Harrison Bergeron

Friday, June 24th, 2016

Once you know the name Harrison Bergeron, you notice it regularly, because its satirical premise lends itself to frequent allusions these days:

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

[...]

Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

[...]

He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren’t really very good — no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.

By all means, read the whole thing; it’s short.

World War II as Lord of the Rings

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

Tolkien said that The Lord of the Rings was not an allegory, and it especially wasn’t an allegory of World War II.

What would World War II have looked like, Bruce Charlton asks, if it had played out like The Lord of the Rings?

The plot would focus on the destruction of the Atom Bomb (and implicitly all knowledge required to make it) by a small team of English patriots led by George Orwell, who infiltrate Germany and destroy the evil research establishment which is making the A-bomb.

The climactic end would be the death of Hitler (as the ready-for-use prototype explodes?) and the end of the Nazi regime in Germany with the return of the Holy Roman Emperor.

En route there would be the destruction of Soviet Communism, the restoration of the Tsar, and the exile of Stalin. Stalin then makes his way to England, is welcomed by the corrupt Socialist Prime Minister, Konni Zilliacus; then Stalin invites foreign mercenaries, takes over in a secret coup, enslaves the native English and manages to pollute or destroy much of the countryside before Orwell and his English patriots return and raise a successful counter-revolution; after which Stalin is stabbed by his deputy Lavrentiy Beria — who is immediately executed by a mob of pitchfork-wielding rustics (despite Orwell’s protests).

England repudiates industrialization, is demilitarized, sealed against immigration, and made into a clan-based dominion ruled by benign hereditary aristocrats; and made a protected nation under the personal care of the restored King Albrecht — the exiled Duke of Bavaria, and heir to the US monarchy, who had been given the throne by popular acclaim during the course of the war, and is now ruling from his palace in Richmond, Virginia.

Orwell, traumatized and made consumptive by his wartime experiences, sails West toward the sunset in a small boat and eventually arrives in… Ireland; where he ends his days peacefully as a subsistence crofter…

No wonder, then, that Tolkien cordially disliked allegory, in all its manifestations.

Roddenberry and Heinlein

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

Manu Saadia argues (in Trekonomics) that Roddenberry’s Star Trek was “above all, a critique of Robert Heinlein“:

According to Roddenberry himself, no author has had more influence on The Original Series than Robert Heinlein, and more specifically his juvenile novel Space Cadet. The book, published in 1948, is considered a classic. It is a bildungsroman, retelling the education of young Matt Dodson from Iowa, who joins the Space Patrol and becomes a man. There is a reason why Star Trek’s Captain Kirk is from Iowa. The Space Patrol is a prototype of Starfleet: it is a multiracial, multinational institution, entrusted with keeping the peace in the solar system.

Where it gets a little weird is that Heinlein’s Space Patrol controls nuclear warheads in orbit around Earth, and its mission is to nuke any country that has been tempted to go to war with its neighbors. This supranational body in charge of deterrence, enforcing peace and democracy on the home planet by the threat of annihilation, was an extrapolation of what could potentially be achieved if you combined the UN charter with mutually assured destruction. And all this in a book aimed at kids.

Such was the optimism Heinlein could muster at the time, and compared to his later works, Space Cadet is relatively happy and idealistic, if a bit sociopathic. It makes a lot of sense that it had inspired Roddenberry. In Space Cadet, Heinlein portrayed a society where racism had been overcome. Not unlike Starfleet, the Space Patrol was supposed to be a force for good. The fat finger on the nuclear trigger makes it a very doubtful proposition, however. The Space Patrol, autonomous and unaccountable, is the opposite of the kind democratic and open society championed by Star Trek.

The hierarchical structure and naval ranks of the first Star Trek series were geared to appeal to Heinlein’s readers and demographic, all these starry-eyed kids who, like Roddenberry himself, had read Space Cadet and Have Spacesuit — Will Travel. Star Trek used all the tropes of Heinlein but sanitized them. For instance, racial and gender equality were prominent features of Heinlein’s stories. Nobody cared about your sex or the color of your skin as long as you were willing to sign up for the Space Patrol or the Federal service. Starship Troopers‘ hero, Juan “Johnny” Rico, was Filipino. In that regard, Heinlein had undoubtedly paved the way for The Original Series’ integrated crew. From Space Cadet onward, he made it a new norm in science fiction that people of color and women (as in Starship Troopers) could also be protagonists.

