All posts by Erik Heter

In my professional life I am a patent agent, writing and prosecuting patent applications in the field of electrical engineering for high-tech corporate clients. In my home life I am a husband and a father of one son, football fan (the American kind, that is), a reader of history and many other things (avidly when time permits) and a lover of music (progressive rock in particular), among other things. I'm also a former submariner in the U.S. Navy.

A few Thoughts (not my Own) on Yesterday, where we are now, and where we’re going

The first hour or so of this podcast by Jesse Kelly is an excellent listen. It chronicles events that led up to the American Revolution and puts them in the context of our own times. Most striking is how well he demonstrates the British were out of touch and underestimated the anger of the colonists and ties that to the present bubble of our DC political class. If we are not at the boiling point yet (the title of this episode) we are awfully close, and our political class is doubling down on stupid.

Elsewhere … when you’ve got Tom Woods on your side

Yesterday reminded us that the United States is divided beyond repair.

Joe Biden has said all along that he’ll “unite” America. This is the usual b.s. boilerplate.

How does he plan to “unite” people of radically different and incompatible worldviews?

Of course, there is no serious intention to “unite” anyone. Only a fool believes these platitudes. Like all modern presidents, Biden intends to punish his foes and reward his allies.

I see two groups: one, full of ideological imperialists, wants to impose its vision of the world on everyone, destroying the careers and reputations of anyone who resists. They hold what Thomas Sowell likes to call “the vision of the anointed.”

The other group, which is plenty divided, prefers not to be lectured to, demonized, or ruined.

Everyone once took for granted that the goal was to seize the federal apparatus and impose their own vision on the country.

How about just abandoning this crazy, inhumane task?

Why not admit that the differences are irreconcilable, and simply go our separate ways?

Is this not obviously the most humane solution?

Or is there some expectation that somehow, down the road, we’ll all be reconciled?

How?

To the contrary, it’s only going to get worse.

No doubt the idea of peaceful separation will be dismissed by our betters as “extremist,” but forcing irreconcilable parties to keep waging low-intensity civil war against each other is what is actually extremist.

Radical decentralization and secession, on the other hand, are the obvious and necessary solution.

How do we know they’re the sensible solution? Because no one is allowed to discuss them.

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The State of the Disunion, Part 3

Present Trends Continue …

Part 1 can be found here; Part 2 here)

“A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”

– Abraham Lincoln

            America at the beginning of 2021 is as divided as it was in the beginning of 1861.  Although the sources of the division are different, the magnitude of the division’s depth is the same.  The American electorate of the present can generally be divided into two camps.  One camp believes in the ideals of the Founder and of Western Civilization.  The other camp believes this country’s sins are irredeemable.  One camp believes in the constitution as written and amended.  The other camp believes in the constitution either as an impediment to their designs or as a living document that can be shaped according to their own political will.  Cancel culture runs rampant, and no American icon is safe.  We can’t even agree over which bathrooms to use, and get into arguments about whether men can get pregnant (with some social media banning people who utter such “hate speech).

            What cannot continue, won’t.  And this current state absolutely cannot continue.  Yet with the divisions so deep and the differences so irreconcilable, it’s increasingly hard to imagine any resolution that truly leaves us as “United” per the name of our country.

The Current Trajectory:

       If nothing else changes, the present direction of our country is almost certainly going to leave us worse off.  As outlined in Part 1 of this series, virtually all of our important institutions are broken.  Our constitution serves as nothing more than a set of suggestions to be conveniently ignored by those in power. Cancel culture runs rampant, with rights increasingly denied to those who express the “wrong” opinions.    Our college campuses, far from being a place for the open exchange of ideas, have become hotbeds of intolerance and censorship.  And speaking of censorship, the social media giants have done more than their fair share of that, with warnings, suspensions, and their ministry-of-truth fact checks.  Of course, they have had plenty of assistance from the corporate media.  In Orwell’s nightmare, it would be the government engaging in this kind of thought control.  Even his imagination wasn’t dark enough to contemplate that corporations would willingly pick up the mantle on their own. 

