The podcast episode to listen to learn more about North Korea

tl;dr — For a good introductory look at North Korean society, I recommend the first segment of the second episode of Vox Media’s new show Worldly. Find this episode by scrolling down to the Worldly section on the Vox.com Podcasts Page.

As the United States and North Korea “rattle sabers” at each other, as the chances of a U.S. preemptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear capabilities seem to grow, and as our news shows dwell more than ever before in my lifetime on the grim consequences of retaliation — the North leveling their neighbor South Korea’s capital of Seoul, and a terrible escalation to total war that would kill hundreds of thousands if not millions of civilians — you may be wondering how we got here.

I recommend listening to the second episode of a new show from Vox Media called Worldly. The episode is titled “Why North Korea is scary, comical, and horrifying — all at the same time”. You’ll get a sense of the Orwellian experience of being a North Korean citizen, the state’s brutal oppression, its leader’s Bond villain-like qualities, and a bit of the history between the state, its neighbors, and the U.S. There is far more to learn about the rogue nation than fits into 32 minutes, but this segment makes the best of that time to get you started.

(The episode’s second and final segment is devoted to Israel’s changing dynamics regarding which sect of Judaism influences policy, how the state treats women, and who it consider to be Jewish. It does just as well on this topic if you’re interested.)

On those merits, I give this specific episode 4 PODCATS (😺😺😺😺).

It’s a bit premature to judge a show overall when it’s only on its third episode, but so far Worldly only rates 3 PODCATS (😼😼😼). If they want to improve, Wordly’s co-hosts need to start sounding like they’re having fun.

Vox Media, better known for pioneering (the wonderful) “explainer journalism” through their Vox.com news property, started producing podcasts in October 2015 with The Weeds, a weekly wonkishly-detailed show generally looking at domestic policy issues. Their growing portfolio of podcasts includes The Ezra Klein Show (surprisingly good, a standout in the genre of “A smart person you like interviews a guest each week on whatever topic provided the guest is also smart”) and I Think You’re Interesting (I’ve yet to give this a listen, even though they’re 19 episodes in).

The Weeds is strong because its three co-hosts Ezra Klein, Sarah Kliff, and Matt Yglesias sound like they’re having a really good time. This is built from their great mutual respect and admiration for each other’s work, plus their high comfort level from being colleagues for years. They crack jokes that send each other into genuine laughter, give each other a hard time, and often enjoying being sarcastic, moody, and fatalistic together — all without ever detracting from the quality of information they put out. On the contrary, they make discussions of important but dry topics fun to stick around through. That is getting it right.

Worldly’s co-hosts are there yet, probably because the show is so new. Yochi Dreazen, Jennifer Williams, and Zack Beauchamp seem like they’re still getting to know each other, and still establishing themselves. I find myself oddly bored even while learning from their discussions, which is unusual and unpleasant, and a very bad thing for a show in the bountiful market of podcasts.

I’ll bet some of Worldly’s hosts may feel imposter syndrome (which is unwarranted), and I expect that this will all get better with time as they get into a groove. After all, the first episode of The Weeds was titled “Ezra, Matt, and Sarah try to podcast”.

But, I’m just as concerned that this dryer sensibility may be due to structural factors that won’t change. The Crooked Media network’s foreign policy show has a similar flaw: Whereas Crooked’s flagship Pod Save America is three guys clearly having a really time together while analyzing domestic news, its foreign-focused Pod Save The World is far more serious, to its detriment.

It might be that there is something about the kinds of people drawn to foreign policy that leads to this dry tone. Or, it might be that flagship shows benefit from first-out-of-the-gate energy, or from founder energy. (Klein and Yglesias are Vox co-founders, and Kliff is a Vox Senior Editor.) I think this is more likely, and if so, the producers of Worldly and Pod Save the World should both consider how to overcome that.

Despite its dryness, Wordly is already on my listen-to-each-episode list. I’m interested in foreign policy, and it’s the best foreign policy-focused current events news analysis podcast I’m aware of. If I were grading on the curve with its peers, it would rate far better than 3 PODCATS.

(Pod Save America and Pod Save the World have other flaws that I intend to review in the future; Into the Weeds and Worldly are both far better.)


As of this post, Vox.com’s page dedicated to Worldly’s episode notes is incomplete. (Get yer act together, Ezra and crew!) You can find this episode from the Vox.com Podcasts Page, instead.

Or, you know, find it “wherever you get your podcasts”.

