve problems at PLANET MONEY.

GOLDSTEIN: We never - no, what's the point?

SMITH: We report on problems. This blows my mind.

GOLDSTEIN: I am super shocked. And I think so is Will. In fact, he asked me to give a message to to our listener - to Brian Hawley.

HARRIS: Will you tell this guy - give him my undying gratitude. Express my undying gratitude, please.

GOLDSTEIN: I will do that. I will be really happy to do that. OK. Thanks a lot, Will. Keep in touch.

HARRIS: Thank you. Buh-bye.

GOLDSTEIN: Bye.

Holly hadn't heard from the guys on the farm for a while. He didn't know how grateful Will was. He didn't know that the experiment - so far, anyway - is a success. So I told him.

HAWLEY: Oh, my God. It worked. Oh, shoot.

(LAUGHTER)

HAWLEY: Unbelievable. You don't know how happy this makes me to help someone out like this. This is great.

SMITH: It's a beautiful story. Thanks, Jacob.

GOLDSTEIN: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL JOHN BODDY'S "LAST EXIT")

SMITH: If you would like to hear the original shows that we talked about today - and you really should - the show about Simon Tam and The Slants is called Unspeakable Trademark. It is Episode 774. The bonus episode is Episode 763. And eagles versus chickens - Episode 752. And we love to hear from you. Are there other stories you want to hear follow-ups on? You can send us email - planetmoney@npr.org - or at Facebook and Twitter.

GOLDSTEIN: Today's show was produced by Nick Fountain and Elizabeth Kulas. Our editor is Bryant Urstadt. One last thing - PLANET MONEY will be live on stage this September in New York City at the Now Hear This Podcast Festival. Go to nowherethisfest.com to learn more and get your tickets. Enter offer code MONEY at checkout to save $20. I'm Jacob Goldstein.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARVEY: Now you know the rest of the story.

SMITH: Summer edition.

GOLDSTEIN: So far.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL JOHN BODDY'S "LAST EXIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.