1984, Brave New World, and Harrison Bergeron, for Girls

Saturday, June 4th, 2016

I haven’t followed the recent battle over the politicized Hugo awards, so I hadn’t noticed that the conservative rabid puppieslist included the two-part opener of My Little Pony‘s fifth season, “The Cutie Map” — which Jim describes as 1984, Brave New World, and Harrison Bergeron, written for ten-year-old girls:

A commie pony has established a commie utopia, and our major characters drop in to investigate.

There is the mandatory official happiness of “Brave New World”, the destructive equalizing downwards of “Harrison Bergeron”, and the poverty, ugliness, and lying authoritarianism of “1984”. All depicted for ten year old girls.

Of course “My Little Pony” is in the business of teaching little girls prosocial lessons, and the first lesson that we are beaten over the head with is “people can disagree, and still be friends”. Which gets repeated numerous times. Sounds pretty bland and innocent as a lecture to ten year old girls. Right? Except that it is set in a society of terrifying political correctness where everyone agrees with everyone or else. Which makes it not at all bland and innocent.

The list also includes a number of works from There Will Be War Vol. X.

The Future of Sports

Friday, June 3rd, 2016

This anecdote about the future of sports rings true:

Last summer, on a family vacation in a house with 10 very loud children, I attempted to watch a baseball game on the only available television set. It did not go well. My nieces and nephews acted like I was forcing them to watch a process hearing in the state legislature. They groaned and booed. They rolled their eyes. They dropped to the floor and pretended to sleep.

Frantic to please, I turned the channel, and happened upon a reality show I’d never seen before: a wacky obstacle-course event called “American Ninja Warrior.” Situated on an outdoor stage bathed in red, white and blue lights, it featured sinewy men and women of all ages, jumping and scurrying from platforms to ropes to monkey bars, plunging into water traps when they missed.

The room erupted. It was as if Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber had just shown up with free pizza and iPhones. It turned out my loud, young in-laws all loved “American Ninja Warrior.” They crammed around the TV, rapt.

Old Music Outsold New Music

Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

The simultaneous advent of streaming music and the vinyl renaissance has led to some very interesting recording industry statistics over the past few months:

Last month, the RIAA reported that vinyl revenues outpaced sales from streaming services, despite actual streams vastly outnumbering physical vinyl sold. Now, Nielsen has released data revealing that, for the first time ever, old music (the “catalog,” defined as music more than 18 months old) outsold new releases in 2015.

Hat tip to Tyler Cowen, who also notes this factoid: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was the third-best-selling vinyl record of 2015.

Dwayne “The Doc” Johnson

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson just announced that he will be playing Doc Savage:

For all comic book fans you already know the world’s first superhero (pre-dating Superman) is the “Man of Bronze” himself Clark “Doc” Savage.

Want to thank my bud director/writer Shane Black and his writing team Anthony Bagarozzi and Chuck Mondry for flying in from LA and sitting with me and our @sevenbucksprod’s producer @hhgarcia41 on this Memorial Day weekend to chop up creative and break story on this very cool project.

Comic book fans around the world know that the cool thing about “Doc” Savage is that he’s the inspiration for Superman. First name Clark, called “Man of Bronze”, retreats to his “Fortress of Solitude” in the Arctic etc etc.

Doc was physically and mentally trained from birth by his father and a team of scientists to become the perfect human specimen with a genius level intellect. His heightened senses are beyond comprehension. He can even identify a women’s perfume from half a mile away. He is literally the master of everything.

But here’s the #1 reason I’m excited to become Doc Savage.. HE’S A F*CKING HILARIOUS WEIRDO!

Confidently, yet innocently he has zero social graces whatsoever due to his upbringing so every interaction he has with someone is direct, odd, often uncomfortable and amazingly hilarious.

After speaking for hours w/ Shane Black I can see why the creator of Superman took only the best parts of Doc Savage and leaving the “weirdo” part behind. But to us, it’s that “weirdo” part that makes Clark “Doc” Savage dope! Can’t wait to sink my teeth into this one of a kind character.

The Rock doesn’t actually resemble the classic 1930s cover art depicting the character:

Doc Savage 1933

But he does resemble the 1970s cover art by James Bama (of Steve Holland):

Doc Savage 1970s

The character went on to inspire Superman but was itself inspired by The Savage Gentleman.