Worldly: 3 PODCATS (😼😼😼)

 

This post is part of the thread: Podcast Reviews – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

PODCATS

Siskle and Ebert had two thumbs. Sound Opinions have Buy It, Try It, Trash It. Rotten Tomatoes invented percentages.

Podcasts need our own system.

Introducing the Podcast Ordinal Designation Cat Appraisal Tier Standard (PODCATS):

🙀
😾😾
😼😼😼
😺😺😺😺
😻😻😻😻😻

This can be applied to single episodes or entire shows.

I give The Heart 😻😻😻😻😻 PODCATS.

Using this? Let me know.

On Focus

Focus is hard for me.

I don’t mean focusing on one thing at a time in the moment. Rather, I’m bad at focusing on one project at a time. I’ve stretched myself too thin for as long as I can remember by happily starting new projects in a moment of excitement, only to find those projects become a mental burden. I’m an excellent starter, and a terrible finisher.

One data point to illustrate: This website has 38 partially drafted blog posts saved, dating back to  2012.

Another: At this moment I have five different personal projects in progress where I’ve actively invested time in the past six months, none of them near completion.

Never let me volunteer to videotape your wedding. I’m ashamed to admit that over a decade ago I shot two weddings for friends who are still waiting for me to finish in post production. That’s ridiculous! I’m a monster!

For most of Rocket Lift’s history, I’ve let my lack of focus affect the company as well. It’s been a major problem.

Websites? Yes, that’s “what we do”.

You need video production? Hey, we do that too!

Reinventing shared hosting? We have pages and pages of documentation on our thoughts and plans for how to build a better system than exists, because obviously we were the best people to tackle that.

Sustainable food startup ventures? That’s my enduring passion in life so we spun our wheels in that direction a lot, too.

You need someone to turn around your startup’s website that’s going south? How can we help!

Naturally we sucked at all of it. I mean, we were decent at some of it, but we hadn’t set ourselves up for greatness, nor doing even the basically good work we were capable of.

We had high switching costs, jumping from one service to another. There were too many skills to keep up to date with and we did worse at that than we admitted to ourselves. We were never able to benefit from systematizing sales processes (or any processes), because it was different for each service. For too long, we lived with the mediocrity that came from my compulsion to try doing everything at once.

Way back in 2012, we had a team meeting where we debated the merits of everything we did, asking what we could cut in order to go deeper into whatever remained. I don’t recall exactly how many things we considered, but it must have been at least a dozen or more. It was far from a natural process for me — it was painful — but we were able to whittle it down significantly to around 3 or 4 I think, and I recall feeling a lot of self-congratulation over that. Ha!

It was desperation that brought us to that point. There was always too much stress, never enough money. It was awkward whenever someone asked what we did and it took us five minutes to answer.

I also grew tired of being in an industry where plenty of our peers were doing amazing things, serving enviable clients, living quite comfortably, and preaching an abundance mentality — while we struggled.

At that point, I was fed up with the consequences of my own denial, and admitting that we had a problem was easy. Yes, we had a problem.

And actually it was me. I had the problem.

I have the problem.

Rationally, I know that trying to do everything simultaneously is impossible. Obviously. But my tendency to take everything on has been a lifelong character flaw — my Achilles heel.  It’s like a kind of insanity I’ve been unable to shake.

Looking back over the years, I recognize several moments where I thought I was focusing, but really I was just ratcheting in my expectations for what was a reasonable number of foci. (‘Foci’ is a plural of focus. Or course I know this.)

That meeting in 2012 was one of many. Each time, it was painful to let go of things, so we only let go of one or two, instead of letting go of all but one as we should have. It would have been easier in the long run to rip the bandaid off all at once, and truly focus on One Thing. But I didn’t.

Where does this come from?

Well, there’s fear of commitment. This was justified to some extent. New business has rarely come easily for Rocket Lift, so I wanted to keep our options open, to do whatever sort of work came along. But I didn’t see this for what it was, a self-reinforcing cycle: Lack of opportunity, led to lack of focus, led to lack of quality, led to lack of opportunity. I didn’t trust to the magic of abundance mentality.

Also, being overwhelmed has (bizarrely) been my comfort zone, and being focused is outside of that zone. Being overwhelmed is what I know, and so there’s something scary to me about feeling I have a sustainable work load.

