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A self-help book is one that is written with the intention to instruct its readers on solving personal problems. If you can still find a local bookstore, there is a good chance that a shelf or wall is devoted to books of this genre.

These books take their name from a book actually titled Self-Help. It was a 1859 best-seller by Samuel Smiles. That name and author is for real. Samuel Smiles (1812 – 1904), was a Scottish author and government reformer, and his book promoted thrift and claimed that poverty was caused largely by irresponsible habits. The book has been called “the bible of mid-Victorian liberalism” and made him quite a celebrity.

Well before that, a book of manners published in 1558 suggests: ‘It is also an unpleasant habit to lift another person’s wine or his food to your nose and smell it’.”  I agree.

But guides to how to live your life are even older. It could be argued that the ancient Egyptian “Codes” of conduct and the Bible were self-help or at least partially intended for self-improvement.

I have very strong memories of Charles Atlas who ran ads in almost every comic book I read as a kid. As a weakling 12-year-old reading a Superman comic, the idea of using  “dynamic tension”  to become really strong and avoid bullies “kicking sand in your face” was very appealing. Charles Atlas was a bodybuilder who came up with a system of physical exercise back in the 1920s, but the ads were running strong in the 1960s. (“Dynamic Tension” is a registered trademark of Charles Atlas, Ltd and their website still looks a lot like those ads from almost a 100 years ago.)

The Charles Atlas method was all about putting muscle against muscle. No weights or equipment needed. That was very appealing to a kid with only a weekly allowance. We even did a variation of this in our school gym classes that the teachers called “isometrics.” I recall a gym teacher telling us, “Look at lions and tigers. They don’t use any equipment. they stretch and push muscle against muscle.” it made sense to me.

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People was probably the first book I ever encountered on a bookshelf that was clearly “self-help.” It is one of the first best-selling self-help books and was first published in 1936. It is also still around. (Self-help books have legs!) It has sold over 30 million copies worldwide. It even made Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential books.

Like Charles Atlas, Carnegie’s self-help promises sound really tempting: make people like you; win people to your way of thinking; change people without arousing resentment.

One topic that has perennial appeal is love. In the Middle Ages, there were “Conduir-amour” – guides in love matters – published.  In classical Rome, Cicero’s On Friendship and On Duties and Ovid’s Art of Love even produced a sequel – Remedy of Love. They are the forerunners of the many volumes published about where to go to meet mates (most of them are intended for male readers), how to start a conversation, keep them interested, and ultimately how to have the best sex.

I think there is probably some good advice in all these self-help books. But I, like most of you, am lazy. We want really fast and easy ways to solve our problems.  10-Minute Mindfulness: 71 Habits for Living in the Present Moment sure sounds easier than easier than going away for a Zen retreat weekend and sitting uncomfortably for hours. Remember those 1-minute manager books? Yeah, I’ve got a minute. Change my life.

Sometimes we need help but part of the help we need is to be motivated to read a book that will help us.

By the BookAnd so, as I have posted a few times about podcasts I currently enjoy, I must recommend one for all of us lazy types that need help. It is By the Book, a self-help book podcast in which the hosts – comedian Jolenta Greenberg and serious skeptic Kristen Meinzer – test out self-help books for us.

In each episode, they live by the rules of a different self-help book for two weeks and report back on what worked and what didn’t. You can grab the nuggets of wisdom from each book without having to buy it or read it.

Of course, there is the possibility that a book might actually be life-changing.

I first knew of Kristen by going on many Movie Date[s] with her. She was the co-host of the much-missed Movie Date podcast where Rafer Guzman weekly pretended that he was on the date with Kristen. (She has since married and so our movie dates ended.) But now I have By the Book, which just finished its first season, and it is funny, irreverent, thoughtful, highly personal and a great listen. And it is free. You can’t lose. Money-back guarantee.

The show also has a nice community on Facebook where I seem to be one of the few (perhaps the only) male participant. What’s up with that? Are guys not even able to admit to needing help?

I got to thinking that maybe the ladies should test out a self-help book for guys (their husbands show up in the podcasts, so they might help). I did a search on self-help books for men about love and the  search results were frightening – almost all books for women about men. They ranged from how to get a guy – The Power of the Pussy: Get What You Want From Men: Love, Respect, Commitment and More! through How to Get & Keep The Man of Your Dreams: by Staying True to Your Core Self  – all the way to the land of F*CK Him! – Nice Girls Always Finish Single – “A guide for sassy women who want to get back in control of their love life” (The Truth about his weird behavior, … of commitment and sudden loss of interest). Long titles are clearly key to self-help success.

