My ears thank you

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I bloody love podcasts.

I mean, I get that this is not a unique or particularly brave position to take. We’re surrounded by the things, everyone probably has their favorites, or they have one of their own. (Everybody* Has a Podcast now in the same way that Everybody* Had a Blog 15-20 years ago.) The Golden Age might be over, the market flooded with terribly-produced, inconsistent audio and formless blobs that are merely placeholders to wrap around advertisements for mattresses or smart toothbrushes or underwear. But even if it is gone, it brought us a lot along the way—from gigantic, sweeping stories to intimate whispers. And I love them for it.

I love that plucky podcasts like 99% Invisible have forged their own niches, created their own spaces and gangs (even if I just discovered 99PI is now actually part of Sirius XM.) I love that a creator like Helen Zaltzman can actually build a living—albeit probably a complicated and not that glamorous one—out of telling the world about the things she loves in podcasts like The Allusionist. (It’s words. She loves words.)

And I love that they’ve gotten me through.

At the start of the pandemic, with no commute and no alone time—in fact no discernible transition time at all—I stopped listening to podcasts almost entirely. I couldn’t do anything to justify the time, really. Music was a refuge, radio a place I could let burble in the background… but the kind of spoken word audio that required concentration just couldn’t work for me.

Then, two things happened—or, I suppose, two podcasts happened. There was the Guardian’s Football Weekly which was one of the originals that we set up back in the day and is still going strong, even if the cast has changed somewhat. Science Weekly is pretty different now, and Tech Weekly bit the dust five years ago. But Football Weekly still carries on, and during the sharpest corners of the pandemic it became a mooring to the life I recognized.

Second, and more novel to me, was Philosophize This! by Stephen West. Anna switched me on to it: You’ll love this, she said, a guy nerding out about ideas. And she was right. Like Zaltzman, this is just a person who’s passionate about what they want to share—but it was like the philosophy primer I always wanted. I’m 130 episodes deep now, and even if the subject matter is more complex as time goes on (because, well, continental philosophy) he never leaves you behind.

Episode #157 … The Creation of Meaning – Beauvoir Philosophize This!

Today we talk about the creation of meaning. 
  1. Episode #157 … The Creation of Meaning – Beauvoir
  2. Episode #156 … Emil Cioran part 2 – Failure and Suicide
  3. Episode #155 … Emil Cioran – Absurdity and Nothingness
  4. Episode #154 … Pragmatism and Truth
  5. Episode #153 … The Frankfurt School – Walter Benjamin pt. 2 – Distraction

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the podcasts I like most have been going for a long time: Football Weekly since 2006, 99PI since 2010. Philosophize This! has been going since 2013, and while The Allusionist is a mere six years old, Helen Zaltzman has been doing her other podcast, Answer Me This!, since 2007 (although it recently ended.) There’s something about exploring your format, and delivering it perfectly that I just… well, love.

I just wanted to say thank you, really.

Explaining the simple things well

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This WSJ video on how TikTok’s algorithm works is proof that just really explaining something that’s pretty obvious can be pretty engaging.

Ultimately, I’m not sure there’s a great deal new to what they found—a lot of bots, and a little bit of interpretation, to determine that a lot of TikTok’s algorithmic decisions are based on what you watch, which seems obvious. (I basically never like anything on TikTok and follow almost no accounts: my FYP is pretty clearly based on giving me more of the things I spend most time on.)

But stating the obvious with data is important and can be really enticing.

Now, I’m sure there are methodological arguments happening on Twitter about how they went about that, and I have my own suspicions that the techniques used only tells us a certain slice of self-reinforcing things. That is: it’s not the way content is publicly tagged that makes the algorithm feel like secret sauce, it’s the invisible connections that make the difference.

But still, a great example of taking a thing that people want to know about and showing them the bones.

Slowdown

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I started tracking my book reading habits a few years ago as a way of remembering what I’ve been consuming. Extra benefit: It’s also helped me see patterns or trends. The trouble is that I can also now look back and see when I’m losing the plot.

