Long Now Foundation


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.

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.

In his new lecture for the Long Now Foundation, Geoffrey West asserts that part of the problem humans face is that we tend not to understand exponential growth. An economy growing at a miserable 2%, for example, is still growing exponentially. And economic growth is still largely a measure of the acceleration of entropy–how much faster are we turning resources into pollution. He advises figuring out ways that periods of slow or no growth OK, because it will have to be.

Exponential growth really is counterintuitive. Here’s the way he describes it:

Imagine you are going to grow a test tube of a bacteria, starting with one bacterium at 8 AM and ending with a full test tube precisely at noon. The bacteria grow by doubling–a kind of exponential growth–each second. So at the end of one second we have two, after two seconds we have four, after three seconds we have eight, and so on. That being the case, at what time will the test tube be one-half full?

Right. Precisely one second before noon. And two seconds before noon it’s a quarter full. Three seconds is an eighth, four seconds a sixteenth. At 11:59.55 AM, the tube is only 1/32 full. Imagine being a bacterium in the tube at five seconds to noon. It would seem more crowded than usual, but look at all that space to go, and we’ve been doubling like this for almost four hours! There may be a problem in the next few days, but certainly not in the next few seconds–exponential growth is probably also counterintuitive for bacteria.

In his lecture “Fixing Broken Government” for the Long Now Foundation, Philip K. Howard suggests that this time of trouble in the US might be one in which we can make some big, useful changes. He hopes for a change in “governmental operating system” comparable to the Progressive, New Deal, and Civil Rights eras. Instead of protecting children and other workers, establishing safety nets, or addressing civil rights abuses, however, he would like to un-paralyze our government.

Based on the idea that laws have “piled up like sediment in the harbor,” paralyzing our public servants, and on his truism, “Only real people, not rules, make things happen,” Howard proposes three new principles for modern government:

1) A spring-cleaning on all law with budgetary implications. A law does not become one of the 10 Commandments because some dead people passed it. He also proposes an “Omnibus Sunset Law” under which all laws with budgetary implications automatically expire after 10-20 years.

2) Laws should be radically simplified. Replace 95% of the 100,000,000 words of binding federal law, all the details, with individual responsibility. Allow public servants to use their judgment. Laws are to set goals, general principles, and allocate budgets and to determine who is responsible if the goals are not met.

3) Public employees have to be accountable. There is no need for minutia in law if people are held accountable if they do a bad job. That means they have to be fire-able.

On playgrounds:

“There is nothing left in playgrounds for a kid over the age of 4. Nothing. Seesaws, jungle-gyms, climbing ropes…merry-go-rounds are abandoned. There are a few diving boards left, but not many. Not very many high boards. Why’s that? Because they all involve not just the risk, but the certainty that something might go wrong. They also happen to attract kids to the playground so they don’t get fat and die of obesity. They also happen to teach kids how to take responsibility for themselves, and to be athletic. These risks are vital for  for child development, which the American Academy of Pediatrics and all kinds of other boring people would write books about, but we don’t have a legal system that allows kids to take the ordinary risks of childhood. It’s lunacy. ….The range of exploration of a 9-year-old in America has declined by over 90% since 1970. Kids are not allowed to leave home by themselves. And that ability to wander around the neighborhood, to explore the creek, all that sort of thing is absolutely vital.”

I heard a segment recently on NPR about gas prices and it reminded me of the link between driving speed and gas mileage. According to the story, driving over 60 miles per hour is equivalent to paying $.25 more per gallon for each five miles an hour faster. So if you paid$4.00 for a gallon of gas, but burn it at 65 miles an hour, it’s like having paid $4.25. Seventy miles an hour makes it $4.50, etc.

It seems funny that it’s very easy to imagine Americans complaining about the price of gas, but very difficult to imagine them driving the slightest bit slower in order to save that same money. In fact, I can easily imagine an American burning a 70-mile-per-hour gallon of gas to go out of their way to save $.25 cents per gallon at the pump. (It could be a good economic decision to do so, I suppose, depending on how many gallons of gas you need to buy, and how much your time is worth, but it still seems funny.)

If I remember my physics correctly, I think the loss of efficiency is actually not that linear, that a 75-mile-per-hour gallon probably costs significantly more than the $4.75 that NPR’s equation predicts. It has to do with the amount of force each particle of air hits the front of our car with–it’s the same principle we (if we are from the desert) use to remember to drive slowly or stop during a sandstorm, to save our windshields from getting sandblasted. Any physicists in the audience care to explain the mechanics of it?

In his excellent lecture “Climate Change Recalculated,” engineer Saul Griffith tells about how he gave an intern this incredibly boring job: Drive his wife’s Honda Insight in 100 mile stretches around a runway at constant speeds, twelve 5-mile-per-hour increments from 20 to 75 miles per hour. Seventy-five miles per hour was the worst, obviously, at about 40 miles per gallon, and the most efficient speed, at about 85 miles per gallon, was 30 miles per hour.

That’s pretty slow, but three times as fast as the average driving speed for large urban areas, he points out. I’ve been thinking about making my next trip to Portland at 30 miles an hour, to see how little gas I can use to get there. It’ll take 4 hours to get there, so I’d better bring some good company.

In a part of the new Seminar About Long Term Thinking, “Deep Optimism,” Matt Ridley talks about the ethics of buying local. Apparently, the amount of fuel used to ship an object to a store in the US from a factory in China is on average ten times smaller than the fuel you use to drive to the store to buy it. There are other factors in the ethics of buying local, of course, but it may be that how you get to the store is a more important decision than how far away the object you want was made or grown. It makes me wonder where buying mail-order falls in terms of fuel efficiency. Will we see Amazon asking us to buy from them to protect the planet?

“Incidentally, about science fiction, I tell my students that it is better to read first-rate science fiction like Arthur C. Clark than second-rate science. Second-rate science may not be true either, and it’s far less entertaining.”

– Martin Rees, president of the Royal Academy of Science, in the new Long Now lecture “Life’s Future in the Cosmos”

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