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.

Fight the dragon

My cliff notes for “The value of a life“:

Putting a price on a life is important for saving lives in our economic world, but this is different from the value of a life.

This post tells the fable of a civilization of happy people living to ripe old ages, highly valuing life, who one day are visited by an evil dragon who collects an annual tax of gold for each citizen in proportion to their age. May old members of society die in the early years, taken by the dragon, until slowly the civilization gets better and better at meeting the tax.

[Spoiler: Reading the actual post is going to be way more entertaining than my cliff notes from here on.]

The dragon is an allegory for death. Even as the people accept their fate, they develop specialization and economics and never stop fighting it. Soon, they push back to only small, old group dying each year. But in the meantime they also value art — because it helps with morale and motivation, etc.

And, in this world, you can calculate the exact economic cost of saving a life. Which leads to a difficult conflict: It is true that we must treat a life as equivalent in value to some amount of some other commodity (like movie tickets). (If the economy is running efficiently, and thus people are buying movie tickets in proportion to their entertainment/motivational value, then if the people producing those files turned their attention instead to mining more gold to save more lives, the society’s net output of lives saved would actually drop!)

At the same time, the value of a human life is priceless, infinite, or at least far beyond compare of the value of watching  a few thousand movies. (The price equivalence between 1 life and 1 thousand movies is definitely not saying their value is equal; to think so is to forget the most important contextual fact driving all of this, which is that the village is plagued by a dragon: In fact, 1 life is worth more than 1 thousand movies, which is why watching those 1 thousand movies to help maximize lives saved through entertainment/motivation is actually a significant value-gain for this efficient economy.)

In our reality, things are similar. (Here, markets on the value of life are inefficient (millions to push back death in developed economies, thousands in poor economies), and frankly we don’t prioritize maximizing lifespans. We also don’t act rationally in myriad ways, and life is about quality as much or more than quantity. But, still.)

Compare a button that pays you $10 when pressed at the cost of a 1 in a million chance of killing someone, with the risks of, say, driving a car, which has a much higher risk of resulting in someone’s death, a price you pay anyway for the value of convenience of driving a care. Press that button and take that $10, and put it toward saving other lives; we come out ahead. This illustrates the value of actually putting a market cost on saving a life.

To repeat: Don’t confuse this cost with the intrinsic value of a life. The gap between the two is because we are plagued by death that we’ve yet to figure out how to stop. That gap is as much a tragedy as it is real.

That gap is a direct measure of the difference between the universe that is, and the universe that should be.

That price difference, the difference between a few thousand dollars and a few thousand suns, is a direct measure of how fucked up things are.

If it weren’t for the dragon coming for us all, we could afford to put a lot more into saving those relatively few lives that would be occasionally, not inevitably imperiled.

This whole piece is a “sermon” preaching pushing back death. Some work the dragon’s mines: work in health care. Some build weapons to fight the dragon: To try and eliminate biological death. Some of us work in the entertainment industry, helping making life worthwhile for the rest.

You can join. You can do the right thing even if you don’t feel care in the proportion. Care for yourself before you care for others; you can do more good that way. Drum up some fury, some resolve, some defiance, etc. — and leave your guilt and shame at home.

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.

Caring is hard

My cliff notes for “On caring“:

Due to the way our brains (fail to) process large numbers, it is possible for us to theoretically care about “all people” but also for us to only be moved to act out of care for very small numbers of imperiled people. We recognize the difference between 2 and 4, but at a certain point, large numbers lose their impact on the way we compute scale. This is a problem.

Caring for the world requires acting as though we felt the suffering of the many in proportion to the suffering for the few, even though we don’t. The stakes are high: All of the future of humanity — which is a potential number of individuals far beyond our own capacity to grok — is potentially impacted by us, now, and how we act. If we save one, or save the world, it feels about the same. Bt it shouldn’t; our calibration of care is broken. This is scope insensitivity.

The amount we give to charity — a proxy for the good we try to do in the world, to avert suffering — is generally driven more by social context than anything. We might give out of pressure, out of guilt, or out of desire to win a charity competition. None of these have to do with the magnitude of suffering in the world, or the value of giving. These factors motivate us to give some of our money when we otherwise wouldn’t give any of our money. Note that the problems in the world are worth a lot more of our money to address, but no one expects anyone else to give all of their money away. Social context matters more than scope.

For a given crisis that needs support, our reaction when approached by a canvaser soliciting donations is one thing; our reaction if we were face to face (or imagined being so) with the effects of the crisis on one individual (depending on the crisis, an animal [e.g. BP oil spill] or a human [e.g. Haiti earthquake]), is another. In the latter, we would generally be moved to help an imperiled individual right in front of us, and moved to pay others some dollar amount to help, as well.

I we further imagine multiplying that dollar amount we would pay others to help a single affect individual, by all affected individuals, that adds up horrifyingly fast, to a very large amount. — And that is just for a single cause. What about all the other crises that also affect animals/humans? If we extend our dollar value for saving an individual to all of those imperiled by all crises everywhere, then we begin to glimpse how bad of a state the world is in, and how much we ought to care.

Paradoxically, you can then realize that we can’t afford to even expend that minimal dollars-per-saved-individual effort, because of the opportunity cost of not saving all the other individuals imperiled (by all crises, the world over). This is independent of the value of their lives — they are worth far more. We come to realize that we cannot possibly do enough!

Originally, we devote our lives to service because no cause seemed pressing enough. Now, we are aware of the pressing importance of acting in service, for so many causes, but we are paralyzed by our inability to make even a dent in any of these problems.

What distinguishes prominent altruists is not that they care more, but that they have learned to distrust how much they care. They have learned that their sense of care is broken, due to scope insensitivity. Our sense of care does not work for large numbers; we feel an inappropriately small amount of care in proportion to all of the world’s problems. But, they also know that feeling care (which they don’t) is not required to acting care (which they do). They’ve switched from being driven automatically to care by their feelings, caring on manual control.

How, then, should we act? Well, it is hard to say. But one answer is that it isn’t enough to think you should do something: You need desperation that comes from realizing the gap between what the world needs and what we can give.

This is NOT about guilt you into giving more money to charity. Philanthropy is harder than we tend to acknowledge: It requires you have a lot of money (hard!), and give most of it away (unnatural!). Plus, guilt isn’t a good long term motivator [hence this whole series]. Try to do good because of intrinsic motivation, instead.

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.