Here’s what I mean: Last year my reading pace felt like it had fallen off a cliff—there were three months or so of total freeze during the pandemic. But honestly, this year has been worse. Looking back at my list, I can see that I read very few books from February to about June, a nearly six month hiatus.

One trick I have found is that I have at least three different books on the go at any point: something in print to keep with me during the day, something on my Kindle for bedtime reading, and an audio book for listening to in the car (and yes, they count.) Having something for every mode means that I can turn away from the fun game of staring at my phone or endlessly switching between three radio stations to avoid the ads.

Anyway, the list—which only includes things I’ve actually read closely, rather than sped through for work—says I’ve read 13 books properly so far in 2021, whereas I was at 19 books at this point in 2020 and 30 the year before that. I don’t know what it says, really, if anything. But still.

Nuanced history

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If you want to generate a reaction among nearly any British person—actually, from nearly anyone who comes from a former British colony (and by that I suppose I mean about a quarter of the planet) then all you need to do is start talking about the complicated history and legacy of the Empire. And if you want to really crank your blow-the-gasket-o-meter up, then get onto the subject of museums and statues and things that might have made their way into British hands by possibly foul means. It’s going to generate a reaction.

No matter how somebody tries to boil it down to good/bad, the reality is that it’s… history. We can’t change the actions of the past, only view them and consider what it means. It’s complicated, and I bloody love it.

I’ve just binged the entire first season of ABC’s Stuff The British Stole—a recommendation that came from 99% Invisible. It manages to tell these stories and ask these questions in a nuanced, honest, complete way and remain totally engaging all the while.

A Tiger and a Scream Stuff The British Stole

Highly recommend it.

How should we feel about that?

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Eyeballs on the clash of the real and the virtual this week with the news that a new Bourdain documentary features an AI-generated version of the man’s voice reading out emails he sent people (notably, I think, the audio appears to have been used in the trailer.) This NYer piece, featuring my colleague Karen Hao in quotable form, goes through some of the issues.

Creating a synthetic Bourdain voice-over seemed to me far less crass than, say, a C.G.I. Fred Astaire put to work selling vacuum cleaners in a Dirt Devil commercial, or a holographic Tupac Shakur performing alongside Snoop Dogg at Coachella, and far more trivial than the intentional blending of fiction and nonfiction in, for instance, Errol Morris’s “Thin Blue Line.”

[…]

At the same time, “deepfakes” and other computer-generated synthetic media have certain troubling connotations—political machinations, fake news, lies wearing the HD-rendered face of truth—and it is natural for viewers, and filmmakers, to question the boundaries of its responsible use. Neville’s offhand comment, in his interview with me, that “we can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later,” did not help assure people that he took these matters seriously.

Helen Rosner, The ethics of a deepfake Anthony Bourdain voice, The New Yorker

Which books do you truly love?

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“I believe that the books and stories we fall in love with make us who we are, or, not to claim too much, the beloved tale becomes a part of the way in which we understand things and make judgments and choices in our daily lives. A book may cease to speak to us as we grow older, and our feeling for it will fade. Or we may suddenly, as our lives shape and hopefully increase our understanding, be able to appreciate a book we dismissed earlier; we may suddenly be able to hear its music, to be enraptured by its song.”

Salman Rushdie, Ask Yourself Which Books You Truly Love, New York Times

Getting inside somebody’s head

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There’s something so intricate and mysterious about the whys of another person, wanting to understand what makes them tick, what made them what they are. It’s an instinct that’s so human. Biographies, documentaries, magazine profiles, obituaries are all part of this drive we have to get inside somebody else’s head.

One of my first jobs, as a researcher for the Royal Shakespeare Company, was to build dossiers on interesting and notable people that might make good patrons or ambassadors. It was somewhat uncomfortable (I once did a dossier on one of my college lecturers) but it was also endlessly interesting, trying to pin down the connections and actions and motivations that we could learn from.

