Seth Barham Design
Minimal and effective design, inspired by culture.

Spartan Wanderer

Ramblings from the road, gear reviews, design trends, and whatever else happens to be on my mind.

7 Great Podcasts

An unfortunate reality of living in mainland China is that there are periods of terrible connectivity to the full Internet of the outside world. Thankfully, ExpressVPN tends to do an excellent job of getting around this, ensuring that I can maintain contact with my clients and stay productive during a crackdown. Like clockwork, we’ve had another blackout during China’s National Week as the country celebrates the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic. 

I’m no novice when it comes to expat survival in China, so I prepare for these things in advance. My hard drives are full of comfort TV essentials (Frasier, Cheers, Seinfeld, etc.), great films new and old, and more recently, The Witcher 3. These things are great for decompressing in the evening, but I like to have some media to listen to when I’m working or running errands. Ever since the Apple podcasts app was banned in China, I make a point of downloading as many as possible when I do have a VPN connection. These are some of the favorites that have gotten me through a week of spotty connectivity. 

The Modern Mann

Interviews & Pop Culture

That’s Mann with two n’s - this is an equal opportunity audio magazine with some of the most gripping interviews you’ll ever hear. Anyone familiar with Answer Me This! will recognize host Olly Mann’s dry wit and sometimes excessive pedantry. Each monthly episode is divided into three main sections. The Zeitgeist segment covers the latest trends, which usually involve cohost Ollie Peart accepting listener challenges to experience these trends himself to great comic effect. Olly Mann’s interviews are the main focus of the podcast. He goes to great lengths to find incredible stories of trauma and triumph from people you’ve probably never heard of. I’ll just list off the previous three episodes to show you how varied the subjects can be: Surgery on the Front Line, Porn Messed Up My Brain, Let’s Build a Brewery. Each episode is rounded out with Alix Fox’s sex advice segment, The Foxhole. You’ll be waiting a month for each episode, but there’s a reason why this is at the top of my list - it’s always worth the wait.

Here & Now

News & Politics

NPR’s Here & Now is a daily listen for me and my lifeline to what’s going on back home. Although I do sometimes alternate between it and Morning Edition, Here & Now is the best snapshot of the latest news in the US due to the 12-hour time difference over here in China. Any news source can be accused of having a bias if you look hard enough, but I find that Here & Now and NPR as an entity usually stick to the facts and provide minimum commentary beyond interviews with sources relevant to the topic at hand. However, this only applies if you still consider the dictionary definition of the word “fact” to be the correct definition in this crazy world.

The Last Podcast on the Left

Comedy & True Crime

It’s pretty incredible how quickly the genre of true crime has carved out a place in listeners’ hearts with a rusty meat cleaver. There has been a revival of documentaries on serial killers and cults on streaming services like Netflix, and this trend has bled into podcasting. There is plenty of anxiety-inducing, serious podcasts that cover these things in grisly detail, but I prefer some laughs with my weekly dose of the macabre. The Last Podcast on the Left produces detailed deep dives into serial killers, cults, ufology, and more. The three hosts are adept at blending a wealth of research with hilarious commentary, but always balance this with respect for the victims. 



The Adventure Podcast

Adventure News & Gear Reviews

Having been to all sorts of places in China with various levels of development, I can say Daqing is a comfortable place to live, comparatively speaking. But there is one ingredient that is painfully absent at a staggering 150m above sea level: mountains. When I’m not able to find a trail, I live vicariously through The Adventure Podcast, which covers the latest expeditionary news in mountaineering, trekking, and pretty much any adventure sport you can think of. The hosts interview adventure badasses and others involved in the outdoor industry, then tickle my gear fetish by reviewing some of the latest outdoor products.

Radiolab

Investigative Reporting

This is a podcast that needs no introduction. There’s a reason it’s been around since 2002 and quite literally before podcasting was even a thing. My biggest compliment to Radiolab is that I always listen, even if the topic is something I don’t find immediately interesting because I know they are going to make it interesting. The reporting and storytelling are enhanced by the brilliant editing that goes into each episode, from the little bits of audio ambiance to the meshing of the dialogue between the hosts and soundbites from the interviewees. Each episode is a masterclass of using your mind as a canvas upon which they paint with the topic, the research, and these editing techniques to compose a documentary that you can visualize mentally, or at least that’s the best way I can explain it. Listen to the 2012 episode Colors, and you’ll get it (and be hooked) immediately. 

Making Sense with Sam Harris

Philosophy & Political Commentary

I’ve been a fan of Sam Harris ever since a younger, more rebellious me read The End of Faith. Harris is a neuroscientist, philosopher, and author who explores the interwoven web of morality, societal dynamics, and current events. The bulk of each episode is usually a long conversation with such guests as a former Westboro Baptist Church member, an infectious disease physician who studies superbugs, and, well, Ricky Gervais. Often the target of much ire from the Internet outrage machine, I highly encourage you to listen to just one episode, no matter what you may have heard about him. He is so meticulous at qualifying his points that his detractors must usually resort to taking him out of context in their criticism. If you’re into meditation and mindfulness, you’ll certainly appreciate his 2014 book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion as well as his guided mindfulness sessions. 

The 1A

News & Politics

We live in a crazy time when life is stranger than fiction, and mere hours are enough to fall out of the loop. Regardless of anyone’s political persuasions, I think most of us can admit that it’s harder and harder to find good journalism free of bias. The 1A is another excellent NPR program that covers political developments in the US as well as other pertinent topics like the opioid epidemic and the impact of the trade war across America. I pick and choose a few topics throughout the week to listen to, but I never miss their domestic and international news roundups on Fridays.

Get your data on deck.

This is a bit out there compared to my usual content, but file it under the “whatever happens to be on my mind” category. The moral of this post is that if you do consider traveling to China for an extended time period, make sure you have terabytes of your favorite media to keep you entertained when streaming is suddenly not an option. At least as far as podcasts are concerned, set your favorites to automatically download whenever you have an Internet connection, and you’ll eventually build up a backlog that you can rely on. 

Of course, the best thing you can do before jetting off to the Middle Kingdom is subscribe to a reliable VPN service. As someone who is on the ground and has a lot of experience with different services, I can tell you there are only two viable options at the moment for China users: ExpressVPN and Nord. I personally use ExpressVPN and had less trouble getting a connection during the National Week than other expats who use Nord. Click the link below to protect your online privacy and ensure a steady connection no matter where you go with ExpressVPN.