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Last week I shared a brief reflection on a tiny aspect of my commute. Please check it out it if you haven’t already, it is a quick read.

Wasn’t that nice? It started by introducing some old concepts in a new light—you knew about trains before, and maybe even knew there was a MARC Penn that line goes from Baltimore to DC, but probably didn’t know the specific trains and their timetables. Then it gave you a coherent explanation of a phenomenon you hadn’t known about before. This first caused slight, but not unpleasant, cognitive strain while you were figuring out what I writing about, followed by the small pleasure of an ah-hah moment once the pieces clicked.

It was a brain massage, if you will. It was also complete bull.

Not that anything I wrote was wrong, as far as I know, but I didn’t give many arguments for it being right, either. There were no ridership statistics or arrival times to back up my claims. And even if there were—I didn’t give any alternative hypotheses to explain the situation, nor reasons why those would be less likely than my own explanation. When you think about it, it was more of a brain Twinkie than a massage—all empty calories, with a fleeting feeling of fullness.

Welcome to 99.99999% of the written word, and to anything ever spoken out loud.

We like stories. They need to make a threshold amount of sense (this is why societies universally ostracize schizophrenics). They should contain an element of surprise (it is not that the 7:07 train would come later than the 7:23—twists like that do not surprise anyone any more—it is that it comes in much earlier because people think it wouldn’t). And they get bonus points if—as my last parenthetical implied—they paint the others as stupid or incompetent. There are many more checkboxes; more of them checked, the better the story.

Most professions are based on storytelling. Doctors tell different stories to their patients, each other, and themselves—as do most other scientists, to a different degree. Lawyers tell stories to their clients to make them believe they will craft good ones for the judge, jury, and the opposing side. Ask a marketer what makes a good commercial (spoiler: story).

Being a coal miner doesn’t involve telling stories. No one wants to be a coal miner.

Our minds prefer a good story over a true one, and will have us believe it more, too. However, the more boxes you see checked, the more suspicious you should be that someone manipulated the tale to make it more pleasurable, ergo memorable, ergo believable.

(So, if what you’ve just read made sense…)

If you are looking for an objective truth—or getting as close to it as possible—any medium that involves audio/visual queues will be an impediment. Sights and sounds stir up emotions, and emotions prime us to believe or not to believe. Pay attention to the background music in a documentary, or how the desk of that shifty lawyer they’re interviewing is a complete mess.

TV news is, of course, a joke—this is why comedy shows are becoming the most popular delivery form.

Written word has its own way of deceiving—anecdotes, incomplete data, misquotes, lazy references—all to make a better narrative. Just read anything by Malcolm Gladwell. And look at the time it takes to get to the bottom of just one tiny factoid in that story of the iron content in spinach. Finding truth is exhausting and exasperating, and people whose job it is to find it (hello, accountants) are way less fun than those who make stuff up. Mark Twain said it best:

A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

Misquoted? Most likely. Or is Huff Post wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time.

There is nothing in this post that bigger and better minds than my own haven’t written about already. But that’s a boatload of pages! Not many people have the time, discipline, and interest to read all that—and even if they did, they would keep making the same mistakes over again, as shown in several studies described in those same books (yes, yes, all studies are flawed; one windmill at a time, please). These things are hard-wired, and for a good reason—evolution doesn’t care for objective truths.

Or maybe it does. I don’t know, I’ve just made it up.

The 7:07 train dilemma

Here is a screen grab of the the Marc Penn line southbound schedule.

Marc Penn Southbound

Note train 415, departing Baltimore Penn at 7:00 (I get on at West Baltimore, so in my mind it’s the 7:07 train). Also note train 517—my 7:23, and the times they both arrive at Washington Union Station.

Is it ever worth taking the 7:07?