But, focus is a discipline I didn’t have. No discipline is joyful. Focusing is painful. That’s actually a paraphrase of Hebrews 12:11, a passage I have so cherished that I’ve internalized it over the last 15 years, and had to look up to remind myself where it came from. Here’s the thing, though: I completely missed the point of it until recently. I used to think that my experience with focus being painful was something I experienced especially, like that was a particular part of my own personality. I imagined that focus was easier for other people, that somehow its difficulty for me meant that I could be excused from it and from the truth that I have only one life to live, with scarce time and resources to use. It excused me from the discipline of focus.

That leads me to conclude that the root of this problem has simply been a lack of maturity, which I struggle with even today. I’ve lived in denial of the basic fact of adult life that you can only do so much as one person, or even as one group of people. That’s true for you, and that’s true for me.

So note to self: Knock it off.

 

The best podcast you won’t tell your friends about

Rating: 😻😻😻😻😻 PODCATS

I’m not the first to observe that podcasting is an especially intimate medium. Rich gentle voices recorded close to a microphone sound confessional and personal. Listening through headphones is not only personal by definition, it also exploits your auditory perception to locate the source of the sound in the middle of your head. Call it the Rule of Intimacy.

What makes The Heart rank among the very best podcasts is how it builds upon that intimacy.

Recommending The Heart feels a bit like recommending a vibrator.

Each edition opens with the host’s quiet, syncopated introduction, usually set to the show’s understated theme, a simple yet energetic bass riff with a heartbeat’s casual, steady rhythm.

“From PRX’s Radiotopia… Welcome… to The Heart. I’m Kaitlin Prest.”

Kaitlin intones playful, sensuous delight into each. careful. word, evoking pillow talk… like she’s tickling your ear with a whisper and is about to lick chocolate off your neck.

The Heart describes itself as “an audio art project about intimacy and humanity… comprised of a community of badass writers, radio makers and artists who make personal documentary work about their bodies and their loves.”

It is a show that invites you into its producers bedrooms, not to titillate you, but to empathize with and liberate you by sharing everything with you, a fellow sexual creature.

The Heart grew out of an earlier project called Audio Smut, of which (I think all) the back episodes are still available in The Heart’s feed. Audio Smut celebrated the variety of human sexual experiences and delighted in flipping the bird at all manner of puritanism and prudery.

It succeeded at subverting the very idea of obscenity by rushing into obscene spaces — the intersection of sex and scatalogy, for example — and throwing shameless audio parties there.

Audio Smut wasn’t afraid to be pornographic. (It would be fun to listen to back episodes and calculate its ratio of recorded orgasms-per-episode.) But it rose to the status of art and stayed there by presenting sexuality as a bigger part of our lives than we acknowledge, full of joy, confusion, banality, pain, and trauma. All of it.

Audio Smut evolved into The Heart and joined Radiotopia in 2014, a perfect fit for the network’s brand of top-shelf sound design, creative format, and immersive listening.

Just like the earlier project, The Heart centers non-binary gender, non-traditional relationships, sex positivity, and queer experience. What changed was its scope and ambitions. It would have been difficult for Audio Smut to continue much longer without repeating itself (which it never did, excluding reruns in-between seasons).

The Heart lives in the house that Audio Smut painted. Having established a sex positive world for listeners, the producers were able to start taking that for granted, and explore next-level questions and stories in new depth. It turned down the “yay for all things sex!”, began to tackle issues, and added more editorial voice.

A few seasons ago they focused on producer Mitra Kaboli and Kaitlin’s relationship. That culminated in an event where they were (maybe?) married, teasing listeners a bit with whether this was real, or metaphor. Is that your business? Does it matter? Well, no… but your curiosity is understandable. You the listener have been invited into relationship with these people.

More recently The Heart has featured episodes looking at sex and disabilities, a mini-series on feminine-presenting heterosexual-acting men, a series called “Ghost” examining what lingers when a love dies, and the haunting “Silent Evidence” series documenting a woman’s investigation into childhood abuse.

I suppose every episode of this show ever deserves a trigger warning for something, but these next three paragraphs certainly do for grey areas of sexual assault.

As I write this, The Heart is in the middle a mini-series called “No”. It documents the messy evolution of Kaitlin’s power to say “no” throughout her life. Its dramatic reenactments are as effective as they are brutal, retracing Kaitlin’s real life experiences with men who… let’s say pushed her limits.

It is remarkable, even heroic how Kaitlin avoid applying value-laden language to these men and events. Withholding her judgement is a masterstroke, leaving you the listener with unresolved tension and some intense emotions to work through.