Ecco the Dolphin

Saturday, May 21st, 2016

I never played Sega’s Ecco the Dolphin, but I’m not surprised that it would be linked to John C Lilly:

Lilly was once a renowned and respected American scientist, with a particular interest in marine biology and interspecies communication. In the early 1960s he was given funding by NASA to research whether it was possible to teach dolphins to speak. NASA’s logic was that if we could learn to communicate with dolphins, we would have a better understanding of how to converse with extra-terrestrials if they were to ever pop down for a visit.

Lilly flooded a house in the Caribbean so that dolphins could live as closely as possible with him and his team, amongst them Margaret Howe Lovatt, who apparently had sex with one of the animals. The experiment fizzled out as, unsurprisingly, nobody was able to get any of them to talk – although check out YouTube for one of his subjects attempting a pretty close “Hello Margaret”. Useful, if all aliens were called Margaret. Lilly lost funding for the project, moved away from traditional science and threw himself further and further into 1960s pseudo-mysticism and chemical experimentation.

Around 1971 Lilly was looking for a cure for his chronic migraines, and a friend suggested that ketamine could help get rid of them. Back then ketamine wasn’t a widely used drug, probably only used recreationally by a small group of dedicated trippers, quite unlike its status today as a popular party drug. When he was under the influence of a small dose of K, Lilly said that he felt the migraine being pushed out of his body and, miraculously, he never had one again. Encouraged by this, he developed a longstanding affection for the substance he dubbed “Vitamin K”, and started taking it regularly, gradually injecting it in higher doses.

Just shooting up ketamine on its own wasn’t enough for Lilly, though, and soon he was IV-ing it inside a sensory deprivation tank with the help of his friend, Dr Craig Enright. They thought that by using the tank external stimulation would be significantly reduced, giving a psychedelic or, in this case, a dissociative experience at a higher level of intensity. Neither appreciated that what they were doing was incredibly $#@!ing dangerous – tranquilising drugs and floating on water aren’t to be mixed under most circumstances, and sure enough Lilly’s wife, Antonietta, had to resuscitate him on one occasion where he nearly drowned. These experiments would form the foundation for Paddy Chayefsky’s 1978 novel Altered States, later adapted into a movie by director Ken Russell.

During his sessions, Lilly came to believe that he was being contacted by an organic extra-terrestrial entity called the Earth Coincidence Control Office – ECCO. This alien group was benevolent, omniscient and in control of all earthly matters. Except for when they weren’t quite so friendly, as at one point Lilly thought they’d made off with his penis.

The similarities between Sega’s Ecco the Dolphin and Lilly’s ketamine fantasies are undeniable. It’s almost like the game’s story is an amalgamation of his interest in dolphins and the wacky philosophy he spouted when returning to reality from his phenomenal K-hole trips.

Alongside ECCO, Lilly encountered another alien life force, which he called the Solid State Intelligence. Unlike the entities from ECCO, the SSI were spawned by a mechanical solar system, and their main aim was to ravage the earth and destroy mankind. It’s not unlike the much-documented cinematic battles between us fleshy creatures and advanced AI turned malevolent, and it’s no stretch to compare the SSI with Ecco’s Vortex enemies, those evil, dolphin-kidnapping, interstellar villains.

(Hat tip to Scott Alexander.)

It should stop evolving

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

Nick Land shares this passage from Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye (from the end of Chapter 3):

“They used to teach us that evolution of intelligent being wasn’t possible,” she said. “Societies protect their weaker members. Civilizations tend to make wheel chairs and spectacles and hearing aids as soon as they have the tools for them. When a society makes war, the men generally have to pass a fitness test before they’re allowed to risk their lives. I suppose it helps win the war.” She smiled. “But it leaves precious little room for the survival of the fittest.”

[…]

“You were saying about evolution?”

“It — it ought to be pretty well closed off for an intelligent species,” she said. “Species evolve to meet the environment. An intelligent species changes the environment to suit itself. As soon as a species becomes intelligent, it should stop evolving.”

He adds:

It makes you think (or rather, the opposite). The original sin of intelligence — falling back in blind homeostatic antipathy against its own conditions of emergence — isn’t so hard to see.

