Podcasts Worth Listening To

I really, really love podcasts. I listen to them when I’m walking to class, when I’m doing laundry, and when I’m driving. They’re probably the biggest way I consume media, lately. Podcasts are also really hard to get into. Figuring out what’s good is hard, and if you’re not an iOS user figuring out how to listen is just as difficult. So I wrote this thing. It’s some recommendations for podcast apps, some recommendations for podcasts, and a note on paying for things. hopefully it’ll be helpful for some people, and, if it’s not, at least it’s gotten my mind off of this crappy month.

Recommended Podcast Apps

  • Podcasts (Preinstalled, iOS): Apple’s default podcasts app. It’s decent enough, and it’ll do what you need it to do. There’s nothing exceptional here, but if you’re just trying to listen to something quick it’ll do the job.
  • Castro ($4.99, iOS): If you’re just looking to manage a few podcasts in style, this is what I’d recommend. I don’t use it because it kinda falls apart if you listen to as many podcasts as I do, but for regular people it’s a great choice.
  • Google Play Music (Free, Android): The Android equivalent of the default Podcasts app on iOS. It’s not a dedicated app, so you’ll probably want to step up to some kind of alternative later, but it’s a nice free entry point.
  • Pocket Casts ($3.99, Android): Pocket Casts is the cream of the crop when it comes to podcasting apps for Android. It’s pretty, and it has more or less every feature you’d need. There is an iOS version, but it’s less compelling than some of the other options unless you want to sync between iOS and Android devices.
  • Overcast (Free with ads, iOS): My favorite podcast app, bar none. Clean and organized, with powerful features right where you need them. It has robust playlist support, too, which makes managing a lot of podcasts really easy. A favorite feature of mine is Smart Speed, which cuts out silences to speed up podcasts without making everyone sound like a chipmunk. There is a $9.99 yearly subscription to remove ads, and I’d recommend you do that if you like the app. The developer deserves the support.

