<![CDATA[]]>pretty thingspretty thingsFri Jan 01 2016 05:00:00 GMT-070060<![CDATA[2015 Review of Books and Podcasts]]>Jan 1 2016

2015 Review of Books and Podcasts

I've managed to do a fair amount of reading this year, and thought I might try doing something that Aaron Swartz used to do, which I had always admired: write a brief list and review of books that he'd read in a year. When I counted up and found close to 25 books, I felt like I'd achieved something. But in revisiting Swartz's last list, I discovered how remarkable his reading rate was:

2011 was a stressful year, in many ways, and so for large parts of it I did not really read. Instead, I tracked how many books I started and how many pages I got through each, for a total of 112 books started, 70 finished, and over 20,000 pages read. Not up to my usual standards. — Aaron Swartz, "The 2011 Review of Books"

Nonetheless, here goes. What follows are a couple of paragraphs about each of the books I read. And for good measure, a list of the podcasts I've been listening to, which constitute probably an equal portion of my media consumption.

Books with a "*" are those that, relative to the others, had a very deep impact on me, transforming my world view. They might not be as special to you, but they were to me.


Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

A moderately fun romp through the intellectual territory that was fanboy cypherpunkdom in the late 1990's. The part I liked the best was how useful it was as a way to check present-day tech boosterism. So many of its tech-oriented predictions were basically wrong – it breathlessly believes in the revolutionary power of the mere existence of cryptography, while placing way too much importance on gold backing for a cryptocurrency. We can't fault Stephenson for failing to have predicted bitcoin; but we should fault him for believing that such a currency could be instantly revolutionary, and invincible to government power.

My biggest gripe: Stephenson struggles to write a compelling female character. If there were a Bechdel test for books, this would fail; the women are positively 2-dimensional and strangely eager to drop everything to sex up the boys. Anathem did better on this, but only just.

* 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles Mann

A thoroughly interesting and convincing history of the pre-Columbian Americas. Its main points are that the civilizations in the new world before Europe's assault were older (predating the Berring land bridge), more numerous (as high as 20 times the post-contact native population), and far more developed (more urban, organized, and savvy) than typically represented. The argument is strong, and the writing is a pleasure to read.

1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Created, Charles Mann

Picking up where 1491 left off, 1493 tackles how the world was changed by the arrival of trade and communication between he new world, Europe, and Asia, including the sharing the fruits of each continent's agricultural technology, the rise of chattel slavery, and the beginnings of global industrial trade in rubber and metals.

The book is full of intriguing gems; little possible events caused by various aspects of the "Columbian Exchange" that resulted from this new trade:

  • That the "Little Ice Age" in the 17th and 18th centuries may have been caused by reforestation of the new world after the Native American population collapse caused by disease and conquest. The native people had heavily managed wild landscapes with fire, but with the decimation of their civilizations, global temperatures dropped as the new trees sequestered carbon.
  • That the rise of slaves of from Africa in particular (as opposed to indentured white servants or slaves from other places) was driven by malaria. Due to favorable genetics for fighting the disease, some Africans had lower relative death rates, making them more effective laborers.
  • That a 19th century Malthusian disaster was averted by the proliferation of new world crops such as maize and sweet potatoes, particularly in China, but also later in Ireland and mainland Europe (at least until potato blight reversed the gains).

Conquering the Impossible, Mike Horn

Adventure porn at its finest (complete with the less-than-stellar prose from an author for whom writing is not a core competency), this book chronicles Mike Horn's successful 12,000 mile circumlocution of the arctic circle without motorized power. By foot, ski, kite, sailboat, kayak, and bicycle, Horn travels across some seriously difficult terrain in a journey that takes 2 years. The man's got stamina, and enviable strength – towing a 400 pound sled for dozens of miles per day, day after day, is nothing to sneeze at. And he has serious commitment to his (strangely contrived) goal, putting up with soul-withering setbacks (like a 2 degree rise in temperature that melts sea ice, necessitating a detour by hundreds of miles), ridiculously difficult bureaucratic logistics (getting permission to cross military territory in northern Russia), and disasters (his warming stove burning his tent down, requiring him to stay in an emergency igloo). But also abundantly clearly, he's got some serious money and political connections, which he frequently has to mobilize to obtain fresh helicopter drops or rescue when disaster strikes. More than a story of physical strength, this reads as a story of the ridiculous lengths one can go to complete "a goal", no matter how strangely forced that goal might be in the first place.

