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Nonfiction Podcasts

Last time I ran through the gaming-related podcasts I listen to, so here are the other “nonfiction” podcasts in my feed.

Public radio podcasts

Many shows from public radio outlets are also released as podcasts. Some of these include bonus material, but they also come with reruns which may or may not be of interest. This is a great way to listen to shows that aren’t available in your area, or which are broadcast on a schedule that doesn’t match your own.

  • Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!: NPR’s weekly news quiz show, which has been running for over 20 years, hosted by Peter Sagal and Bill Kurtis, with a rotating panel and a weekly guest. Always entertaining, often informative, I probably started listening not long after it started and I’ve never stopped. I still hold out hope that Charlie Pierce will come back someday.
  • Ask Me Another: Hosted by Ophira Eisenberg with musician Jonathan Coulton, this is a trivia quiz show with one or more weekly guests. Not the laugh-fest that Wait! Wait! is, but a fun diversion.
  • Says You: A long-running panel game show revolving around language and wordplay, I often forgot to catch it because it airs here Sundays at 4 pm, and for a long time you had to pay to get the podcast feed. Now it’s freely available, and it’s very funny. Sometimes the games are fiendishly clever.
  • Serial: A podcast from This American Life which focuses on a single topic each season. I listened to season 2, on Bowe Bergdahl, which I found a bit overlong for its topic. The season 3 teaser just dropped a week or two ago.
  • S-Town: A spin-off from Serial, about a man in a small Alabama town who invites a reporter down to investigate a suspicious death, and then things take a disturbing turn. This 7-episode podcast is complete, and while there is some extraneous material, there’s also a lot going on, and since it’s reporting on true events, not everything gets tied up in a bow. However, I think the central mystery was given a perfectly satisfying conclusion at the end. Atmospheric, creepy, tragic, I found S-Town very compelling, and superior overall to Serial. (For a different opinion, see Wil Williams’ review.)

Scientific American podcasts

I listen to a couple of podcasts from Scientific American, which – along with Wait! Wait! – might be the ones I’ve been listening to the longest:

  • 60-Second Science: Despite the title, these are 2-to-4 minute reports on recent developments in science. Releases every weekday.
  • Science Talk: A longer-form usually-weekly podcast usually focusing on a single topic – an interview, a book, etc. – with special episodes each year when the science Nobel Prizes are announced. Both of these podcasts cover the full range of science, so unless you’re interested in everything in science there are bound to be some that won’t grab you. Nonetheless both are informative and engaging.

Political & legal podcasts

I’m not a big political wonk (my occasional Twitter rant aside), but in the last year I’ve added a couple of new podcasts in this area to my subscriptions:

  • Congress, Two Beers In: From the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. One of the hosts is Matt Glassman, who I discovered through Thinking Poker. What appealed to me about him is that he talks less about politics per se, but about government – how it works, how politics affects it, etc. – which is an angle not often reported on in the mainstream press. This is in this vein, and I find it very informative, especially given the current governmental clusterfuck we’re living with. Approximately bi-weekly.
  • Make No Law: By Ken White of Popehat, who is a popular figure on Twitter. This podcast focuses on developments in first amendment law throughout U.S. history, including Supreme Court rulings and the national scenario and individual actions which led to them. Releases approximately monthly.

Progressive rock podcasts

As you may know, I’m a big fan of progressive rock music. There are several streaming radio stations I’ve listened to, but not many podcasts that I’ve found – or at least not ones that hit my particular style that strongly. But I do listen to two:

  • Progtopia: A bi-weekly podcast that when I discovered it typically had a single interview with an artist or band each episode, including playing a few of their songs. Now it includes one or more shorter interviews, a roundtable with the main host and some other people involved in or covering prog, and an opinion essay. I think I liked the old format better as the newer content doesn’t add much for me.
  • NewEARS Prog Show: This is a radio show by the New England Art Rock Society which airs on WEMF in Boston. Each episode is 2 hours, and it seems to run in seasons, with season 4 having finished earlier this summer. As a radio show it plays a bunch of music and then has two or three interviews. I’ve discovered a few bands through it already, and I only found this show earlier this year. Plus, you can’t beat the Boston accents!