That’s one reason I was fascinated by the launch last year of The Profile, a newsletter/media product focused entirely on the format of profiles about interesting people. Former Fortune journalist Polina Marinova wrote about what it’s like to launch a company during the pandemic, but I think this idea of disaggregating formats is incredibly intriguing. More than a year in, I’m interested to see where it is going to go.

The question behind all profiles and biographies, I suppose, is why do you want to know about this other person? Why do you need to know about them? What can you learn?

(Side note: The paranoid journalist in me is also fully terrified of profiles and biographies. What if you do all that work, if you talk to the people, and review the documents, and you still manage to miss the Thing? What if you write the Harvey Weinstein profile and miss the abuse? A few times in my career this moment feels like it has come close, but I think the answer is that you do everything you can to avoid a mistakes—but sometimes, yes, you will miss the thing, because if people hide themselves from those who are closest to them, you might not be able to see through it either.)

My subscription addiction

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I consume a lot of media. I also pay for a lot of it.

When I started out in journalism, there was a massive shift taking place, driven by the web, towards free access. But it wasn’t just the web. During college I worked evenings as an intern at the newly-launched Metro; I then worked on free-to-access online news at the London Evening Standard and came up through The Guardian, which has long been an opponent of paywalls. Partly because of this, I used to be pretty strongly against paywalls on principle, but I’m certainly not a fundamentalist. Matter was a lean subscription play at first, although it shifted as ownership changed; Anxy was an expensive print-first product; Technology Review has a metered paywall.

Over the years I’ve built up a significant list of subscriptions to many publications and services and a few individuals. It’s now at least 50, probably significantly more: I started out making a full list of all my subs, but it was long and boring. And I’m pretty sure I missed a few off there, particularly small indy magazines.

These range from the pretty mainstream stuff like The New York Times and The Atlantic (neither of which need me as a subscriber, and have corners of problematic output) to the mid-range (I love my London Review of Books) to the small press and esoteric services: The Nib‘s wonderful comics; Sonia Weiser’s regular lists of freelance journalism opportunities.

I wanted to highlight a few that I would recommend that may be new to you.

The Browser I love this curated email roundup of great stories, and have been a subscriber for a few years now. I don’t read it every day, but I always find something worthwhile in there. Interestingly one of the few email newsletters that moved away from Substack, rather than towards it.

Logic One of my favorite subscribes of the past few years, this actually does come out of the Bay Area. It’s three years in or so, and I honestly have absolutely no idea how it’s doing, but it’s always thought-provoking and has a point of view.

Stack This has been absolutely one of the most rewarding subscriptions I have: a monthly surprise delivery of an independent magazine. They were very kind to Anxy in its earliest days, but each edition never fails to delight.

Getting yourself out of the way

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I really enjoyed hearing the director and writer Adam McKay—who has made not-fiction movies like The Big Short, Vice, and a forthcoming Theranos movie, as well as entirely fictional comedies such as Anchormandiscussing creative process on the Longform podcast. It was a little exhilarating to hear him discuss the complexity of producing work in this moment, the feeling that happens when inspiration hits you, and his belief that there are a million ways to tell a story (and that the right way now might not be the same as the right way in a few years.)

One critical lesson, I think, was that when you make something great, it’s partly from you, but it’s bigger than that—it takes on a life of its own, and your job is often to just get yourself out of its way. Which captures, I think, why any of us make anything.

“Sometimes you do a project and then you look back and you’re like, Ah, shit. I let some of myself get in the way of that. It sucks, but it’s also a part of it. And there are so many times where you’re excited that the story did take off, the wind did catch the sail and it went off on its own. And that just feels so good that it far outweighs the times when you make a mistake, or let something go wrong, or too long, or hit the wrong tone. Which is going to happen. There’s no way around it. But those times when it all just catches perfectly—it’s just so exciting that you keep doing it.”