Pandora for podcasts


Apple is a company that makes investors and entrepreneurs alike tremble with envy.  Sleek new smartphones, products that create entirely new markets (iPods, iPads), and an online music store that has found a way to monetize some of movement to online music.  But there is one flaw so glaring on the Apple facade that leaves many increasingly irritated: the inability to sync.

I am lucky enough to have a home laptop, a work desktop, an iPhone and two iPods (mainly for long car trips) and I devour podcasts at a prodigious rate (see aforementioned trips as well as long hours spent at the bench).  Check any one of these devices and you will seldom see any overlap in the podcasts.  I constantly have to re-upload the latest editions, re-connect USB cables, and re-download new subscriptions.  But lately I’ve found stitcher.

Stitcher radio is a bit like Rhapsody and Pandora all mixed together.  It’s web-based podcast radio.  You have one user-generated account and in it you can “favorite” your usual podcasts (searching through my standards only one was not in the stitcher library: NPR 7AM ET News Summary).  It then keeps track of what you’ve listened to, downloads the latest editions, keeps an order, and automatically syncs anytime you log in.  Oh, and there’s an iPhone app.  No more awkwardly transferring from the iPod app to the iTunes store app, waiting for a download, etc.  Since it’s all on-demand, it just starts streaming the podcast just like Pandora!



If you’re like me and always looking for new podcasts, it’s got you covered: click on a single podcast and there’s a ‘find similar’ button.  Or simply go to the playlists of what’s currently most popular, what the staff recommends, etc.  I’ve previously used the iTunes store suggestions or Hunch.com’s “tailored” recommendations to varying degrees of success.  The jury’s still out on this, but so far it’s been interesting.

Of course there are downsides:

  • I’ve yet to figure out how to download older episodes.  For instance ,the Moth is a great live story podcast and there’s no reason why last week’s story is irrelevant, so I’d like to be able to call it up.
  • Like I mentioned, it has yet to offer every podcast.
  • It’d be nice to see it have a recommended list of podcasts to check out based on my current favorites and other podcasts I’ve thumbs upped (undoubtedly this option exists I’m too slow to have figured it out).
  • And finally, there’re ads.  Granted the ads are usually 20-30s promos for stitcher itself, but given that most successful podcasts now start and/or end shows with the hosts plugging audible.com, carbonite.com, or stitcher.com, you may have three annoying bits in a row.
  • My iPhone does not connect to my car’s stereo, but my iPod does (thanks Apple for lack of backward’s compatibility, way to try to shill more money out of me).

Overall, these flaws are exceedingly minor for the service stitcher provides.  Can I guarantee I’ll still be using this app in six months?  No.  But at least for the moment it’s worth playing with and incorporating into my daily life.

Media Type: iPhone App (also available for Blackberry, Android and Palm)
From: Stitcher
Title: Stitcher
Try it at: http://stitcher.com/home.php

Back in my day, we knew how to party

With Washington’s Warnings wandering within my wits whilst working (so close!), I stumbled upon the latest Intelligence Squared podcast: “Is the Two-Party System Making U.S. Ungovernable?”  The Oxford-style debate featured the media-darling Arianna Huffington and NY Times columnist David Brooks arguing the motion against the charming PJ O’Rourke and the Zev Chafets who by far had the more quotable lines.

Having grown up in America the words “Oxford” and “debate” immediately give my mind free-license to roam; but these podcasts are almost always entertaining if not informative and this one in particular delivered the goods on both accounts.

Over the past four or so years, my opinions on US politics have matured and developed but my interest in longer-term trends have come to the forefront.  I’ve noticed that there is never a shortage of people claiming we live in an extraordinary time, or that in this age things are really different.  Yet no matter what revolutionary new tool or system is set up there is invariably something in our past to compare it to.  For instance, the tech and finance bubbles are hardly new as railroad speculation and savings & loans brought about similar market enthusiasm in “new business models” that saw a subsequent crash.  And for anyone who really thinks Obama’s victory was groundbreaking and unique I beg you to read Ted White’s The Making of the President 1960, which is built off his notes following around the candidates of that election.  The young, minority senator struggled to make connections to the middle class and blue-collar workers, while his more experienced opponent abandoned the center to appeal to his ‘core supporters.’

In my opinion, and well articulated by the ‘nays’, it is a similar story with our current “deadlock.”  We seem to forget that barely ten years ago, government effectively stopped to delve into the insignificance of marital fidelity in the White House.  A few years prior government literally shut down over partisan politics.  For those who think though, that our current situation is far worse we have only to look back to that inconvenient period of history called the Civil War, when political battles traded rhetoric for bullets.

This debate initially seemed in the hands of Huffington and Woods, who effectively argue that America has lost some of its luster: social mobility has diminished, real wages have dropped, and the wealth gap has continued to expand.  But somewhere around the midpoint of the debate O’Rourke manages to make the fatal point that it is asinine to blame these things solely on a two-party system and that the ‘yeas’ have no alternative to offer.  A brief mention of one-party rule by Arianna sent a noticeable chill on the forum.  And while Huffington argues that government only finds “sub-optimal solutions,” all pundits find any compromise “sub-optimal,” a compromise by definition is not getting all that you wanted!