I'd love to read the book, if there were one, of Mike Horn's earlier non-motorized equatorial circumlocution – on that trip, from what I've heard, he did significant periods unsupported, living off the land or the sea as he went. That to me would be more interesting than the all-too-frequent helicopter supply drops that accompanied Arctos, even if the weather is milder. The Arctic reads as a moonscape onto which one carries all of one's supplies; where a more integral relationship with the land you're crossing would be closer to my heart.

The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat, Steven Lukes

This book was written by a philosopher, and you can tell. While the prose is at times stilted, it does an interesting job of presenting a range of "ideal worlds" as might correspond to various ethical philosophical threads. The main character travels through "Militaria", a military dictatorship; "Utilitaria", a utilitarian society where everyone carries a calculator to count the utils; "Communitaria", where pure equality and multi-culturalism exist (seeming to correspond to some straw-man representations of anti-oppressive and feminist philosophy); and "Libertaria", a libertarian distopia.

The book does a good job of showing the extent to which foolish adherence to simple ideals is a poor strategy for responding to the complexities of human life, but in the end offers little by way of a positive project suggesting how we might pick a better way. My favorite part was the way it imagined what "rebellious teenagers" would look like in each world – this I think will become one of my first tools to critique any future visions of idealized society. What's the stuff that the angry, activist kids would find at fault with this system?

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown

I had started this book a few times in the last few years, but only finally made it through this year. It is a slog – the slog of beating your head against the wall repeatedly. Again and again, and again, the white settlers break promises, murder, rape, and lie as they overrun the fleeing and diminishing bands of native people who want nothing more than to be allowed to make their lives on their land as they had for thousands of years, only to eventually be forced into military encampments where they whither under the watchful eyes of white soldiers. The government forbids the Indians' self-sufficiency, and then through corruption and graft fails to deliver promised rations for basic survival.

The book would probably be more transformative reading decades ago when "whites screwed the Indians over" wasn't part of people's common understanding (even if it still isn't part of standard curricula). While it's less likely to provoke new insights today, it remains essential in the way that learning exactly how depraved the holocaust was is essential. It was also a nice bonus for me to get another more detailed take on the early history of the European pilgrims in North America (one of no less than 4 takes on the topic that I read this year!).

Eat and Run, Scott Jurek

For a long time, I've been enamored with the idea of ultrarunning, so was excited to stumble upon a copy of this book which chronicles the career of champion ultramarathoner Scott Jurek. Jurek runs insane distances (over 150 miles) at insane speeds (100 mile runs averaging 6 to 7 minutes per mile) under insane conditions (Death Valley in the summer), all while maintaining a strict vegan diet. The book alternates stories of Jurek's career with recipes for predictable vegan dishes.

The most lasting part of the book for me was a minor aside – a little motivational phrase that Jurek's father taught him, and which he repeats as a mantra as he runs: "Sometimes you just do things." Yes, it hurts; yes, you're tired; but sometimes you just do things, so accelerate up this hill, OK? I've found myself using this surprisingly effective mantra when training toward longer distances in running; it's an effective check on the rationalizing mind that tries to convince you to stop early.

Ordinary Wolves, Seth Kantner

An engaging fictional coming-of-age story about a white boy growing up on the outskirts of a mostly native community in Alaska. The father is strongly anti-technology (eschewing all plastics, motors, and electricity), which casts the family apart as outsiders among the snowmobiles and televisions of the comparatively "urban" eskimos. The family lives in an igloo a day's mush from the town, subsisting by trapping, hunting, and felling trees with axes.

The story gets going as the protagonist begins to confront his wish to be more native (habitually pressing his nose to make it appear flatter; wishing to develop frostbite scars to prove his allegiance to the frozen north), while at the same time grappling with the fact that the real natives don't adhere to his ideal vision of what they "should" be. He struggles with a desire to be part of the wider world, a desire to be part of the local native community, and a desire to connect to a vision of authentic living-with-the-land that grows ever more unobtainable and remote from anyone's present reality.