Others

  • The Geekbox: A weekly podcast about geek hobbies. This used to be a roundtable with several people who worked in or around the videogame industry, plus the guy who owns the comic shop I go to. Life developments have recently reduced it to just two hosts, which has not grabbed me as much. Plus, the non-videogame content has been reduced, and since I don’t play many videogames – and no console games – that limits its appeal for me. So after listening to it for almost 8 years, I’ve recently dropped it.
  • Retropod: A short several-times-per-week podcast about historical events, especially ones which have been in the news recently, e.g. because some new information about them has come to light. I just started listening recently.
  • Fiat Lex: All about dictionaries and how they work, by two people who have each worked in the business for years. (Did you know dictionaries are a business? They are!) Approximately bi-weekly.
  • Query: A bi-weekly podcast answering tech questions from listeners, with an emphasis on Apple products. Some useful stuff in here that you might not easily find out about unless you obsessively follow the tech press (and really, who has time for that?). Recently had a co-host switch as one of the original hosts was hired by Apple.
  • Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone: Paula Poundstone and Adam Felber are both hilarious on Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!, and this is their second stab at a podcast after last year’s Live From the Poundstone Institute. Both shows have struggled a bit to make their conceit feel natural, with the new show being based around interviewing experts in a couple of subjects and then having Paula offer (humorous) advice on what they’ve learned. The first two episodes were really rough, and although it seems they have an audience, it’s not as evident as in the last show. It’s gotten better since then, but it feels like it could use some editing to get down to the best stuff. Releases weekly.

Next time I’ll dive into my latest hobby: Audio dramas.

Beyond Belief

The biggest revelation for me from the election has come from pieces like this:

The revelation is this: People can be told something, understand what they’re being told, be presented with evidence of it, even have the speaker say that this is something they want to and are going to do, and just flat-out not believe it. In this case, Trump saying that the Affordable Care Act needed to be repealed (and replaced, but with no suggestions as to what it would be replaced with), which is entirely plausible considering repealing the ACA has been a cornerstone of Republican priorities in Congress for the last 4 years. There’s no good reason to think the Congress and Trump wouldn’t repeal it, yet people voted for him despite feeling the ACA is valuable and important.

Maybe this characteristic of voters has been obvious to everyone else, but it was a surprise to me. (And, frankly, I haven’t generally observed politicians, analysts, pundits or other voters acting as if they realized this.)

Most voters I think vote for a candidate expecting they will renege on – or may be flat-out lying – about some of their campaign statements, since that is, unfortunately, part and parcel of politics (and political reality) for most candidates. But it seems remarkable to me to vote for someone expecting that one of their key statements, about something which is important to one’s life and health (literally), is something they’d go back on.

(It’s easy to feel schadenfreude for people in the articles, but I think we should have more empathy than that; I think things are going to get pretty rough for a lot of Trump voters in the next few years, and no one should take joy in that.)

To my mind, this puts a stake through the heart of any “best interests” argument about voters (most of which I’ve found pretty weak anyway): Clearly large numbers of voters either don’t vote in their best interests, and one reason is that some of them simply don’t believe that a candidate will act against those interests even when the candidate flat-out says that they will.

I don’t know what this means for candidates’ campaigns, elections, political organizations, analysis, punditry, or just plain watching all of those. But I find it unnervingly weird that many people voted to delete Obamacare (much as they voted for racism) even when that’s not what they wanted. I know that choosing a candidate is a matter of compromise, but geez.

Aftermath

A week ago, as the Cubs and Indians were heading down the stretch of the final game of this year’s World Series I tweeted this:

So everyone realizes that we could have EITHER the Cubs win OR Trump lose, but not both, right?

If you’re the kind of person who believes in karma or other such things, there’s an explanation you can consider. Alternately, maybe the gods just decided to stick a metaphorical fork in Nate Silver’s eye.

I, myself, do not believe in such things – I was making a joke since I was rooting for the Indians. So my topics today are: What happened, and what happens next?

