In 2020 I got very excited about Pushkin. Malcolm Gladwell and his best friend Jacob Weisberg created Pushkin to combine entertainment value that Malcolm Gladwell brings, combined with the knowledge of some of the world’s greatest experts.(1)This is a I really enjoyed the great podcast on the history of Pushkin where Michael Lewis interviews the co-founders. Here are some of my favorites:
- Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell. The podcast that started it all. Malcolm Gladwell started as a compelling writer but he also tells amazing stories.
- Against the Rules by Michael Lewis. Michael Lewis is Malcolm Gladwell’s favorite writer. Lewis has the ability to be engaging on a single topic for an incredibly long time. This season, his episode about his high school baseball coach Billy Fitzgerald was exceptional.
- The Last Archive by Professor Jill Lepore. It’s a podcast about the history of evidence, told as an old radio drama, and hosted by a Harvard professor. Professor Lepore likes to ask questions like “How do we prove things?” This podcast tries to answer that. It’s amazing.
- The Happiness Lab by Professor Laurie Santos. This is a podcast that extends upon Professor Santos’s Happiness Class at Yale. The most popular class that the university has ever had. The third season on happiness wisdom from the ancients is especially good.
From COVID-19 Podcasts from 2020/2021:
- This American Life Episode 727 had an interview with 4 of the scientists that did the basic research on the COVID-19 vaccine. The crazy thing about this vaccine is that all the research on the vaccine was done years ago, on MERS. Most of the COVID vaccine work was the engineering and testing of making the vaccine. Without that huge jump start, we would still be waiting for a vaccine.
- The Great Vaccinator is about an obscure scientist who we should all know the name of. Maurice Hilleman created the Mumps vaccine in 4 years, in addition to creating 8 of the 14 standard childhood vaccines.
- Every Day is Ignaz Semmelweis Day is an homage to the discoverer of germs and the first proponent of hand washing. The medical community was not a fan of Semmelweis, thinking that doctors new best. It reminded me of this Atul Gawande piece on anesthesia vs. antisepsis.
My classic list of podcasts (from 2016) kind of clump together as This American Life-Like (no pun intended). I like a lot of podcasts but these are the ones that I tend to listen to every week and have gone deeply into the archives on:
- This American Life – There’s no point in explaining This American Life. It’s the father of all modern podcasts. If you haven’t listened to it you should. You can start here. I’ll let the TV Show “The O.C” describe it as “Is that that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are? Ekhh. God.” I remember first hearing This American Life on the radio in college but I didn’t know the name. Then I heard it again in a cab in Chicago and listed to all of the archives online. The show spawned a number of other This American Life-Like Podcasts:
- Planet Money. A business podcast started by two contributors from This American Life – originally a joint project between This American Life and NPR.
- Startup. A podcast about starting a company called Gimlet to create more podcasts like This American Life.
- Invisibilia. A podcast about human behavior created by alumnae from This American Life and RadioLab.
- Radiolab is a more sciency take on podcasts (“lab” is short for laboratory). They do episodes on hard topics like logarithms and chirality. They’ve also done more lighthearted bits like the transformation of Professional Wrestling. They also did a great episode on a man who took a very different approach to the prisoner’s dilemma (for anyone who loves game theory, you’ll really love this!) Abigail and I saw them live. It was amazing. I learned about Radiolab from This American Life – Ira really likes them.
- 99 Percent Invisible — This is a phenomenal podcast about design all around us. You can start here for a sampling. I learned about 99 Percent Invisible from Radiolab.
- WTF with Marc Maron — This is the oddball in the bunch. A great podcast by a great interviewer who’s a bit of a troubled soul. His interview with Louis CK is one of the best podcasts ever. He’s also done the only interview of Terry Gross from Fresh Air. Oh, and he interviewed The President. The Obama recap also shows how nutty Maron really is. Unfortunately most of his archive requires a subscription.
Blogs and Newsletters
- Kottke.org — One of the earliest and still one of the best blogs on the net. It feels like you’re walking into an artisanally curated Brooklyn art gallery/coffee shop poetry slam. I learned about Kottke.org from Rebecca Mead’s early article on blogging You’ve Got Blog (added 8/20).
- NextDraft — This daily newsletter by Dave Pell is a thoughtful and fun summary of the day in 10 mini articles. Pell does this as an unpaid side gig but takes this job as “Managing Editor of the Internet” seriously. Pell is a venture capitalist who hit it big and this is his full-time/hobby/job/semi-retirement project.
- Post Secret — People send in anonymous postcards with secrets they haven’t told anyone else. What you get is brutal raw honesty. Founder Frank Warren has a great video summarizing the site. I saw Frank live and he opened the presentation with the music video Dirty Little Secret which used actual Post Secret cards.
- Absolut Nights x Empire of the Sun ‘Welcome to my Life’. In 3rd grade, Ari was asked what his favorite song was. He went with this Absolute Vodka Ad. I have to agree.
- The Sunscreen Song. If you were in college or thereabouts in the late 90’s, no doubt you’d seen the fictitious MIT commencement address by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s simple, humble advice for everyone and only a few minutes long. It actually wasn’t by Kurt Vonnegut but a hypothetical address (if she were to give one) by a Chicago writer named Mary Schmich. It was later turned into an international hit song by Baz Luhrmann. I like to listen to it for advice every so often. Remember that many things in this site are my opinion, trust me on the sunscreen.
- Jewish Songs
- Eran Barran Cohen (Sasha’s brother) has a wonderful album Songs in the Key of Hanukkah including the music video Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah.
- Jackie Hoffman’s album Live at Joe’s Pub has some great songs like Upper West Side and Shavuoth.
- Rachel Bloom, of the show My Crazy Ex-girlfriend put out the album Suck it, Christmas!!! including the music video Chanukah Honey.
- The Slow Mo Guys show what happens to various things in slow motion like a fire tornado or a 6-foot balloon popping. They now have the show Planet Slow Mo on YouTube which includes videos of things like getting hit in the face by a flying fish in slow motion.
- Twilight Zone. I’m not a huge fan of the Twilight Zone in general, but these are great examples of speculative fiction (formerly known as science fiction). Neil Gaiman defines speculative fiction as the world of “not yet” answering questions of “What if? …”, “If only …”, and “If this goes on?” Gaiman says that it takes “aspect of [the present] that troubles or is dangerous, and extends and extrapolates that aspect into something that allows the people of that time to see what they are doing from a different angle and from a different place. It’s cautionary.” Here are some examples:
- The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (Season 1, Episode 22). A fascinating look at what happens when people are looking for an enemy and attack each other. It was inspired by cold war witch hunts but is shockingly prophetic of the Russian goal to destabilize America.
- Number 12 Looks Just Like You (Season 5, Episode 17). At 18, everyone gets plastic surgery to look beautiful, choosing from a small set of templates. We follow Marilyn who doesn’t want to go through the transformation saying, “When everyone is beautiful, no one will be because without ugliness there can be no beauty.” It’s a wonderful tale of conformity.
- A Nice Place to Visit (Season 1, Episode 28). A thief dies and gets everything he wants. There’s nothing that he can’t have and nothing requires any effort. At the end, he discovers he’s not in heaven but in hell.
- Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is an amazing show in so many ways. It’s an incredibly honest, dirty, and NSFW show that was aired on broadcast TV. Thank goodness they also posted explicit versions of the songs on YouTube. Some of my favorite less ribald songs are JAP Battle, Don’t Be a Lawyer, Remember that We Suffered, and I Have Friends. It was the lowest-rated show on TV for most of its four-year run despite a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Rachel also did a memoir with an audiobook that includes a short musical. Finally, the 50-year-old co-creator talks about how the show describes the millennials that we imagine we would have been.
Videos and Other Media
- Improv Everywhere: Improv Everywhere is a wonderful group that does “Positive Pranks” in public places. Essentially, people are going about their day and all of a sudden, a magical moment will happen to them. My favorites are the musicals like Food Court Musical and I Love Lunch. But they also do some great pieces like Frozen Grand Central, The Light Switch and Guys in Blue Shirts and Khaki’s at Best Buy. The history of Improv Everywhere is is pretty wonderful as well. Charlie Todd talks about it and they even made a movie. Every year they do a larger more public pranks like the MP3 experiment (which is awesome and I’ve been to many times with the kids) and No Pants Subway Ride! Volkswagon did something similar in their Fun Theory ad campaign with Piano Staircase, garbage can sound effects, and staircase slide.
- OK Go: This band has done some of the most inventive single shot music videos including a Rube Goldberg Machine, a video shot on a treadmills, a super slow motion video, a video with a ton of optical illusions, and an amazing video shot from a drone. They even did a Sesame Street video on Primary Colors.
- What if Millie Dresselhaus were treated like a celebrity? The video is amazing. Dresselhaus was the first woman to secure a full professorship at MIT and was awarded the National Medal of Science, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (bestowed by President Barack Obama), the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience, the Enrico Fermi prize and dozens of honorary doctorates. She died earlier this year right after the commercial came out.
- In possibly the best mic check ever, In Netflix’s video game documentary, “High Score,” Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese uses this verse from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky to check his sound:
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
- Here’s a couple of wonderful classical music jokes.
- The Typewriter is a wonderful short piece that includes a typewriter as a percussion instrument. It’s commonly used as background music for “person working hard.” Here’s a performance from the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and a Typewriter Supercut.
- Jerome Robbins’s Mistake Waltz is a ballet number where one of the ballerina’s didn’t get the latest changes (or maybe she just wasn’t very good)