Born to Run, Christopher McDougall

The book that kicked off the barefoot running fad, which I finally read just as my 5-year love affair with the barefoot running began to wane this year. While the arguments are compelling, they're compelling in the way that only cherry-picked early semi-scientific results and anecdotes can be. I only recently returned to cushy shoes when I found they alleviated a 5-year-old muscle ache in my calves, enabling me to actually make some progress toward longer distances. Worth a read for anyone into running; but worth some sizable grains of salt.

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Wallace Stegner

A lovely biography of John Wesley Powell, best known as an explorer of the Colorado River. While the one-armed Powell's daring descent through the Grand Canyon in wooden boats is a widely retold story, the really interesting parts come in the ensuing decades when Powell rose to be head of the US Geographical Society, and oversaw the birth of governmental scientific research. Stegner presents a compelling case that more than anyone else, Powell was responsible for the US Government being involved in real scientific research of any kind, and the structure of contemporary research programs are a direct outgrowth of what Powell set up in the 1890's. The book also does a good job of demonstrating how Powell succeeded in bypassing congressional authority and consolidating power through Gilded Age political machinations that probably reflect what we might see at work today.

Julie of the Wolves, Jean Craighead-George

Jean Craighead-George's "My Side of the Mountain" had a huge influence on me as a kid, and contributed to my love of primitive skills and the wilderness. But something that as an adult has bothered me about that book (and others in its genre, such as Gary Paulsen's "Hatchet" and Allan Eckert's "Incident at Hawk's Hill") is the fixation on the "army of one" solitary approach to wilderness survival. While it sounds great to develop the skill to survive alone in the wilderness, it's not something that any culture historically did – humans live in social tribes.

A pet theory of mine is that this fixation on solo survival is a particularly male expression. We never read stories about females going it alone; the women and girls always live in a group. So I wanted to revisit Julie of the Wolves as an expression of this: while the boys live off "their side of the mountain" (alone), Julie lives in a pack. Contrary to my pet theory, in this book, Julie is with the pack for only a short time, and only with a tenuous and tense relationship – so I guess my theory only gets a partial pass.

But another gripe of mine did bear out fully: books in this genre understate the difficulty of living off the land. As the trope goes, the plucky main character – with nothing more than determination, luck and attentiveness – succeeds in figuring out how to maintain all of their core needs, reinventing time-honored survival strategies as they go. In reality, almost anyone anyone who is stuck in the wilderness alone dies, unless they have some considerable knowledge and experience going in. I wonder if people like Christopher McCandless, who tried to live off the land alone without proper training, weren't duped into their projects by confusing this fantasy with reality.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

The "Great American Novel"; to me it came across as an unremarkable noir story of upper class people doing upper class stuff. Unimpressed.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick

The book upon which "Blade Runner" the movie was based. While some plot points might be held in common, the emphasis is completely different: this is not an action drama about fighting androids, it's a satisfying reflection on what it means to be an empathic human. The religion/technology of "Mercerism" allows its adherents to viscerally experience the Sisyphean struggle against entropy that besets all humanity, and marks the difference between us and the replicants. Anyone as obsessed with concepts like entropy and empathy as I am would approve.

* Tibetan Peach Pie, Tom Robbins

Tom Robbins' autobiographical memoir, which he unconvincingly asserts is neither memoir nor autobiography. It's a delightful romp through various random threads in Robbins' life. The scatter-plot narrative is held together only by his singular wit. It includes some compelling descriptions of the feeling of being part of the counter-culture in the 1950's and 1960's.

We get to watch Robbins grow from a young starving artist who steals fruit from a neighbor's orchard to get by, to a doting father mindlessly running up thousand-dollar room service bills to amuse his kid. This transformation reads as a good metaphor for the cultural transitions during period of Robbins' life it covers.

This book inspired me to do some deep reflection of my own current path – how I can get more of the avant-garde, counter-cultural, and idealistic into my own life? And can I do so in such a way that doesn't leave me frivolously wasting my privilege (as it seems Robbins' journey did)?

