Choose to be Curious

Big Data

What can we learn about flu forecasting from Twitter, Open Table and parking lots? A great deal, it seems. Dr. Naren Ramakrishnan, director of Virginia Tech’s Discovery Analytics Center (DAC), makes the case for curiosity and rethinking illness markers. Big data in a whole new light…

Listen to Choose to be Curious #49: Curiosity, Big Data and the Flu, with Naren Ramakrishnan.

Tantalizing idea: answers to all our challenges are hiding in plain sight, if only we can determine where and how to look for them. If only we choose to be curious. Arlington County Police Department Detective Sara Bertollini had something to say about that idea as well…

Listen to Curiosity to Go, Ep. 22: Curiosity Is Lying in Wait.



Choose to be Curious

Curious & Wondrous Travel

Of new roads and secret gates. A celebration of discovery, wherever you are!

Listen to Choose to be Curious #48: Curious & Wondrous Travel with Elliot Carter.

Tolkein wrote “Not all those who wander are lost.” In this week’s Curiosity to Go segment, Elliot Carter and Karen Ward celebrate their curious eyes.

Listen to Curiosity to Go, Ep. 21: Wonder As You Wander

My Curious Eyes Season 4 starts March 5! Join me, Karen Ward and others from across the globe indulging a passion for curiosity and picture-taking. Sign up here.

Not sure what you’d be getting yourself into? Check out my gallery from Season 3.

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How I Found Elliot, or My Curiosity Bread Crumbs

One of the many things I love about living in the DMV is that it’s a place people visit. Family and friends come and go with reliable regularity, providing endless opportunities to be a tourist in our own hometown.

After a while, that list of things to see can get pretty familiar, maybe a little thread-worn, so I’m always on the outlook for interesting new destinations —-

But I’ve come to understand I’m a total slacker in this regard.

Utterly eclipsed by an inquisitive young man with the tantilizing title of Chief Explorer.

This story begins with the theory of the transformative power of attention – that if you pay enough attention, things get interesting…no matter how dull it may have initially seemed. (I talked with Caetlin Benson-Allott about that power in some depth recently.)

I first came across this idea in listening to James Ward, the London-based founder of The Boring Conference….you guessed it: a day-long conference about boring things.

He traces his roots to Andy Warhol – who also famously liked boring things — and French writer George Perek who wrote “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris” for which he sat in a cafe and described everything he could see.

And then came back the next day and did it again.

And then again.

He wanted to explore what happens when nothing is happening…which is, of course, never, because once you get curious – once you start paying attention — you notice all sorts of things are going on all the time. You discover that in paying attention, you confer – or finally perceive – meaning.

….and that’s powerful.

So — I had this idea that it would be fun to find someone locally who has made an intense study of something, or who had an unusual collection of some sort, whom I might interview about having made that choice, to be curious about something truly obscure.

And that’s when I found Atlas Obscura – which calls itself the definitive guide to the world’s wondrous and curious places”—and Elliott Carter, Chief Explorer, who writes about such places in and around DC.

Their subjects are not boring — obscure, maybe, but definitely not boring. As Elliot puts it, he focuses on “the little-known facts about the well-known places.” And what a delightful concept that is: to plumb beyond the obvious, to pay enough attention to learn something more. To explore what we call home with fresh eyes.

Pardon me while I step outside…


Choose to be Curious

Transformative Power of Attention

When I first started researching curiosity, one of the most interesting things I found was the Boring Conference.  No joke: an honest-to-gosh, annual gathering to talk about things one would typically consider deadly dull — what organizers call “a one-day celebration of the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked.”

remote controlI’ve been taken with the idea of the transformative power of attention ever since — I love the idea that if we choose to be curious about something, even something otherwise considered utterly boring, it will get interesting.

Lucky for me, Georgetown professor and author of a whole book on remote controls, Caetlin Benson-Allott is also fascinated with such stuff…

Listen to Choose to be Curious #47: Transformative Power of Attention with Caetlin Benson-Allott. 

And, lucky for us all, librarians live to steward our attention, whatever its form. Arlingtonian Jennifer Rothschild will make you fall in love with your local librarian all over again.

Listen to Curiosity to Go, Ep. Oh, Those Rabbit Holes!

You can subscribe to Choose to be Curious on iTunes.

I’m always somewhere between delighted and humbled when I come across a curiosity-centric enterprise that is new to me.

I think: I should already know about this!

And: oh, cool! Who knew? 

Which were precisely my reactions when I stumbled across the social media presence of The Atlantic’s Object Lessons, a series on the hidden lives of ordinary things. I realized I’d read these pieces over the years, but never followed the digital breadcrumbs. Then one day, there they were.

An hour on, and I was still wriggling down rabbit holes and delighting in one improbable post after another. The pictures of cookware were what finally snagged me. Having spent a lot of time in the kitchen over the holidays and having become rather inured to the setting, I thought this was the perfect opportunity for a little culinary curiosity, a refresher course in what surrounds me.