The idea of instantaneous runoff was floated by the audience (whereby if your first choice candidate is not in the top two, your vote goes to your second preference), which in general I think is a good idea.  The city of Oakland recently elected its mayor in this fashion, and interestingly the winner was a good 10+% behind based off just first-choice ballots.

But really, do we need more parties?  As I reflected yesterday, Washington had a clairvoyant’s gift on predicting the discord sewn with parties.  By fracturing the vote into ever more tribes who hold the primacy of different ideas, we risk becoming a populous disconnected from other’s ideas.  As a fiscal conservative, I am forced to confront my political allies’ views on social and global governing.  Were we in a system where I could vote only on the issues I cared most about, I would wash my hands of all others. I may vote for my candidate on my issue and let him decide how all other issues should play out.  Instead in the two party system I’m forced to weigh all the issues.  Of course, in Washington’s utopia I would still have this luxury/responsibility, but the mashup of political agendas would change every election and be more varied.

Media type: Podcast
From: Intelligence Squared
Title: “The two-party system is making America ungovernable”
Hear it at: http://intelligencesquaredus.org/index.php/past-debates/america-divided-us-politics/

Rambunctious youth never listen

I’ve been shopping around a number of podcasts lately due to an uptick in labwork.  Some, like Skeptics Guide to the Universe, help keep my scientific processes in gear while others, like Great Speeches in History, tap into a deeper, visceral interest.  During today’s session I was privileged to hear both Malcolm X appeal for black nationalism and George Washington’s farewell address.

For the record, I’m not black, nor was I raised in an environment were race was an uncomfortable, confrontational issue.  So what was surprising about today wasn’t the outright revolution Malcolm X was striving for, nor the possible ethnic conflict that could’ve resulted, possibly mirroring some of the unrest we see in Sri Lanka, Iraq, or Xinjiang.  Instead, what I found more disrupting was the message that Washington gave as he declined running for a third term as our nation’s first executive.

I confess to long being an admirer of GW.  First hooked in high school, I’ve since read James Flexner’s superb one-volume biography, McCullough’s chronicle’s of that pivotal year 1776, and even the somewhat dull analysis of the constitutional convention: The Summer of 1787.  And while I was as familiar as any student of politics with the immortal warnings against political parties and “entangling alliances” I found myself pausing in my work to listen and contemplate on the advice from an astute actor in both realpolitik and high theory.

Barely over half an hour, the president touches on so many timeless issues: party politics, war, national spending, even the nature of taxes.  By far, his most powerful piece is on parties.  Washington saw the inevitable harm from political parties on accomplishing the real goals of any nation.  That bickering would so obsess the leaders, that national priorities would place second to one-upsmanship.  That region would be turned against region; false, exaggerated stereotypes would isolate us within our own country.  Finally, by luck one party would gain the upper hand and that domination “sharpened by the spirit of revenge” would lead to a new despotism resulting in  “miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual.”  Indeed, history is full of men who’ve played party politics for personal gain: Caesar and Pompey played their factions off each other so well it led to first one and then the other being declared Dictator, Napoleon rode the fighting factions of the revolution.  We complain of bureaucratic and rusted government in Washington and Madison, where petty political tricks and maneuvering have been used more to capture headlines and the next election; as such more power has been ceded to the executive branch in an unheralded number of cabinet-level departments.  In light of the current recession, many in the press have drawn attention to China’s ability to get things done quickly, the underlying tone suggesting our pesky, self-erected impediments could be swept away if we were willing.

Washington continues with prudent talk on government finances.  Regarding public credit he admonishes “use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace .”  But he admits timely spending to prevent danger would ultimately be far cheaper than repelling such danger.  But debt was too be immediately repaid so that we would be “not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.”

It is interesting that in terms of finance, he seems to think only in terms of spending on the military.  There’s nary a mention of a bureaucracy to pay, entitlements to hand out, infrastructure to ‘invest’ in.  And for such a dominated budget, despite being a soldier Washington seems to have fervently detested a standing army, thinking if it existed it would be misused.

Instead of armed conflict, we are told to maintain friendships with all nations, make no new alliances, but not to besmirch our name by removing ourselves from those that presently exist.  Commerce would be our strongest foreign policy move.  It is a message that modern-day globalization supporters would trip over themselves to agree with.

Being Washington, the speech is peppered with remarks praising his audience and peers for so well-designing a government, and that he is but an inept player called to serve his country.  His humility rings genuine and in the end we are left with words which at least touch us.  But it is fitting that much like so many adolescents, we have listened but not heard to what our greatest Founding Father considered his greatest advice.

 

Media type: Podcast
From: Greatest Speeches in History
Title: Washington’s Farewell Address
Hear it at: http://www.learnoutloud.com/Catalog/History/Speeches/Great-Speeches-in-History-Podcast/21306#
(scroll down to nearly the bottom)
Read it at: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp