Left Right and Center


Around Christmas of last year I stopped listening to podcasts. That was a big change. Prior to Christmas, I listened to podcasts during all of my breaks, walks, exercise, chores, errands, and commutes. Whenever I wasn’t interacting with someone or studying for my marriage and family therapy licensure exam, I was listening to podcasts.

I love listening to podcasts. I heard someone say that this is the second great age of radio, and I agree. I wasn’t there for the first, so I don’t get a vote, but I suspect that this one is better. Listening to podcasts, my days were full of super high quality radio shows: stories, lectures, news, analysis, entertaining, educational, emotionally moving, on demand, whenever, wherever. It was wonderful.

Once I set the date for taking my LMFT exam, though, I also started thinking about starting my private practice. Despite a private therapy practice being my fond desire for over a decade, despite having worked hard all that time to prepare for this moment, I started to feel anxious. That anxious feeling helped me realize that I needed to ditch the podcasts and focus on my own thoughts and plans. I’ve studied for exams my whole life, and I can do it with podcasts in my life. Starting a business is new and a big deal for me. I needed to hear everything my brain had to say on the topic, wrap my head around all the options, give myself mental space for it. Podcasts were taking up almost all of that space. A lot of mental problem solving does happen behind the scenes, so to speak, in parts of our brains that do not report directly to our conscious awareness, so a lot of problems are best solved by concentrating hard for a while and then completely taking your mind off of them for a while, maybe by listening to a podcast. The set of problems I’ve been working on are not like that. They require no burst of inspiration, just continued concentration. For example, what should my informed consent form have in it? I need to read and understand the relevant laws and ethical codes, read through my notes, look at the various examples I’ve collected and are available online, and write one. My task is thoroughly and effectively integrating and using existing information, not solving or creating new problems or solutions.

I started listening to podcasts in 2006. I had a broken heart and needed help derailing some persistent, not-useful thoughts. It worked wonderfully. My mind could trace the grooves of great thinkers and storytellers instead of loop unhappy thoughts. The only side effect was learning a ton. I listened to easily thousands of hours since then. My Planet Money listening alone totaled more than 150 hours of learning about economics. By the time I quit, I was listening to almost every episode of over 20 podcasts. (See the full list below.) Podcasts on so many different topics made for lots of great cross-referencing of information in my mind and generated lots of good questions. Quite a bit of what I’ve written about in this blog started off with my attempts to bring two or three podcast narratives to terms with each other.

Quitting means learning less overall, but more deeply in one area: casting a learning net that goes deep but much less broad. I’ve been reading business articles, buying malpractice insurance, looking into potential office spaces, figuring out insurance panels, working on a marketing plan, making a budget, learning about bookkeeping and taxes, and on and on. When I take my now silent walks or drives I can watch my thoughts working through these topics and take note of any new clarity, priority, or question. The only problem is that it’s boring. With podcasts I was almost never bored. Without them, it’s very common. I’ve experienced way more boredom in the last few months than in all of my last ten years combined.

My first whiff of this change came while listening to Joshua Waitzkin on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Waitzkin is a former world champion in both chess and tai chi push hands, and a compelling speaker. At one point he says, “I like to cultivate moments of silence in my life,” and I had to stop the tape. I thought, “That sounds wonderful! That sounds useful! That sounds like something I’d like to do. But I never do that.” More recently I read Cal Newport’s Deep Work (thanks to Blake Boles), in which he sings the praises of boredom. He says that resisting distraction, remaining bored, is like calisthenics for the mental muscle you use to do the difficult, focused, high value work that he calls “deep work.”

I’m sold, at least for now. I’m cultivating plenty of moments of silence and I’m doing a fair amount of deep work and benefiting from it enormously. It’s great to feel and be productive. But I can feel the tension. Integrating what I catch in my broad net is a big part of who I am and what I have to offer my clients and community. My choice is clear when it’s between listening to podcasts or launching my private practice effectively and efficiently. But once it’s up and running (and paying the bills) I’ll be listening again, though I hope with a better sense of when I’ll benefit by turning them off to take a silent walk around the block.

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Complete list of podcasts as of 12/25/2016:

99% Invisible – Great stories about how human design effects our lives and culture. Interesting but also often inspiring or moving.

Bulletproof Radio – Dave Asprey interviews interesting people about biohacking. He does a fair amount of self-promotion, but his guests tend to be good and he presents some really interesting ideas. I was listening to about half of his episodes. If you want to check one out, go through his archives and choose a topic you’re interested in.