* Alone on the Ice, David Roberts

The harrowing tale of Douglas Mawson's Antarctic expedition in 1911-1913. This was before ice breakers and airplanes, so the only way to get to land on Antarctica was to wait for the sea ice to melt in the late summer, and then carefully approach between the icebergs. The window for ships was short enough (and corresponded with the return of winter weather that made land exploration infeasible) that explorers would plan to stay for a whole year – land in the late summer with supplies and shelter, wait until the next summer to do some exploring, then catch the boat home at the second summer's end.

Disaster struck the expedition during their exploration (a year after landing), with one of the most intense stories of pain and survival that I've ever read. Mawson walks 300 miles across the ice with no rations and no tent, feet falling apart, body starting to fail, facing the death of his two companions, only to arrive too late to catch the boat home. He remained stuck with a skeleton crew huddled in a tiny shack in one of the windiest places on earth for another year before they were finally able to return home. During the second year, the crew had to deal with internal group tensions, including a mentally unstable member who started developing intense paranoia that the others were trying to kill him. Amazing story.

* Missoula, John Krakauer

A very insightful exploration of rape culture and responses to it on the University of Montana campus in Missoula, Montana. The best part for me is the way it digs into the challenge of dealing with standards of proof (e.g. "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" vs "Preponderance of Evidence" or weaker levels) amid a pervasive culture of exploitation of women. It paints a clear picture of why rape is still a big problem – though it doesn't offer much advice on where to look for a solution.

The Book of the Hopi, Frank Waters

This book has faced a lot of criticism, both from the Hopi themselves (some believe it paints an inaccurate picture of the Hopi, or that it reports on internal religious ideas that should remain private), and also that it smacks of the otherizing tendency in early 20th-century anthropology. Nevertheless, it does provide engaging reading in describing a little bit of the history and culture of the direct descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans (a.k.a. Anasazi, Hisatsinom, etc). It's a remarkable culture, who inhabit the oldest continuously inhabited city in the continent, with a rich history that includes stories of cyclic migrations stretching back thousands of years.

* Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker

Bill Gates said that this book was one of the best he'd ever read. I'm not sure I would go that far, but it is indeed a powerful tour-de-force (yes, it's a huge tome) that has significantly changed my worldview and, I believe, set a new bar for any radical critique of contemporary government or culture that proposes a "better" alternative.

The book asks the question: have rates of violence proportionally increased, decreased, or stayed the same over time? And what factors have contributed to the trend? With reference to a dizzying array of studies across all types of violence (war, murder, rape, etc) over all accessible history (including the hand-wavy attempts at characterizing prehistoric civilizations), Pinker presents a solidly compelling argument that violence has significantly decreased, and that we are at the lowest rates of violence ever right now. This result holds despite the terrors of World War II and the Soviet gulags. Reasons for the decrease include the conversion of zero-sum relations (pillaging, stealing) into positive-sum (trade), the imposition of Hobbesian Leviathans to make the world safe for contracts and reduce free-riding exploitation, a trend toward enlightenment rationalism rather than ideological or religious justifications, and more. One of the more surprising observations is that moral reasoning has little impact on reducing violence, and often increases it through crusades or ends-means justification. The more effective force in reducing violence is changing societal structures such that violent actions are no longer in one's rational self interest.

Stephen Pinker comes across as a bit of a self-righteous blowhard, and seems singularly focused on violence as his target. He critiques the 1960's counter-culture as leading to a temporary increase in violence, since the free-spirited anti-authoritarianism decreased the stable oppression of the 1950's. Rather than accept his conclusion that the hippies had it wrong, to me this just reinforces a point that if we pick violence minimization as our only goal, we might end up with a worse society overall. Nevertheless, I believe that Pinker's data and analysis has set up a challenge to any utopian, anarchist, or alternative project that seeks to improve on contemporary government structures: it is imperative to account for the mechanisms Pinker has identified, and demonstrate how the alternative vision might achieve the same low-violence nash equilibria in the absence of the government-imposed structures.

