In no particular order, here are 19 things I learned from podcasts over the past year.
1) It’s been much ridiculed, but the idea of “duck and cover” is actually sound advice for a nuclear explosion.The assumption towards the end of the cold war was that it would be silly to prepare at all for a widespread nuclear war because of how completely devastating it would be. The modern fear isn’t from Russia though, but from countries like North Korea where the attack would be small scale enough that learning how to survive makes sense.
2) The future of democracy is uncertain in many countries that don’t have strong institutions, including Brazil. The pendulum between authoritarianism and democracy has been swinging towards democracy in Brazil over the past three decades, but the recently elected president, Jair Bolsonaro, has made the future uncertain. The main worry is that Brazil’s democratic institutions are too new and don’t have the necessary strong foundation to ward off moves towards authoritarianism.
3) Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos perfected the Jobs-esque reality-distortion field to an unbelievable degree. Even if you know the basic story of Theranos, you might be as surprised as I was at how brazen they were with their fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality and for how long people bought into it. Employees were quitting in protest a full nine years before the unraveling began, but investors loved the story of the company and its founder too much to question anything.
4) Empathy as a term is relatively new and arose as a counterbalance to the Nazi ideology. Initially the idea was to try to empathize with everyone, particularly people different from you. Younger generations are starting to question this concept of universal empathy, with the argument being that some people simply don’t deserve the mental bandwidth it takes to understand their perspective.
5) Did you know cosmic rays can literally disrupt any computer and this is not a rare occurrence at all? HOW HAVE I NEVER HEARD THIS. I don’t want to spoil too many details because this episode is as fun as it is terrifying.
From Radiolab: Bit Flip
6) JFK’s first reaction to Russia beating the US into space wasn’t to race them to stepping on the moon, but to endeavor on a different sort of massive engineering feat: to desalinate ocean water for the world. When this idea was scrapped and JFK finally did give his famous speech in 1962, it was an incredibly risky gamble because there was no clear plan to actually get to the moon.
7) The arbitrary time constraints of standardized tests can have profound implications on who does well at them. For example, the best people in the world at speed chess are not the best in the world at standard chess and vice versa. Unfortunately for the best speed chess players, we as a society put more value on the talents of grandmasters of standard chess. This idea can be mapped onto any standardized test like the LSAT, where we happen to value those who can navigate tests quickly because of the tight time limits in place. This causes frustration for Malcolm Gladwell because there is no proof that being able to take a test quickly makes you a better lawyer.
8) Disney’s Pocahontas was a lie and Jamestown was a horror show. Jamestown, Virginia was the first permanent English colony in the new world. It all started off ok, and then became very much not ok. “Can you imagine someone lying down dying and you come up to them and lick the blood off their face because that’s how starving you are?”
9) There are competing claims to the World’s Largest Ball of Twine. The sliding definitions that each town uses to categorize their ball of twine in order to maintain the #1 spot is such a perfect analogy for so many things. As somewhat of a relief, it’s not only the US that has this kind of roadside attraction obsession. It seems to be an affliction of any newish country, including Australia.
10) The worst of the worst possible scenarios for humanity’s future are called existential risks, and some of them are quite possible. These are the things that lead to terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days for everyone. Think an order or magnitude worse than an all out nuclear war. Situations where there is no hope for survival. Things like a gamma ray burst directly hitting the Earth or AI gone completely off the rails. Speaking of which, we learn along the way that the first human killed by a robot was in 1979 at a Ford plant.
11) There is a whole world of live shows where the music is provided by nothing more than an old school Game Boy. 8-bit music and the hacking involved to make the beat you want is just cool as hell. I am endlessly amazed at the various hacker and tinkerer communities.
12) In contrast to a classic conspiracy theory, there is a new trend of conspiracies without the theory, or conspiracism. Say what you will about the most famous conspiracy theories of the last several decades — who shot JFK, Moon landing being faked, 9/11 being inside job, etc — but at least they are based on actual events. The new trend of conspiracies skip the real event part altogether (think pizzagate) and make no effort to explain the world.
13) We are bad at predicting how much getting what we want will make us happy and even worse at predicting how terrible things will not be as bad as we think. This is called hedonic adaptation. The truth is, the happiness that money brings plateaus around $75K and no matter where you are above that, you might think that just a little more will do the trick. This is true even for people with hundreds of millions of dollars. On the flip side, we usually overestimate how long bad things will effect us. For example, “When you mentally simulate a breakup, you mentally simulate the anguish, but you never mentally simulate the rationalizations [that will make us feel better].”
14) When thinking about the idea of free will, determinism would mean you still need to do well on a job interview to get the job (because you don’t know what is actually supposed to happen), and fatalism would be thinking you’ll either get the job or not get the job no matter what you do. When discussing free will and determinism, it’s inevitable that someone will say, “well hell why even bother then.” The above distinction is important because the “why bother” mentality doesn’t actually track with what determinism dictates.
15) If Godzilla were somehow created in real life, he would die almost instantly because something that size could never exist on our planet (because physics). His legs would basically break apart instantly as he walked because of shear forces.
16) The whole opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey was based on an incorrect theory. The “killer ape theory” went from fringe, to taking up the first ten minutes of one of the most famous movies ever, and then eventually to obsolescence. An excellent investigation into how ideas and science change with the times.
17) One of the best podcast discovery methods is attending meetups or conferences with other podcast fanatics. Learning about shows from podcasters in person or swapping recommendations with a group yields some of the most satisfying paths of discovery. My time at Sound Education opened my eyes to how much I miss out on without in-person communities.
18) Dolly Parton is an extremely underrated song writer. I had the opportunity to interview Jad Abumrad about Dolly Parton’s America and I brought up how surprised I was to learn that she wrote the mega-hit, I Will Always Love You. Jad opened my eyes on the caliber of her song writing:
She doesn’t get enough credit for being one of the great songwriters of our time. I don’t know of a more prolific songwriter. You hear all these things about Bob Dylan and how Bob Dylan is a genius. And how people say, “Oh my God his lyrics, his lyrics,” and somebody needs to do that for Dolly. I hope I’m doing that a little bit, or at least starting that.
19) The measles virus is insanely contagious. “In fact, it’s so contagious that if one person has it, up to 90% of people close to that person, who are not immune, will get measles.” I learned this from the medical focused podcast playlist my wife Alicia put together, who is a cardiac RN and loves a good medical show.
As a bonus non-podcast related tidbit, about 1,400 people were added to the planet while you read this article. My newsletter is mostly about podcast recommendations from which you can learn how the world works, but I also love recommending other interesting links. As part of that effort I wrote about how many people are added to the world every day.
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