I did not buy any of those titles for my wife.  Instead, maybe I will read 100 Ways to Love Your Wife: A Life-long Journey of Learning to Love Each Other. It was written by a guy, but it probably would have been better if it was written by a woman. As a pre-teen, I used to read my sister’s copies of Seventeen, Teen, Cosmopolitan et al because I figured those articles on “5 Ways to Get That Guy” would give me tips on how to get a girl or at least warn me about what they were plotting.

I didn’t buy the 100 Ways book. Maybe Kristen and Jolenta will read it and pick out 7 ways that are really good and I can use them for the week before our anniversary.


Want to browse the many opportunities you have for helping improve yourself?  Try this link.

 

 

 

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I’m not a Buddhist. At least, I don’t think I follow Buddhism closely enough these days to qualify for the title. I have studied the religion which is now represented by the many groups (especially in Asia) that profess various forms of the Buddhist doctrine and that venerate Buddha  as a religion and also use it as a philosophy.

A very simplified description of the teaching of Buddha is that life is permeated with suffering which is caused by desire. Suffering ceases when desire ceases. Enlightenment is obtained through right conduct. Wisdom and meditation releases one from desire and therefore, suffering.

I would contend that the path I followed through reading, meditation and even formal study at a Zen monastery was a path of philosophy rather than religion. I never accepted things like reincarnation. I like desire too much.  I consider my path to be a kind of American Buddhism. Some might say it is Western Buddhism.

I don’t use American Buddhism as a negative term, though some genuine Buddhists might see it as such. There are many uses of the word “Zen” attached to everything from playing tennis to the “Zen” of dogs and cats – that seem very wrong applications of Buddhism.  If you were really critical of American Buddhism, it would probably be because you consider it just a kind of self-help program to reduce stress.

It is difficult to define these things. What is Zen Buddhism? On zen-buddhism.net they say that “Trying to explain or define Zen Buddhism, by reducing it to a book, to a few definitions, or to a website is impossible. Instead, it freezes Zen in time and space, thereby weakening its meaning.”

Nevertheless, I will say that Zen Buddhism was an outgrowth of Mahayana, the “meditation” sect of Buddhism. It developed in Japan from its earlier Chinese counterpart. It also divided into two branches.

Binzai is the more austere and aristocratie monasticism that emphasizes meditation on the paradoxes that people may know as koans. (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?)

The other branch is Sōtō which is probably the more popular following. It emphasizes ethical actions and charity, tenderness, benevolence and sympathy, as well as meditation on whatever occurs as illumination.

The Buddhism that seemed to appeal to the American mind offered escape and engagement – two things that may seem to be in opposition. The idea of “10 minute mindfulness” should seem impossibly simplistic and unrealistic to anyone, but the concept sells books and fills workshops.

The latest book I have read related to Buddhism is by Robert Wright. In Why Buddhism is True, Wright uses biology, psychology and philosophy to show how meditation can lead to a spiritual life in a secular age.

You might not know that evolutionary psychology is a field of study. Wright combines it with neuroscience to show why he believes Buddhism is true, and how it can free us of delusions and save us from ourselves, as individuals and as a species.

In a earlier book, The Moral Animal, he wrote about how evolution shaped the human brain. Our mind is designed to sometimes delude us about ourselves and about the world in order to survive. Unfortunately, this leads to much unhappiness.

Some of this comes from natural selection which he says makes animals in general “recurrently dissatisfied.” It leads us to anxiety, depression, anger, and greed. Wright believes Buddhism was a kind of answer to natural selection.

If human suffering is a result of not seeing the world clearly, meditation can clarify that seeing and so will make us better, happier people.

I was first introduced to his new book through an interview with him on Fresh Air. Host Terry Gross asked Wright about how natural selection is at odds with the Buddhist notion that pleasure is fleeting:

“This was in the Buddha’s first sermon after his enlightenment is that a big source of our suffering is that we crave things, we want things, but then the gratification tends not to last. So we find ourselves in a state of almost perennial dissatisfaction. And, in fact, people may have heard that Buddhism says that life is full of suffering, and it’s true that suffering is the translation of the word dukkha. It’s a respectable translation, but a lot of people think that that word would be just as well translated as “unsatisfactoryness.”

Certainly when you think about the logic of natural selection, it makes sense that we would be like this. Natural selection built us to do some things, a series of things that help us get genes into the next generation. Those include eating food so we stay alive, having sex — things like that.

