Category Archives: Life

Insomniac with headphonesMy spouse is one of those enviable persons who falls asleep minutes after her head hits the pillow.  And I would be her prime envier, as it is much harder for me to disengage at night.  Things to do, trips to take, ideas to pursue, problems to fix… so much food for thought but so little time to clean the mental plate.

Many people play soft music to help them sleep, but I tend to listen to music analytically, so that usually doesn’t help.  One technique I do use to induce sleep is listening to long, dull podcasts — voices droning on about topics I don’t care about or barely comprehend are effective soporifics for me.

I have bookmarked several such podcasts, which I decided to share here for the benefit of my fellow nerd-insomniacs.  To make this list, a podcast must be at least 30 minutes long and have no ads or jarring theme music.  Speech must be clear and understandable so that one’s brain does not need to work to decipher it.  And extra credit for low-vocal-intonation British or Australian presenters — Americans try too hard not to sound dull.

I give each podcast a Z score, where more Zs correspond to greater monotony.  But I must warn you: repeated listening may lower your ability to remain disinterested.  Naturally, this means the podcast will lose effectiveness as a sleep aid, and you will run the risk of being entertained or learning something.

The Science of Everything   Z Z Z 

A podcast that befits its name, S.O.E. is a series of 98 (to date) 45-to-60-minute monologs by Australian researcher/secularist/philosopher James Fodor.  His podcasts cover topics as wide-ranging as Political Ideologies, Minerals and Rocks, Cell Division, Magnetism and Disturbing Social Psychology Experiments.  Fodor’s comprehensive overviews of his topics resemble long-form Cliff’s Notes.  I do admire the breadth of his interests and the quirky, if not quixotic, nature of his endeavor.  But for insomniacs, many Zs are available here.

Philosophy Now Radio Show   Z Z Z Z Z 

This is a series of 41 radio shows produced between 2011 and 2014 by the London-based magazine Philosophy Now.  Most of them were hosted by the magazine’s editor, the genial and pleasant-voiced Grant Bartley.  He and his guests discussed philosophy basics such as  right and wrong, tragedy in life, free will, and all the usual philosopher-suspects: Socrates, Kant, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein, Hume and Hegel.  Thankfully, for a show about philosophy, there are no annoying arguments about the meaning of trivial words.  However, Grant would often include a musical interlude halfway into the show — best to fall asleep before then.

In Our Time   Z Z Z Z 

In Our Time is a long-running show on BBC Radio 4 in the UK, touching on philosophy, culture, religion, history and science.  Each 40-minute-long show features Melvyn Bragg and two or three guests engaging in a rather orchestrated discussion of topics as diverse as Papal Infallibility, The Muses, Circadian Rhythms, Cicero, and Pauli’s Exclusion Principle.  With over 800 podcasts at your fingertips, it is easy to find something uninteresting.

MCMP Philosophy of Physics   Z Z Z Z 

The Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy, part of the five-centuries-old Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Germany, recorded various workshop lectures on cosmology, gravity, time and relativity, from 2013 to 2015.  Although these podcasts are not posted at the university’s website, 65 of them are still available at  All are in English but they vary in understandability.  I listened to several lectures all the way through, including Leibniz, Mach and Barbour and On Causal Explanations of Quantum Correlations, which shows that some talks are more accessible than others.  But most listeners can easily Z out.

Perimeter Institute Video Library    Z Z Z Z Z 

The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, records all of its public lectures, classroom lectures, and student dissertations.  The public lectures, as the name suggests, are intended for anyone with a sense of curiosity and so are unsuitable for insomniacs.  But the other lectures and dissertations are inscrutable enough to make most people fall asleep — as I am sure many of the attendees do.  The background clack of chalk on chalkboard only enhances the monotony.  Hundreds of lectures are posted here — head for the ones with “field theory” or “condensed matter” in the title.

Your Money & You   Z Z Z 

Your Money & You is a Sunday morning talk-radio show presented on KDKA-AM by the Pittsburgh financial advisory firm Hefren-Tillotson.  The show is hosted by 70-year-old Executive VP James Meredith, who tends to offer reasonable but often rambling advice to listeners and callers.  Meredith can get a little cranky at times and is quite evidently an Anti-Regulation Republican.  The show is fairly boring during the first half-hour when Meredith reviews the week’s financial news — but it reaches and maintains peak boredom for 90 minutes if there is a substitute host.  The firm’s website has the latest four shows.

A Way with Words   Z Z 

This show would seem to have a lot going for it.  Billed as “a public radio program about language examined through history, culture, and family,” A Way with Words sounds like it should be an easy snooze any time of day.  Co-hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett field calls (Hi, this is Sophia, I’m calling from Naperville, Illinois, and I’m thirteen!) about the origins of various American idioms and funny-sounding names.  The hosts keep things light and bubbly and inconsequential.  The problem for insomniacs is not that the show is engaging but that it is so gosh-darn annoyingly bland, one can barely stand listening to it.

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One federal agency that remained open during the ongoing government shutdown is the U.S. Bureau of Thumb Direction Assignment, or USBTDA.  For those unfamiliar with the USBTDA, these are the people who determine whether a given event represents good news (thumbs up) or bad news (thumbs down).  One can visit the USBTDA website and type in any item of personal news — within seconds, bureau experts will analyze your item and assign a Thumb Direction to it: Up or Down.  This service is free, fast and confidential.

I was able to access the USBTDA site a few hours ago and decided to submit a couple of items of my own, to see if the experts were still at work.  Indeed they were, and here are the results:

(1) I haven’t talked with my cardiologist yet, but I did read the report from my cardiac MRI last month, and all the tests were marked NORMAL.  I was happy and relieved when the USBTDA assigned Thumbs Up to this item.  Now I can sleep a little better, knowing that invasive procedures are not part of my immediate future.  Thank you, USBTDA.

