But she's got a great personality

In case you missed this episode of the ubiquitous public radio flagship This American Life, the episode Tell Me I'm Fat is one of the best I've heard in years. 

I like to think of myself as a person who tries to be aware of his own biases and works to mitigate them. This episode more clearly illustrated the human cost my bias against fat people helps produce than anything I've read or listened to before. 

This isn't a comprehensive deep-dive into all the medical and social aspects of obesity; that would consume far more than an hour. It's a collage of voices, speaking from experience. If you have only a few minutes, listen to Elna Baker's piece (starting around 24:45) about how her life changed when she lost a lot of weight. It starts out rather light hearted, but by the end her honesty is searing and painful. 

Resistance is utile

Radiolab produces such high-quality shows that I just assume everyone listens to it or downloads the podcast. If you don't, I'd like to nominate it as an achievable new year's resolution. 

They've been revisiting some of their greatest hits, and I highly recommend this rebroadcast of "The Bad Show." One of the pieces delves into the Milgram experiments in compliance, in which unwitting participants were persuaded to deliver potentially lethal shocks to what they thought were real experimental subjects. An astonishing percentage allowed themselves to be pushed into an apparently immoral act at the urging of a white-coated researcher. Their compliance is often touted as proof that human beings are easily swayed to evil. 

The section about the experiments starts at 13:00. What makes Radiolab great is that they don't just accept the standard interpretation of the results. They interview professor Alex Haslam, who thinks we've totally misjudged Milgram's work. 

Milgram ran many additional experiments to see what conditions would reduce the chances that the participants would deliver the shock. When they could see the subject, fewer people delivered the shock. When they had to hold the subject's hand to the shock plate, even fewer.

You know what reduced the compliance rate to zero? When the white-coated experimenter told the participant "You have no other choice" but to continue.

No one who was told they had no choice went through with the shocks. 

What a powerful thing it is, to be reminded of the fact that we have a choice in our actions. It's a form of mindfulness, one that is easy to lose as you walk in a beseeching world, cajoled by the endless figures who benefit by your compliance. Even between the sparring voices you hear when alone in the quiet, you have a choice. That's useful information in a season in which many of us consider how we might strive to be a little better. 

Caught with your plots down

I've been enjoying the Story Shop podcast, a series from the guys who do the Self Publishing Podcast. It's a standalone series of 9 episodes, released at once for easy binging, that focus on improving both the speed and quality of your writing. 

Some context: from what I understand about self publishing (or indie publishing, as it's often labeled), the field favors authors with a deep catalogue. Indie publishing, which primarily relies on e-book sales, isn't particularly profitable for authors with one or two works. Those who build a fan base with a popular series, or serialized works, are more successful. Writing a lot while preserving quality is essential. The three collaborating authors behind the Self Publishing Podcast use the mantra "Write, Publish. Repeat." to summarize their approach.

While I'm not yet sold on indie publishing (for me), I know I can still benefit from some advice on how to get the lead out when it comes to putting words on the page. 

The Story Shop series focuses on the value of preparation before the actual writing process begins. I've been bad at planning my writing, and it's led to some abysmally plotted books, as well as some works I bailed out on after writing myself into a dreadful corner. Right now, though, I'm working on a book I'll actually finish, and it's because I took my friend Robert V.S. Redick's advice, and sketched the entire plot as a short story before I began. The difference is amazing. While I still practice frequent "pantsing," or writing from the seat of my pants, I'm increasingly seeing the value (for me) of working out the beats and fleshing out characters somewhere before I hit a crisis point in Chapter 12. 

Edit: I don't quite agree with their definition of macguffin (Episode 4) but this isn't a MA creative writing course; it's a conversational brain-dump from some incredibly prolific writers. 

All I need is an automated car and a GPS to steer by

Haven't I mentioned the podcast 99% Invisible before? That was an oversight.