Kafka on the Beach, Haruki Murakami

A coming-of-age story of a bookish nerd who runs away from home to live at a library. The journey enters the fantastical, culminating in a trans-temporal love affair and an indomitable Oedipal destiny. This one had me reading it in part as a narrative about the nature of narrative (and life as narrative), with a few nods to an ur-narrative that forms a nexus of human experience.

The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses, Robert Service

A delightful little book full of an old style of poetry that we just don't seem to get anymore: rhyming verse waxing eloquent about personal experiences, often with a humorous bent (think Robert Frost, Edgar Allen Poe, and their contemporaries). The language is simple and easy, the metaphors predictable, and the meanings accessible. This volume has Service's famous Call of the Wild which is a favorite among wilderness instructors.

Obfuscation: A User's Guide, Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum

I struggled with this one – wanted hard to love it, but came away dissatisfied. The first half of the book is a laundry list of historical and contemporary examples of the use of intentional obfuscation as a tactic, including everything from radar chaff dropped by World War II pilots to a browser extension that clicks all of the advertisements on an webpage to muddy your digital footprints. This is followed by an analysis of the ethical, practical, and strategic considerations around using obfuscation.

My main gripes:

  • I don't buy the argument that obfuscation is more accessible to underdogs than it is to the powerful. The authors claim that the powerful will just use "strong" tools (e.g. encryption) which they have disproportionate access to, rather than "weak" tools like obfuscation. But this presents too monolithic a perspective on power – think of agencies producing a flood of irrelevant documentation in response to legal requirements for disclosure (e.g. FOIA requests; a purported check on power). A more nuanced discussion of how power relates to obfuscation would've been better.
  • I was disappointed by the leap toward Rawls when it came to discussing the ethical considerations of obfuscation. It seems like a dated perspective that ignores contemporary moral psychology, which would distinguish the moral sentiment or emotion from the ethical system. I'd prefer to see a three-part discussion including (1) a more game-theoretic-rational analysis of the tactic, (2) an expression of a core value (e.g. desiring equal power), and (3) a justification for why the core value might still hold even if it doesn't always comport to one's immediate moral sentiment.
  • I didn't care for the argument against data collection from the standpoint that "we don't understand how data analysis works". I get that there is much that is opaque about how data collected about us is used, and am fully on board with greater limits and transparency. But arguing against the use of machine learning or other unintuitive algorithms on data merely because the average person doesn't understand how they work feels like an uncomfortable form of cultivated epistemological naivete. Many things in this world require training to understand; that's not adequate justification for damning them.
  • The book is really less "User's Guide" in the sense of practical advice on how to use obfuscation, than "Strategist's Guide", a discussion of a tactic that one might choose to develop in response to a particular need. None of the deployments of obfuscation as presented are "ready to use", all would require significant development to work. Even as a strategist's guide, the reader is left with some significant unfinished theoretical work to choose this tactic.

My hope is that this book will inspire people to more intentionally consider obfuscation as a tactic, just as Molly Sauter's "The Coming Swarm" elucidates the use of DDoS attacks as an activist tactic. But I think both would benefit from more careful attention to the intertwined relationships between ethical systems, moral sentiments, power, and values.

* Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, Kentaro Toyama

A lovely book critiquing the tendency of technologists to search for tech solutions to social problems. The two big takeaways for me were (1) the "law of amplification", a nicely compact way of describing how tech amplifies power, and (2) the importance of developing innate capacities like wisdom and discernment as part of the process of social change.

Toyama's "Law of Amplification" is that when you add new technology to any given social dynamic, the power relations that exist with that dynamic will be amplified rather than changed or reversed. If a group holds sway over another, their position will be strengthened; if a group acts corruptly, their corruption will increase; if a student is distracted, their distraction will be exacerbated; if a teacher is effective and engaged, they will be more so. To me, this result is strongly reminiscent of results from structuration theory that would suggest that any existing social structure will have a strong reproduction bias – but using the language of structuration theory to try to convey this idea is hard without dumping a mouthful of complicated terminology. "Law of Amplification" is convenient and effective shorthand which the engineers can grock without having to read Anthony Giddens.