What happened?

I have a pretty simple – even reductionist – view of how Presidential politics works: That the largest single factor is how the electorate views the state of the economy at the time of the election. There are a lot of voters who are “locked in” to one party, and among those who aren’t, the state of the economy is the biggest determining factor in whether they turn out to vote, and who they vote for. In particular, I believe that if they perceive the economy to be bad – especially in their region (“all politics is local”) – then they will tend vote for the major party candidate who is not from the party of the sitting President. Regardless of what’s going on elsewhere in government, in a Presidential election, the party of the sitting President gets the blame.

I also feel that incumbency is a significant factor, so even if the economy is bad, the incumbent has a built-in edge which a non-incumbent candidate of the same party of the sitting President does not have.

There are some other nuances, but fundamentally I think Bill Clinton’s campaign got it right in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

So, I think that the Republican Congress has been engineering the recovery from the last recession to be weak, so that large swaths of the electorate felt that the economy basically sucks, even though it doesn’t suck for a lot of people. Yeah yeah, lots of job growth, but it’s been not so much tepid job growth as growth of tepid jobs. So the marginal voters who turned out to vote – i.e., the ones that matter – came out and held the Democrats responsible, because the sitting President is a Democrat. I think this has been a deliberate strategy on the part of the Republican leadership, and while Trump displacing their establishment candidates isn’t what they’d planned (primary politics is a very different kettle of fish from the general election), they’re probably pretty happy with the outcome overall.

Would Bernie Sanders have won where Hillary Clinton lost? I doubt it. And I think polls showing otherwise are no better than wishful thinking for his supporters. (I voted for Sanders in the primary.)

Why did the polls and analysts get it wrong before the election? Heck if I know. But the economic news over the last 2 years made me think that the Republican nominee – whoever it was – would have a better chance of winning this election than a lot of people gave them credit for.

Anyway, here we are: President-Elect Trump.

What happens next?

As usual John Scalzi said a lot and said it better than I can. But I have a few more things to say:

First, I think people who voted for Trump for economic reasons are – ironically, tragically – the least likely citizens to be helped by his programs. Trump doesn’t care about the little guy, and I think his talk about bringing back jobs was just rhetoric; he’s interested in helping himself and his fellow tycoons to make money off of everyone else, legitimately or not. Trump isn’t an “outsider”, people like Trump are the reason government has insiders – they exist for people like Trump. If you’re not like Trump (white, male, rich), then don’t expect to see a whole lot of help from the government in the next four years.

Second, while the Supreme Court and the repeal of Obamacare are getting a lot of the press, what really scares me is that in the next 4 years the Republicans might turn their attention to repealing Social Security and Medicare, two of the greatest and most successful government programs in the history of humanity. Certainly I’m not counting on them being around when I retire, at this point. And after helping care for my mother these last few years, I really cannot stress enough just how wonderful a program Medicare is.

(A friend said that Trump has pledged not to abolish Social Security and Medicare. Even if he said this, I bet he doesn’t care enough to stick to that. And the Congressional Republicans definitely want to get rid of them.)

Finally, this:

Every Presidential election I’ve voted in has been tremendously stressful to watch the night of the returns. When Clinton and Obama won each of their two terms, it was a big relief because, although I found them each far from perfect, they were better than the alternative. When George W. Bush won each of his two terms, it was difficult to see how I was going to get up in the morning. Last night was like those two Bush elections times ten.

It’s prosaic to say, “we have to go on, because what else can we do?” I was able to get up this morning and mostly do my usual routine. But I fear that a lot of people are going to decide they can’t keep going. I bet we’ll see rising suicide rates among minorities, LGBT folks, and maybe even women.

I have no comforting words. My mental-compartmentalization skills are working overtime to help me adjust to this, and they’re doing pretty well – but I feel guilty because it makes me feel emotionally detached from how I think many people are feelineg.

The next few years are going to be brutal for many people whose wealth is counted in less than 8 figures. I hope we all survive them.