Recommendations

  • Accidental Tech Podcast (hosted by Marco Arment, Casey Liss, and John Siracusa): A great, funny tech podcast hosted by three Mac enthusiasts. Not just about Apple, but with a substantial emphasis on it. Worth it if only for John’s curmudgeonly old-school Mac talk. Suggested first episode: the current one.
  • Theory of Everything (hosted by Benjamen Walker): A really strange podcast that ends up being a bit about everything. The show is currently in the middle of a miniseries about surveillance, and it manages to cover a lot of ground in areas I’ve never really heard of before. A little high concept, but very much worth your time. Suggested first episode: Burning Down the Panopticon.
  • CoolGames Inc. (hosted by Griffin McElroy and Nick Robinson): Nick and Griffin are the CEOs of CoolGames Incorporated, a company that makes video games based off of user suggestions. The company just happens to be fake and the games never get made. Very goofy, but it has a lot of charm. Suggested first episode: Death Stranding: Ground Zeros (#36).
  • Dead Pilots Society (hosted by Andrew Reich and Ben Blacker): A podcast for fans of niche comedy pilots that were too good to ever make it on TV. Every episode, our hosts interview the creators of a failed comedy pilot and then do a table read of said pilot. It’s both funny and deeply frustrating. Suggested first episode: Formosa (#1).
  • Do By Friday (hosted by Merlin Mann, Alex Cox, Max Temkin): Each week a challenge is issued, and each week our hosts have to complete it. The hosts are endlessly charming, and the challenges are both silly and oddly interesting. Suggested first episode: Schroedinger’s Gift.
  • The Ezra Klein Show (hosted by Ezra Klein): I’m a sucker for a good interview show. Ezra interviews people in from all parts of the world of politics and public policy, from academia to cable news, and does it in a way that never fails to be endlessly intriguing. It takes a special kind of show to make me listen to Grover Norquist talk for an hour and ten minutes. Suggested first episode: Joseph Stiglitz.
  • The Flop House (hosted by Dan McCoy, Elliott Kalan, and Stuart Wellington): A bad movie podcast from before that whole genre was a cliché. You’ll probably have to listen to at least a few episodes before you actually learn to love it, which makes it a tough sell. Come for the movies, stay for radio Zork. Suggested first episode: Nothing But Trouble (#200).
  • Fresh Air (hosted by Terry Gross): Terry Gross is a national treasure. Probably our greatest living interviewer, as well. Her show might not make you a better person, but it will at least make you a more cultured one. Suggested first episode: the current one.
  • Jordan, Jesse GO! (hosted by Jordan Morris and Jesse Thorn): A weekly comedy podcast with no particular premise. Goofy and often profane, I’ve found it makes my Monday bike ride to Spanish that much more bearable. Suggested first episode: Slamtastic Four with Joe Randazzo and Asterios Kokkinos (#387).
  • Judge John Hodgman (hosted by John Hodgman and Jesse Thorn): The fake internet courtroom of Judge John Hodgman, a former professional literary agent and minor television personality. It’s a silly show about disputes that don’t really matter, but one that also manages to be kind, empathetic, and surprisingly profound. Suggested first episode: In Moto Parentis.
  • the memory palace (hosted by Nate DiMeo): This one makes me cry on a regular basis. We’re talking real tears, here. It’s about history and America and what it means to be alive. Probably the strongest argument there is for considering podcasts art. Suggested first episode: Episode 49 (Dreamland).
  • My Brother, My Brother And Me (hosted by Travis, Justin, and Griffin McElroy): An advice show that’s not really about advice and more about goofing around. Hosted by three brothers who know how to be funny without being mean. It might make you a better person. Suggested first episode: Open-Source Burger King (#326).
  • Mystery Show (hosted by Starlee Kine): While its future is sadly uncertain, Mystery Show’s first season is still really, truly worth your time. Each episode Starlee tries to solve a mystery, and usually succeeds. Honestly, it’s probably responsible for restoring my faith in magic. Suggested first episode: Belt Buckle.
  • Primary Concerns (hosted by Brian Beutler): One of the few places I’ve seen seriously engaging with the reality of this presidential election. It manages to integrate voices from across the non-Trump political spectrum, and is all the better for it. Suggested first episode: Republicans Will Try to Pretend Donald Trump Never Happened.
  • Radiolab (hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich): A really phenomenal show about science (and everything else) which manages to handle topics large and small with great skill and care. Suggested first episode: 60 Words.
  • More Perfect (hosted by Jad Abumrad): A spinoff of Radiolab about the Supreme Court. If you want to learn more about the biggest accidental power center in American life, this is a really good place to start. Suggested first episode: Kittens Kick the Giggly Blue Robot All Summer.
  • Reconcilable Differences (hosted by John Siracusa and Merlin Mann): A podcast nominally about how the hosts got the way they are, but more accurately about life and rationality and living in this world of ours. It’s one of those podcasts that probably appeals to me because I see a lot of myself in it, but it’s quite good even outside of that. Suggested first episode: One Dollar Cat (#26).
  • Road Work (hosted by John Roderick and Dan Benjamin): One of John Roderick’s two podcasts. We’ll cover John’s particular magic in the next entry, but this podcast is a weird and strangely sincere look at the world through the eyes of a really interesting human being. Suggested first episode: Fish Psychology (#40).
  • Roderick on the Line (hosted by John Roderick and Merlin Mann): John Roderick’s secret is that he might be the most interesting person alive, but it takes a little bit to figure that out. The conceit of this one is pretty simple: John and Merlin talk every week for an hour or so, and then release the unedited tape. This one is at its best when it’s sorta like spoken-word poetry, and is definitely not for everyone. But if it’s for you, it’s really for you. Suggested first episode: Supertrain (#25).
  • This American Life (hosted by Ira Glass): Arguably the originator or modern radio, This American Life is just as good as everyone says it is. If you’re going to make time for anything on this list, it should be this. Suggested first episode: Fiasco! (#61).
  • Til Death Do Us Blart (hosted by Tim Batt, Guy Montgomery, and the McElroy Brothers): A new Thanksgiving tradition for you and yours. Every year from now until the end of linear time, our hosts watch Paul Blart Mall Cop 2 and talk about it. It’s a delightful exercise in human torture. Suggested first episode: 2015.
  • Vox’s The Weeds (hosted by Ezra Klein, Sarah Kliff, and Matt Yglesias): A podcast about policy and politics that gets really far into the details of everything from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to the Affordable Care Act. Not for everyone, certainly, but a real treat for people who like that sort of thing. Suggested first episode: Universal Basic Income.

A Note on Payment

A lot of podcasts (including a large chunk of those on this list) operate on the same sort of principle that public radio does: the product is free, but there is an option for people who want to support it to do so. And, like public radio, nothing really happens when you don’t chip in. If you ride out the guilt-tripping of the pledge drive, you’re home free. Getting away with it is easy.

Here’s my take, though. If you have the means, please pay for your podcasts. It’s often not that much—a couple of bucks a month, in a lot of cases—and it’ll make you feel good. More importantly, though, it supports people whose art you enjoy. This is still a fairly new medium, and one of the few where the barrier of entry is really low. Supporting independent creators is super important in all mediums, and especially where it’s easy to not do it. So do it.

Axioms and Theorems

escher
(M.C. Escher’s Relativity.)

[This post is intended as a sort of roundabout introduduction. If you find yourself in need of a better one, see the about page here.]