In this episode, they talk about driverless cars and the "automation paradox," which goes something like this:

  1. Humans are weak at performing a dangerous task.
    Example: Navigating with a paper map while driving in unfamiliar places.
  2. We create a form of automation that replaces our imperfect performance
    Drive with a GPS and allow it to perform all the navigation for you.
  3. People become weaker at the task because they increasingly rely on the automated solution.
    When was the last time you used a paper map to locate something?
  4. When automation fails or doesn't perform as expected, humans are more prone to failing at the difficult task.

As part of the discussion of driverless vehicles, this episode touches on a question that's been intriguing me for some time. It has to do with how we handle it when someone is killed by a driverless car.

The vast majority of vehicle accidents are due to human error. Automation will reduce that number, but there will still be collisions, and lives will be lost. Right now, we have a two-tiered means of addressing the responsibility for damage to lives and objects: we hold the individual responsible, and we distribute some of the financial liability throughout all drivers in the form of insurance.

But what happens when the fault is in the software, and virtually all cars are running on a single platform (Google)? Will the company take on the cumulative liability of the fatalities caused by errors in their product? Or do we establish a national fund to dispense payouts in the event of fatalities?

That liability might be too great even for Google to bear, but would a tax-funded system amount to a massive governmental payout to private industry? And would the industry actually have less incentive to perfect their technology and save lives, since they would be insulated from liability? 

Anyway, 99% Invisible is all about design, and it's pretty great. Listen to the full episode, with lots of supporting video, right here.

What being an expert really sounds like

I've written before about the podcast Song Exploder, in which Hrishikesh Hirway takes a song and breaks it down into it component parts. Through interviews with the musician and isolated tracks of instruments and voices, he explores the formative ideas and decisions that created the track. If I had to pick a favorite podcast, it would get the nod. 

This particular show is utterly amazing, because it describes the unexpected results when The Long Winters brought in guest drummer Matt Chamberlain, described as "the best in the country" to lay down tracks on their tune The Commander Thinks Aloud. Chamberlain played 5 tracks, one after another, then... well, it's pretty cool to hear songwriter John Roderick describe it.  

Listen to the entire show below, or click here to jump directly to the piece about Chamberlain's contribution, at 8:40. 

Podcasts for writers

I've been writing for most of my life, but only in the last couple years have I focused on learning about the world of publishing. 

Like many authors with a full-time job, I have limited time to write. I dislike diverting that time into any task that doesn't put more words on a page. But words won't magically find an audience. My goal is to get some of my stories and my book(s) into the world and in front of as many eyes as possible. To accomplish that, I need to understand the publishing world. 

Since I can't write in the car, my drive time is perfect for listening to podcasts geared at authors. There are a lot out there. I'm inclined toward concise, real-world information from professionals in the publishing world*. I listen to both "craft" oriented programs, which focus on writing technique, and business oriented ones about getting published. Here are a few of my favorites:

Narrative Breakdown: Covers a wealth of storytelling tips and techniques, often referencing popular books, movies, and TV shows. Its panel discussions and interviews address both the craft of writing and the business of publishing.  

Writing Excuses: I had to appreciate the tagline: "Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart." This is a fast-paced, no-nonsense program packed with great info and perspectives. The topics are focused and often very pertinent to my own work. It's kind of an ugly website but a great resource. Probably my current favorite. 

Author MBA: "To thrive in the new book economy, today’s most successful authors think like an entrepreneur and treat their books like a business." 

Writer 2.0: Writer and professor A.C. Fuller interviews authors and other professionals. "Featuring interviews with authors, journalists, screenwriters, and publishing experts, the show will illuminate the writing process, explore the publishing industry, and discuss excellent books." 

* I don't spend time on inspirational or motivational podcasts, only because they aren't particularly useful for me. Likewise, I lose interest in podcasts that clearly function as a marketing platform for their producers and feature a great deal of self-promotion. Not that these can't provide useful information, but the signal-to-noise ratio can be painfully low.