If it were the case that any of these things brought permanent gratification, then we would quit doing them, right? I mean, you would eat, you’d feel blissed out, you’d never eat again. You’d have sex, you’d, like, lie there basking in the afterglow, never have sex again. Well, obviously that’s not a prescription for getting genes into the next generation. So natural selection seems to have built animals in general to be recurrently dissatisfied. And this seems to be a central feature of life — and it’s central to the Buddhist diagnosis of what the problem is.”

An earlier book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher, was what get me thinking a lot more about mindfulness.  He worked to bring mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society and was the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

The practice of “mindfulness” is a more than 2000-year-old Buddhist method of living fully in the present, observing ourselves, our feeling, others and our surroundings without judging them.

I read his book Wherever You Go There You Are when it wa first published during a time when I was more into formal study of Zen and meditation.

I liked that it treated meditation as a natural activity that can be practiced anytime and anywhere. No joining a group, no props or special cushions.

Mindfulness and living in the moment can be improved with techniques such as “non-doing” and concentration.

Like defining Buddhism, these terms are simple but complex. Non-doing is very different from doing nothing. We live very much in a “doer” culture, and in such a place non-doing is a big change. Sitting down to meditate, even for a short time, is a time for non-doing, but it means you will be “working” at consciousness and intention. Anyone who has ever tried to “empty their mind” knows how very difficult that can be.

There are several chapters in the book on parenting as a form of meditation – and children as “live-in Zen masters.”

I think Kabat-Zinn would agree with Wright on how Buddhist meditation can counteract the biological pull we have toward dissatisfaction:

What I can say about meditation is that it attacks the levers that natural selection kind of uses to control us, at a very fundamental level. … By our nature we just seek good feelings and avoid bad feelings, that’s just our nature. Buddhism diagnosed this as kind of a problem and remarkably came up with a technique that allows you to actually disempower those levers, to no longer respond to the fundamental incentive structure of trying to avoid painful feelings and try to always seek the thing that promises to be gratifying. That’s an amazing thing — that it can work.


More

Listen to the interview with Wright on npr.org

Read “What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t” by Adam Gopnik – The New Yorker

Brian Wilson behind the mixing board of Brother Studios, circa 1976.

I was a Beach Boys fan from the start when they and I both loved surf culture more than we loved surfing. (Dennis Wilson was the only real surfer in the band.)  I loved the harmonies. But it was all about Brian.

Brian had lots of issues – drugs, bogus psychiatry, bad management and fears about touring. 1964 – 1977 is a sad but fascinating period in Brian and the band’s history. I wrote earlier about my own brush against Brian’s problems, but the music has always helped me, and I think it saved Brian.

Brian had a panic attack on a flight from L.A. to Houston in late 1964 and stopped performing live with the group. Like The Beatles in later years, he wanted to concentrate on songwriting  and studio production.

The band continued touring with Glen Campbell and then Bruce Johnston as Brian’s substitute for live performances. Back in L.A., Brian was introduced to marijuana by a friend who thought it would de-stress him and aid his creativity. It worked, and in a month he completed the Beach Boys’ Today! album and started on the next one, Summer Days.

The next spring, Brian tried LSD for the first time and that acid trip also inspired him. You might think it would inspire some “acid-rock” but what came from that experience was the music for “California Girls.” That Top-10 pop single was great for the band, but the acid trip also led to auditory hallucinations which have plagued him throughout his life.

In late 1965, he started working on material for what would become Pet Sounds. It ended up being pretty much a Brian Wilson solo album.

Brian wrote, produced, and sang on it and the album’s instrumentation was done by the studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. Brian used them throughout the mid-1960s, on “Help Me, Rhonda”, “California Girls”, “Good Vibrations” as well as Pet Sounds and the original sessions for Smile.

When the band returned from a tour in Japan, all that was left to do was record their vocal overdubs. That didn’t go over well with the band, especially Mike Love. Despite their feelings that this was not a Beach Boys album in its creation and sound, it was released in May 1966. It had modest sales figures at the time, but since then it has become critically acclaimed, even arguably (no argument from me) being cited among the all-time greatest albums.

“Good Vibrations” hit number one and Brian started on Smile, which he once described as a “teenage symphony to God.” Like “Good Vibrations,” the album would be recorded in separately written modular sections that would be divided into tracks and spliced together. The standard live-to-tape linear performances that The Beach Boys and most bands were using fell away. Brian wrote with Van Dyke Parks.

The album was scheduled to be released in January 1967 but that was bumped so many times that by May the whole project was cancelled.