Well, actually, yes. Because:

  • Most commuters look at the schedule and make the same conclusion that you probably did: waking up at least 16 minutes earlier in the morning is not worth the 7 minute lead time you get in DC.
  • With that in mind, even if they leave early they don’t really rush to the 7:07; therefore significantly fewer people need to get in at each stop compared to the 7:23 and it usually gets to Union slightly ahead of time.
  • Because of more people waiting on the 7:23 it tends to limp along in the last few stops and doesn’t get to Union until 8:15 in the best of days.
  • The 15-20 minute difference does mean a lot if you have to use DC’s abysmal metro which gets crowded by the minute between 8 and 9.

These are the sorts of things you think about when your commute is almost two hours each way. If you would like to read more about extreme commuting (and who wouldn’t?), this old New Yorker article is a good place to start.

June 2014, final tally

  • 4 books read: Ocean at the End of the Lane, Tenth of December, The Golem and the Jinn, Ubiq
  • 2 books re-read: Getting Things Done, Mindfulness in Plain English
  • 1 book half-way through: Embassytown
  • 2 computer games completed: To the Moon, Bastion
  • 3 tabletop games played: Dixit (3 sessions), Pandemic (2), Eldritch Horror (4)
  • 1 used minivan purchased
  • 1 article, 1 abstract submitted
  • 61 km ran
  • 1000+ toddler photos taken
  • 0 tedious field trips made

NIH orientation started today. My commute is 90-plus minutes each way, and the first four months are mostly inpatient. I will have to wait until retirement for another run like this.

A podcast a day

Fun fact: The average Maryland to DC commute is the second longest in the US, right after New York. I should know. Mine will be 90+ minutes, come July 1st. Last week, while I was finishing paperwork at my new employer’s Bethesda offices, the looks people gave me went from incredulity to pity on seeing the Baltimore address on my driver’s license and hearing my explanation that no, since my wife is still at Sinai and usually just walks to work, we won’t move. It’s better for me to take one for the team, I’d say, than have both of us suffer hellish beltway traffic from some midway point.

I could write an essay on how taking one for the team is not entirely true, but the title of this post says “podcast”, and it’s already the second paragraph, so here is my point: My commute will be long. I will need to fill that time with something. Sometimes, that will be strangers talking into my ear about things I don’t understand. Here is my list of strangers, carefully curated after ten years of listening.

Monday: Mac Power Users

Comes out every Monday morning, like clockwork. Great for learning about new hardware, productivity apps, etc. but podcasts are not the best medium for going into the minutia of somebody’s workflow.

Tuesday: Back to Work

Go read this. Having Merlin Mann talk for an hour all by himself would be good enough, but Dan Benjamin—the other half of BTW—is the best podcast host in the business. By using a simple formula, it is easy to mathematically prove that their show is the best podcast ever created.

The first 30 or so minutes are laden with inside jokes and obscure references, but even that is fun after you are several episodes in.

Wednesday: Wait, wait…

It airs each Saturday, but I like alliteration, and there is nothing else good on Wednesdays. I was in Chicago once while it was being taped, but was too late to get a ticket. Now that Carl Kasell is retiring, it’s unlikely I’ll ever be at a live show. So it goes…

Thursday: The Talk Show

Daring Fireball is a better blog than TTS is a podcast—John Gruber and some of his guests tend to ramble—but you can get good insights on baseball and bourbon.

Friday: ATP

One word: Siracusa. There are two other co-hosts, whose main job is not to screw up too badly. They do it well.

Saturday: The Alton Browncast

The John Siracusa-slash-Bret Terpstra of food. Yes, Alton Brown is a national treasure.

The Sunday potpourri

This is the time for irregular shows, or ones that don’t always have something of interest. In order of preference:

  • Radiolab • Fact: this is the best radio show ever created, and an even better podcast.
  • The Incomparable • For geeks, by geeks. Or is it nerds?
  • This American Life • Any co-production with Planet Money is a must-listen. Otherwise formulaic.
  • Systematic • Hit-and-miss, though usually a hit.
  • Technical Difficulties • A tech DYI show with show notes better than some books.
  • CMD+Space • I only listen to it when an interesting guest is on, which is once every couple of months.
  • The Pen Addict • A podcast about pens.
  • JOP podcast • The only oncology podcast worth listening to; the medical podcast landscape is dreary.

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