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The State of the Disunion, Part 2

Part 2 – An Election with No Winner

(Part 1 can be found here)

Each time we bathe our reactions

In artificial light

Each time we alter the focus

To make the wrong moves seem right

You get so used to deception

You make yourself a nervous wreck

You get so used to surrender

Running back to cover your neck

– Rush, Stick it Out

            The 2020 presidential election is shaping up to be the most contentious election since 1876 or maybe 1824.  Given the timing of this one, coming at a time when Americans are deeply divided as ever, the long term impact could be much, much greater.

            The problem, as nearly everyone living outside of a cave now knows, is that the election is marred by allegations of fraud.  Some want this fraud investigated thoroughly, while a number of others want to just hand wave the allegations away. 

            I’m going to try to avoid using the names of the candidates in this piece, because people’s opinions on the outcome and the disputed areas are largely driven by personalities, and not facts.  Such is the state of our current disunion.  This piece will simply refer to the challenger as Candidate A, while the incumbent will be referred to as Candidate B.  It may be too much to hope, but if a few people can divorce their opinions from the who of the candidates and focus on the facts, they might be a little more open to examining what really transpired.  I’m not optimistic about this proposition, but maybe a few on the margins will open their eyes and their mind.

Irregularities Everywhere:

            In order to believe that the 2020 presidential election was a free and fair election, one must hold some incredibly unlikely beliefs:

            – One must believe that, after trailing badly in four key swing states on election night that stopped counting votes, Candidate A miraculously received enough  votes to pull ahead in those states over the next few days.

            – One must believe in that pulling ahead, the candidate overcame odds that veer    into the realm of statistical impossibility (over one in a quadrillion to the fourth power, by some calculations – less likely than winning the lottery multiple, consecutive times).

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The State of the Disunion, Part 1

Our Broken Institutions

This brave new world has fallen and decayed
Are there no heroes, just men with feet of clay?

– Arena, Spectre at the Feast

            The United States, to whatever degree we are still united, is approaching the end of a year that more tumultuous than most.  A few years in the 1860’s might have been more so, but as the country stands now, it’s doing everything it can to catch up with that dark time. 

            America in 2020 might be more dysfunctional now than it has ever been in its history.  Certainly, it hasn’t been this bad since the Civil War, the only difference being that we are not shooting each other – yet.  Simply put, every single institution we rely upon to keep this country united has been corrupted and decayed into utter, debilitating dysfunction.  Corruption, cowardice, rationalization, and a lack of the most basic ethics infect all three branches of government, our media, our corporations, and as a result, has eroded our civic life.  We can no longer agree with one another on even the most fundamental ideas of what our country should be. 

            These institutions were built to bind us to some basic agreements while allowing plenty of room above that for spirited, civil disagreement.  Just as we found ourselves in 1861, we are now a house divided.  Worse, our foundation is cracked and may be irreparably damaged. 

Our Dysfunctional Government:

            I’ve long repeated the saying that 99% of politicians give the rest a bad name.  I may be underestimating the number of truly detestable, faithless politicians in our country at the present.

            Throughout history, there seems to be a trend of legislative bodies and their members abdicating their responsibilities while still being able to benefit from their position.  The Roman senate twice gave away absolute power, first to Caesar (which didn’t last for well-documented reasons) and later to Augustus (which put the final nail in the coffin of the Republic).  The senators maintained their lofty status and wealth, all the while having relieved themselves of the responsibility of making hard decisions.  In our own country, state legislatures, through the 17th amendment, relieved themselves of the responsibility to choose senators.  And over several decades now, both houses of our congress have willingly turned over an increasing amount of power to the executive branch. 

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America Returns to Space

It seemed on one hand to be so familiar … and on the other hand, so new.  Launching astronauts into orbit?  Been there, done that.  Launching a new type of capsule-type nasa-spacex-crew-dragon-launch-may-2020-1spacecraft into orbit?  Started doing that in 1961.  Two astronauts in a spacecraft?  Gemini 4, with two astronauts, took off from the Cape in 1965.  Launching astronauts into orbit from Pad 39A of Cape Canaveral?  Many times starting in the 1960’s … including the most famous liftoff of all time.  And despite all that … it was all so new.