And I don’t know whether this was intended or if I’m projecting here, but the nuance and depth to this mini-series are a righteous rebuke of our culture’s disfunction in this political moment, with our Rapist in Chief.

“No” deserves awards for how astonishingly honest and unafraid it is to force you to deal with this stuff. (That The Heart can still astonish me with its honesty at all is itself astonishing.)

The show’s discourse is light years beyond mainstream conversations about sex and gender. It has received some critical acclaim and enjoys some popularity, but the world would be better of if it had a wider audience. Too many people miss out on the pure pleasure of listening to these episodes, not to mention personal growth from encountering its ideas. It presents true and varied experiences that simply aren’t represented elsewhere, proof positive of the value of diverse voices. (It would be impossible for cisgendered straight men to make this show.)

Reviews on iTunes criticize The Heart for self-obsession. True, its producers often indulge in their own experiences, but they’ve never repeated themselves, and frequently feature others. Having a main cast of characters is a device that builds the show’s intimacy.

Others find fault with the sound design, which often features voices “too quiet to hear”, presumably over road noise during a listener’s commute. That’s laughable for a concept that revolves around the bedroom. The Heart requires the time, attention, and quiet moments you would devote to a new lover. And probably better quality headphones.

Still others complain the host is too “self-important”. I can think of a few reasons why someone might decide this: If sex isn’t important to them, if they’re against sexual liberation for women and queers, if they are themselves repressed, if they reflexively find art that explores ego pretentious, and/or if they don’t actually value every individual’s universe of experiences.

Those listeners aren’t likely to agree with me on much.

This isn’t a show to speed through. It isn’t for multitasking. It rejects your emotional distance. It invites you.

Be willing to be vulnerable, and The Heart will seduce you.

No other podcast with this kind of subject matter commands my respect to this degree, save fellow Radiotopia show Love+Radio, which is far less focused on sex, but similarly unafraid to probe strange, delicate places, and the hilarious, wonderful call-in show The Savage Lovecast, which I also recommend.

No other show is high art, at the pinnacle of the medium, and an erotic experience just to listen to. Only The Heart.

This post is part of the thread: Podcast Reviews – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Nazi Swastika, Confederate Flag

This is a must-read, at least for white people. I’m annoyed I’ve never encountered this idea before. It’s so coherent and self-evidently true, but never occurred to me. 

Nazism and the tradition of American white supremacy that is memorialized in monuments throughout the South are the fruit of the same poisonous tree. In this light, the Confederate flag can legitimately be seen as an alternate version of the Nazi emblem.

New York Times

A Newsletter for Podcasts Listeners

“Write about what you know” the saying goes.

I know something about podcasts. I regularly listen to over 70. When discussing favorite shows at cocktail parties, I tend to find myself accidentally holdingcourt. I love the medium. Not only listening to shows: I’be even invested significant (for me) coin in contributing.

So, I’d like to write about podcasts.

I’ve toyed for a while now with the idea of publishing a newsletter about podcasts.

There are already several excellent resources like this for the professional side (Hot Pod, for example), but I’ve yet to come across anything for fellow connoisseurs, to help spread the word about new things to listen to.

The problem this would solve for me if someone else were writing it is that I’ve pretty much exhausted my friends’ recommendations for great new shows to try.

In a perfect world I could grow readership beyond just friends, as people appreciate my insight and advice and share the newsletter with their friends. Maybe I could even end up compensated for it somehow, to offset all the time this hobby consumes.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Baby steps: I’ll begin devoting posts on this blog to sharing about shows and specific episodes I recommend, and things I’ve learned from them. I’m already devoting time to writing (backed by a Beeminder commitment) and I’m done with the Replacing Guilt series, which frees me up for this, so this is a hittable goal.

What will I write about? For starters, these three ideas should keep me interested for a while:

  • Current/recent episodes reviews, especially to showcase episodes that strike me as particularly worthwhile
  • Best-of listicles — best of genres I care about, or best episodes within a series, etc.
  • Critical reviews of shows

What do you think? Would you be interested in subscribing? Have you come across something like this that I haven’t? What would make you interested to read this series?

This post is part of the thread: Podcast Reviews – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Self mob loyalty

My cliff notes for “Productivity through self-loyalty“:

The tendency to act against your judgement or preferences (akrasia) is a thing. To heavily paraphrase several similar (but more nuanced than this) theories, it is as if our “true” desires are a voice trying to control mob of other desires within our brains. When we become fatigued or lose control of the mob, we procrastinate or are otherwise akratic.