Beach Boys recording relocated to a studio situated in Brian’s mansion living room where he had installed his grand piano in a giant sandbox and built a tent. Things were strange.

The rest of the year they produced a few heavily orchestrated tracks (“Can’t Wait Too Long” and “Time to Get Alone”). Brian asked his brother Carl to take on the recording sessions. It was all too much.

After the collapse of Smile, financial issues and more drug use (cocaine, amphetamines, marijuana, and psychedelics) and the birth of his first child (Carnie  in 1968), Brian ended up in psychiatric hospital. he received a whirlwind of treatments (talk therapy, Lithium and electroconvulsive therapy).

The Wilson boys’ father had been managing the band since the start but had many issues with Brian over music and contracts. Murry Wilson sold their Sea of Tunes publishing company to A&M Records’ publishing division for only $700,000. Brian lost most of his music and this renewed the feuding between him and his father.

But Brian gained some stability and even toured briefly in 1970 when Mike Love was ill. e went back to writing and recording with the Beach Boys. He wrote or co-wrote 7 of the 12 tracks on Sunflower. A decent album, it was a commercial flop. The Beach Boys were viewed as a nostalgia act.

It was a period when their albums had terrible titles (15 Big Ones, an album of covers) and weak sales. Brain managed to write most of Wild Honey (1967) and Friends (1968) but his studio participation was far less than in the past.

Carl and the band cobbled together tracks for an album called 20/20. I bought that in 1969 and had no idea that it was Smile outtakes (“Cabinessence” and “Our Prayer”) along with older songs like “Time to Get Alone.” Those tracks sit a bit oddly next to the more surf-sounding single “Do It Again.” But that classic single-sound made it a hit on the US charts in 1968 (plus number 1 in the UK and Australia). “Break Away” became the band’s final single for Capitol Records.

In 1971, Surf’s Up became their 17th studio album and got good reviews and reached number 29 on US record charts and #15 in the UK. It was their best performing album in years. The title echoes the band’s past, but the music was not surf rock at all. The title track was from the Wilson/Van Dyke Parks sessions for Smile. Like Pet Sounds, the album had legs and was voted to several “Best Of” album lists later.

Carl and the Passions  (the name of the Wilson boys high school band) “So Tough” was the next album (1972), a moderate commercial success upon release, but one in which Brian had minimal involvement. reaching number 25 in the UK and number 50 in the US.

The band was still releasing an album each year and in 1973 it was Holland. It was produced by the band and mostly recorded in Baambrugge, Netherlands. Two Brian Wilson tracks were recorded in Los Angeles and added to the album at the last minute. The two singles were “Sail On, Sailor” and “California Saga.”

The end, or turning point, of this troubled period is the album Love You  in 1977.

This 21st studio album, Love You, is not a great album, but  it marked the return of Brian Wilson at the helm of Beach Boys ship.

He gets credited with writing and arranging all the songs. He also plays every instrument. But there are some Beach Boys vocals.

Brian says he was more concerned with lyrics on this project.Some of the song topics are odd –  Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show – and stories about his writing at this time have him sitting down and improvising a new song in 20 minutes.

Some tracks, like “The Night Was So Young” and “I’ll Bet He’s Nice,” have the old construction and harmonies, but the album heavily uses synthesizers. “Good Time” was a 7-year-old Sunflower outtake.

Brian had planned this as a solo record and the working title was Brian Loves You. It peaked at number 53 on US record charts and was received very mixed reviews from both fans and critics. There was one single – “Honkin’ Down the Highway”/”Solar System.”

Carl Wilson remixed the “finished” album in January 1977 and added guitar and percussion tracks and is credited as the album’s mixdown producer.

The album was done while Brian was in mental and drug rehabilitation. It was the last album written and produced by Wilson for the next 11 years. The week after he finished, he began Adult/Child, but it was never released.

Brother Dennis Wilson died in 1983. Brian’s first true solo album, the eponymous Brian Wilson in 1988, was his return to recording and performing. Carl Wilson died in 1998.

Brian would finally get to release Smile in 2004.

There are 385 versions of albums by The Beach Boys currently on Amazon.

In December 1970 I was in my senior year of high school. I was thinking about college. I was thinking about the Vietnam War and that the following year while at college I would be part of the draft lottery. Someone would pull a ball with my birthday (October 20) on it and then another ball with a number (from 1-365) that would decide if I was going to be drafted into the Army.

On Thanksgiving break, I had bought Laura Nyro’s new album,  Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. I knew of her two earlier albums but I didn’t own them.

I bought it because of the title and because her sad eyes were staring at me.

People knew her music because there were pop covers of her songs on the radio by other artists. (The 5th Dimension with “Blowing Away”, “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, “Sweet Blindness”, “Save the Country”, and “Black Patch”; Blood, Sweat & Tears and Peter, Paul & Mary with “And When I Die”; Three Dog Night and Maynard Ferguson with “Eli’s Comin'”; and Barbra Streisand with “Stoney End”, “Time and Love” and “Hands off the Man (Flim Flam Man).” )

Laura didn’t have hits, but I heard her on WNEW-FM regularly. Ironically, Laura’s own rare cover version of a song, the Carole King-Gerry Goffin oldie “Up on the Roof,” was probably her only Billboard “hit.” I saw that Laura Nyro was playing at the Fillmore East in New York City on the 22nd.

Though we celebrated Christmas in my family, the holiday has lost all its childhood magic seven years before when my father got really sick. When he died, after five years of crippling illness, Christmas had become a depressing time of year.

For some reason, during this period of my life, when I was depressed, I would do things to drag myself deeper into that depression. Smoke, drink, stay away from people, take long walks alone and listen to depressing music.

In three days, it would be Christmas. Laura Nyro’s seemed to me to be a tortured artist who fit right in with my mood.

Also on the bill was Jackson Browne, a songwriter whose songs were recorded by others. He wouldn’t release the eponymous Jackson Browne until 1972, but he played songs from that album that would launch his career: “Doctor My Eyes”, “Rock Me on the Water”,”Jamaica Say You Will” and “Song for Adam” which he wrote about the death of a friend. He often was paired on bills with artists like Nyro, Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell.

I went to the concert. Alone.

Poco had been at the Fillmore a few night before on one of those oddball multi-artist bills along with Savoy Brown, Gypsy and Jo Mama. The day after Christmas, Mountain would roll into the Fillmore and “Mississippi Queen” their way on a hard rock “Nantucket Sleighride.”

But at the Fillmore East on December 22, 1970, it was a much quiter night with a woman and her piano and a man with his guitar. My Christmas gift to myself.

I stumbled on an audio recording of Laura Nyro on that night on YouTube. I don’t know the copyright/wrong-ness of the posting, but I hope it stays there so that other people can listen.

 

Did Laura’s music make me more depressed? She programmed her set nicely for me. It started out soft and sad. “And When I Die” sounds like a downer and it can be, but it can also be seen as a positive outlook about death. “And when I die/and when I’m gone/there’ll be one child born and a world/to carry on/to carry on.”

“Christmas in My Soul” (which is actually more political than you might expect) was done as a poem.

But there was no way to stay depressed through her closer of “Time and Love” and “Save the Country.”

Nyro was inspired to write “Save the Country” after the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy. That doesn’t sound very upbeat, but again the outlook is positive. Listening to it this week, I couldn’t help but think of the state of our country right now.

Come on, people come on, children
Come on down to the glory river
Gonna wash you up and wash you down
Gonna lay the devil down, gonna lay that devil down

Come on people! Sons and mothers
Keep the dream of the two young brothers
Gonna take that dream and ride that dove
We could build the dream with love, I know…

Everyone around me was singing, gospel style, that last line “We could build the dream with love” over and over. It felt like we could.

 

 

In late 1996, Laura Nyro, like her mother, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died the following year. I had to look up some things this morning to write this post and saw that she died on this day April 8, in 1997. Synchronicity. She was only 49, the same age at which the disease had taken her mother.

After her illness was diagnosed, Columbia Records prepared a double-disc retrospective of her music which was Laura’s final musical project. She lived to see the release of Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro. She was reportedly pleased with the outcome.

 

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I had posted several times here about radio programs and then podcasts that are on my listening list. I saw that the list needed updating, so I’ll use and reuse this post to keep that list up-to-date.

updateI’m not going to link to all of them, because you should just search in whatever app you use to listen. I will note that many of these can be heard by going to their website on your good old-fashioned computer – just do a search on the program title. Some of these shows have very dynamic websites with lots of additional material, so I will add website links to a few titles.

I started out years ago using “pod catchers” that no longer exist. iTunes wiped a number of them out, but I have switched over to using Stitcher on my phone and tablet. Stitcher used to be called Stitcher Smart Radio and people would say that any of these applications were like a “VCR for the radio.” Now, you have to explain what a VCR is to some young people, and might need to say they are like a “DVR for radio.” And yes, I know that radio itself is an old-fashioned medium and that some of these podcasts only exist as podcasts and are never broadcast over the radio airwaves. I have written about a few podcast programs on their own, and may posts on these site were inspired by listening to a podcast.

