21 episodes

Numlock News is a daily morning newsletter that pops out fascinating numbers buried in the news, highlighting awesome stories you're missing out on. Every Sunday, Walt Hickey interviews someone cool. Sometimes he records it in quality befitting a podcast.


The Numlock Podcast Walter Hickey

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Numlock News is a daily morning newsletter that pops out fascinating numbers buried in the news, highlighting awesome stories you're missing out on. Every Sunday, Walt Hickey interviews someone cool. Sometimes he records it in quality befitting a podcast.


    Numlock Sunday: Zach Weinersmith talks A City on Mars

    Numlock Sunday: Zach Weinersmith talks A City on Mars

    By Walt Hickey
    Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
    This week, I spoke to Zach Weinersmith, who with his wife Kelly Weinersmith wrote the brand new book A City On Mars: Can we settle space, should we settle space, and have we really thought this through?, which is out this week.
    I loved this book. I’ve been looking forward to it for years since they announced it, and I loved their previous book, Soonish. It’s an in-depth look at what exactly it’s going to take to get a permanent human settlement on another world. Zach and Kelly investigate not just the physics problem of getting people and material there, but also the long-term social, legal and biological issues inherent in this kind of venture. It’s an amazing read, and it’s available wherever books are sold.
    Beyond A City on Mars, Zach can be found at his iconic webcomic, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and you should check out his other books, which include Soonish and Bea Wolf, his children’s book adaptation of Beowulf.
    Remember, you can subscribe to the Numlock Podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. This interview has been condensed and edited.
    Zach, thank you so much for coming on.
    I'm excited to talk about space nerd stuff.
    Boy, are you. You have written a book called A City on Mars. You ask all sorts of really exciting questions throughout the book. It is not just a book about the physics of getting to Mars, which I think a lot of people fixate on. It is a book about sociology. It is a book about how communities work. It is a book about all sorts of different exciting things. Your research process was incredibly thorough. I guess just before we dive in, what was it like to write this thing? What was it like to report it out and dive into the science?
    Oh man, it was kind of awful. And you know what it was? I think when you do pop science, there's this fantasy you have of, "What if I got a topic and I was out ahead of other people and it was really controversial and awesome." And you'd think that would be romantic and be like a montage. But we were so anxious, because we felt like we were really going against a lot of strongly held views by smart people. And when you do that, you feel like you really have to know what you're talking about so that you can stand your own when they are going to come at you.
    And so the result of that, and our just general dorkwad-ery, was that there was just a ton of primary and technical source reading, which is awesome. Actually, it's like what I do in my free time, as a boring person. But when at some point I was reading a hundred-something pages a day of hard stuff and like you roll out of bed and you're like, "What? I have to read 50 pages of seabed international law to understand that!" It was brutal. I mean absolutely wonderful kitchen table conversations during this time, but it was tough.
    Yeah, a lot of it is very compelling because again, you've had some of the finest minds that our society's produced consider what it would take to get us into space and stay there. And that I imagine has got to be a lot of fun. But then you also, you really consider all sides of this, man. You’ve got sociology, but you just mentioned you have the law.
    There's a lot of legal precedent when it comes to these interesting spaces that are not owned land but nevertheless are important. Do you want to walk people through the structure of the book and what angles you take and how you dive in?
    So we ended up artificially separating it into six sections, which hopefully I can actually remember, because we fussed a lot with the structure; this is a book that, as you say, goes from lots of angles. There were lots of options for how to structure it and we actually originally had it as we'll go through orders of magnitude from one person to 10 people, then 100 people. And it just turns out, I learned that sociologists don't believe there are actual meaningful, emergent obvious things different between a hundred and a thousand people wh