The Tim Ferriss Effect

Friday, May 13th, 2016

Ryan Holiday discusses the “Tim Ferriss Effect”:

In publishing circles, something called the “Tim Ferriss Effect” has been known for some time. The concept refers to the power of a single author and his blog to drive the sales — in some cases in the tens of thousands — for books he chooses to recommend to his army of fans. I, myself, happen to have been a beneficiary of this effect on a number of occasions. In fact, I felt it before I was even an author. A simple article I wrote on Tim’s site in 2009 prompted the first inquiry I ever received from a book publisher.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen the decline of what most people used to refer to as “blogs.” Most companies have shut down their blogs, some popular bloggers have closed up shop. But somehow, the Tim Ferriss Effect not only still exists — it’s become something bigger than I think anyone could have imagined.

I’m not an impartial observer of this phenomenon. Tim is someone I have worked with and a friend (he’s even published my books — one of which he turned into a runaway hit that changed my life and another one on the way soon). Even so, I’ve been continually shocked with his ability to predict trends and master new technologies. Many of us have friends that start podcasts — not very often do those shows turn around and do 70 million downloads. Plenty of us agree to appear on our friends’ podcasts — what’s unusual is recording the episode and then getting emails from NFL coaches, A-list actors and multi-platinum music titans because they “heard you on the podcast recently.” As one of the first guests on The Tim Ferriss Show, it’s been strange and humbling to watch myself get utterly eclipsed by every subsequent guest over the last two years — from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Sophia Amoruso to Jamie Foxx — and listen to each one, riveted, just like every other fan.

It’s like being friends with Oprah from when she had a small morning show in Chicago. And that’s really what Tim’s podcast has become. He’s the Oprah of Audio. Is there a more fitting moniker for someone whose show can sell 50,000 copies of a book or drive a product out of stock at Whole Foods nationwide? I don’t think so.

Which is why I wanted to interview Tim to get him to explain how exactly the hell this all happened. How does one create one of the biggest podcasts in the world with essentially no advertising or promotion? How does one expertly interview huge stars, introverted authors and enigmatic artists with compelling ease? How does one build a potential $2-4M a year business — as he recently described it in an article — but decide not to fully monetize it because he doesn’t want to exploit his fans?

I had so many questions and thankfully, he had plenty of answers.

Why are you excited about podcasts? Are they the future of media?

I love podcasting because it’s a mass-audience format that offers 100 percent creative control with low production cost. My last few books and TV show were created alongside a lot of committees and corporate complexity, which exhausted me. This is a return to basics — focus on content, period. No internal debates, no design by consensus, none of that. The CPMs ($20-80 CPM) and rewards for experimenting have also never been greater.

Politics-ridden publisher models are antiquated and reflect an old paradigm of pushing content via distribution oligopolies (e.g. the first 20 feet of a retailer effectively being owned by Coca-Cola, Simon & Schuster, etc.). I know startups that have had to sell to larger companies simply to increase distribution footprint. In podcasting, it’s totally different: you pull people into your content. The quality attracts audience, SEO, and more audience; this is a sharp contrast to distribution forcing audiences to consume only a handful of options (e.g. old network TV).

Starting around 2008, I began experiencing the power of podcasts as a guest. People like Joe Rogan, Marc Maron, and Chris Hardwick (Nerdist) produced ripple effects that blew my mind. This inspired me to try it myself on the other side of the table.

I think podcasting — or audio more broadly — is one element in the future of media. Unlike video or print, audio is a natural secondary activity. Audio can be consumed while you commute, cook, exercise, walk the dog, etc. The more smart phones and broadband blanket the globe, the more powerful audio will become.

Last but not least, good long-form content will be around forever, so it’s part of the future. Despite the masses of people trying to emulate BuzzFeed, and despite the chorus of “long-form content is dead” or “long-form content can’t be monetized,” I see exactly the opposite. The Kindle has made it possible for people to impulsively buy two to 10 times the number of books they did in 2000. My techie friends in SF and NYC binge watch hour-long TV series on Netflix more than ever.

Long-form content isn’t dead; it’s simply uncrowded and neglected. I double down when formats are out of favor.

You’ve said you started your show as a six episode experiment with Kevin Rose, but clearly it’s grown into something much bigger than that. What do you see it becoming now that you’re on the verge of hitting 100M downloads?

I’d like it to become a clearinghouse for thought leaders who want to go deep, or set the record straight, or leave an interview they’d want their kids to remember them by. Sadly, two-minute TV interviews and other sound-bite media just don’t allow smart people to be smart.