I realized in sifting through these shows and posts I have written that I also like to think about just listening to the world – not always via electronic devices.

I like how the Stitcher app allows me to “Listen Later” by downloading episodes I want to hear when I’m home on wi-fi, and then listen to them when I’m walking or in the car without using any data.

These are the podcasts on my phone now. I was amazed (and a bit embarrassed) that I have over 50 shows that I subscribe to currently.  They are not listed in any type of ranking or even alphabetically. However, I do have the 7 news ones at the top of my Stitcher app because they are frequently updated and brief. I start my day with the shorter “newsy” podcasts and save the longer shows for other times. Some of the other podcasts only update weekly or irregularly. You can make playlists on Stitcher and I have about 20 of these titles on a second list and I select episodes to listen to later. On my main Favorites Playlist, I can just let it run through the list when I’m working for the day at my desk on wi-fi.

The list at the bottom are the podcasts that no longer update, but that you can still find “archived” online.


  1. NPR Hourly News Summary – in less than 5 minutes
  2. The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor – mostly literary calendar items and a poem read by Keillor in 5 minutes
  3. WSJ Tech News Briefing
  4. NPR Business Story of the Day
  5. Film Reviews from WSJ with Joe Morgenstern – brief reviews of new films
  6. Marketplace Tech with Ben Brock Johnson
  7. CNET Update – pop tech
  8. The Poetry Magazine Podcast – looks at what’s in the newest issue of the magazine
  9. APM: A Prairie Home Companion’s News from Lake Wobegon – my favorite segment from the longer programs. Since, Keillor has retired, these are reruns of past shows. Timeless but for the seasons.
  10. Hidden Brain – fascinating stories that take science and research and make it interesting to anyone. Hosted by Shankar Vedantam
  11. Here’s the Thing – Alec Baldwin is a terrific host/interviewer of people in many different fields
  12. Poetry Off the Shelf – poets, poems, poetry topics
  13. Codebreaker – by Marketplace This current season asks “Can tech save us?”
  14. Fresh Air – one radio program that I have listened to since before podcasting – but podcasts allowed me to catch the shows I was missing before because their broadcast time clashed with Life. Terry Gross is the renowned host.  I’ll know that I’ve made it when I’m a guest on this show.
  15. The Business – and the business is show business, movies and television, hosted by Kim Masters
  16. Slate’s Culture Gabfest – highbrow and pop topics – highbrow and pop hosts
  17. How To Be Amazing with Michael Ian Black – actor/comedian Black really surprised me as an interviewer. He gets unusual stories from all kinds of guests.  It is a sign of a good interview show and interviewer when you love an episode about someone who you had no interest in beforehand. I found the show with Tim Gunn to be a revelation.
  18. The Treatment – mostly movies with superb host (which is often a key reason why you follow a podcast) Elvis Mitchell,
  19. Maltin on Movies – as in Leonard Maltin, film critic and human film encyclopedia. Interviews with all kinds of movie folk. Sometimes co-hosted by his daughter, Jessie.
  20. To the Best of Our Knowledge – One of my favorites. Big ideas and themes covered in different ways – such as one of my obsessions, time travel.
  21. The New Yorker Poetry – hosted by poet and poetry editor Paul Muldoon. Poet guests pick a poem from the magazine to read and then one of their own. It has not helped me crack how to get published in the magazine.
  22. FT Life of a Song – FT = Financial Times but this UK podcast is all about digging into the origins of songs in all genres.
  23. WTF with Marc Maron – He totally surprised me with this show. Excellent and unusual interviews with rockers, actors, writers, comedians and Barack Obama done in his garage. He rambles and promotes a bit too much before and after the interviews but that’s why God designed fast forward. The older episodes will cost you; the newest ones are free.
  24. On Being – formerly Speaking of Faith and wisely changed as it covers much more than faith and religion. I particularly like how science and religion sit comfortably at the same table without arguing here.  Krista Tippet is the amazing host.  Excellent website.  www.onbeing.org/
  25. Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me – a current events quiz show that’s quite funny
  26. The Sporkful – Dan Pashman’s show for eaters
  27. Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen – pop culture and the arts. Great host. Special American Icons episodes are great: Wizard of Oz, Moby Dick, Disney Parks, I Love Lucy, Superman, The Outsiders…
  28. 99% Invisible – the mostly invisible design of things
  29. The Dinner Party Download – cultural oddities and drink recipes based on history
  30. You Must Remember This – the first 100 years of Hollywood with host and writer/researcher Karina Longworth. I binged through the series on Charles Manson and another about the Hollywood Black List
  31. This Week in Tech TWiT – Leo Laporte and crew. I started listening to this years ago when Leo started his pioneering podcast network. I’ve fallen off as a listener to this and TWiG because the shows ramble on to 2 hours or more lately.
  32. This Week in Google – Leo and Jeff Jarvis with some focus on Google but almost an extension of TWiT.
  33. This Week in Law – Another one in the series hat I listen to selectively when a topic catches my fancy.
  34. On the Media – the best weekly media analysis
  35. Pop Culture Happy Hour – multiple hosts on movies, books, Tv and the rest
  36. Love + Radio – hourlong interviews but not with celebrities and not on common topics
  37. Radiolab – hard to pin down what it is about – it’s about almost anything
  38. Internet History Podcast – interviews with important figures from the Net
  39. Planet Money – the economy explained
  40. The Ezra Klein Show – in-depth, longform talks mostly on politics and media.
  41. The Book Review – from The New York Times
  42. Death, Sex and Money – and more than that in half hour installments
  43. The World Next Week – a “preview” of world events from the Council on Foreign Relations
  44. Triangulation – Leo Laporte (Man of a Thousand Podcasts) talks to smart people in tech
  45. Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty – short doses of language, writing and that scary grammar stuff in an engaging way.
  46. Slate’s Audio Book Club – monthly look at new and important books
  47. Open Source with Christopher Lydon
  48. Science Friday – just that – stories about science for the rest of us.
  49. Invisibilia – the invisible forces that control us
  50. This American Life – one of the originals. A theme is several acts fill up about an hour.
  51. Selected Shorts – short stories read aloud by actors. I tend to select selected episodes but when I just listen to an episode I am inevitably surprised to discover some new or classic story.
  52. Star Talk Radio – with Neil degrasse Tyson. Mostly out in space but not always.
  53. Freakonomics Radio – an extension of the ideas in the books. Economics (ugh!) but done in a way that is interesting (Hurrah!)
  54. The Carson Podcast – interviews with people who guested on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Always touches on Johnny and the show but also digs into the entertainers big and small interviewed.
  55. How I Built This – interviews with innovators on how they built whatever they built
  56. Lore – an odd one that explores the darker and more frightening sides of history
  57. Stuff You Should Know – grew from the articles on the http://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/ website. Two likeable guys with more information (usually) than you on a very wide variety of topics.  Most shows are about 30 minutes.    * Things They Don’t Want You to Know – is another offshoot but needs to be seen (vodcast) and is full of all those conspiracy theories. Fun.
  58. Bookworm – If I wrote a novel, i would want all my readers to be as perceptive as host Michael Silverblatt. Anybody important in contemporary writing (fiction, non-fiction, poetry) probably has talked with him, Huge archive. From KCRW radio. www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/bookworm

