This Week in Microbiology


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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Sometime last year, on his now-defunct tumblr feed, Recursive Muffin, Ethan Mitchell asked a question I thought the folks on This Week In Microbiology (which I’ve written about here and here) might be able to answer. I emailed them and they did so, at the end of episode 73. I thought the question and answer were interesting enough to transcribe here:

Question of the day: A strain of Flavobacterium (KI72) evolved the capacity to digest nylon, obviously in recent history. Fine and well. How long will it be until one of the cariogenic bacteria species evolves the ability to digest dental resin? After all, we are putting a lot of it on their dinner table.

Answered primarily by Michael Schmidt, who teaches microbiology to dental students at MUSC, with help by Michele Swanson and Vincent Racaniello. Keep in mind that this is a transcribed conversation, so informal, and that I don’t know how to spell some of these words:

Michael: This has already happened to some extent. In the United States we currently spend 5 billion dollars a year replacing resin-based composite fillings due to failure. The average lifespan of a resin-based filling that a dentist will put in today is around 6 years. And the recurrent decay usually compromises the restoration earlier in its lifespan, and that’s when the bacteria are effectively going after the “glue.” And they’re going—because it’s a polymerization and the microbes—if the restoration isn’t properly fixed and properly cured there’s enough carbon in there that they can get at before the polymerization is completely done, that they can actually get after it. And then afterwards, matrix metalloproteinases and cathepsins places the longevity ceiling at that 6 years, even at healthy and bacterial free restorations. And so these matrix metalloproteinases and cathepsins which are expressed specifically in dentin, they come in and they cause the restoration to fail.

Michele: But those are bacterial, Michael, or those are…

Michael: No, those are eukaryotic. The bacterial failure… places the longevity cap at around 6 years, so there’s currently a resin-based product in the market that’s from a Japanese company that puts chlorhexidine into some of these resin-based products in order to prevent microbial attack and to take out the… bacterial attack. So we’ve been looking at copper nano-particles to effectively prevent some of this decay, but what he is hypothesizing has already been happening in the US and it happens throughout the developed world, anyplace people are using resin-based fillings. The old silver fillings typically last 25-30 years without incident. Most people were concerned about the mercury issue but the amount of mercury in an amalgam based filling is insignificant in terms of health consequences if you look at the evidence-based literature. It really has no issue associated with the health of the individual.

Michele: And I don’t suppose there’s any data saying the half-life of the resin is decreasing? Which would be consistent with this idea that we’ve selected for bacteria, we’re enriching for bacteria, that can break it down more readily?

Michael: No, because the resins have gotten better. The polymerization agents and the curing times, so we don’t have a clean experiment to do it. The folks haven’t actually looked to see if resin-based dissolving bacteria… but that’s a question that I can ask my friends at the Forsyth Institute to see if they’ve hunted to see if there are any resin-eating bacteria out there. But it’s all about the polymerization because the polymer needs to be perfectly cured and any of you who’ve had a recent composite filling you remember the dentist putting on the dark glasses and giving you a pair of dark glasses and they put the magic light into your mouth to cure the filling. And typically they only put the UV lamp in there for 20-30 seconds and that’s what starts the curing process. And we’ve all made polyacrylamide gels and it’s a variation of polyacrylamide gels except we use… Temid and whats the inorganic… the inorganic salt. I haven’t made a gel in…

Vincent: I can’t remember either.

Michael: Because you just pull MP… not MPS…

Vincent: APS

Michael: APS. Ammonium persulfate and that’s what goes bad. The binary catalyst.

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.

My regular podcasts* have not been able to fill all my listening needs during this trailer-renovation project, so I’ve been trying out some new ones. The two that I am most excited about are After Words from booktv.org and This Week in Microbiology from microbeworld.org. They are both at least an hour per episode and have a considerable back-catalog, so I should have plenty of excellent listening and learning for the rest of my project.

In each After Words episode, the author of a recent scholarly book is interviewed by another expert in/about their field. For example, Jack Abramoff was interviewed by CQ Roll Call’s lobbying reporter Eliza Newlin Carney about his book Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist. Sam Donaldson from ABC interviewed Chris Matthews about his book, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero. Yale psychiatrist Sally Satel interviewed cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga about Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. I’ve listened to 13 episodes so far, biographies, histories, ethics, law, science, and every one has been excellent. After each one I’m spinning on new ideas and new depth of understanding. If you are a nerdy eclectic, I think you will like it.

In This Week in Microbiology, Vincent RacanielloMichael Schmidt, and Elio Schaechter present and discuss new articles and ideas from the world of microbe scholarship. Now you might think that pretty boring way to spend an hour and twenty minutes each week, but you’d be wrong. Did you know that the more variety of microbes that live on your skin the less mosquitos are attracted to you? That hydrogen sulphide (the gas farts are made of) is toxic to the skin of your intestines? That there is evidence of a significant difference in the bacteria in the guts of autistic vs. neurotypical children with gastrointestinal distress? That many bacteria navigate by sensing the earth’s magnetic field? With my strictly-200-level organic chemistry and biology education, I do get lost in some of the discussions of specific substrates and protein types, but the hosts consistently bring the conversation back to the bigger ideas: What could this mean for us? For science? What do we still not know? What are the next steps? It’s fascinating. They also produce podcasts called This Week in Virology and This Week in Parasitism (and are threatening great-sounding shows like This Week in Micology (fungus) and This Week in Immunology), which is a problem–the problem of every modern-aspiring renaissance man: You can’t keep up with science anymore. Oh well, it’s still fun to try!

*In alphabetical order: Freakonomics, Left Right and Center, Planet Money, Radiolab, Seminars About Long-Term Thinking, Sound Opinions, This American Life.