    • 30 min
    Numlock Sunday: Justin McElroy, Chicken Sandwich War correspondent

    Numlock Sunday: Justin McElroy, Chicken Sandwich War correspondent

    Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
    This week, I spoke to Justin McElroy, who you might know from his work on the podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me or The Adventure Zone.
    Wednesday will mark a shocking milestone: As of September 13, the Chicken Sandwich Wars will have gone on longer than the armed conflict of the American Civil War. Yes, the conflict between quick-service restaurants over who has produced a desirable chicken sandwich offering began in August 2019, what feels like a lifetime ago, and nobody has covered this more persistently than McElroy on his Munch Squad podcast within a podcast.
    I’m a big fan of his work, and in addition to this devastating conflict we also chatted about increasingly unhinged limited time offerings, his multiple bestselling comic books, and the current “Steeplechase” season of The Adventure Zone.
    All this can be found at TheMcElroy.family.
    This interview has been condensed and edited.
    Justin McElroy, thank you so much for coming on.
    Thank you for having me in this important journalistic endeavor.
    This is a critical moment. We find ourselves at the week the Chicken Sandwich Wars will have gone on longer than the American Civil War. You have been on the ground covering this day by day, hour after hour.
    At what point do we just recognize that this is the second American Civil War? I mean it's all the bad blood, brother versus brother versus colonel. It's got everything.
    Why don't you take us back to the beginning? Munch Squad, a podcast within a podcast on My Brother, My Brother and Me, has been dedicated to covering the latest and greatest in food offerings, as you'll go on to explain. Chicken Sandwich Wars have been dominating this for years now at this point. How did this start?
    I have always been, and I think I got this from my dad, I've always been sort of a sucker for— I mean, I don't know how to say it other than just marketing. I'm like an absolute sucker. A lot of that is me being willing to just sort of go with it, and finding that I'm happier if I'm not fighting the thousands of advertising messages that are being sent to me on a daily basis. I just kind of go with it. I love to try new consumer products, and I know that's goofy, but whenever you would go to Columbus, Ohio, it's a popular test market for new products so you'll see drinks you hadn't heard of before, whatever. Dad would always do that when we were kids. Any new drink, he would come home with a 12-pack like, "All right, guys, this is the new Crystal Pepsi, they're calling it, so you guys have got to try this."
    Yeah, anytime I see new stuff like this, it comes from a genuine place. I genuinely think it's fascinating. What I love, though, is when I find out that these companies have to put out press releases for these dumb products. No matter how dumb the thing is, they’ve got to let people know about it and someone is tasked with the job of writing the press release for something that is a sentence.
    I mean it's always a sentence, right? "We now have a chicken sandwich." "We are Dunkin' and we put beer in coffee, and you can buy it at the store. Please go buy it." I did one a few weeks ago that was like, "Extra gum has a new pink lemonade flavor. Here's the press release." It's like, how would anybody know that's even a new product? If I saw that, I’d assume they’ve sold it for 20 years. It's just wild and I think that that's really funny.

    The first one I did was Taco Bell doing the naked chicken taco, which is when they made a taco shell out of a chicken breast, and it's so vulgar.
    Everything about it is vulgar! It makes me want to be a vegetarian. It's a vulgar exercise, and I was like, "This is too great. I’ve got to share this with people." That was back, I don't know, 2016, around there or something like that, and we just kept going with it because the press releases just kept getting wilder.
    It slows down sometimes. But there's always new stuff to make fun of, and I just think that it's gr

    • 32 min
    Numlock Sunday: Ashley Carman talks tumultuous times for the audio business