Breathless tech evangelists tend to place agency for change in the technologies, rather than in the people that will use them. Toyama reminds us that it's the people who matter; and in particular, bolstering the innate skills and capabilities they have, in terms of basic considerations like wisdom and discernment. This isn't something that any packaged intervention can easily cultivate. Merely giving someone an iPad, or the Kahn Academy, or an OLPC, or any other tool will not in itself cultivate the wisdom, determination and skill to use those tools for self-betterment rather than mindless distraction. That sort of personal development is something that requires on-the-ground work by committed mentors and trainers that know people's real situations.

Twilight of the Machines, John Zerzan

Zerzan is the premier celebrity primitivist anarchist, and the intellectual godfather to the Portland green anarchy scene, which claims such dubious allegiances as the ALF, ELF, and Ted Kaczynski. I've been wanting to read some Zerzan for a long time, and I finally picked up this book. Some of the ideas are interesting, but in general, I'm underwhelmed. The essays come across as a series of mini-manifestos: broad-stroke assertions of the way things are without adequate justification, emotional appeals to how terrible civilization is, and a scatershot meandering walk among the targets of Zerzan's ire. Many of the arguments are weak or factually suspect – for example, Zerzan just flat-out asserts without evidence that all societies older than 9,000 years ago were less violent; a finding directly countered by empirical evidence of the sort that Pinker collected in "Better Angels".

The opening essay is a treatise on how symbolic thought, and the concomitant capability for language, were the beginning of our downfall. Throughout this essay and others, I find it difficult to take the project seriously. His assertions of how horrible things are just don't resonate strongly enough with me to justify the aim of throwing away all of culture, civilization, medicine, and even symbolic communication, however sympathetic I try to be to a critique of industrial society. Zerzan later employs the sort of circular reasoning found in Freud ("if you don't think your mother is the cause of your woes, you're just repressed"), asserting that the pernicious infection of post-modern thought has bent our minds enough that we don't realize how duped we've become. Perhaps if I had to work in a tantalum mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I'd be more receptive to the argument that civilization is so awful that we need to revert to a time before language. But to me that's an empirical question; Zerzan needs to back up such extraordinary claims with extraordinary evidence, and not just fiery rhetoric. It's difficult to conceive of his goal succeeding without the death of some 6-7 billion people; so it'd better be bloody worth it.

It's intriguing to me that Zerzan's biggest intellectual bogey in these essays is not enlightenment rationalism (which gives us technology and industry), but post-modernism (which gives us value-relativity). Zerzan depends on the primacy of his conception of nature as a value universal, perhaps to justify how it could be imposed upon people against their (misguided) will.

Tamar, Robinson Jeffers

Tamar is an epic poem, anthologized in The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (edited by Tim Hunt).

Jeffers is a supremely interesting writer, devotedly chasing what is "permanent" (or at least relatively so) in the world; a perspective later writers call "deep time", or "anti-humanist". In addition to working with evocative imagery of waves battering the granite coastline with seabirds hovering above, as they have for 10's of millions of years, Jeffers' other hobby was building towers out of stone.

When it comes to humans in his poetry, Jeffers strives for the universal. In introductions and interviews, he talks about wishing to write the sort of poetry that will still have relevance in thousands of years, just as Greek epic poetry still resonates today. Tamar attempts to do this by presenting a complex love triangle that turns Oedipal.

While I'm head-over-heels in love with Jeffers' work, I find the tendency of people to reach for Oedipus whenever they reach toward "universal narrative" or "inescapable destiny" really odd. Is it Freud's influence corrupting Jeffers, Haruki Nurakami, Jim Morrison, and so many others? Or is this really that relevant to that many people?


I've listened to a fair number of podcasts this year, thanks to a new hobby of long distance running and a few thousand mile drives. Here's my current diet:

Benjamen Walker's Theory of Everything

I've been following Benjamen Walker since 2012 when he was still producing "Too Much Information" with a local public radio station, but last year, he joined Roman Mars to form Radiotopia and rebrand as "Theory of Everything". The show is an ecclectic and often un-labeled mix of fiction and non-, with imaginative dramas interspersed with serious interviews. The quality is a little hit and miss – but the misses are only "interesting", where the hits are transcendent. Episodes average 30-60 minutes each, and come out once every 2-4 weeks.