And so Choose to be Curious, Kitchen Edition was born. For a week, I tried to look around my kitchen with fresh eyes, to appreciate anew the objects there and wonder at their stories. Whence had they come? Could their function be improved? Did I favor one over another? Why? I was always tickled by the queries that had never occurred to me before.

It was like fishing for new stories among old friends. I recommend it.

Kitchen - consider the pilot
Have you ever stopped to consider the “things” in your kitchen? Consider the pilot. #choosetobecurious #kitchen

“You Can’t Help But Want to Know”

This is a story about not having a choice in one’s curiosity. About the burning need some of us have to learn even the most basic things about our origins, and ourselves.

It is the story of Sondra Kolker’s search for the father she had not seen since childhood.

“You can’t help but want to know” is how Jenny Perlman put it.

Listen to Choose to be Curious #46: Sondra’s Story – “You Can’t Help But Want to Know”

Which reminded me of another kind of family story, another journey of discovery and self-knowledge:

Listen to Curiosity to Go, Ep. 19: Be Curious and Be Curious Again.

You can now subscribe to Choose to be Curious on iTunes.

A Family Album

AJ Jack Perlman GraveIronically, we began at the end. The first real clue about what had become of Aaron J. Perlman, born in Brooklyn, was that he was buried in Paducah.

But how did a nice Jewish boy from New York end up in a church yard in Kentucky?  And how did he become “Jack”?

Frank and Celia Perlman immigrated to the United States in 1906. They made a home in New York and had three sons — Samuel, Aaron and Louis.

Like all good men of his time, Frank registered for the draft for World War I. Nearly 35, he wasn’t likely to serve, but years later his draft registration card became the first proof Sondra had about how to spell her birth name.

Frank draft registration

A little legwork on, a little luck, and the dots began to connect. We found a phone number to the husband of a cousin and made an almost-desperate, random call. WEDDING FAMILY PICTURE“He was at my wedding!” the unsuspecting dentist-cum-cousin-in-law laughed in delight.

That call led to the cousin, and the cousin’s sister, and their very elderly mother, who might have met Sondra, once, a very long time ago.

More searching turned up a half brother who died too young. And a devoted sister-in-law, who honored her husband’s memory by keeping what photos there were and who had always wondered what had become of the little girl whom no one had known.

And a ring. A ring that Jack, who once was Aaron, wore every day and which Jenny Perlman would give to Sondra Kolker “because it belonged in the Perlman family.”

And, finally, two little Voice-O-Graph records in torn paper sleeves whose provenance was unknown and technology long-since eclipsed, but two little discs that could, through the miracle of modern technology, be converted and offer up the voices of Jack and young Frank, circa 1953.

The poet Raymond Carver wrote in “Late Fragment”, his last poem:

And did you get what
You wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.

It was a circuitous path, but in the end, they all – Sondra, Jenny, Jack – they all have felt themselves beloved on this earth.

It’s still a bit of a mystery how Aaron J. Perlman, born June 14, 1911, of Frank and Celia, originally of Poland, then of Brooklyn, found his way to Paducah and ended up as Jack, but so many other unknowns have been answered, it’s hard to quibble.

We might learn more. We can stay curious.

Special thanks to my generous and much-loved story tellers: Sondra Kolker, David Kolker, Jennifer Mendelsohn and Jenny Perlman; to the good folks at George Blood, LLC who converted the Voice-O-Graph recordings; and to the indefatigable Antonio Villaronga who helped clear out the static so we could hear Jack’s voice in the story as well.

For more on Jennifer Mendelsohn’s work, visit her Facebook page @CleverTitleTK.

Music for this episode used under Creative Commons: Lost by Tyops,  Piano Moods by Herbert Boland, Sky Loop by FoolBoyMedia, and Piano Abstract by Yewbic, all of Freesound, as well as an instrumental interpretation of What A Wonderful World by Robert at and Cinematic Piano #025, 013, 015 from RoyaltyFreeMusic.




Choose to be Curious

What Makes Us Curious?

Astrophysicist and best selling author Dr. Mario Livio talks about "Why?" What Makes Us Curious" on

Knowing my interest, family and friends will often send me links or even old-school clippings when curiosity shows up in the news. When internationally-known astrophysicist and best selling author Mario Livio’s book Why? What Makes Us Curious came out this summer my mailbox practically exploded.

I missed a chance to hear him speak at the Air & Space Museum, but joined the throngs at Politics and Prose in Washington D.C. a few weeks later to listen to what he had to say. It was a delightful talk – filled with research that has become familiar to me, but also with insights and connections that were new and exciting.

From my ring-side seat in the audience I explained I produce a radio show all about curiosity and asked, “Do you think people can choose to be curious?”

“Oh, absolutely!” he replied. “We must!”