    Numlock Sunday: Ashley Carman talks tumultuous times for the audio business

    By Walt Hickey
    Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
    This week, I spoke to Bloomberg’s Ashley Carman, who writes the Soundbite newsletter. Here's a recent thing what I wrote about it:
    The hottest thing in music touring right now is selling affluent 30-somethings their old eye shadow and tight pants back for a considerable markup, with alt-rock bands making a killing on the road. The forthcoming When We Were Young festival in Vegas has sold 160,000 tickets, Blink-182’s North American tour just wrapped with $85.3 million gross on 564,000 tickets, which follows a 2021 outing by Weezer, Green Day and Fall Out Boy that grossed $67.3 million on 659,062 and an $88 million My Chemical Romance tour. Anyway, if any bookers want to take a look at my high school iPod Mini, I have absolutely categorically figured out exactly what the next three years of successful concert tours are going to be.
    Right now the podcast industry is in utter chaos, the music industry is beseiged by an enigmatic TikTok and the rise of AI, and the main things that appear to be working in the record business are unexpected niches, like country music and Mexican regional music. Ashley’s covered it all, so I wanted to have her back on to chat about it, in audio no less!
    Carman can be found at Bloomberg.
    This interview has been condensed and edited.
    Ashley, thank you so much for coming back on, it's a pleasure to have you.
    Yeah, happy to be here.
    You cover audio; it's a big beat, it has a lot going on, and it's been a really dynamic couple of months it seems, in your field. What's been going on?
    Basically my beat, I started out covering the podcast industry over at The Verge for a number of years, then came over to Bloomberg, still with that intention to cover the podcast world, but also add in some of the music industry, really getting both sides. Obviously, audio can also include audiobooks, all the various genres of audio that exist in this world, but primarily focused on the podcast space and music industry. What's been going on? Podcasting has been having a little bit of a market correction reckoning. The music world is pushing for a whole new streaming model and wringing their hands over generative AI. So, busy dynamic moments on both sides of the industry.
    I recall reading a little while ago that the audio slice of the pie, so to speak, is increasing, but the individual groups within it are rising and falling pretty dynamically. I guess let's talk a little bit about what hasn't really been working super well lately. You've written a lot about the podcast industry and the consolidation that we've seen in that. What's been going on in the past six months; it seems like there's been a serious contraction?
    Yeah. So, essentially the very sped up version of the podcast world up until now is, starting around 2019, you had Spotify enter the space, spending a ton of money, which basically set off this huge gold rush around podcasts. Amazon entered the world with Wondery, adding it onto Amazon Music, Spotify obviously making its acquisitions, SiriusXM, iHeart, which of course has been in audio, and SiriusXM having been in audio, but really in earnest signing big lucrative podcast deals. And that goes on for a few years. You have the live audio craze of Clubhouse, and then this past year, really what's happened is this moment of, okay, we spent a lot of money on these podcast deals and locking up some of these big names in exclusive partnerships, but are we actually making our money back on those deals?
    I think that's what we're starting to see now is this correction of, hey, what were these deals really worth?
    Was this just a super frothy, hyped ecosystem that got us into some financial troubles? So, now, with that in the rearview mirror, some more awareness around the smart deals that could be made, you're seeing some consolidation in the space, even on the smaller network side, who were maybe benefiting from that frothy environment. Now they're like, okay

    • 22 min
    Numlock Sunday: Neil Paine on the rise and fall of NASCAR

    Numlock Sunday: Neil Paine on the rise and fall of NASCAR

    By Walt Hickey
    Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
    This week, I spoke to my friend Neil Paine, a sportswriter at FiveThirtyEight who can also be found at . I’ve been following some recent spat going on in NASCAR between ownership and the different charters; here’s a recent thing I covered about it:
    NASCAR team owners collectively boycotted a quarterly meeting with NASCAR leadership over a kerfuffle over the sport’s business model, which they argue pays track owners considerably more than it pays the racing team owners. The $8.2 billion media rights deal inked prior to the 2015 season splits the money 65 percent to the racetracks, 25 percent to the teams, and 10 percent to NASCAR itself, though there are just two track operators: Speedway Motorsports and, well, NASCAR, which owns most of the tracks on the Cup Series. Team owners don’t like this arrangement, and argue that they have to spend a great deal of time trying to recruit sponsors in order to make their money, saying that sponsorships are 60 percent to 80 percent of the budgets of the 16 chartered teams.
    Fascinating! It’s a corporate battle with billions on the line! What’s not to love here! I knew Neil was into NASCAR and I wanted to talk to him about how the sport got into this mess and what the heck happened to it.
    Neil can be found at FiveThirtyEight and . Incidentally we can also be found out our hockey-related friend podcast .
    This interview has been condensed and edited.
    All right. Hey Neil, how's it going?
    Hey, Walt. Good to be here.
    People know you from many different places, primarily FiveThirtyEight, where you're a sports writer. But I wanted to talk to you today about a thing that I think is going to be very off-topic for a lot of readers in my newsletter and maybe even some reviews in your work, which is some extremely fascinating stuff that's happening in NASCAR, a league that has long existed but has diminished in notoriety.
    You and I have been talking a little bit about this on the side and I am just endlessly fascinated by some of the machinations going on in it. I just wanted to have you on to talk all about it. Do you want to talk a little bit about your experience with NASCAR and what drew your attention to it?
    Yeah, so I'm from the South. I'm from Atlanta and grew up watching the races and following the sport as a child. I think that that was something that was a lot more common at that time. We're talking about the '90s and the early 2000s being the heyday of not just my fan interest but also a lot of people's fan interest in the sport.
    I've recently gotten back into it over the past couple seasons, I don't really know why. I've definitely gotten more into motor sports in general with Formula One also coming back on my radar. That has actually been very popular among American audiences, I think, since you saw the Netflix series Drive To Survive and just people getting into the dramatic aspects of that, not necessarily maybe the on-track drama, but the personalities and the soap opera between the drivers and the teams, and all of the different backstabbing. Machinations is a good word for it that you used earlier.
    You see that in pretty much every motor sport though. I think that people, if they wanted to expand their horizons to a sport like NASCAR, there are so many beefs between drivers in NASCAR. The great thing about NASCAR is in Formula One, you do see sometimes drivers, they will wreck each other in the sense that they won't give someone space around a turn or something and they might touch wheels, or they might run into someone. But when you run into someone, it's the end of their day because the open wheel cars are pretty fragile, comparatively speaking.
    Whereas in NASCAR, these are big freaking tanks of vehicles that can hit each other. Often, there’s this term, "rubbing is racing," where basically if you're not bumping people while you're out on the track, you're not really fighting for position. You can hit someone a