(2) I received a response yesterday from the editor of the MDPI Games Journal about the 24-page article on The Price is Right showcase round that I submitted a few weeks ago.  The editor “encouraged” me to resubmit it after “extensive revisions” but mentioned that one of the reviewers thought my article should be rejected outright.  The reviewers made mostly constructive comments but I doubt I will be able to address all of their criticisms.  The experts at USBTDA assigned Thumbs Down to this news item (as expected).  I am not yet sure how I will respond to the editor but I don’t think I will mention the USBTDA.

• • • •

This story has a rather strange conclusion.  Not content to leave matters be, I decided to submit one more piece of news to the USBTDA, namely, that the USBTDA was a figment of my imagination.  When I clicked enter, the site seemed to freeze for a few seconds, then displayed an error message — something like RQ_TIMEOUT — and finally a blank page.  I think what happened is that the experts could not decide whether to say Thumbs Up (thus affirming their own fictional status) or Thumbs Down (viewing their non-existence as bad news).  Faced with this logical impasse, the USBTDA simply vanished.  Either that, or Trump shut them down.  We may never find out.

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The New Abnormal

Your ballroom days are over, baby
Night is drawing near
Shadows of the evening crawl across the years…

— from “Five to One” by Jim Morrison

A month ago today, I took my second ride in an ambulance.  No sirens, no racing through the streets.  In fact, it seemed like an incredibly slow ride.  The only thing that was racing was my heart, somewhere in the 130s as I recall.  Maybe higher.  I don’t remember a lot of details of the ride — I was trying my best to stay calm and trust that the EMTs were doing what they needed to do to stabilize me.  But I was scared as hell.

As it turns out, I have paroxysmal atrial fibrillation (AF).  Paroxysmal means that the AF spontaneously resolves on its own, as mine did during my hospital stay (with the help of some rate-control drugs).  But as I learned from my cardiologist, people rarely have just a single episode of AF.  As he put it, my next episode could be next week or next year, but he was all but certain that my AF will return.

Naturally, I have been doing a lot of reading about AF in the days since my scare.  One of the most informative articles I found was Diagnosis and Treatment of Atrial Fibrillation by Gutierrez and Blanchard in American Family Physician.  It spelled things out for me in extensive but readable detail.  The basic treatment strategy is this: (a) assume the patient will return to AF at some point; (b) but note that rhythm-control drugs have side-effects and have limited effectiveness; (c) therefore, prefer to use rate-control drugs to keep the heart from racing and injuring itself during future AF events; and (d) use anti-coagulants to keep clots from forming in the atrium (and going to the brain) if-and-when AF recurs.

I was already taking a beta-blocker, which is a blood-pressure and heart-rate control drug (the doctor tripled my dose).  But I am now also taking a so-called blood-thinner, which does not thin the blood per se but instead interferes with clotting.  I was sent home with a prescription for Xarelto (once a day) but have since switched to Eliquis (twice a day) since there is less side-effect bleeding with Eliquis.*  I read the research.

I am confident that my new cardiologist (not from our local hospital) now has me on the right course but he is still a bit mystified.  You see, AF is my second heart-related problem. It exists (paroxysmally, for now) alongside my left bundle-branch block (LBBB) which is a type of heart-muscle signal-conduction failure.  In essence, the left side of my heart does not get its own dedicated signal; instead, it has to “borrow” its signal from the right side.  My LBBB was discovered in the aftermath of my first ambulance ride, two decades ago — but who knows how long I had it before then.  What mystifies my new cardiologist is that I have been “walking around” with LBBB all these years and my heart is not in worse shape, to paraphrase his remarks during our visit.

It took me aback when he told me that — blood instantly rushed to the top of my head.  If I may explain:  After my LBBB diagnosis, it took me a good while to shake off the notion that I might suddenly drop dead.  I wandered through a two-year-long panic-infused funk.  So now, my cardiologist telling me not only that my AF will get worse but that my LBBB should have been worse was a one-two punch of cold sober.  It stirred up some of the old panic-funk, which I have been trying to keep at bay since the visit.

The cardiologist has ordered a cardiac MRI to help resolve the mystery.  I hope this will not deliver a third punch.  We will find out more in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, I mourn the loss of some familiar friends.  I can no longer take ibuprofen for headaches or sore muscles because of the bleeding risk.  I can no longer eat grapefruit or cranberries because they interfere with metabolism of the anti-coagulant.  I have had to virtually eliminate caffeine and alcohol, as both of these may trigger new episodes of AF.  Goodbye happy-hour martinis, hello carefully-measured splash of bitters to add flavor to some club soda.  That’s the way it is, as Walter Cronkite used to say.

• • • •

I did debate whether to write and post this.  In the end, I decided it had therapeutic value if nothing else.  I know many others have more painful stories to tell, and this one stands somewhere way back in the line.  I’m sure I will have a different perspective on all of this next week, next month and next year, but right now I’m just laying low, feeling an odd mix of carefulness, thankfulness and loss.

Thank you, Sue.  Bear with me.


* Inexplicably, the hospital cardiologist sent me home with Xarelto, despite the fact that other doctors I saw in the hospital expressed their preference for Eliquis, as did my new cardiologist and my primary physician.  The hospital cardiologist apparently decided that my taking one pill a day (Xarelto), instead of two (Eliquis), was well worth the higher risk of internal bleeding.  Was I involved in the decision or informed of the risks before I was discharged?  Of course not.
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