Song Exploder

The premise for this podcast is one of those ideas that is so obviously awesome that you wonder why it hasn't been done before. The host, Hrishikesh Hirway, interviews contemporary musicians about the process that went into the recording of a song, and splits the song into its component tracks, discussing the aspirations, concessions, tricks, and ideas that went into making them. Always interesting and often pretty good music, too. Episodes average 15 min each, about once per week.

On the Media

Really good analysis of the media qua media. Generally a "progressive" bent, but usually hews toward the technocratic side for good measure. The best "policy" and "general news" podcast I've found yet. Perhaps its telling of my general interest in level-shifting that the best news show to me is a news show about how news is reported, rather than the news itself. Episodes are typically an hour, once per week (they also get broadcast on traditional radio).

History of Philosophy (without any gaps)

Probably only of interest for philosophy geeks, it's a thorough history that tries to touch on all the bit players and minor ideas that didn't make it into your intro philosophy course. It's a pleasure to listen to. I've only caught up to 2013's episodes so far (now covering philosophy from Islamic Iberian penninsula). Episodes average around 20-30 minutes each, and come out weekly (though I'm years behind).

Meet the Composer

There's a really rich and interesting world of contemporary composers producing "classical" music that isn't like the 20th century music you might be thinking of. It's harmonic, emotional, and accessible – and even more so when you learn more about the composer and their motivations. Nadia Sirota does an excellent job of interviewing composers and framing their work. I've found a couple of favorite new music composers through this show. Episodes average around an hour, and come out about once a month.

Reply All

An irreverent romp through internet culture which began its life as the "TLDR" spin-off from On the Media, but then spun-off again as a separate thing. While it's nominally focused on Internet stuff (e.g. yik-yak racism, gamergate, twitter culture), it often ends up straying into pretty interestingly different territory (LSD microdosing, pet rescues). Short and sweet; episodes average 15-30 minutes each and come out about once every week to 2 weeks.

KCRW's Unfictional

A "Moth"-ish story show, but with typically produced rather than live stories, collected from a wide range of producers. Not a huge fan of the genre usually, but this podcast has one major thing going that keeps me subscribed: Joe Frank. Joe Frank is the best original audio fiction producer that I've found anywhere, and he premiers the occasional new work on Unfictional. I stay for the Joe Frank, and skip most of the rest.

Planet Money

Short and usually fairly interesting shows about economics in language that non-economists can understand. Occasionally insightful, and usually at least interesting. Episodes average around 15 minutes each, and come out about once a week.

The New Yorker: Fiction

Monthly fiction short stories from the New Yorker's archives, read by other New Yorker fiction authors, with commentary and conversation about the works by the host (Deborah Treisman, fiction editor with the New Yorker) and the reader. It's been an interesting introduction to the genre of short fiction for me. I found it a little challenging at first, because the genre tends to have short, sharp, emotionally moving pieces that I struggled to adequately integrate – sort of like trying to take in a whole novel's worth of insights into 30 minutes. But over time this potency has diminished, and I find it now to be just a generally pleasurable way to hear some contemporary (or not-so-contemporary) fiction. Episodes average 30-45 minutes, once a month.

99% Invisible

Roman Mars comes across to me like a slick used car salesman – smooth voice, firm handshake, and just a little bit off-putting. 99% Invisible (the "hidden side of everything") is a pretty wide-ranging show, but it's almost always interesting. It also has one of the highest ratios of cruft (intro, outro, ads) to content in any of the podcasts I listen to – typically 5 minutes of junk per episode, which are often just 15 minutes long. A good one to listen to with hands on the "fast forward" button. Episodes average 15-25 minutes each, once per week.

Philosophy Bites

A nice little show covering some contemporary topics in philosophy. Episodes usually 15 minutes each, about once every 2 weeks.


Jad Abumrad. Enough said. Episodes usually 45 minutes, about once every 2 weeks.

This American Life

A classic. The old joke was that at some point Ira Glass would run out of stories of white middle-class Americana; and either that happened, or they finally decided to branch out – we now get a mix of the old stuff and some really daring and original reporting on issues that affect a wider cross section of people in the US, such as failing schools and gang violence. Episodes usually an hour, about once a week. Also broadcast on local NPR affiliates.