    • 33 min
    Numlock Sunday: Abraham Josephine Riesman on Ringmaster

    Numlock Sunday: Abraham Josephine Riesman on Ringmaster

    By Walt Hickey
    Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
    This week, I spoke to Abraham Josephine Riesman who wrote the explosive new book out this week Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America. I have been looking to this one for a while, I was a massive fan of her 2021 book True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee.
    The subject matter of this one will be of interest not just to wrestling fans but among anyone who has felt the reverberations across pop culture, sports and politics of one extremely complicated family and their very influential “sports entertainment” business.
    The book is out this week and can be found wherever books are sold. Riesman can be found at her website and on Twitter.
    This interview has been condensed and edited.
    Josie, thank you so much for coming on.
    Hey, I'm so glad to be back. Fire away.
    You are out with the new book Ringmaster this week. I have been looking forward to this all year, honestly, since I heard you announced it. Folks might know you from your Stan Lee biography. Both of these stories are about complicated men who worked in the entertainment industry and how it kind of destroyed them, I guess. What drew you to Vince McMahon?
    I was a teenage wrestling fan from the ages of about 13 to 16. I was very obsessively involved in Vince McMahon's product, the World Wrestling Federation, as it was known then. And three years isn't all that long a period of time in adult human years, but in teenager years, those are a century each. It was a time when I was very impressionable, and wrestling made a big impression on me. And after I gave up on it around 2001, I stopped watching for like 20 years. And then when I was done with my biography of Stan Lee, True Believer, I had to come up with something else to write. And I was having a conversation with my wonderful spouse, who ended up being my frontline editor on this, but was not at the time, S.I. Rosenbaum, and we were just chatting about what could the next book be.
    And one of us said, what about a biography of Vince McMahon? Now, she'd reported on wrestling in the past as a local news reporter. Not on the WWF, but on the wrestling world, so she was familiar with him. And I obviously was familiar with him, had a lot of distinctive memories of him, had some knowledge of his real life. But it was, as is true of most people's knowledge of Vince McMahon's real life, ill-informed, because he's very good at deliberately altering your perception of him. So it just seemed like a natural idea. He is this amazing individual whose story had not really been told in the particular way that I wanted to tell it.
    It's a fascinating business story, it's a fascinating cultural story, and we'll kind of touch on each of those elements in a bit. I guess to give folks a little perspective who might not be totally familiar with wrestling, what role does Vince McMahon play in the evolution of it, and what it's become today versus what it was maybe 50 years ago?
    Sure, yeah. Vince is the singular man of professional wrestling right now. There's no one more powerful or influential than him, both in the present and also in the recent past. Of the living people in wrestling, no one has had more of an influence than Vince McMahon. He took over the company from his father, who was a wrestling promoter, like his father before him, in 1982 and 1983. He, over the course of that year, purchased the company from his father and some minority shareholders.
    And after that, Vince sort of went on a war of conquest. Up until then, wrestling had been this largely regional phenomenon. You had regional territories where local bosses, who operated not unlike mob bosses, would dictate what pro wrestling was in that geographic territory. And it was an oligarchy. It wasn't a democracy, but it was an oligarchy. It was not unlike the English nobility circa Magna Carta, where it's like it could have been the beginnings of democracy, but democracy it wasn't. But the fact was that

