Saturday, November 17

Alum’s podcast ‘Digits’ explores relationship between humans, numbers


UCLA alumnus James Simenc interviews entomologist Justin Schmidt at a lab for an episode of Simenc's biweekly podcast "Digits."  The podcast examines the relationship between humans and numbers by exploring mathematical concepts that apply to real life. (Courtesy of Matt Simenc)

UCLA alumnus James Simenc interviews entomologist Justin Schmidt at a lab for an episode of Simenc's biweekly podcast "Digits." The podcast examines the relationship between humans and numbers by exploring mathematical concepts that apply to real life. (Courtesy of Matt Simenc)



Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated RoboVote is an online computer program. In fact, it is a nonprofit web service.

This post was updated on April 2 at 2:10 p.m.

James Simenc spends a lot of time in his car, which helped inspire his new podcast.

While driving, Simenc often listened to a variety of podcasts that varied in genre and format, helping to familiarize him with the medium and motivating him to explore it further. Simenc said podcasts give him the opportunity to speak to interesting people and delve into topics that intrigue him.

“There’s something very intimate and personal about podcasting,” the UCLA alumnus said. “When it’s working at its best, it’s just you there with whoever is on the podcast, having a conversation.”

Simenc produces and hosts “Digits,” a biweekly podcast series, which debuted March 7. The podcast, which has two episodes so far, is available for free on the podcast’s website, SoundCloud, Google Play Music and iTunes. Each installment examines the relationship between humans and numbers by exploring mathematical concepts that apply to real life. The current installments of “Digits” have focused on topics ranging from ranked-choice voting to the physical limits of marathon running.

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Simenc uses his academic background from UCLA as an applied mathematics and English student to give listeners a new perspective on the ways in which numbers intersect with everyday life.

“The premise of the podcast is that numbers are everywhere, and we, as humans, depend on numbers for pretty much everything that we do,” Simenc said. “It’s so integrated into who and what we are as human beings, but often we don’t think about it in our everyday lives.”

The stories featured in the podcast come from a variety of sources including news articles, current events and personal experiences. An upcoming episode explores the intersection of pain inflicted by stinging insects and pain scales, something that intrigued Simenc after he and his brother spotted some stinging insects on a hike.

The podcast’s first installment analyzes Maine’s ballot referendum, which passed and implemented ranked-choice voting, a system in which voters rank their preferences for different candidates rather than casting a vote for one.

Once Simenc finds a general area of focus, such as the Maine referendum, he conducts research to narrow his focus. The research helps lead him to more specific topics and often helps him find sources to interview. One such source was Kyle Bailey, the campaign manager for the Maine ballot referendum.

“(James) heard about the win in Maine, which is pretty historic, being the first state to win ranked-choice voting,” Bailey said. “There are a number of cities that use it, and we’re the first state to adopt it.”

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The podcast used the voting topic to demonstrate the concept of the numerical value of happiness – using numbers to designate outcomes that will make the most people happy. To illustrate the concept, Simenc discussed RoboVote. RoboVote is a nonprofit web service that uses algorithms to deduce numerical values of happiness, said Nisarg Shah, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University who helped design RoboVote and was a guest on the podcast.

Shah explained the concept by offering a common conundrum: picking a place to eat with friends. The RoboVote system would have each friend rank different restaurants based on preference and then look at the rankings as reflective of numerical values for happiness. The system then attempts to find the option that will have the greatest sum of happiness for the group based on the numbers, Shah said.

“(RoboVote) is essentially very related to the referendum that happened in Maine, so I liked how (James) connected it with that,” Shah said.

After conducting interviews and outlining the story, Simenc incorporates other materials like news reports and sound bites. He then edits it together with a voiceover that he writes and performs. The whole process takes around a month and a half per episode, from initial brainstorming to final product.

“The point is to share that with other people,” Simenc said. “So if someone can listen to the podcast and learn something new, pick up a new topic for conversation and hopefully have a little fun along the way, then I will be happy.”

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