The Daily Evolver – I really miss this one. Jeff Salzman analyzes current events from the perspective of Ken Wilber’s integral metatheory. It’s often political, and he’s a rare optimistic voice on the progressive side. My favorite episodes, though, are when he interviews Keith Witt, an integral psychotherapist. Check out whatever he’s posted most recently with Witt. Those episodes are called “The Shrink & The Pundit.”

The Ezra Klein Show – A wonderfully nerdy political show with great interviews that go deep. 

Fareed Zakaria GPS – Intelligent current events analysis each week, from a world-centric perspective. I miss this one too. 

FiveThirtyEight Politics – Nate Silver and his team bring much needed data and data analysis to current events and news. 

Freakonomics Radio – Relentlessly counterintuitive findings from economics. 

Hidden Brain – A good psychology podcast from NPR.

Imaginary Worlds – Eric Molinsky talks about sci-fi and fantasy world building in popular culture. If you’re a fan, check out his series on Star Wars.

Invisibilia – Another psychology podcast, very engaging.

Judge John Hodgman – My comic relief podcast. John Hodgman hears and rules with wisdom and hilarity on real disputes.

Left, Right & Center – Weekly political analysis from a liberal, conservative, and centrist. This show taught me that political analysis is all about outcome-irrelevant learning.

Longform – Good interviews with authors about writing. 

The Memory Palace – Fantastic, very short, poetic, moving episodes about historical events, usually on a personal scale. So good.

More Perfect – Fascinating stories about US Supreme Court decisions.

The New Yorker Radio Hour – This started off as interviews with New Yorker writers about current articles, and has morphed into more of an art/culture/politics variety show. I preferred the former version, but it’s still really good, as one would expect from The New Yorker.

The New Yorker: Poetry – Short episodes in which Paul Muldoon hosts a poet who reads two poems from The New Yorker, one of their own and one by another poet.

Off-Trail Learning – My friend Blake Boles interviews alternative-education thinkers and doers, often focused on unschooling. Check out his interviews with Dev Carey and Liam Nilsen. (He also interviewed me recently, if you are particularly interested in me.)

Planet Money – Short stories about and explorations of economics and the economy. You learn and are entertained. Check out “The No-Brainer Economic Platform,” about the six things that all economists agree on, and “The One-Page Plan to Fix Global Warming.”

Revisionist History – Malcolm Gladwell tells stories in that fascinating way he does, only on a podcast. Check out his episode on the song “Hallelujah.”

Seminars About Long-Term Thinking – The Long Now Foundation presents authors and thinkers talking about their ideas from the perspective that “now” is a long time—the last 10,000 years and the next 10,000 years. It’s fantastic—one of my favorites.

Sound Opinions – Pop/rock record reviews and conversation.

TED Radio Hour – Interviews with TED speakers on a theme.

This American Life – The prototypical podcast. Great stories.

This Week in Microbiology – Three microbiologists discuss recent microbiology research. It’s super nerdy and good. I loved keeping up with developments in this exploding field.

The Tim Ferriss Show – Author Tim Ferriss interviews very interesting people. Tim’s access is astounding and his knowledge base is wide enough that he can have interesting conversations with anyone. The theme is deconstructing top-level performance, but topics are all over the place. Chances are he’s interviewed someone you’re interested in, so look in his archives and start there.

Vox’s The Weeds – Very nerdy and very good political analysis. These folks are actually reading the original documents—laws, reports, policy papers, etc—and it shows. Outcome-relevant learning in political analysis.

Waking Up with Sam Harris – Some of the most interesting and inspiring conversations about science, philosophy, and spirituality that I’ve come across. Unfortunately, he also puts up a lot of episodes about Islamic terrorism, which are boring and quite skippable once you understand his perspective on the topic. His non-terrorism political rants tend to be quite interesting and often surprising, and it’s just lovely to hear him tear into Trump. I’d advise starting with an interview with one of his scientist or philanthropist guests, though, maybe “The Light of the Mind,” about consciousness with David Chalmers.

You Are Not So Smart – Each episode is about some facet of faulty thinking, why we fall for it and how to fight it. Clever and fun.

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I took a year-long break from news, starting in the spring of 2015, on the advice of my doctor, to reduce stress. It helped a bit, and I needed the help. I was working on the last of my hours for licensure in a stressful environment. It was worth it to give up my standing as a good citizen who keeps up with current events.

Then, a year later, I decided to listen to the back episodes of my main news sources, Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square and KCRW’s Left, Right & Center,* figuring that old news should be less stressful and that my good-citizenship could use some updating.