I want to showcase intelligence and record a legacy-worthy interview. In brief, this is the response that I’d love every guest to have:

For guest selection, I’ll continue to mix super celebrities (e.g. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Foxx, Edward Norton) with world-class experts who don’t normally do interviews (e.g. Chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, master interviewer Cal Fussman, tech investor/founder Naval Ravikant).

From an audience perspective, I’d like The Tim Ferriss Show to become the default “second activity” for many tens of millions. I want a few months of listening to my podcast during commutes, cooking, dog walking, etc. to trump a full-time year at any MBA program in the country.

One of things that I think has driven quality in the podcast market is that they’re listened to by subscribers. Most blog posts are competing on social media for attention, whereas podcast episodes are about delivering value to loyal listeners. You seem to have doubled down on podcasts as well as on email as a way to communicate with your army of fans, why was that? How has it worked?

E-mail and the podcast are my two highest priorities at the moment, and they work in tandem. Let’s touch on e-mail first.

Unlike, say, Facebook or Twitter, I own this communication directly and it’s less subject to the whims of algorithm changes (e.g. “Oops! Now you only reach 20 percent of your audience.”). Some people insist that email is dead for younger generations, and they’re right… until those young people get jobs. E-mail will stick around for a while, despite our attempts to kill it. It’s still the most reliable broadcast delivery mechanism.

The podcast, much like e-mail, is a free subscription. Although people can choose to listen a la carte, the subscription is most desireable.

At the risk of stating the obvious: subscribers subscribe to things as a habit. I use the podcast to promote my newsletter (specifically, 5-Bullet Friday) and I use email to increase the podcast listenership. The goal is subscription in both cases, but I’m not adding a new behavior. This has a much lower CPA than shotgunning on Twitter, for instance.

This pairing of email and podcast has been a revelation. The podcast is already typically a top-25 podcast on iTunes overall, and I expect to double its size in the next six to 12 months. Having a fast-growing alternate subscription (5-Bullet Friday) is critical to this. It’s 100% necessary but not sufficient. PR, paid acquisition, and many other elements round out the execution. Some (e.g. paid acquisition) are directly useful for audience growth, whereas others (e.g. PR features in name-brand outlets) is a powerful indirect contributor that makes high-profile guest recruitment easier.

At the same time, something that folks like Gretchen Rubin and others have pointed out, it’s hard for a one hour audio file in iTunes to go viral or get shared the way a blog post can. How have you managed to promote and grow your show so quickly given that reality?

Longer shows can absolutely go viral. We just need to define terms and ask a few additional questions. It’s easy to chase “viral” without stopping to ask: What is the goal? What are we measuring? Why do those metrics matter?

For instance — What communities, demographics, or psychographics are you targeting, and what is the measurable objective? For me, it’ll be specific for each episode or post. Hypothetically: I want evergreen content that will hit 1,000,000 downloads by X date, spread like wildfire in the spec-ops communities (because I have future goals involving that world), and continue to get at least 100,000 downloads a week for 3 months. I can look at historical data and reverse engineer an outcome like this.

If you’re chasing the phantom of “favorites” or “shares,” etc., it might impress a boss who loves vanity metrics, but I personally track fan acquisition in new verticals, predictable revenue (MRR) growth, and a few other things that move needles I care about.

The virality profile — or kinetics of contagion — are different for long-form content than for a 60-second YouTube video or 300-word “11 reasons your dog hates you”-type list. As with real viruses like influenza and ebola, the onset, duration, means of transmission, persistence, etc. vary widely.

For long-form examples, look at Serial, or even my episodes with relative non-celebs (compared to, say, Edward Norton) like Seth Godin and Derek Sivers. These shows take longer to initially spread, as they rely on 90- to 180-minute content versus 30 seconds or name recognition, but they have far greater permanence than the shorter content, in my experience.

Spread can be increased by creating assets like extensive show notes with links, highlighting short audio sections via Overcast for rushed people (see “If you only have a few minutes…” here), and crafting related blog posts that link to multiple episodes (e.g. The Unusual Books That Shaped Billionaires, Mega-Bestselling Authors, and Other Prodigies). I have perhaps a dozen more tricks that enhance “transmission” of long-form viruses.

Keep in mind that I’ve tried very short content. My “how to peel hard-boiled eggs without peeling them” YouTube video has 7M+ views, and it’s far less valuable to me than a good, in-depth podcast with even 500,000 listens. The former is a drive-by viewing; you’re one more shout in the noise. The latter can turn casual listeners into long-term listeners and devotees. I can’t out BuzzFeed BuzzFeed, and that would be the wrong goal for me.

