The forces you cannot see

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Note: Today, I’m heading to Iceland for eight days of much-needed vacation. I’m hoping to return this blog to a more regular schedule upon my return. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter and Instagram for travel updates and photos.

The past couple weeks have been the busiest of my entire professional life. As a result, you may have noticed my newsletter/blogging schedule has been lighter than usual. I’ve been finishing up some projects at work and also hosting four weekly podcasts. It’s a lot.

The most challenging of the podcasts has been Culturally Relevant, my weekly interview show. While it’s the proudest I’ve ever been of any of my podcasting work, it’s also been a monstrous challenge to juggle booking weekly guests with all of my other commitments.

One of the things I’ve been grateful for is how willing people are to talk to me about their work. In just the past couple months, I’ve had a chance to chat with award-winning filmmakers and best-selling authors. On a recent occasion, one of my guests (who you will hear on a future episode) shared with me how incredibly busy they were, juggling massive prestigious projects while running themselves ragged. Nonetheless, they were committed to taking the time to talk to me.

While I appreciated the kindness, I also asked why our conversation was important to this guest. After all, they hadn’t heard of me until I’d introduced myself with an invitation to appear on the podcast.

“Because one of my friends is a big fan of yours and he said I should definitely come on.”

We moved on to another topic, but I was still very moved by this offhand comment. It made me realize that there are people rooting for me who I don’t even know about — people who are willing to vouch for me and use up their social capital, for no reward other than to support what I’m working on.

I think we all have invisible angels. They are the forces we cannot see that protect us, elevate us, keep us from danger. Sometimes you are able to thank them personally; other times, you might not even know they did anything for you. You will never meet them, nor understand the full extent in which their actions shaped your life. You can only hope that by putting some of your own positivity into the world, you’re paying it forward.

I appreciate all my invisible angels out there. And I hope that I can be that force for good for the people in my life (and and maybe those who don’t even know me) that need it most.

Some interesting links from the past few weeks:

(Featured image by Victor Montol, used under Creative Commons)

Why it’s the best/worst time to start a podcast

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I recently created a new podcast called Culturally Relevant, where I interview fascinating writers/filmmakers/artists to talk about big ideas. I’ve never worked harder on a podcast before, nor have I ever been more proud of something I’ve made. I hope you have a chance to check it out and subscribe.

Getting this show off the ground has revealed to me just how different the podcast environment is today than when I first started podcasting over 10 years ago. In many ways, it feels like it’s the absolute worst time in the history of mankind to start a podcast. It is also, coincidentally, the best.

Let’s start with why it’s tough out there.

Big money has come to podcasts: VC money and other forms of investment have come flowing into podcasts. Gimlet Media recently sold to Spotify for over $200 million. Luminary has entered the game with over $100 million in investment in the hopes of becoming the Netflix for podcasts. We are a long way from when podcasting was the sole domain of hobbyists. Many podcasts are now extremely well funded, giving them the means to have high production values and longer lead times on their episodes. They also have marketing budgets in the tens of thousands that allow them to advertise on other podcasts and even other forms of media. If you don’t have a big budget to produce and market your show, it can feel like you are David going up against 10,000 Goliaths.

Celebrities have caught wind: Celebrities and TV personalities have begun converting their massive fame into podcast equity. People like Adam Carolla and Mark Maron led the way, and now folks like Dax Shepherd and Conan O’Brien have also realized there’s an audience for them in the podcast world. It used to be that when I landed a big interview with someone on a press tour, I’d be so thrilled to have a big differentiator for my show. Now, you can literally listen to Alec Baldwin interview that same person. And most people? If they only have time for one show, they’re probably going to go with Alec.

Discoverability is a challenge: Related to the previous two points, it’s very difficult for a small new show to get discovered. It used to be that if you netted a few hundred subscribers in your first week, you might show up in a “New and Notable” section or even a “Trending” section on Apple Podcasts or another podcast app. That might lead to more subscribers, which might get you into the “Top Podcasts” chart. It was a virtuous circle that could drive up subscriber numbers for even small timers. Today, you need to multiply that initial subscriber number by about 10x or 100x to get noticed. Furthermore, there are now more podcast apps in the game, meaning that you have to impress multiple algorithms, not just one.

On the flip side, it’s not all bad out there. The initial modest success of Culturally Relevant has shown me that there are reasons it’s actually great to get into the podcast game right now.

The audience for podcasts has never been larger: According to a recent study, about one in three people in the US listen to a podcast every month. That’s the highest it’s ever been and it looks to get bigger in the years to come. Sheer audience size is not just about numbers; it also means people are more familiar with basic elements like how to find and listen to podcasts. They’re less likely to turn up their nose at the idea of checking out one of these things and that means it’s easier to recommend something to people that they’ll actually try.