Our Long National Nightmare is Finally Over

I think the best thing we can say about the Bush presidency is that America survived to see the end of it. Although, looking around at the economic carnage we’re experiencing, it was a pretty close thing, and certainly we didn’t get much help from the administration itself.

Two recessions – this one often called the worst since the Great Depression. Two overseas wars, one of them ill-advised from the outset and largely irrelevant to making the US safer, and both of them quite expensive in both blood and treasure. The utter failure of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The ongoing gutting of the nation’s schools thanks to projects such as Leave No Child Behind. All adding up to a presidency which seemed to care little (if at all) for ordinary Americans, and was only interested in making a splash and further enriching its already-rich friends.

Has George W. Bush been the worst President in history? Perhaps not, but certainly he’s among the worst. The usual joke is to ask such a character not to let the door hit him on the way out, but honestly I’m okay with the door hitting him.

I’m not as enamored with Barack Obama as many are, although certainly I agree that he has the potential to be a great President. (I don’t think we’ve seen a truly great President since at least Kennedy, maybe Truman.) I hope that people can temper their expectations to account for the fact that his administration has a long way to climb to dig us out of this economic hole before they can really start building on the foundations again. That may lead to some disappointment in the next couple of years. (One almost wonders whether the Bush administration helped engineer the recession to make it that much harder for their successors to get anything done, or undo their disastrous policies. That’s maybe a little too cynical for even me, though.)

Still, the first step on the road back is to throw out the people who brought you to this place and elect someone reasonable. And it looks like we can put up a “Mission Accomplished” banner for that part.

However, the hard part has barely begun.

Barack Obama and the Supreme Court

One thing I’m surprised didn’t get more attention during the Presidential campaign – honestly, I can’t recall it being mentioned more than in passing – is the impact the next President will have on the US Supreme Court. Consider the ages of the Justices now that Barack Obama has been elected:

  • John Paul Stevens, age 88
  • Ruth Bader Ginsberg, age 75
  • Antonin Scalia, age 72
  • Anthony Kennedy, age 72
  • Stephen Breyer, age 70
  • David Souter, age 69
  • Clarence Thomas, age 60
  • Samuel Alito, age 58
  • John Roberts (Chief Justice), age 53

Unfortunately 3 of the 4 more right-wing members of the court are age 60 or under. But I wonder if John Paul Stevens has been waiting for this election to retire, while the other 5 Justices are certainly at the age that they might consider retiring in the next four years the way Sandra Day O’Connor did. And if Obama wins reelection in 2012, well, it’s conceivable that he could end up with 4 or 5 or maybe even 6 appointments.

(Okay, honestly I expect Scalia will remain on the Court until he croaks, but we can hope, can’t we?)

Given the disastrous results of the Reagan and Bush appointments to the Court, it would be wonderful if Obama had the opportunity to transform it back into something more reasonable.

Election Day

I voted this morning. My polling place is 3 blocks from my house, so I always take a nice walk down there in order to vote and enjoy the weather. That one can take a “nice walk” there in early November is a clear sign that I live in the Bay Area and not in Wisconsin any longer. Anyway, there were 5 people in line when I got there, and I ran into both one of my neighbors and one of the guys I play Magic with. I guess we have a fairly quiet district. Or maybe everyone votes after work.

My political leanings are somewhere to the left of the mainstream Democratic party, but I’m not especially enamored with any of our small parties, so I typically vote party-line Democratic. I think Obama will make a pretty good President; the bar isn’t set real high for him to be our best President since LBJ. (I’m not hugely enamored of LBJ, either, but he was a President who did some great things and some awful things, which is still a step up from everyone since, who have generally been mediocre-to-awful.)

Although I voted party-Democratic in the national and state elections, I wasn’t real enthusiastic about doing so. I’ve been disappointed in the Pelosi/Byrd Congress, who haven’t really stood up to the Bushies. I’m not real fond of the California state legislature, either, although to be fair I think California’s state government is basically screwed: Federal mandates and an extremely-difficult-to-manage budget make it practically ungovernable except during boom times. The problems are partly structural (a 2/3 majority vote of the populace is required to raise taxes, and a 2/3 vote of the legislature is required to pass a budget), and partly because I think California is just too big and too diverse to govern at the state level. I think California would be better off if it were split into two states, probably along north/south lines. But that’ll never happen.

We had some interesting state propositions this time around:

  • I voted against the “anti-freedom” propositions, 4 (parental notification of minors seeking abortions) and 8 (outlaw gay marriage). These measures are both just plain evil, rolling back freedoms and rights for many citizens. I think anyone who supports Prop 8 should also have their right to marry revoked – it seems only fair. I suspect 8 will fail, but I’m concerned that 4 will pass.
  • Prop 1 is a bond measure for high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles. I voted against. I generally oppose bond measures as less efficient than passing new taxes, but I will occasionally vote for a county bond measure with a critical goal in mind. I also don’t think high-speed rail between the two cities will be more than a novelty. Plus, I’m very concerned with what it would do to the rail corridor on the SF peninsula, where I live, which hasn’t been worked out. I don’t know how this one will turn out, though.
  • Prop 5 reduces sentencing for certain nonviolent crimes, while Props 6 and 9 strengthen law enforcement and impose tougher penalties. I think we lock up far too many people (over 1% of the US population is presently incarcerated) with far too little attention paid to rehabilitation, so I voted for 5 and against 6 and 9. (I suspect 5 will fail, 9 will pass, and 6 could go either way.)

County measure B is a tax increase measure to bring BART to San Jose. I’m really on the fence on this one, as I think BART is a good system which is well-run, but which is also very expensive due to poor design at its inception. I like it a lot better than “heavy rail” alternatives than CalTrain, though. But it’s expensive to extend. I ended up voting yes, although I suspect the measure is going to fail.

Anyway, I’ll be watching the results tonight. Five Thirty Eight is currently projecting a 98.9% chance of an Obama victory. One of their more interesting posts recently has been What a McCain Victory Looks Like.

I’m not as excited as some Democrats about an Obama Presidency, mainly because I think the Bushies have left the country in such horrific shape that the next President is going to have some huge hurdles to overcome just to hold things together. If the Bushies hadn’t screwed things up so soundly then I think it would be a much more exciting time. As it is, I’m just hoping things can turn around soon enough that the Democrats don’t lose control of Congress in 2010.

Still, getting the Repugnicans out of the Oval Office is a great first step forward.

Articles about Nate Silver

An article at New York magazine about Nate Silver, the brains behind Five Thirty Eight, the election web site we’ve all been reading daily of late. (via Daring Fireball)

There’s also an article at the University of Chicago Magazine on Silver’s baseball analysis exploits, as well as his Wikipedia entry.

Since Silver’s stock-in-trade is statistical analysis of real-world phenomena, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he also made a living playing poker during the Internet poker boom. (Maybe he still does, I dunno.)

Magic: The Electioning

The Presidential campaign meets Magic: The Gathering in a pair of sets of mock Magic cards: One, Two.

Funniest thing I’ve found on the Web in weeks!

How Fitting

George W. Bush’s favorite painting has a rather different meaning than he thinks.

(via T.S.)

Why Terrorism Doesn’t Work

Bruce Schneier summarizes an article on correspondent inference theory and why it helps explain why terrorism doesn’t work: Basically, because targets and observers of terrorism tend to believe that the object of terrorism is to kill people, rather than as a means to political goals, and therefore they disregard those goals when deciding how to react to the terrorists.

I’ve been enjoyed Schneier’s blog for several years now. I think what I enjoy about it is that although it’s a blog about security (in many forms), much of it concerns motivations: Why people act the way they do, and how their behaviors lead to interesting security issues and trade-offs. The principles that arise in the blog often seem appropriate in other avenues of life, or at least they’re worth keeping in mind.

This is analogous to why I feel my baseball fandom of the last 15 years has been not just fun, but useful: It’s given me a better understanding of statistics, and – maybe more importantly – a recognition that humans are very bad at recognizing statistical patterns without doing in-depth analysis. That’s definitely been a lesson I’ve been able to apply elsewhere.