Mass “virality” is overrated for a minimalist outfit like mine. Would you rather have 100,000 people in the US, selected at random, consume your content once and know your name, or the entire audience at TED and Davos listen to your podcast at least once a month? I’ll take the latter every time.

When in doubt, read Kevin Kelly’s “1,000 True Fans” and niche down. If you want to be widely known later, focus narrowly first.

Even though episodes might have trouble spreading, some of these bigger shows like yours have the power to send an immense amount of traffic or interest to a guest or a product. What’s been the most powerful example of that on your show? Have you seen the “Tim Ferriss Effect” work in audio as well as it has on your blog?

It’s exceeded all expectations. I didn’t expect audio to be as powerful as it is. Text, after all, has plenty of direct links. And no one will listen to a 2-3-hour podcast, right? Well, let’s consider some history.

The “Tim Ferriss Effect” from the blog (it can outsell CNN TV spotlights, major op-eds, etc.) took a long time to establish, perhaps 4-5 years.

The podcast hit the “sell out” impact in less than 12 months. Just a few example that come to mind: It has helped launch a book to #1 New York Times bestseller (e.g. SEAL Jocko Willink episode), it can outsell full-page features and ads in the NYT or Esquire (e.g. sponsor Mizzen+Main), it can take used book prices to nearly $1,000 on Amazon (e.g. billionaire Chris Sacca episode), and — my fave hilarious example — my episode with Dom D’Agostino sold out Wild Planet sardines in Whole Foods around the country (one typical tweet). This is fun for guests, too. One A-list actor told me the impact matched a big studio movie launch. Eric Weinstein, a well-known Silicon Valley mathematician-investor, mentioned his favorite movie was Kung-Fu Panda in our conversation, and the writer reached out to him that same week on Twitter. It’s wild.

My theory is that more media — and busy people, in general — listen to the podcast as a second activity (e.g. during commutes) than would consume my usual five- to 20-page blog posts. It’s a blast to see text pieces in the NYT and WSJ that mention the podcast and its guests, or to get contacted by CNN after an episode on psychedelic research, which turned (in that case) into a huge nationwide TV segment, which then helped me fuel research at Johns Hopkins.

As a follower of your site, I notice you tend to write less now. You’ve done short episodes that I imagine in the past would have been blog posts. Do you think podcasts are a replacement for blogs?

No, I think they’re complementary. Either can lead to the other. These days, I’m writing fewer posts but ensuring they’re comprehensive (e.g. my “startup vacation” post, podcast business post), which gives them evergreen staying power. I’m focusing on audio largely because I’m enjoying it and fans are asking for more.

One of the things that struck me after appearing on your show was the people I heard from. It wasn’t so much the quantity — though it was a lot — but much more the quality. I heard from NFL coaches, managers for some of the world’s biggest bands, authors, even people I know really well but didn’t peg as podcast listeners talked to me about it. The only similar experience for me was when I did a big NPR show. Is it just that smart people listen to podcasts?

This happens to nearly every guest, and there could be a few explanations.

First, both NPR and I take our time. I don’t dumb things down, and I go as long and as deep as necessary to uncover good stories and tactics listeners can use. Smart content, which I try and create, attracts smart people.

Second, at least 50% of the celebs, power brokers, and experts who’ve appeared on the podcast were regular listeners of the podcast first. In other words, the type of people who appear on The Tim Ferriss Show also listen to it…just multiplied thousands of times over.

That begs the question — why? It was partly luck and partly by design. The 4-Hour Workweek first became popular among tech startup founders and investors in Silicon Valley and NYC, and they were the tipping point, sending it to #1 NY Times and keeping it on the NYT business bestseller list for more than 4 years straight, unbroken. These readers were also kind enough to rebroadcast my work into every imaginable industry and subculture. Subsequently, I realized this could be done deliberately in different worlds to create an interwoven network of thought leaders. If The 4-Hour Workweek immersed me primarily into the business and travel worlds, then the content of The 4-Hour Body spread me into the highest levels of sports, nutrition, and military (as they obsess over training). The 4-Hour Chef did the same for culinary, but also for media and publishing due to the buzz and controversy surrounding Amazon Publishing, the launch of which was announced in the NYT with the acquisition of my book.