The Longest Shortest Time

A fairly insightful show about parenting – whether to have kids, what different challenges are, how to maintain healthy sex lives and sanity, etc. The show seems to be going into an indefinite hiatus right now as they retool to possibly move networks or funding sources.

Meanwhile in the Future

A short podcast from Gizmodo introducing possible futures and having discussions with contemporary experts about what sort of likelihood and challenges we might encounter with those futures. The analysis is sometimes superficial, and the futures aren't too insightful, but it remains somewhat interesting. Episodes 15-30 minutes long, approximately once a week.


Much has been said about this. I enjoyed it, but also felt almost a perfunctory need to listen as I both consume a lot of podcasts and do work on prisoner support. Interested to see what direction it goes with the new season.


Beginning its life as a spin-off of "On the Media" to cover Internet-specific stuff, the hosts left to form "Reply All". It was briefly resurrected by some other producers within chez "On the Media", but hasn't released new episodes in a while.

<![CDATA[Boulder fall]]>Oct 7 2015

Boulder fall

durfey road
highway 12
<![CDATA[Alaska fall]]>Aug 27 2015

Alaska fall

sun and snowy peak
red fields and river
fall colors with distant glacier
clouds and yellow light
red flush
black spruce and mountain
snowy mountain reflection
yellow leaves and brook
happy face
<![CDATA[Wrangel St. Elias]]>Aug 23 2015

Wrangel St. Elias

Mt. Sanford
foggy muskeg
fall colors, Mt. Wrangel, Mt. Sanford
cloud bank against ridge
mottled light among ridges
hill slope
red willows
volcanic ridges
volcanic sandy slope
<![CDATA[denali national and state parks]]>Aug 20 2015

denali national and state parks

sunset in denali
denali in the clouds
rocky clouds
denali peak
dall sheep
dall sheep among the rocks
black spruce, distant glacier
tundra and rocks
colorful tundra
tent in the tundra
rainbow in front of denali
red berries in the tundra
fog in front of Mt. Margaret
clouds and hills
clouds and rocks
low clouds over ridge
sheep in front of low clouds
<![CDATA[Seward]]>Aug 18 2015


bay and clouds
sky pours into glacier
morning mist
harding ice field
<![CDATA[montana]]>Jul 25 2015


gallatin peak
spanish peaks
high lake
cloud peak
<![CDATA[desert flowers]]>Jun 12 2015

desert flowers

pink cactus
evening primrose
yellow cactus
purple cactus
tall yellow
4 o'clock
pale yellow cactus
<![CDATA[desert landscape]]>Jun 12 2015

desert landscape

rain wall
evening sun
cloud roof
road moon
<![CDATA[water]]>Jun 10 2015


Empty water tank
cistern with a few drops
flooding canyon
ephemeral double waterfall
ephemeral alcove waterfall
distant rain
massive flood
<![CDATA[boulder]]>May 21 2015


red cactus
lower bowns
<![CDATA[canyonlands]]>Mar 16 2014


the salt
<![CDATA[ocean]]>Feb 23 2014


<![CDATA[hawaiian fruit]]>Feb 19 2014

hawaiian fruit

Ranbutan, apple banana, papaya

Ranbutan, apple banana, papaya

Sour sop

Sour sop



Durian (shell)

Durian (shell)

Durian (fruit)

Durian (fruit)

Lilliquoi (passion fruit)

Lilliquoi (passion fruit)

Macadamia nut

Macadamia nut

<![CDATA[lava]]>Feb 18 2014


lava tube
cave plants
sky lava
lava sky
black top
coast break
<![CDATA[new york]]>Feb 8 2014

new york

Chelsea piers
<![CDATA[hyalite]]>Feb 5 2014


Blackmore et al
<![CDATA[baldy]]>Feb 2 2014


The valley
Not actually baldy
The top, but not actually
<![CDATA[grand canyon]]>Dec 31 2013

grand canyon

<![CDATA[cold]]>Dec 5 2013


Cold House
Cold Yard
Cold Alley