It was new in large part because of who was doing it.  SpaceX is not a traditional NASA contractor.  The Falcon 9 rocket which pushed Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley into orbit today was developed almost entirely with private funding, and without any guarantee of a NASA contract for services rendered.  It was the same for the Dragon spacecraft that flew atop the Falcon 9.  The propulsive-landing first stage was also developed by SpaceX.  Thus, in another first, the successful landing of the Falcon 9 first stage marked the first human spaceflight in which the booster stage was propulsively landed, with the possibility of use again in the future.

The Dragon spacecraft itself was something that is sleek, new, and modern, even for the Space Age.  Replacing a dizzying array of switches, buttons, knobs, and analog gauges were an array of touchscreens, neat, clean, and orderly.  The tour of the Dragon given to us by the astronauts earlier this evening showed a spacecraft that is much roomier than the Apollo command module could ever hope to be.  And the entirety of the assembly that roared off Pad 39A was smoother than any crewed launch vehicle to date.

But more than that, this just felt different.  For a mission that was, on one hand, not much more than a simple mission of sending astronauts to the International Space Station, it attracted an inordinate amount of attention.  This might not have been like watching Apollo 11 leave for the moon, but it did seem to garner the same level of interest present when John Young and Robert Crippen took the space shuttle Columbia on its maiden flight in 1981.  There are reasons – transcendental ones – that go well beyond the historic nature of a private company developing and successfully launching a rocket and crewed spacecraft, largely independent of any governmental space agency, that made this mission different.

Elon Musk and SpaceX have made space cool.  Sure, there was a lot of interest in the topic when I was a kid, growing up during and later, in the wake of the Apollo moon landings.  Back then, space was seen as the proper province of government programs and not private entrepreneurs.  And kids like me that were interested in it, well, we were kind of the nerdy ones.  Then public interest faded for decades, with only us die-hards maintaining any real interest in the goings-on off-planet.  Nowadays, Musk’s tireless advocacy for truly opening up the final frontier – backed by his actions in founding SpaceX and leading it to and through days like this – is having a cultural impact that could go far beyond that of Apollo.  Culturally, the impact of that program began fading when Armstrong and Aldrin left the moon on that glorious July day in 1969.  It fell straight off a cliff when Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt left the moon for what was (at least for now) the final time in December 1972, relegating Apollo to museums and history books.

Instead, Musk has got people talking about space.  Not just tech geeks, but average people with no particular reason to be interested in the topic.  My wife, for one, received a text message from another housewife friend today letting her know that the launch was imminent.  That came from a source I would not have expected, which made it’s arrival all the more satisfying.

Moreover, through the heavy lifting (pardon the pun) that Musk and SpaceX are doing, people can now actually talk about sending humans to Mars and living there BB14OBbJpermanently without the snickering and eye rolls of what not too long ago was considered pie-in-the-sky naivety.  When a guy says he wants to send people to Mars and then founds his own rocket company that designs and builds rockets and crewed spacecraft and actually sends them into space, you can no longer brush it off with snide remarks.  When he crushes launch costs and leaves former industry heavyweights like Boeing and Lockheed in the dust, it’s time to stop laughing.  At that point, it’s time to stand up and take notice.

In that vein, one of the most satisfying phenomena I observed today was something that occurred multiple times on Facebook.  Pictures, posted in various groups and pages, by proud parents of their young children, dressed up in homemade space suits, manning the controls of their makeshift spacecraft, waiting for this real-world launch to undoubtedly be followed by their own (for now) imaginary journeys into space.  One little girl even used an iPad for an instrument panel, which was particularly fitting given the description above of the Dragon spacecraft.

You’ll have a hard time convincing most parents that their kids taking such an interest in opening the final frontier is a bad thing, especially given all of the focused study and knowledge that one needs to attain to get there.  Thanks to Musk and his brilliant employees at SpaceX, these kids – unlike the generation of Apollo – may actually get to see the final frontier truly opened, the door kicked in never to be closed again.  These kids, thanks to happenings like the one today, have a real chance of making their dreams into a permanent reality.

Godspeed and Ad Astra.

A Long and Winding Road to Freedom – The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee

Every now and then you read a book that really impacts you.  A book that simply sticks with you, one that, for days after you finish, you can’t get it out of your head – and don’t The Girl with Seven Nameswant to.  It can be a novel, or maybe a non-fiction book, maybe something about history that makes you look at the world in a different way, or stretches you mind into a previously unknown shape.  It may also become something about which you feel absolutely compelled to tell others.  For me, the book that currently occupies that space is the incredible story of a defector from the prison-state of North Korea.