I found that old news is almost infinitely less stressful than new news. It is also, of course, significantly less interesting, probably through the same mechanism. But the main lesson for me was about spin. Listening to pundits and guests talk a year ago about the news, I realized that they are constantly making, or at least implying, predictions. Maybe every third declarative sentence is a prediction. And from the vantage point of a year later, it is clear that these extremely intelligent, well-informed people are very, very bad at predicting the future. Predictions with no predictive value are just spin, an attempt to create the future by moving the narrative in the direction of your ideology.

That news is largely spin is not a major theoretical revelation, but it has been a big deal to me experientially. It reminds me of the first time a press release I’d written appeared, with only minor edits, in a newspaper under a reporter’s name. I’d known from my publicity classes that 80% of print media was rewritten press releases, but seeing my words there in print, looking so official, I felt my brain shift: Just about every thing you read exists because someone else has a vested interest in your thinking what they want you to think. And the same goes for words spoken on news shows.

So after catching up on news and realizing this, I very nearly went off it again. How is it useful to listen to all this spin? It takes up a fair amount of time that could be spent reading or studying. Or, I thought, maybe I’d search for a news source that offered no “analysis,” just descriptions of events. Eventually I decided/rationalized that I’d be missing out on the most entertaining few months of news in my lifetime, so I stayed in it. To temper the stress, I’ve added some much nerdier sources, mostly FiveThirtyEight Elections, Vox’s The Weeds, and The Daily Evolver. It helps to have people talking about data, statistics, policy, and theory.

Maybe I’ll go back off news after the election. Maybe all media for a while. We’ll see.

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*I don’t mean to pick on GPS or LR&C, by any means. (Though I do consider LR&C a perfect example of outcome irrelevant learning.) They are both really good shows, and intended to be analysis of current events, not just descriptions.

My family celebrated Thanksgiving on Friday this year instead of Thursday, so I spent Thanksgiving day giving money away and buying Christmas gifts–a great way to do it! This is the first holiday season in my life that I’ve begun with a solidly-above-the-poverty-line income. It’s a whole different experience. I’ve given to charities before, of course, but always with a little mental wrestling over each gift. This year I could make a list of everyone I really wanted to support, send each some money, and it just felt fun. Here’s my list so far:

The Long Now Foundation: I got on to these folks through their really, really good Seminars About Long Term Thinking. They see our culture’s “pathologically short attention span” and have a mission to “foster long-term responsibility.”

Mojave Desert Land Trust: These folks really caught my attention when they managed to purchase (save, really) a large and beautiful swath of desert on the western edge of Joshua Tree, surely the next to fall to big box stores as Yucca Valley slouches east. It made me so happy. They focus on land conservation and stewardship around here, including wildlife corridors.

Rocky Mountain Institute: Amory Lovins has been a hero of mine since I saw him speak at the University of Oregon ten years ago–to this day one of the most inspiring lectures I’ve seen. (Here’s a TED Talk.) He started RMI with the vision “a world thriving, verdant, and secure, for all, for ever,” and the mission “to drive the efficient and restorative use of resources.”

Wikimedia: I use Wikipedia almost every day, and so do you, probably.

Chicago Public Media: WBEZ in Chicago, which produces at least two of my regular podcasts, This American Life (in-depth news, great stories) and Sound Opinions (music news & reviews). I can’t quite tell if they also produce Planet Money (economics-related stories and explanations), another of my regulars… they seem to be associated with This American Life, so I threw in some extra money for it.

New York Public Radio: Mostly for Radiolab, which makes science-related podcasts.

KCRW: Probably the best radio station in the world. I have cut myself off from the daily news cycle in the interest of staying sane, but I still listen to a lot of KCRW. Their music programs are great, and they produce Left, Right, & Center, the only political show I listen to intentionally these days.

The Human Food Project: These folks are going after large-scale microbiome base rates in various populations. They have an open source project going called American Gut where you can join and get your gut microbiome sequenced and compared to the others involved.

Mil-Tree: A local military/civilian integration and healing project based on the work of Ed Tick. Their Art of War show was one of the most moving things I witnessed this year.

I get half of my political news and analysis from a great podcast called Left Right & Center. (The other half is from Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square.) LR&C is an ongoing conversation between three guys from different political perspectives on what’s happened this week, and has been very valuable for the development of my own political thinking.

The other day, I was listening to another great podcast, This Week in Microbiology, and it hit me that these two shows have the exact same format. TWiM is also an ongoing conversation between three guys about the news of the week. The superficial difference is that TWiM is about bacteria and LR&C is about US politics.