This combination of good luck and planning has led me to the most incredible audience I’ve ever been exposed to. I learn 10x more from them each week than I put out.

Marc Maron and Simmons have both had Obama on. Who is your dream guest for the show? You’ve had some amazing ones, obviously, but if you could get anyone on the show, who would it be?

This one is easy — Oprah.

I’ve followed her since high school, and she’s been a force for good for decades. She’s stayed that course, even when it’s been incredibly difficult. Not many people can walk that walk when their feet are to the fire.

To have tea with her and really connect would be a dream come true.

I’m not in a rush to pitch her, and I’m happy to let the universe decide timing, but it could happen. I’ve been fortunate to interview some wonderful people who know her, including Jamie Foxx, Tony Robbins, and others.

If you had to give one piece of advice to someone asking themselves: “Should I start a podcast?” what would it be?

Do it, but commit to doing SIX episodes.

Even if they’re short and you never publish them, this volume is enough to learn lessons that transfer elsewhere else. It’s a minimalist experiment for improving overall thinking: improving your ability to ask questions, fixing verbal tics (e.g. “ummm” “ahhhh”), getting better at listening without interrupting, learning to sit with silence until someone else continues, etc. Even if your format isn’t interviewing, perhaps like Hardcore History (my fave), you’ll improve your ability to craft good narratives, tell stories, and be a better human. We are hardwired to be story-telling and question-asking machines; you might as well be good at it.

One to two episodes isn’t enough to hit the hockey stick in the learning curve, so commit to six.

Just be forewarned: you’ll likely hate listening to yourself. I was mortified. I’m very insecure about my own voice, but over a few episodes, you learn to curse, exhale, smile, and say “What the hell…let’s try it again.” This is what we want — by facing your own rough edges, you polish them or eventually accept them.

Rule No. 1: Relax. No one’s going to die. Just get a little better each time.

Rule No. 2: Keep it simple. This applies to format, gear, editing, everything. Constantly ask yourself “What would this look like if it were easy?”

Rule No. 3: Be yourself — weirdness, warts, and all. In podcasting, this is a huge competitive advantage… and a huge relief. Have fun with it.

Tolkien-Annotated Map of Middle Earth

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016

A map of Middle Earth, annotated by JRR Tolkien himself, has been acquired by the Bodleian library in Oxford. It was found in illustrator Pauline Baynes’ copy of The Lord of the Rings:

The annotations, in green ink and pencil, demonstrate how real his creation was in Tolkien’s mind: “Hobbiton is assumed to be approx at latitude of Oxford,” he wrote.

Map of Middle Earth Annotated by Tolkien

The geographical pointers were intended to give Pauline Baynes, the artist who was creating an illustrated map of his world, guidelines about the climate of key sites in the story. “Minas Tirith is about latitude of Ravenna (but is 900 miles east of Hobbiton more near Belgrade). Bottom of the map (1,400 miles) is about latitude of Jerusalem,” he advised.

“‘Elephants appear in the great battle outside Minas Tirith (as they did in Italy under Pyrrhus) but they would be in place in the blank squares of Harad – also camels.”

Baynes was the only illustrator Tolkien approved, and he also introduced her to his Oxford friend CS Lewis, which led to her illustrating all of his Narnia books.

Map of Middle Earth by Pauline Baynes

Her poster map, published in 1970, was bordered with the first illustrations of Tolkien’s characters, but was based on the fold-out map in the first volumes of the 1954 Ring trilogy, which had been drawn by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, to his father’s meticulous instructions.

Baynes tore the map out of her own copy and took it to Tolkien, who covered it with notes, including many extra place names that do not appear in the book. Since most were in his own invented Elvish language – spoken fluently by the many devoted fans – he helpfully translated some: “Eryn Vorn [= Black Forest] a forest region of dark [pine?] trees.”

He dictated the colours of the ships and the emblems on their sails: “Elven-ships small, white or grey … Numenorean (Gondor) Ships Black and Silver … Corsairs had red sails with black star or eye.”

Prepared for Dracula’s Minions

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

In Chapter XIX of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, our heroes explore the London property that Harker helped the Count buy:

A few minutes later I saw Morris step suddenly back from a corner, which he was examining. We all followed his movements with our eyes, for undoubtedly some nervousness was growing on us, and we saw a whole mass of phosphorescence, which twinkled like stars. We all instinctively drew back. The whole place was becoming alive with rats.