 

Archived But Not Currently Active Programs

  • Esquire Classic Podcast – looks back at classic pieces from the magazine
  • Unretirement – Life after you retire when you still want to do.. something.
  • Serial – Year one about a 1999 murder investigation about Hae Min Lee, a high-school senior who seems to have been murdered by her classmate and ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed. Did he do it? ,The series led to the case being reopened. Year two dealt with Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl who went AWOL from a U.S. Army outpost in eastern Afghanistan.   serialpodcast.org
  • By the Way, In Conversation with Jeff Garlin – crazy, funny Jeff (Curb Your Enthusiasm) does freeform interviews on stage with folks. On hiatus while he works on his TV show, The Goldbergs which is a kind of The Wonder Years for the 1980s.
  • The Message – a kind of radio drama in the thriller genre about a message from out there that needs to be decoded.. The new season is called a LifeAfter and is about a guy who communicates with his dead wife on his smartphone.
  • Revisionist History – Malcolm Gladwell’s 10-show series taking a new look at topics revisionisthistory.com

albums

This past week I was spring cleaning and getting rid of (via charities, the local library, a few friends) things piling up in the basement and garage. Besides all the usual garage sale merchandise, I had to clear out some books and movie videotapes. There are also shelves full of my vinyl record albums that go back to the 1960s which I look and but still can’t bear to “get rid of.”

Flipping through those is always a musical journey through my discovery of music and the development of my tastes in music. That journey came up yesterday when I was listening to the FT Arts podcast that did an episode about how music streaming is changing the experience of listeners. Somewhat frighteningly but not surprisingly those services use algorithms to guide us new music.