The more abstract difference between these two podcasts, though, is that Left, Right & Center is an excercise in outcome-irrelevant learning, while This Week in Microbiology is an exercise in outcome-relevant learning. That is to say, the empirical events of the week change the opinions of the TWiM guys but almost never change the opinions of the LR&C guys. This is a huge difference. On TWiM, when there is a disagreement, they look up what is known about the issue and almost immediately come to an agreement based on facts: either one person is right and the other wrong, or else we really don’t yet know the answer to that question.

On LR&C, when there is disagreement (which there is on every topic), each fact that comes into the conversation is either disputed or used to proove each person’s own point. In politics, the facts are basically irrelevant. Makes me wonder why it remains so interesting.

I am aware that Tony Blankley worked for Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, but for me, Tony Blankley was the conservative voice on KCRW’s political show “Left, Right, and Center.” I discovered the show in the late 90s and have listened religiously for the last several years. After he died recently, they did a show in his memory and I was surprised at how emotional I became. I tended to agree more with the liberal and center voices on the show, but in retrospect, I really appreciate how Blankley approached their ongoing conversation. It wasn’t just that he was extremely intelligent and likeable. It was that he engaged the liberal and centrist positions with seriousness and respect, every week for years and years.

It’s a rare opportunity to get to listen in on that kind of conversation. It’s easy to find professional idealogs (and amateurs too, of course) mocking their enemies from a safe distance. On all sides it’s a straw-man game: shoot down a caricature of your opponent. I hope I am not an idealog, but I find myself doing the same thing. Listening to Blankley over the years has helped. In most cases, I can now see conservative positions not as differences in accuracy or integrity, but differences in values. He just had some different ideas about what was important than I do. And that is OK. We each get to say what is important to us.

A good lesson to learn. Thank you, Tony Blankley.

The cast of Left, Right & Center: Matt Miller, Arianna Huffington, Tony Blankley, Robert Scheer (photo by Marc Goldstein)

I like to know what everyone thinks is going on. To this end, about a year ago, I filled up my igoogle home page with feeds from a bunch of different news sources. They are political news sources, for the most part. I don’t care at all about sports or celebrities. I tried to pick stuff from the hard left and hard right and then some mainstream stuff, thinking I could read headlines every day or two and read the articles that grabbed my attention.

It’s not working out that well. I’m too busy to read much. I do glance over the headlines a bit, but there are a lot of them and often my eyes just glaze over. And while I want to know about the rest of the world, I’m even more interested in what my friends and family are doing. If my sister-in-law, Maya, has posted on her blog, or my mom on hers, my brother Benjamin on his, or my friend Jeannie on hers, or my friend Ethan on a couple of his blogs (one about everything and one about his wife Susannah’s struggle with leukemia–both amazing), or several other friends and family with blogs have posted, that’s what I read while I’m brushing my teeth or during whatever scanty extracurricular-reading time appears.

So I need to cull. I’m considering getting paring it down to the few feeds that I actually click on. That would look like this:

Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman columns at NYTimes.com–occasional reads.

Wall Street Journal feed–very occasional reads.

NPR’s political feed–pretty regular use, but usually just audio clips from “All Things Considered,” plus a nearly-daily five-minute news overview, also audio.

A google news feed gathered from a bunch of sources–very occasional reads.

Plus PsychCentral‘s Mental Health News and Children/Parenting News feeds–pretty frequent reads, a few a week–and Nildoctrine‘s feed for his hilarious feminist political vlogs.

And plus my podcasts, which I have absolutely no problem keeping up with: Left, Right and Center, Planet Money, This American Life, Radiolab, and The Long Now Foundation’s Seminars About Long Term Thinking. These I love the most.

I’d call that a US-centric, left-leaning-centrist list. I’d be ditching my right-winger stuff besides the Wall Street Journal–FrumForum which looked pretty good when I checked it out, but I just haven’t been checking it out, and National Review, whose cartoony headlines and terrible writing meant that I almost never looked at it, and regretted it when I did. I’d ditch quite a bit of left-winger stuff–The New Republic & Mother Jones (cartoony headlines again), Truthdig (generally good but not catching me), and Democracy Now! which I think is great but consistently depressing. Also The Onion, which is hilarious but I’ve stopped looking at it, and a CNN feed, which is weak.

That list doesn’t really do what I originally wanted–covering hard left to hard right–but it seems OK for now. What do you think? I’m interested in the media-intake schemes of anyone who made it this far through my post. How do you make these decisions? Do you think I’m missing anything crucial? Make me some recommendations!

Also, anyone interested in my actual media diet can look at my reading list here.