For a moment or two we stood appalled, all save Lord Godalming, who was seemingly prepared for such an emergency. Rushing over to the great iron-bound oaken door, which Dr. Seward had described from the outside, and which I had seen myself, he turned the key in the lock, drew the huge bolts, and swung the door open. Then, taking his little silver whistle from his pocket, he blew a low, shrill call. It was answered from behind Dr. Seward’s house by the yelping of dogs, and after about a minute three terriers came dashing round the corner of the house. Unconsciously we had all moved towards the door, and as we moved I noticed that the dust had been much disturbed: the boxes which had been taken out had been brought this way. But even in the minute that had elapsed the number of the rats had vastly increased. They seemed to swarm over the place all at once, till the lamplight, shining on their moving dark bodies and glittering, baleful eyes, made the place look like a bank of earth set with fireflies. The dogs dashed on, but at the threshold suddenly stopped and snarled, and then, simultaneously lifting their noses, began to howl in most lugubrious fashion. The rats were multiplying in thousands, and we moved out.

Lord Godalming lifted one of the dogs, and carrying him in, placed him on the floor. The instant his feet touched the ground he seemed to recover his courage, and rushed at his natural enemies. They fled before him so fast that before he had shaken the life out of a score, the other dogs, who had by now been lifted in the same manner, had but small prey ere the whole mass had vanished.

With their going it seemed as if some evil presence had departed, for the dogs frisked about and barked merrily as they made sudden darts at their prostrate foes, and turned them over and over and tossed them in the air with vicious shakes. We all seemed to find our spirits rise. Whether it was the purifying of the deadly atmosphere by the opening of the chapel door, or the relief which we experienced by finding ourselves in the open I know not; but most certainly the shadow of dread seemed to slip from us like a robe, and the occasion of our coming lost something of its grim significance, though we did not slacken a whit in our resolution. We closed the outer door and barred and locked it, and bringing the dogs with us, began our search of the house. We found nothing throughout except dust in extraordinary proportions, and all untouched save for my own footsteps when I had made my first visit. Never once did the dogs exhibit any symptom of uneasiness, and even when we returned to the chapel they frisked about as though they had been rabbit-hunting in a summer wood.

I don’t remember that scene from any of the movies.

(This came up when @MorlockP declared, “No need for cats; turns out that nanodog is an EXCELLENT rat-killer. Prob wiped out 40 or so over the last few months!”)

The One About Rabbits

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

What is the evidence that people despair in The West? Bruce Charlton offers this:

Two bits of evidence came to mind while thinking about Richard Adams’s great fantasy novel Watership Down (1972) — the one about rabbits. If you have not yet read it: you should give it a try: I will try to avoid spoilers.

During their adventures, the heroes come across two contrasting dystopias: Cowslip’s Warren, which superficially seems like a hedonic, lotus-eater’s paradise; and Efrafa which embodies military virtue of courage, loyalty and organization.

But although both warrens have good qualities, each has a sign that something is very wrong, and indeed intolerably, fatally wrong — and these are signs we see in the modern West.

In Cowslip’s Warren the ‘poet’ rabbit is a kind of degenerate who tells ‘decadent’ stories of despair, paradox, unattainable yearning, the beauty of horror — and the traditional encouraging stories of the rabbit’s trickster-god El-Ahrairah are regarded by the Warren with embarrassment as being childish, simplistic, outdated.

Something is deeply wrong when the creative artists communicate inversions of the Good.

And in Efrafa, for all the efficiency and technical capability, the does (female rabbits) have stopped reproducing (by reabsorbing their kittens): a sign of their profound stress and despair.

I feel this way about our civilization. Our most admired and accomplished art is despairing, our women have (all but) stopped reproducing.

Whatever else is happening is pretty much irrelevant: these signs indicate extreme, underlying despair — which despair is what underpins our self-hatred, our inability to defend our values, the active but denied pursuit of cultural suicide.

Seb Lester

Friday, April 29th, 2016

Seb Lester is an artist and designer who has fallen in love with calligraphy and now makes videos of his handiwork:

Kermit and Cookie Monster and the Mystery Box

Saturday, April 16th, 2016

Kermit and Cookie Monster and the Mystery Box goes back to Sesame Street episode 3546, from the 20th season (1988–1989):

The 21st was Henson’s last.