    • 29 min
    Numlock Sunday: Megan Garber on Misdirection

    Numlock Sunday: Megan Garber on Misdirection

    By Walt Hickey
    Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
    This week, I spoke to Megan Garber who wrote the new essay collection On Misdirection: Magic, Mayhem, American Politics from The Atlantic.
    Megan is a writer at The Atlantic, and the magazine has compiled a number of her essays into the new book. It’s a great read, an exploration into the ways that American political actors have parlayed the techniques of entertainment to their own ends. Today, we talked about amusing ourselves to death, what happens to a country when politics becomes entertainment, and Dwight Schrute. 
    Megan can be found at The Atlantic and the book, as well as several other new compilations of essays from the magazine, is available wherever books are sold. 
    This interview has been condensed and edited.

    Megan Garber, thank you so much for joining us.
    Thanks for having me.
    You have a new book, it's a collection of a lot of your essays at The Atlantic, it's called On Misdirection. What prompted you to figure out this beat and tease out that you were covering misdirection over the past couple years?
    A lot of the things that have really interested me about politics and political discourse, let's say, over the past few years are the ways that we are trained to see each other and then also to not see each other. It seems like so many things, so many of the big political stories, particularly at the beginning of the presidency of Donald Trump, and then up till now, so much has come down to are we seeing what we should be seeing, or are we in fact looking away from what we should be seeing?
    Ideas about vision is actually one of the main drivers of all of these essays, which are very different other than that. I'm a political junkie, I love to follow politics and all of that, but I kept feeling for myself just as a news consumer, "Is this really the most important thing right now?" All these shiny distractions, daily outrages that come and go, and I know I myself, as a news consumer, often feel very addled, almost, and just in a constant state of distraction.
    So these essays really do try to figure out what happens to that form of distraction on a mass scale. If I'm not the only one feeling this, but if a lot of people are feeling this, what are the consequences of that?
    I loved how also you kept it in some of the more conventional forms of media as well, too. I know that a lot of our conversation about distraction has been related to social media and algorithms and kind of blamed on Silicon Valley ghosts that are destroying our brains.
    But a lot of what you talk about is just super day to day. It's the way people talk about other people, whether it's on television or radio or things like that. Do you want to expand on how it's not just necessarily what we're doing online?
    The first essay, actually, is a look-back at the scholar Neil Postman, who's one of my favorite thinkers, critics, et cetera. He wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985 that was looking at the impact of television, essentially, on American culture. And as you might guess from the title, making an argument that the entertainment has slipped the bonds of mere fun and mere escapism and distraction and has actually come into our lives and come to infiltrate lives in a lot of ways.
    Looking at him in retrospect is the first essay in the collection. We chose that specifically because I think one of the other arguments underlining a lot that's in the book is that entertainment, as much as I love it, and I am an inveterate lover of entertainment of all kinds, but it can, I think, also become fairly pernicious when it becomes our standard of judging things in the political realm.
    One example that's in another essay in there is the first impeachment trial of Donald Trump. The talking points, it seemed to me, among Trump's allies had nothing to do with the facts at hand. This was a legal proceeding, conducted by lawyers, by Meta lawyers, in fact, in Congress. Yet the arguments were n

    • 31 min

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Numlock/Walt Hickey provide a great daily email and now a great podcast. Some people have said “Walt Hickey is incredible”, and “the information provided by Numlock News is great for conversation starting, and every day there is a genuinely funny Easter egg if you pay attention”. Both of those people are me. Excited to hear more episodes. Stumbled across SigDigs years ago, and the content there, and now on Numlock, have been consistently great!

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