The Mental Pivot Newsletter: No.16

In this issue: Favorite non-fiction narrative podcasts of 2020, the physics of Santa Claus, the photography of aging, and a garland of curated links.

I love podcasts of all kinds: interviews, news programs, shows with clever hosts, book review programs. My absolute favorite type of podcast is the non-fiction narrative format. These are podcasts that tell compelling real life stories through a combination of carefully edited source material and research. Programs like This American LifePlanet Money, and Radiolab are exemplars of the form.

The very best non-fiction narrative stories are surprising, informative and linger in your mind long after listening. I still think about past favorites like Love+Radio’s “The Living Room” (a voyeuristic story about a New York City couple), Invisibilia’s “How to Become Batman” (a blind man masters echo-location), and Radiolab’s “Juicervose” (a family communicates with their autistic son through Disney movies). These stories resonate because they offer a window into the human condition—through them the listener can share in the experiences of others and gain new insights (both big and small) about how the world works.

Here are my favorite non-fiction narrative podcast episodes of 2020:

  • Darknet Diaries: The Courthouse: A pair of seasoned penetration testers are contracted by the state of Iowa to break into government buildings. Everything goes wrong one night at the Dallas County courthouse, and the testers find themselves caught (unfairly) in a legal quagmire.

  • The Purity Spiral: BBC Radio piece about bitter fights over diversity and racism in an online knitting community and the world of Young Adult fiction. A reminder that—even with the best of intentions and a seemingly just cause—the dangers of orthodoxy, group-think, and intolerance can be taken too far.

  • Reply All: The Case of the Missing Hit: A man is haunted by the memory of a song he heard on the radio many years ago. He remembers the melody and lyrics, but when he looks for it online, the song has all but vanished from the internet. Was it merely a figment of his imagination or did the song truly exist? The resulting efforts the hosts of Reply All go through to solve this mystery will bring a smile to your face.

  • Rough Translation: How to Be An Anti-Casteist: What is "caste privilege," and what does it mean to South Asians in the United States? This program reminded me that there are powerful cultural forces that remain invisible to those of us who are outsiders and the critical importance of learning and awareness to cast aside those cultural blind spots. 

  • This is Love: The Wolves: A bittersweet but emotionally satisfying story about the relationship between two wolves in Yellowstone National Park: a young, powerful wolf and the older, undersized wolf that raised him. Over time, the two part ways and find themselves on opposing sides in a conflict between rival wolf packs.

For another perspective on the best non-fiction narrative podcasts of 2020, check out Sara Larson’s list for the New Yorker which includes excellent programs like Dead Eyes, Wind of Change, Nice White Parents, and Floodlines. 

This Week’s Pick

In college, I had a friend named Greg Williams who was a walking encyclopedia of trivia and pop culture knowledge. One of his favorite publications was Spy, a monthly satirical magazine that skewered politics, the media, and celebrities in the 1980s until its demise in 1998 (link: Wikipedia article).

The 1991 January/February issue of Spy featured an article titled “No, Virginia, There Isn’t a Santa Claus!” (link to the original article as archived by Google Books). The piece was written by Bruce Hardy and offered a humorous explanation—using napkin math, physics, and statistics—on whether or not Santa Claus could deliver toys to all the world’s good children in a single night. Since its publication, the article has made its rounds on the internet, often unattributed, abridged, and heavily altered from the original

Apologies to jolly old Saint Nick and happy holidays.

Articles to Read

Odds & Ends:


Note: Due to the New Year’s holiday, I publish the newsletter on Thursday next week. Meanwhile, the blog is taking a break for the remainder of the year and will resume at the start of 2021.


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