Originally published in 2015, Hyeonseo Lee’s The Girl with Seven Names is not merely a harrowing tale, it is a collection of them.  These are stories that are all too real for the millions born in North Korea and for the intrepid few who dare to seek freedom by attempting escape from its bondage.

Ms. Lee’s book is subdivided into three parts.  The first part chronicles her life from birth until her eventual escape.  It includes multiple moves until her family finally settles in the town of Hyesan, on the North Korean border with China and within sight of the city of Changbai – they brighter lights of which eventually became a lure to the author.  Some of what is revealed is unsurprising – the forced indoctrination, the public executions, the atomization of society, the forced reverence for the pathetically insecure “Dear Leader”.  Other aspects were more surprising – such as a border with China that was frequently crossed in both directions, the amount of smuggling that occurs, and so on.  In retrospect, one should not be surprised that a system as oppressive as that in North Korea produces so much bribery, black market commerce, and general corruption that filters all the way down to the lowest levels of society.

And speaking of the levels of society, the author educates the reader on the North Korean system of songbun, in which people are ranked within society in one of fifty-one gradations spanning over three broad categories – loyal, wavering or hostile.  Ms. Lee rightfully notes that the system of songbun had created a society more stratified than that of a feudal society, and one in which upward movement is nearly impossible.  Like all communist animal farms, that of North Korea is one in which all animals are equal, but some are most definitely more equal than others.

As Part One nears its conclusion, the author’s disillusionment with her home country grows, particularly during the famine of the mid-90’s which left about a million dead.  Nearing the end of her high school years, facing college and adulthood, and the aforementioned allure of the lights of Changbai, the Ms. Lee decides to take a short trip across the river to get just a small taste of freedom before returning home to begin the next phase of life.  As this first part ends with a walk across the frozen Yalu River, in what eventually became a one way journey.

Part Two chronicles Ms. Lee’s life as an illegal in China.  In short order, the author finds out that while she is technically free from the bonds of North Korea, she is still not truly free.  In addition to a myriad of other human rights abuses, the Chinese government’s miserable record on human rights includes the repatriation of North Korean defectors, sending most of them to a back to their prison-state and leaving them to a fate of hard labor, execution, or both.  Thus, the author’s existence during her decade in China was a precarious one, forcing her to adopt new identities with the frequency of a spy in a John LeCarre novel (hence the seven names to which the title refers).  In numerous instances she is nearly caught, escaping arrest with a combination of guile and luck.  To complicate matters further, she managed to stay in communication with her mother and brother back in North Korea, bearing the weight of guilt regarding loved ones left behind.  More than once her mother implored her to come home, assuring her the right people could be bribed to make her return a safe one.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my own mother is a defector from East Germany, crossing into West Berlin with her family when she was age 10.  While the train ride she and her family took in 1953 was not without risks, their freedom was assured once they had crossed into West Berlin.  Such was not the case for Ms. Lee, as crossing the border into China was only the beginning of a very long journey, one that was fraught with danger every step of the way.  The fact that she did not go home despite the continuous hazard of being an illegal in China is a testament to her courage – and the incredible difficulty of escaping North Korea.

The third part of the book finds the author finally making it to Seoul, South Korea, and her eventual convincing of her mother and brother to defect.  She returns to China and the border near her hometown and escorts them over 2000 miles into Laos.  Along the way, the hazards of being caught are as ever present as they were in her previous decade as a Chinese illegal, only with higher stakes by having her mother and brother in tow.  In Laos, her mother and brother are arrested and held in jail for months, although thankfully, not repatriated (apparently even the government of Laos is more humane than that of China – a low bar to hurdle).  After exhausting all her options and running out of money to bribe the Laotion authorities, serendipity intervenes in the form of an Australian man who decides to help for no other reason than it was the right thing to do.  Even a hardened misanthrope would have to reconsider his outlook after reading about this incident.  With Ms. Lee receiving the funds she needs, she is able to spring her family from jail and finally get them into Seoul.  Free at last.

Today, Ms. Lee spends a lot of her time as an activist for North Korean defectors and human rights in general.  She wants the world to know the true fate of North Koreans, both those that remain and those that defect – both successfully and unsuccessfully.  She has done multiple TED talks, one of which is embedded below.  While North Korea still suffers under the boot of a third generation “leader” in Kim Jong-Un (or, as I refer to him, Pudgy Bucket of Baby Fat with the Worst Haircut Ever), Lee and others like her seek to shine the light of the international community on the horrible conditions imposed on North Koreans, the savage human rights abuses, and above all, a form of government for which no decent, civilized human being should give any quarter.  Her goal is to see the Korean peninsula re-united, with the people of the North living under the banner of freedom.  We should all say a prayer for the North Korean people, and root for Ms. Lee to one day to witness the realization of her dream.

Exit The Warrior: Neil Peart, 1952-2020

There are drummers, and then there are really good drummers.  And then there is Neil Peart.  It’s almost fitting of Peart that his death was not announced until today, January 10th, three days after his actual death on January 7th.  Whereas others did things in simple time and merely kept the beat, Peart’s timing – in drums and in life – was never conventional.  Hence the announcement of his death not on the day he died, but three days later.  The beats never fell quite where they were expected.

There is not much I can say about Peart, the drummer, that hasn’t already been said.  Just about every superlative imaginable has been used to describe his drumming, and a few have probably even been made up.  Peart was simply so good at what he did that new words needed to be invented if one wanted to give an adequate description.  And still, it fell short.  You just had to listen to him play, and if were lucky, see him.  Peart set a standard the drummers everywhere have been trying to live up to, with only a few able to even get within the ballpark.  That’s not a criticism of those that can’t.

Part of the reason Peart was such an incredible talent on the drums has to do with his own philosophy for living.  Whether by temperament or practice, Peart was a Stoic’s Stoic.  He comported himself in a way that would have made Epictetus and Marcus Aerelius proud.  Far from indulging in the perks of fame and fortune and losing his head, Peart shied away from the excesses of the rock star lifestyle.  Instead of flying in a fancy jet between tour dates, as would be common for rockers of his stature, Peart rode his motorcycle between cities, choosing instead to indulge himself in nature and the world around him.  Instead of chasing groupies and destroying hotels, Peart would sit quietly in his room, reading books, filling his head with knowledge.

And as an artist, he valued his integrity above all else.  He was never content to simply go through the motions for a given song or a given album.  It had to be his best.  Nor would Peart, the chief lyricist of Rush, chase hits with sappy love songs and the like.  He deplored the excess commercialization of rock music, as spelled out in the lyrics of one of Rush’s more popular songs, The Spirit of Radio.

From a personal perspective, the timing of the arrival of both Rush and Peart into my life was most serendipitous.  In the spring of 1979, I purchased their breakthrough album, 2112.  As Rush fans are well aware, 2112 revolves around themes of the individual vs. the collective, totalitarianism, and the human spirit’s unshakeable yearning to be free.  Around that same time, I was having numerous, lengthy conversations with my maternal grandmother who, along with my grandfather, aunt, and mother, were defectors from the communist hellhole known as East Germany.  Whereas Peart’s lyrics from 2112 introduced me to a fictional world in which the human spirit was crushed by a totalitarian government, the talks with my grandmother introduced me to one that was all too real.  Individually, 2112 and the talks with my grandmother both left strong impressions on my.  Together, those impressions reinforced one another to leave an indelible mark.

My story is just one of perhaps millions with regard to the influence of Neil Peart.  The impact drummers have on their fans is through their drumming, and little more.  They set an example of how to play drums.  Peart, on the other hand did so much more.  He set an example on how to live, how to maintain one’s self when the surrounding world is pulling in different direction, how to maintain one’s integrity through the ups and downs that life throws at all of us.  And thankfully, so much of that is recorded for posterity.

Thank you, Neil, for being a shining example for all of us.

Tool de Force: Tool’s New ‘Fear Inoculum’ Was Worth the Wait

We’ve been waiting.  Oh man, have we been waiting – over thirteen years, to be exact.  I fear-inoculumhad begun to believe that the title of the their last album – 10,000 Days – was Tool telegraphing us the time it would take to see the next one.  Thankfully, they beat that by a good fourteen years.  Better yet, what they have finally delivered has made the wait all the more worth it.

