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Pandemic-time Pastimes: Niches of YouTube Wholesomeness

Updated: Jan 2, 2021

I'm fully aware that my covid-19 issues are first-world problems. I'm privileged enough to have avoided the worst aspects of the pandemic - sickness, grief, unemployment - and ultimately I held up, in spite of a cluster of bad mental and physical health habits seeping through my daily routine.

With that preamble in mind: jeez, it's been tough.

Doctoral students are already prone to loneliness, ennui and procrastination in normal times (or, well, at least I am). But working on the biggest intellectual project you've ever undertaken while entirely on your own - sometimes for days - in the same room where you also lie down to sleep is the best way to go down dark and unproductive rabbit holes. You're just not in the headspace to do what you're supposed to do - and the worst thing is... there's nothing else to do.

That's where YouTube comes in. YouTube is full of dumb people who make a living out of broadcasting their dumbness to the world and at its worst it's a sewer of political extremism. Even if you can avoid the various flavours of horrible humans that populate the platform, at some point you have to close those 53 extra Google Chrome windows and simply get stuff done.

And yet, for someone like me - with no obvious hobbies except politics and Twitter, not exactly the most soothing interests to have - YouTube was a godsend. Once I found my niches, they provided just the right kind of low-commitment passive entertainment I needed to decompress after a day spent listening only to my own voice, doom-scrolling the latest covid-19 statistics and US election polls, or hitting my head against the latest thesis-related brick wall.

Therefore, I thought to start this 'personal' section of my blog with a series of hat-tips to my favourite content creators, as a way of thanking them for keeping my mind off *gestures at the state of everything*. Yes, it was procrastination, but of the best kind.

So, here are some of the channels I enjoyed the most over the course of this dumpster fire of a year:

Cracking the Cryptic - who thought that watching two snarky middle-aged Sudoku champions solve puzzles could be so enthralling? Mark Goodliffe's and Simon Anthony's ability to tackle devilish puzzles armed only with patience and inferential reasoning is impressive; but what makes Cracking the Cryptic work is the gusto with which they do it: the love of logic you need to become so good at something so niche. Even if occasionally this channel makes me feel thick as a brick, I'm now addicted to the wonderful world of 'little killer sudoku', thermometers, Phistomefel theorems, odd snakes, kropki dots and... naked singles.

Lindsay Ellis - I am obsessed with this media studies graduate's video essays on Disney franchise movies and the Transformers. Lindsay Ellis takes your childhood and Derridas the hell out of it, providing in the meantime some the smartest pieces cultural criticism. I shall recycle her takes as mine in dinner parties for years to come (if we're ever allowed to have dinner parties again).

Power Play Chess - one of my greatest regrets is giving up chess when I was about 14 or 15. Basically, I figured out that, to survive in high school, I had to join the cool kids and do the things cool kids did (which at the time involved listening to an unhealthy amount of pretentious and forgettable music). Although I wasn't that good at chess even back then - and I definitely haven't improved since - I've never been so up-to-date with the contemporary chess as during this past year. That's almost entirely thanks to Grandmaster Daniel King: with his soothing RP voice and frankly mesmerizing hair, he talks you through the fiendishly complex games of today's chess elite (artificial intelligence games included). The content is largely accessible if you have an intermediate understanding of the game's strategy - and, as it turns out, highly addictive.

In Deep Geek - another casualty of the conversion to cool kid in my mid-teens was my interest in fantasy literature. I got back into it via Game of Thrones, but - as it often happens when you have an addictive personality - binging all the books of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) universe wasn't quite enough. That's how I ended up in the bizarre world of ASOIAF theories: is Roose Bolton a shape-shifting vampire? (No.) Is Jaime Lannister going to kill Cersei? (Yes.) Who is the Harpy? (Grazdan zo Galare.) The content creator behind In Deep Geek, who goes by his first name Robert, is refreshingly grounded in (quote-unquote) 'reality' about these fundamental questions, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the ASOIAF universe. In the weird interregnum between an unsatisfying ending of the TV series and the much-awaited release of the sixth installment of the book series, his videos are as good as it gets. (His live streams are also surprisingly effective to lull you to sleep.)

Mathologer - Because most of my math knowledge is either from high school or self-taught - so barely enough to understand what I'm doing in my work - I have enormous lacunae in math and very few opportunities to ever fill them properly. Let's be clear, YouTube videos are not a substitute for a math course: to learn anything, you need to sit down on your desk, open a textbook and do the work. (Which is exactly what I'm trying to decompress from.) What Youtube can do, however, is to spark your curiosity for something new, refresh your memory, make you think about practical problems in new ways. And content as well-curated as Mathologer's does just that, while keeping the level of attention required low enough for the viewing experience to feel like productive procrastination rather than a study session. There are obviously other great math channels (Numberphile is the most mainstream and accessible, Three Blue One Brown is the more challenging side of things - I recommend particularly their linear algebra series). But I have a soft spot for Prof Burkard Polster's Mathologer, not least because his extensive use of visual proofs seems to fit particularly well with my way of retaining complex ideas.

Contrapoint - Nathalie Wynn's video essays take on all the easy questions: gender politics, the ethics of violence, racism, living under capitalism, justice, cancel culture, Jordan Peterson. She does so with an even-handedness uncharacteristic of YouTube's political channels - the original purpose of the channel was to deradicalise viewers of alt-right content - as well as an impressive amount of serious political theory. Even if she's somewhat to the left of me on a number of issues, it's refreshing to hear her setting out those arguments (rather than the second-hand parody of them). The drag-inspired decadent aesthetics, the weird characters that serve as dramatis personae to her monologues, and the copious amounts of alcohol she consumes while breaking down some of the central questions of contemporary culture wars make Contrapoint some of the most intelligent and thought-provoking political content available out there.

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