At a base level, humans reason with axioms. That is to say, we all have collections of things that we accept as true without any great need to prove that they actually are. “Being hungry is bad” is an axiom. So is “God exists.” From these axioms, we construct theorems that are capital-t True, at least for us. “Killing is bad” is a theorem, potentially derived from the existence of both the Judeo-Christian God and of the Ten Commandments. In this way, all knowledge is based on what we can’t prove. One way or another, we’ve got to assume some axiom and go from there.

Now, there’s noting particularly wrong with axioms. All formal systems require some of them because needing to have absolute empirical proof for everything is an impossible, maddening task. Think about it: try to prove that two and two is four without presupposing something, even something as simple as the existence of some definable quality of two-ness out there in the universe. Even science, which demands proof for basically everything, presupposes that our observations about the universe represent some immutable truth about it. If you don’t start a chain of reasoning with some assumption, you end up arguing that it’s turtles all the way down.

Where axiomatic thinking really runs into trouble, though, is when you have contradictory axioms. For example, say I’m the President (the horror). A well-known, well-reviled criminal somewhere in the country is about to be executed. I have the power to commute his sentence to life in prison. I also happen to think capital punishment is wrong, based on my belief that all life is precious and should be preserved at all cost. However, I also believe that, because this is a democracy, the will of the people should be the last word on any question. This is inconvenient, because a majority of them definitely think this guy should have been dead yesterday.

So now I’m at an impasse, and it doesn’t look terribly likely to be resolved. I’ve got two axioms in my head, and they contradict. Any answer I come up with is going to violate one of these axioms, making it a logically invalid answer to the question. This is the problem with large sets of axioms. Eventually, they’re going to conflict. At that point, any sort of actual reasoning is going to break down and I’m going to default to dead reckoning. This works okay for small things that don’t matter, but terribly for large things. Witness our previous example.

There’s a pretty simple solution to this problem, though. I can start the construction of my system of  thought with one axiom: “No two axioms can conflict.” That’s it. So, in our example, I have to pick one axiom to keep and one to throw out. I can either think that democracy is absolute or that the death penalty is absolutely wrong, but not both. In cutting my number of axioms, I gained the ability to reason more efficiently and draw better conclusions. Problem solved!

Maybe.

Maybe, because this works just fine for something like science, where you only really need one axiom. It even works fine for personal belief systems, where a relatively small set of internally consistent axioms will get you where you need to go. However, this works terribly for societies. In a society, we’re dealing with constructing a set of basic rules to govern a population of people that are all operating according to their own axioms. Basically, we’ve got to figure out a way that lots of people can live harmoniously while simultaneously differing irreconcilably from each other in millions of ways large and small. The axiom that we used to order our own thinking won’t work for us here, either. Applying it to a society leaves us with a situation where we’d have to choose which axioms are correct and impose those from on high, which is a crappy way to run a railroad. Leaving it out, on the other hand, leads us inexorably towards the worst kind of relativism, where we are forced to conclude that anyone can do anything they damn well please because there’s no true set of axioms to begin moral reasoning from.

So, to recap: no governance is based on a solid axiomatic foundation, no law is legitimate, civilization is crumbling, and we’re all going to die.

Well, probably not. Except for that last thing. We’ve muddled along so far just fine, and I’m pretty sure we can keep doing that. The key issue that this whole axiom mess raises, though, is that there’s a large number of public policy issues that are really hard to hash out effectively. Take marginal tax rates, for example.  A conservative economist might say they’re too high, and a liberal economist might say that they’re too low. Ultimately, they’re both sort of right. Each of their chains of reasoning about marginal tax rates begins with fundamentally different conceptions of the role of the state, and those chains of reasoning don’t get any closer together. Neither of them are wrong, in a purely logical sense, but they can’t both be right. Other controversies in this vein: abortion, capital punishment, etc. We in the US largely solve this problem by having a democracy, where policies are passed through majoritarianism. We don’t need to know who’s right, just who has the most votes.

This is a deceptively simple solution, though. At the end of the day, we still haven’t decided which one of those economists is right. Presumably one of them is, and the world they’re describing is better than the world the other describes. If that’s the case, it would behoove us to figure out who’s right and who is wrong. After all, we want to live in the best world we can. As we’ve established, though, there really isn’t any way to prove that one world is better than the other, and so we remain stuck. They both can’t be right, but we can’t prove either wrong. We’ve defaulted to absolute relativism, and we seem to be stuck there.

This shouldn’t be interpreted as a concession on my part to absolute relativism. On the contrary, in fact. I definitely have a point of view on most issues, and I definitely think I’m right. This is, however, an argument against a certain kind of political discourse. Our takeaway from this should be that governance is actually really complicated. There are no easy answers, and even our own closely-held beliefs rest on potentially shaky ground. All the easy moral and political judgments have already been made. This knowledge shouldn’t paralyze us, but it should humble us. It should make us wrestle with our own beliefs and what they mean in context. It should clarify to us the rules of the game. Good governance may be hard, but pretending it’s easy does no one any good.