Fear Inoculum – the digital version, anyway – clocks in at a hefty one hour and twenty-seven minutes.  Not only is the album itself long, but six of the album’s ten tracks eclipse the 10-minute mark, with the longest clocking in at over fifteen.  But it’s not merely the duration of the album or that of the individual tracks that is significant here.  Every second counts on Fear Inoculum, which is more consistent in its excellence from start to finish than any of their previous releases.

Lyrically, the album continues the trend of introspection and contemplation started on 2001’s Lateralus, while dispensing with the rage-fueled catharsis of previous works dealing with institutional decay (Intolerance), the decadence of Los Angeles (Aeneima), or humanity’s lamentable will to fight each other over any and everything (Right in Two).  On Fear Inoculum, Tool focuses in on the inner struggle of facing one’s fears (the title track, 7empest) and dealing with one’s aging and mortality (Invincible, Descending).

From a musical perspective, Fear Inoculum is stunning in its quality.  The soloing in Adam Jones guitar work is as dynamic as its every been, while in plenty of other places he dishes out scores of power chords as meaty as a thick, sizzling ribeye.  Danny Carey’s drumming exceeds even his own typical excellence, combining the rhythmic intricacy of Bill Bruford at his best while also employing plenty of Bonham-esque heavy thuds right when appropriate.  Justin Chancellor’s bass work provides a nice, thick bottom to the music, wrapping perfectly around Carey’s drumming while keeping the listener engaged in guessing where the next beat will fall.

Although the album is stacked with good tracks, there are two in particular that stand out for me.  Invincible is the first of these tracks.  This one is positively infectious; it just gets into your bloodstream.  The first seven minutes are a textbook example of slowly building tension.   After the explosion, the song slows down, although Carery’s heavy drumming is active underneath, before the band makes one final, mad dash to the finish line.  Throughout, the aging warrior tries to hang on to what was as Father Time strips it away.

Tears in my eyes chasing Ponce de Leon’s phantoms.
So filled with hope I can taste mythical fountains.
False hope, perhaps,
But the truth never got in my way before now.
Feel the sting. Feeling time bearing down.

7empest is the penultimate track on the album and possibly the ultimate track in Tool’s catalog.  In its fifteen-plus minutes of running time, it encapsulates virtually everything that makes Tool great.  After a delicate intro of about a minute and a half, Jones guitar snarls and lets the listener know that go time is rapidly approaching.  Carey’s drums join in, and soon enough, the band punches it, the g-forces pushing the listener back into their seat from the sudden acceleration.  The music builds to a first climax, before transitioning into a middle phase notable for Jones’ hypnotic, exotic soloing.  Meanwhile, Carey’s drumming and Chancellor’s bass work provide a solid underpinning.  A brief, (relatively) mellow interlude follows before the song picks up the pace and the band brings it to a close.  It’s a very satisfying listen.

In fact, the whole album is a very satisfying listen.  Fear Inoculum is an album that breaks enough new ground to sound fresh while still having the recognizable Tool tool-fear-inoculumsound.  Lyrically, it is by far the most mature album they have made, perhaps owing to the wisdom accumulated over the years (most definitely including those from the last album to this one).  After such a long delay, it’s fair to wonder when we will see the next Tool album, much less if we’ll see another Tool album.  Should this turn out to be Tool’s swan song, they will have gone out on the highest of high notes.  You can’t ask for much more than that.

The Realignment – A Podcast

I’ve been interested in the 50,000 foot view of what has been going on in the last several years politically and culturally with respect to things like the election of Trump, Brexit, the populist surge sweeping across Europe, an so on.  Also, I am a podcast junkie, and listen to quite a number of them on a regular basis – arguably too many.  Although I need to add yet another podcast to my list just slightly less than I need a really bad case of malaria, I have nevertheless stumbled across one that is particularly suitable for the interests discussed above – The Realignment, which you can find at the link.  The first and only episode (so far) is an absolutely fascinating interview with JD Vance, who was the author of the equally fascinating Hillbilly Elegy from 2016.  If you are into podcasts and into understanding what’s going on in the world right now, then this is one you won’t want to miss.