It has never been easier to make a podcast: Between the high quality microphones everyone is carrying around with them in their pockets and apps like Anchor that allow you to create and publish podcasts on your phone, there has been a proliferation of services and support for podcasters in recent years. This means it’s never been easier to create a maintain a show using cheap online tools. There are also countless resources on YouTube and blogs and websites (like this one!) that will help guide the way.

It has never been easier to make money from a podcast: Between Kickstarter, Patreon, and selling ads, it’s now a real possibility for people to make a living off of podcasting. Short of that, you can use the money you make and reinvest it back into the show, thus growing your listener base,  getting more money to reinvest back into the show, and so on forever. The ability to monetize is a potent tool for podcasters looking to level up their production value, marketing capabilities, or just increase their quality of life.

So there you have it! While launching a new show has been a time period of great discouragement and rejection, it’s also been encouraging to see how the podcast environment has improved for newcomers out there. In any case, if you enjoyed this article, I hope you have a chance to check out Culturally Relevant. And if you like that show, please consider sharing it with your friends. As I’ve indicated above, it’s one of the most important ways for people to find a show like mine.

Since I’ve had a particularly intense podcast schedule recently (I’m basically producing four podcasts per week), I’ve been slacking on these newsletter updates. I want to try to keep to a weekly schedule but once every 2-3 weeks is more realistic until my schedule dies down. That said, here are some online links I’ve found interesting lately:

[Featured image by TheMachinePhotography is licensed under CC BY 2.0 ]

Interesting links from around the web (early June 2019 edition)

It’s been awhile since the last link round-up, so here are a bunch of interesting things from the internet:

So many billionaire regrets

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Facebook co-f0under Chris Hughes, calling for a break up of Facebook in The New York Times opinion section:

The most problematic aspect of Facebook’s power is Mark’s unilateral control over speech. There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people. Facebook engineers write algorithms that select which users’ comments or experiences end up displayed in the News Feeds of friends and family. These rules are proprietary and so complex that many Facebook employees themselves don’t understand them […]

If the government were to use this moment to resurrect an effective competition standard that takes a broader view of the full cost of “free” products, it could affect a whole host of industries. The alternative is bleak. If we do not take action, Facebook’s monopoly will become even more entrenched. With much of the world’s personal communications in hand, it can mine that data for patterns and trends, giving it an advantage over competitors for decades to come.

In writing this piece, Hughes joins a litany of former Facebook execs who have come out against the company, including Dustin Muskovitz, Sean Parker, and Brian Acton (Casey Newton has a good rundown here).

In a striking coincidence, pretty much all of them rebuked Facebook after becoming immeasurably enriched by the company. So weird how they found the courage to voice their convictions not during their time there, but way afterwards, when they’d all become billionaires. (To be fair, Hughes acknowledges this and takes responsibility for it in his piece).

Putting that aside though, we should evaluate whether Hughes’ recommendations have merit on their own. And on that measure, his primary suggestions don’t really stand up to even cursory scrutiny. Ezra Klein breaks it down over at Vox:

This is the core contradiction of Hughes’s essay. Every time he names the decisions that competition led Facebook to make, he describes the platform’s moral devolution. But every time he imagines the alternatives that more competition would create, he muses about kinder, gentler platforms — platforms with fewer ads, more privacy, less attention hacking.

But look around. Twitter assessed the competition and went algorithmic, creating a space so toxic the company is now trying to understand how “healthy conversations” work. YouTube ran the numbers and built an algorithm that’s become a powerful force for radicalization. Instagram became attractive to Facebook precisely because it’s so good at being addictive. Tumblr turned out to be so reliant on porn that Pornhub is considering a bid to buy the flailing business. Pinterest, well, Pinterest seems okay. For now.

Perhaps more competition in the social media space would lead to better alternatives. But perhaps it would do what it’s done so far: lead to yet fiercer wars for our attention and data, which would incentivize yet more unethical modes of capturing it.

Klein’s piece nails it. Facebook is the way it is not because of the lack of competition but because of the competition. Regulation could probably help but letting a thousand social network flowers bloom is what’s gotten us into this mess in the first place.

A few more links from the week:

Cinema is dead. Long live content.

Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for about the recent release of Endgame and “The Long Night” episode of Game of Thrones: 

Art house cinemas (which have a business built around stand-alone, non-tentpole features) are struggling to stay open, and their proprietors face increasingly old crowds that aren’t being replaced by younger viewers. Theaters generally are on what an exhibitor friend of mine bitterly referred to as “Disney life support.” Forty percent of domestic box office receipts come from that one studio, most of its business is based around serialized, mega-expensive, dopamine-hit franchises. […]

It gives me no pleasure to write any of this, having come up in what retrospectively seems like the death throes of an older culture, only to enter a spectacular and in some ways unnerving new one. Sometimes it feels as if I’m chronicling the things I love as they take their sweet time fading to black.