Once upon my youth, that task was done by friends, DJs, critics I read in places like Rolling Stone, and flipping through albums at record shops. I still get some suggestions from friends (often via social media), less often from critics, almost never from “the radio” even though I occasionally still listen, and never from stores that sell physical music.

On that podcast, they discuss the movement in taste development with Spotify’s Will Page and FT pop critic Ludovic Hunter-Tilney.  The segment that caught my ear was the idea of the “hairstyle hypothesis” of musical taste. The Spotify data encourages the theory that in our teenage years there is maximum experimentation (hairstyles, music etc.). At age 23, that openness seems to close. We have found our taste and we listen to the same genres, artists, songs a lot more. Like all things that we become very comfortable with, this can also become a rut.

Maybe this is true for reading the same favorite authors, watching the same TV shows, eating at the same restaurants and ordering the some food etc.

Spotify, Pandora and any streaming music services are a way to discover new music. I also think some of that discovery include “rediscovering” music from our past that has been buried under the pile.

Technological music fans say the digital marketplace enhances choice and that it actually encourages niche artists a chance to flourish in this immense marketplace with fewer mass-produced brands.

The podcasters reference Chris Anderson’s idea from 2006 that he laid out in his book The Long Tail. (Sidebar: There is a graphic novel/comic version that book. Odd.) Anderson used the music industry for much of his argument. This is when the iTunes music store and software was more dominant. His premise is that the time of paying the most attention and getting the most profit from the top of the demand curve – the big hits and most visible artists – is over. The other items, which might be considered misses rather than hits, creates the long tail of that same graphical curve.

I have seen that curve in operation with my blogs all the time. Rather than paying attention to the hit counter numbers on my newest posts, the big numbers come from old posts that continue to be found. If I ever made money from posts (Hah!) the big money would be from posts from the past. Look at the sidebar section on this page of “Top Ten Posts Today” and you will usually find a majority of older posts.  Things that I wrote in 2008 have a long tail.

We don’t all listen to the same music in the way we did when Am radio ruled. We don’t we all watch the same TV shows as we did when there were limited channels. Growing up, I had 3 major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS), a few local channels that fed me reruns of older shows and old movies and a PBS station. The many choices and vectors we have now have killed the smash hits. The numbers for shows, songs and book sales are small compared to an earlier time. Don’t interpret those lower numbers as meaning that people don’t read, watch or listen as much. It’s all about the number of options. The attention deficit disorder of media.

In the area of discovery and rediscovery, one personal musical example is the album Salty Dog. I bought that album when it was released in 1969 while I was deep into my hairstyle experimentation phase.

I loved Procol Harum.  I loved that cover. I bought Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes because that was the inspiration for the album art. (Sidebar: They are unfiltered powerful cigs). I liked the title track on that album, but my favorite track was and still is “Pilgrim’s Progress.” I liked the allusion to literature and I loved the music, Matthew Fisher’s Hammond organ, and the lyrics by the band’s lyricist, Keith Reed, which in those days was serious poetry to me.

I downloaded the digital album years ago and in doing so rediscovered some of other tracks, adding to one of my blues playlists “Juicy John Pink.” Just today, researching for this post, I rediscovered the acoustic track  “Too Much Between Us” which I probably haven’t heard in several decades. That’s because I don’t listen to “albums” anymore. I listen to tracks.

In my vinyl record-listening days, I would put on an album and let it play. Sure, I could (and sometimes would) lift the needle and skip a track, but not that often. Then audio cassettes came and I could (and did) make my own “albums” and mix tapes. I made my version of a band’s “greatest hits.” I programmed my own hour of “radio.” to listen to in the car. My listening narrowed to a comfortable rut.

I read that vinyl’s sales are a way up. I’m not sure why. A reaction to “anxiety about our new age of plenty? A return to album rather than track listening? A reaction to the low-definition bit-rates of digital music (though quite acceptable to most of the world it seems) that got audiophile rock veteran Neil Young to create a new way of listening and got him to pull his songs from Spotify and Apple Music?

Maybe the time is right to put my vinyl collection on eBay… if that wasn’t such a lot of work, and if I wasn’t so damned nostalgic.

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Hands off Hello Not all labyrinths are traps Happy to be inside but already missing summer outdoors.  The plant feels the same way. There’s something in the first cold nights when autumn teases winter that seem to require a fire. Still drinking morning tea in the afternoon.  #teaetiquette

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