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Podcasts that Provoke Thought & Teach Something Worth Learning
Most every afternoon I hop on my mountain bike and go for a ride through the mountains that surround the North Shore where I live. It’s a good workout, fun escape, and I’m lucky that I can access a byzantine labyrinth of paths, trails, single-track and jeep roads that wind up, through, and all around the highland interior of Northern Oahu from my doorstep. In the course of a year, I put more miles on my bike than my truck (approximately 3000 miles and over 375,000’ of vertical elevation gain last year; I’m on track to do more or less the same this year). Usually, I ride solo. Since I’m alone, spinning up and away on rides that average anywhere from 8 to 25 miles on any given day, I often listen to podcasts as I grind and flow along the trails by my lonesome.
It’s an efficient and edifying use of time, in that I combine strenuous exercise (that’s oddly relaxing) with the sublime thrill of moving continuously through primeval mountain forests, tracing precipitous ridge-lines, and plunging into dark, abyss-like gulches, all the while thinking and learning something along the way. Thus, I thought I’d share some of my favorite podcasts that I listen to with my readers as a spur to both getting outside and after it — thereby strengthening the body — whilst feeding the mind.
Among my daily go-to’s is Mindscape,1 hosted by theoretical physicist and astrophysics professor now at CalTech (and the Santa Fe Institute, formerly of Harvard and elsewhere) Sean Carroll. Carroll is a leading authority on cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. He digs deep into topics such as dark matter and dark energy, modified gravity, topological defects, extra dimensions, and violations of fundamental symmetries, in addition to more foundational questions, both in quantum mechanics (origin of probability, emergence of space and time) and statistical mechanics (entropy and the arrow of time, emergence and causation, dynamics of complexity). Overall, he brings a philosophical dimension to his conversations and makes otherwise formidable topics of inquiry accessible and fun.
A recent episode regarding the implications of the so-called “multiverse” was particularly provocative, in which he discusses a new movie, Everything Everywhere All At Once, with its directors: The Daniels (the collective moniker for writer/directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert). They talk about philosophy, filmmaking, and how we should all strive to be “kind” amidst the chaos.2
Another thought-provoking podcast with a decidedly philosophical bent is The Partially Examined Life (a.k.a. PEL), hosted by “some guys who were at one point set on doing philosophy for a living but then thought better of it.”3 In each episode, they choose a text to read or review and chat about it with a balance of perspectives that range between penetrating, informed insight and humorous flippancy. One doesn’t have to know any philosophy, or even to have read the text they’re discussing to follow and enjoy the conversation, which I typically do. One of my favorites regards a seminal text in sociology (which I read as an ungraduate): Pierre Bourdieu’s masterwork: “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste” (1979). In this episode, they explore how tastes (and distinctions) in music, art, food, fashion, and just about everything else reflect one’s social position within the so-called class (or perhaps more properly stated) caste system.4
A spinoff from PEL is Subtext, hosted by Wes Alwen (from PEL) — a psychoanalyst by training and profession — and Erin O’Luanaigh — a high school English teacher. This is a podcast about “the human condition, and what we can learn about it from the greatest inventions of the human imagination: fiction, film, drama, poetry, essays, and criticism.” I really enjoy it, for it never ceases to teach me something about some of my favorite books, films, plays, and poetry, as well as provoking critical self-awareness and reflection in ways that are deeply edifying and even surprising (Alwen as psychoanalyst reads/sees/teaches things most don’t). Standout episodes include one on the movie “Apocalypse Now” (best movie ever in my book)5; and another regarding the brilliant plays of Anton Chekhov.6
The New Books Network is a terrific collection of podcasts that review (as the title indicates) new books from the leading academic presses both in America and Europe with respect for Science and Technology, Politics and Society, Religion and History, the Arts and Humanities more broadly considered. My tastes tend toward philosophy; and an episode from the New Books in Philosophy & Religion series — re: the book “Wisdom as a Way of Life: Theravāda Buddhism Reimagined,” by Steven Collins (Columbia University Press 2020) — taught me a great deal and afforded insights into both how to learn and how to act.7
On that note, with regard to matters of soul, life, learning, and preparation for death (you know, the basics), I also find myself listening to the soothing, compassionate teachings, reflections, and insights of Baba Ram Dass, the former psychedelic guru and spiritual teacher, who began his career as a psychologist at Harvard in the early 1960s (as the former Dr. Richard Alpert, along with his colleague and compatriot Tim Leary). Alpert became Ram Dass (after a trip to India) and evolved into a genuine Bodhisttva (i.e., a person who is able to reach Nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings). His 1971 book “Be Here Now” is a classic (I have a copy) and his recorded conversations, lectures, Q & A’s, and old talk-radio show broadcasts (from San Francisco) provide much wisdom.