Listen to Choose to be Curious #45: What Makes Us Curious – with Dr. Mario Livio

You can subscribe to Choose to be Curious on  iTunes.

Dr. Livio makes a great case for the importance of fostering curiosity in kids. Nothing less than our future depends on it. And it was no accident that my very first show was with Micaela Pond, a teacher who does a lot to cultivate curiosity in her students.

Listen to Curiosity to Go, Episode 18: They’re Not Afraid to Ask

Why choose to be curious? Well, as Dr. Livio pus it, curiosity is one of the purest forms of freedom. It opens, first, our minds, and then doors and channels and paths and frontiers — whole worlds — that we can only begin to imagine. To choose the unknown is brave. To choose freedom speaks for itself.

purest form of freedom

Special thanks to my guest Mario Livio, and to fellow WERA producer Beverly Allen for making the introduction that made this interview possible. You can hear Beverly’s show Practical Security on WERA-LP, 96.7FM Thursdays at 11:00 a.m. ET and Sundays  at 8:00 a.m. ET, streaming at

Curiosity Journal, Life Lessons

Truth / Ode to Odinaka

My conversation with Felonious Munk, Calvin Evans and Odinaka Ezeokoli on curiosity, comedy and the power of observation was supposed to air today on WERA 96.7FM “Radio Arlington” but clearly the Christmas Elves were in a post-holiday lull and got up to some serious mischief, so you’ll have to hear the show on Friday, December 29 at 2:30pm ET here — and, after broadcast, the uncut version here. But in the meantime, there’s this…

Odinaka walked beside me down the corridor. “The word I would use is truth,” he said.

Odinaka, whose name replays with unexpected musicality like a staccato mantra in my head.

Odinaka, of the sinewy, elastic frame, equal parts expressive and exuberant.

Odinaka had hit upon something.

I had asked if he saw the observations that are central to comedy as an expression of curiosity. “That’s not the word I would have used,” he replied, “But I think it works.”  The conversation moved on. But he held onto the question and I’m glad he did.

It’s not the word I would have used, but I think truth works.

So: curiosity is the search for truth.

Patricia Hunt hopes to teach her students to find it among the stories masquerading as news. Writers Laura McBride and Tom King strive for some version of it in their own stories. So does Detective Sara Bertollini.

Which begs the question: if curiosity is truth seeking, what’s its future in a world that is less and less so inclined?

No wonder I’m out there making the case. Choose to seek truth.

Odinaka, self-described loving conscience and comedic sculptor.

Odinaka, younger, perhaps a little more deferential, a little less outspoken, proved to be the poet among them. Too much of him ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor. You’ll have to listen to the uncut version to appreciate what others will have missed.

Odinaka may get less air time in the conversation on curiosity, comedy and observation, but he’s the one who lives on in my imagination.

Odinaka, literally “in the hands of God,” for me now synonymous with truth.


Back Story, Choose to be Curious

Stand in the Place Where You Live

According to StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, “Listening closely is simple. When you’re curious, treat people with respect, and have just a little courage to ask the important questions, great things are going to happen.” I like to think it was a comparable curiosity that inspired this week’s show on oral history.

The Local ShopI started with ‘oral history’ as a concept, wanting to talk with someone who’d done work in this form of storytelling — and then I had the good fortune to be approached by Valeria Gelman, a graduate student in urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech who, together with other students, had just completed a series of interviews with legacy businesses in Arlington.

Not only was an ideal Choose to be Curious episode born of that conversation, so too was a whole new show on WERA. The Local Shop debuts this weekend, featuring the stories collected by Valeria and her classmates. Before she hits the airwaves in her own program, I sat down with her for mine…

Listen to Choose to be Curious #43: Oral History with Valeria Gelman.

Now you can subscribe to Choose to be Curious on iTunes.

Being attentive to the stories around us is a central theme in Choose to be Curious. I like to come at it from all kinds of angles. One of my favorite was the smart, playful approach of Graham Coreil-Allen. A social practice artist and self-described “radical pedestrianist” in Baltimore, Graham leads tours that encourage us to dig into the stories of the people and structures and history around us. He was an obvious, delicious pairing with Valeria…

Listen to Curiosity to Go, Ep. 16: Stand in the Place Where You Live.

I grew up with my father’s refrain always in my ears: “If you change your point of view, you will see something new.” And so it is with people, and their stories, and the places in which we live, and the spaces we build for ourselves. If we change our point of view, if we seek another’s perspective, if we listen to the stories that bear no resemblance to our own, if we have just a little courage, I think Dave Isay is right: great things are going to happen.

If you change your point of view you will see something new.

Special thanks to StoryCorps for permission to use a clip from this video for this week’s show.

Check out StoryCorps’ new initiative One Small Step which will invite pairs of people of all backgrounds, who hold opposing political viewpoints, to record personal interviews with the goal of empowering participants and the people who hear these conversations to cross partisan divides and better understand each other.