But I can also honestly say that, at this point, I’m more curious than apprehensive about what the future will bring. This is the kind of cultural moment that people tell their grandkids and great-nephews and nieces about. Whether the tone of the remembrance is sad or wondrous depends on who’s telling it, but tell it they will, because it’s happening, right now, to all of us. It’s not often that you get to watch the complete transformation and eventual fusion of two art forms, the transformation of art and entertainment itself, and the technology that supplies and defines it.

It’s still staggering to me that Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones are both ending major chapters of pop culture lore in the span of a few weeks. Both achieved the nearly impossible. In the case of Endgame, the MCU sustained 22 films’ worth of storytelling and somehow managed to tie them together in a satisfying way in Endgame. In the case of Game of Thrones, it may well end up being one of the last instances of mass-appointment viewing in America. Millions of people watch together every Sunday, and by the time the episode is over, the memes have already begun.

It’s possible we may never see anything like them again. And it is exhilarating to be able to witness it all as it happens.

In the meantime, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to speak in-depth about Endgame and Game of Thrones with some interesting, intelligent people:

Here are some of my reactions to this week’s Game of Thrones, “The Long Night”:

Some other recent links I’ve found interesting:

Podcasts I’ve been listening to recently (March 2019)

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Podcasts have become so sophisticated that they have started to take on the characteristics of their entertainment predecessors. Their production values are often sky high. Many are divided into “seasons,” with lengthy arcs that take time to build and land. And also, as with TV, there are way too many to consume than a single person could possibly do in a lifetime.

As a result, there are some podcasts that I’ve wanted to get around to, but have avoided due to the “commitment” required. Now, a few lengthy road trips later, I am slightly more caught up on all the media I’m behind on.

Here are a few podcasts I’ve been listening to that I’d highly recommend:

The Drop Out – Examining the life and times of Elizabeth Holmes and her catastrophic failure of a company, Theranos, has become a big business. This podcast is one of the latest entrants. While I still think the book Bad Blood is the definitive retelling of the Holmes scandal, this podcast makes for fascinating listening, allowing you to hear fairly extensive interviews with many of the main players. With seven 40-45 minute episodes, they have enough time to dive in depth into some of the key aspects of the story. Overall, this is probably what I’d recommend for people who don’t have time to read the book but want to learn what went wrong at Theranos.

Surviving Y2K – I wasn’t a fan of “Missing Richard Seasons,” which I found to be a bit too creepy and invasive for my tastes, but I quite liked the second season of the Headlong podcast, which dives into the Y2K phenomenon. The show revisits the mania around the Y2K bug, and how people from different walks of life reacted to it. In addition, the host, Dan Taberski, uses the show as an opportunity to reveal how he tried to use Y2K to restart his own life. It’s a bold thing whenever a podcast host bleeds for his art. In this case, it also made for a worthwhile listen.

Slow Burn: Season 2 – “Slow Burn” is a testament to the importance of learning from the mistakes of the past. This politics-focused narrative podcast, whose second season covers the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, is fascinating and gripping.  Listening to it, I am struck by many things: The quaint concerns of both parties at the time (The Republicans were worried about the deficit and about the morals of our President; with time, let’s just say those concerns have been revealed to be not truly embedded in the DNA of the GOP). The cruelty of many of the players involved, who may not have understood that they were destroying a young woman’s life, but were certainly willing to take that risk. Mostly though, I realize how we’re still dealing with many of the same issues today as back then, not to mention many of the same actual individuals. If anything, politics and political coverage have been revealed to be even more venal than we could’ve imagined back then. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Good One – Not a narrative show, but this podcast by Jesse David Fox makes for insightful listening about the nature of comedy. It’s basically Song Exploder, but for jokes. Where else can you find an analysis of the Totino’s pizza sketch on SNL and the “Juan Likes Chicken and Rice” episode of Documentary Now?

I hope you have a chance to check these out. I’d ask for your recommendations, but I have too many other podcasts on deck already to possibly finish them all… (e.g. In The Dark, Caliphate, Serial Season 3, etc.). That said, if you have any must-listens, send them my way!

Some more links from the week:

The national shame of college admissions

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The college admissions scandal that unfurled this week has become a national obsession, and with good reason: Virtually everyone in this country needs to deal with college admissions at some point in their lives, whether for themselves or for their children, even if it’s just to look at the entire corrupt process and decline to participate in it.