To be highly productive in spite of this, like the author, doesn’t require an iron will or especially good command of the mob. “A problem isn’t solved until it’s solved automatically, without need for attention or willpower.” Relying on willpower is exhausting, requires constant effort and success, and is doomed to failure eventually.

The trick is to get the mob on your side — the side of the voice of reason.

A trick that has worked for the author is to show the mob you’re on their side, so it knows you will meet its desires. Self-signal. Examine the desire: “Is this really what I need?” If the answer is yes, then do it. This tempers the mob’s demands by indulging what it truly needs.

Think of George Bailey and the mob in It’s A Wonderful Life. If the mob really truly demands its full account, reason with it, and if it still demands its full account, go ahead and pay it, and do so respectfully: We’re in this together should be your voice of reason’s attitude.

The mob understands the voice of reason is responsible for many good things, but won’t listen to it if it doesn’t feel the voice of reason is loyal to them. Thus, honor your true needs — your need for financial security, your mental health, and so on.

This results in a kind of “compassionate austerity”, indulging the parts of himself that need rest and relaxation, but only insofar as they need it; not overindulging. Reasoning respectfully with your inner mob reduces its demands on you out of their own compassion for you.

This works on a virtuous cycle of self-compassion, and is thus freeing of guilt. Cooperative austerity, when “we’re all in this together”, can feel “happy and warm”.

To channel this to productivity, ask yourself how much time off from productivity you really need, and give yourself that. Don’t be stingy — but give in to your own needs being mindful of their costs, especially opportunity cost of lost productivity. This will help you self-regulate to avoid over-indulging.

Often, when a part of me really needs a break, and throws up its hands feeling overwhelmed, its initial demands are unrealistic—”two weeks with no responsibilities!” So then I ask it again, with the demeanor of George Bailey, what it really needs to get by. And that part of me quickly remembers that all of me is in this together, and that I’m trying to do some very difficult things, and that all parts of me are constrained by scarce resources. Then the part that protested searches for what it really needs, the bare minimum, and it usually answers something like “I can get the rest I need in fifteen minutes.”

Being good to yourself consistently sets up a sustainable pattern of moderating your unproductive time.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Self loyalty

My cliff notes for “Self-signaling the ability to do what you want“:

The sunk cost fallacy can lead us to failures like overeating, where if there’s too little prepared food left to save after we are full, we eat it all, without recognizing that the costs of the food are the same whether we overeat or throw away the leftovers.

Willpower based solutions to this kind of problem, being manual, are weak; better to create a new pattern that consistently lets us see what’s in our best interest. For the above example, pre-committing to save the leftovers, no matter how small, can be an effective pattern interrupt. This worked for Nate (the author) by giving what the side of him urging him to overeat really wanted — food storage to stave off fear of scarcity — thus aligning all of himself toward the same goal.

Failing with abandon — “I’ve already failed a little so I may as well fail all the way and enjoy it” — is related to signaling failures.

The technique I’m describing — self-signalling an ability to do the right thing even if it seems too late — can address this failure mode in general.

Failing a little is a self-signal that you can’t succeed. By stopping after you’ve failed a little, before failing with abandon, you can send a new self-signal: That you can stop and do the right thing, even when it might seem too late.

Consistent self loyalty — doing the right thing by yourself in these situations (for example, being loyalty to the part of you that values not wasting food, over judging looks from waiters and other social norms pressuring you not to take home small amounts)  — builds self-trust. This is a virtuous cycle that disarms the impulse to fail with abandon.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Always be solving the problem

My cliff notes for “Moving towards the goal“:

This is simple advice, but sometimes that can be helpful.

When working towards an ambitious goal — say, ending aging — don’t ask what needs to be done right now, or what can you do right away. Rather, identify a goal. And if you can’t complete it literally tomorrow, identify what obstacles are in your way, and then simply move towards your goal by attacking those obstacles. If the obstacles are still large, break them down into small chunks, and so on.

This doesn’t mean working directly on the goal at all times. For example, perhaps getting out of debt first (focusing on this for years, even) will get you there in a shorter time span overall. There’s always some action you can take.

The challenge of staying motivated and focused when facing large problems makes moving towards the goal difficult.

But we humans can make a difference — when we try, we either succeed eventually, or die trying, having moved efforts closer for others to continue the work. So, to be effective, always be solving the problem, by always be addressing an obstacle between you and your goal.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.