The podcast Here and Now (part of the Be Here Now Network) is the place to go to hear and learn directly from Ram Dass, in addition to the teachings of other notable gurus such as Alan Watts, Jack Kornfield, and many others.8 Just the other evening, as I peddled along the coast in drizzling rain on my way out of the mountains somewhere near Kahuku Point (the northernmost extremity of Oahu), I listened to Ram Dass share his thoughts while answering questions about grief, love, transcendence, and how to bring deep spirituality into everyday life. It was really beautiful.9
What happens is, when the grief runs its natural course… you come to the point where you realize that you’ve tasted something with that person that was such a living moment that that moment still exists independent of death. There’s a moment when we recognize that love transcends death. And that has to happen experientially, and it has to happen when grief runs its natural course. – Ram Dass
In Our Time is a British podcast series that is a part of the BBC network and hosted by Melvyn Bragg, an Oxbridge professor, who discusses the history of ideas with his guests on a range of topics drawn from philosophy, science, history, religion, and culture.10 This podcast always teaches me something, most recently affording penetrating insight into the classic ancient Greek tragedy by Sophocles “Antigione,” its relevance and significance for us today.11
The Making Sense podcast hosted by neuroscientist Sam Harris is worth listening to, as well, for Harris “makes sense” as he engages and grapples with most of the timely issues and controversies confronting contemporary civilization in ways at once sober, balanced, and provocative with some of the leading minds of our time.12 A recent conversation with Eric Schmidt (former CEO of Google and Computer Scientist par excellence) is illustrative of Harris’ esoteric approach, in this case the future implications — and applications — of AI (artificial intelligence).13
Another two go-tos for me are Entitled Opinions,14 hosted by Stanford Professor Robert Harrison; and WTF, hosted by the comedian Marc Maron. Entitled Opinions is studious yet also light-hearted and informative, Harrison is a professor of Romance Languages, a musician, and a philosopher. His discussions are lively and fun. One that stands out in memory, with Andrea Nightengale, regards “The Great American Novel,” Melville’s “Moby Dick.” One of the things that stands out in memory from that conversation was how “perfect each and every sentence” Melville wrote in his masterpiece appears. One can (as I have) open to any page or paragraph in “Moby Dick” and find one perfect sentence after another — it reads and sounds like poetry.15
Marc Maron kind of irritates me to tell the truth. He is this trendy, “happening,” rather self-absorbed celebrity that obviously thinks he’s something/someone special; and has some rather kooky, frivolous opinions. Yet he can also be very funny, critically-reflective, and is a good, oftentimes excellent interviewer. It’s the people he talks with that I’m interested in — not Maron. If I remember correctly, Maron was (and remains) at the vanguard of the podcasting phenomenon, as he was one of (if not actually The First) to start what’s become more than ubiquitous — literally everyone has a podcast these days.
In any event, a recent interview with Robert Eggers, the director of some truly great films such as “The Witch” (2015) and “The Lighthouse” (2019) — both tremendously entertaining movies — and a recently released Viking epic, “The Northman” (2022), was more than interesting, it was profound. Eggers is perhaps a “genius” (Maron thinks so) in a time where/when there are few to be found.
Finally, I also enjoy the Broken Record podcast, which focuses specifically on music, the people who create it, and the stories surrounding some of the leading lights in rock and roll present and past.16 Most episodes (that I’ve listened to) are hosted by Über producer and cofounder of Def Jam Recordings Rick Rubin, who has worked closely with everyone in the industry from Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr to Public Enemy and Run-DMC, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Beastie Boys, and many, many more.
A recent, fascinating conversation with longtime collaborator Chad “I eat drums for breakfast” Smith (drummer from Red Hot Chili Peppers) covered a lot of ground over several decades of musical evolution. Ostensibly about RHCP’s most recent album (“Unlimited Love” — that Rubin produced), their discussion ranged over the history of drumming (literally everyone one could name or imagine: Ringo to Charlie Watts, Ginger Baker to John “Bonzo” Bonham and Keith Moon, et al.) to illuminating reflections on drugs, friendship, and parenting. Check it out.17
That’s all for now, more than enough to consider and contemplate. So, hop on a bike, go for a ride, a walk, run or hike, and tune in to something that teaches you something. Live and Learn. Aloha!
Huelo Hale, Paumalu 2022
https://subtextpodcast.com/chekhov-the-lady-with-the-little-dog/ ; https://subtextpodcast.com/chekhov-the-student-a-medical-case/ ; https://subtextpodcast.com/chekhov-the-house-with-the-mezzanine/