This scandal has everything: wealthy, recognizable people in high positions using their power to get their oblivious children into universities where it would otherwise be a challenge for them to gain admittance. Plus, so many delicious details about how this scam went down. Here’s my recommended reading on the subject:

  • Deadspin has a good summary of the more hilarious details.
  • Slate posits that sports recruiting is the real college admissions scam. They’re right.
  • The Atlantic explains why it’s significant that the parents chose to lie to their children about their actions, and how that perpetuates the feelings of privilege and the notion of “I earned everything I have” that has become so insidious in our culture.
  • As usual, The Daily podcast has a great rundown of the major issues involved. One of the key insights that’s important to remember: Many of these children likely had a decent chance at getting into schools like USC, which are selective but not as much as the upper echelons of the Ivy League. What these parents wanted was a sure thing.
  • The New York Times highlights the racial disparities inherent in the system. Said one student: “We can put in work from fifth grade to 12th grade, every single day, come in early, leave late, and it’s still not enough. What does it take? You work every day, they still find a way.”
  • From August of 2018, Alia Wong at The Atlantic proposes a radical solution to fix elite-college admissions: Lotteries. This will never happen, but it’s interesting to contemplate.
  • Masha Gessen writes for The New Yorker about how she would cover this event as a foreign correspondent, asking, “Why is such a clearly and unabashedly immoral system legal at all?”

What this scandal reminded me of is how unfair the process is to begin with, even without all the illegal bribes. Wealthy people can legally donate buildings to get their kids into school (for now). They can pay for the best test prep classes available. They help their children participate in sports, unavailable to others, that make it more likely they’ll be admitted.

Even with all these advantages, it still wasn’t enough. These parents wanted guarantees, no matter what the legal and ethical cost. Now, to paraphrase Francis X. Hummel, they are reaping the whirlwind.

Netflix canceled the critically beloved sitcom One Day at a Time this week (Disclosure: I currently work at Amazon and have a friend who was a regular on the show). Shows get canceled all the time, but what was remarkable about this one was the tone-deafness of Netflix’s tweet announcement and the ferocity of the backlash to it. A hashtag meant to try to save the show, #saveodaat, was trending worldwide within an hours.

In an era where the streaming giant is trying to cultivate an aura of “wokeness,” we got to see this week what happens when progressive politics meets business reality. Companies presenting themselves as guardians of diversity and representation are now treading on shifting ground.

At the Washington Post, Ric Sanchez explains how important the show was to him, and why Netflix’s tweet was so painful:

The Latin American experience is not monolithic, and the show was careful to illustrate that. There were Cuban in-jokes I was not familiar with, sure — but there were also story lines relatable to anyone who has been threatened by their abuela, shamed for their Spanish proficiency or walked a well-meaning peer through a microaggression.

These are the small moments in which “One Day at a Time” excelled. Whether you’re Latin American, a single parent, a veteran or part of a working-class family, it felt like the show could take an experience you thought was painfully specific to you and present it to a wider audience with charm and empathy. It helped you see yourself in a new context. […]

Netflix certainly is under no obligation to support a show that’s losing money. It’s a business decision, sure. But to cloak a business decision in the language of inclusiveness is tone-deaf at best and condescending at worst. They’re effectively telling us that we matter — we just don’t matter enough.

James Poniewozik has a similar piece at NYTimes, writing:

I am not a mind reader. Maybe the sentiment is sincere, maybe it’s spin, maybe a little of each. Either way, Netflix is trying to throw away its cake and get credit for having baked it.

Poniewozik also provides some good perspective on Netflix’s claim that “simply not enough people watched.”

Other links from the week:

Space helmets, and other odds and ends

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I had a fun time chatting with the filmmakers of the sci-fi indie film Prospect recently. The film just hit video on demand on March 8, and you can watch our conversation by clicking above or read a transcript at /Film.

We discussed how challenging it was to design a good practical space helmet that would also look good on film (of note: many big-budget sci-fi blockbusters, such as the recently-released Captain Marvel, often feature major characters wearing CG helmets). But one thing a good helmet can do is also open up more space for the actors to work in. Here’s production designer Matt Acosta, on how this was made apparent to him in one scene early in the film:

You start to learn how the actors are acting within the helmets and it becomes this other extra level for the actors. And there was this very specific scene where Jay Duplass literally holds a gun up to Pedro’s helmet and puts it against the glass. And it had this completely different threat and weirdness to it because Pedro could like look at the gun and there’s this forced distance between the gun and the character, which in other movies you don’t really have. It was so interesting to see him playing in that space because it’s just a new thing, a new piece that he had to play with.

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Some more interesting links from the week: