The Unbearable Lightness of Listening

A few good podcasts

Podcasts occupy an interesting audio niche, offering critical and thoughtful material to consume and digest. Finding good programs that are well produced and/or contain relevant material is an ongoing challenge, and the endless ‘top 10’ lists that pervade any search related to podcasts often lack any form of curation or personal touch. As such, what follows is a list of podcasts that contain intriguing material or people, organised by category. Being of personal interest, these picks may not translate as well for others. In the interests of providing a little more than a top 10 list, each will be followed with a few thoughts in regard to content and form.

Technical

Hypercritical - A weekly talk show ruminating on exactly what is wrong in the world of Apple and related technologies and businesses. Nothing is so perfect that it can’t be complained about.

A technically minded person so thoroughly invested in critical thinking and considered hair splitting is a rare thing. Listening to someone revel in the details of software, hardware, and consumer electronics like John Siracusa does is something of a rarity and makes for engrossing material. The 5by5 network maintains an excellent standard for clarity and listenability, and this show is no exception, despite the lack of editing done by Dan Benjamin (host and owner of 5by5). With an eye on Apple (John is famous for his voluminous OS X reviews on Ars Technica), the epitaph ‘No better friend, No worse enemy’ may be appropriate. Listening to smart people doesn’t get much better than this.

The Changelog - The Changelog is a weekly podcast and blog that covers what’s fresh and new in Open Source.

A good periodical update on new technologies, libraries, languages, and techniques in the open source community. This is invaluable as a look into the sprawling, ever evolving landscape that is software.

Javascript Jabber / Ruby Rogues

These two podcasts (done by the same team) discuss issues related to their respective programming languages and surrounding topics. Guests are the rule, rather than the exception, often being prominent members of the community or experts on the chosen topic. Also of interest are ‘The Picks’, in which each participant nominates something that they like or are fining valuable at the end of each episode.

This Developers Life - A podcast about developers and their lives.

This show is particularly well produced (perhaps one of the reasons for it’s slow release schedule), and airing every few months. Integrating interesting music with interviews and discussions on the workflows and practices of developers, the content is weaved together in a way that produces something of a dream like effect. A worthy use of time for anyone technically inclined.

Culture / Humor

The Incomparable - A weekly show about geeky cultural topics in numerous media, including books, movies, TV, comics, and games.

Given the panel nature of the show, opinions on The Incomparable vary, and may not always agree with the listener. That being said, it is for exactly this reason that the Incomparable is of such value. The dissection and appreciation for each topic can only serve to raise your appreciation. The round-table of guests is always entertaining, and consistently provides varying opinions and views on their chosen subject. The palpable eagerness with which the guests discuss topics is evident in every episode, and a pleasure to listen to.

Back to Work - Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin on productivity, communication, work, barriers, constraints, tools, and more.

Among the plethora of 5by5 network shows, Back to Work is often the most divisive. It purports to work though common life and stress issues related to the workplace. Somewhat ironically, the more time spent listening, the more one feels that not enough is being worried about. That being said, Merlin never fails to over-think an issue in any number of entertaining ways, making for some great material. Like several other shows, ‘b2w’ could easily fit into either the Technical or Culture / Humor sections, containing equal amounts of both.

You Look Nice Today - A journal of emotional hygiene

A great comedy podcast featuring Merlin Mann from Back to Work. Recently back from hiatus, the hosts play off each-other perfectly and is a great way to relax with their particular brand of facetious humor.

History

The History of Rome - A weekly podcast tracing the history of the Roman Empire, beginning with Aeneas’s arrival in Italy and ending with the exile of Romulus Augustulus, last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire. [Completed]

An exhaustive history of the Roman empire and it’s leading actors, this is a must for anyone interested in history, especially ancient. Wonderful pacing and tone help this 150+ episode show fly. Each of the characters (especially the mid-to-late republic) is given vivid life and even handed consideration. History at it’s best.

Hardcore History - In “Hardcore History” the very unconventional Dan Carlin takes his “Martian”, outside-the-box way of thinking and applies it to the past. Was Alexander the Great as bad a person as Adolf Hitler? What would Apaches with modern weapons be like? Will our modern civilization ever fall like civilizations from past eras?

A refreshingly rational and critical look at historicity, Carlin’s obvious zest for History and his examination of way it both effects and is effected by human perception is exactly the coffee the brain needs. A recent episode titled ‘Logical Insanity’ demonstrated this perfectly, examining how the dropping of the Atomic Bomb could be considered a logical decision to those making it. On occasion Carlin’s breathless style can grate slightly, but this is quickly overcome by the sheer enthusiasm for the subject.

In Our Time - Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history of ideas.

Covering a vast range of topics, each episode has a new pannel populated with academics associated with the weeks topic. Moderated by Bragg in a fast moving discussion, the quality is what one expects of the BBC. A pity more isn’t available outside the UK. I’ve placed this in the history section, however, it could as easily reside in the Culture section, as it covers not only historical events, but historical figures, literature, and philosophy. Topics are often discussed on a high level over the ~45 minute runtime, despite the deep knowledge and understanding each panel member obviously possesses. As such, each episode should be considered a jumping-off point to deeper research.

Philosophy

The History of Philosophy - Peter Adamson takes listeners through the history of Western philosophy, “without any gaps.” Beginning with the earliest ancient thinkers, the series will look at the ideas and lives of the major philosophers (eventually covering in detail such giants as Plato, Aristotle, Avicenna, Aquinas, Descartes, and Kant) as well as the lesser-known figures of the tradition.

This podcast (currently still on the ancient philosophers) works it’s way through not only the big names, but those in-between to give a comprehensive overview of the history of philosophy and it’s ideas. Featuring various professors, and run by Peter Adamson (Professor of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy at King’s College London), the information is detailed (considering it’s scope), and either a good refresher, or overview to the subject.

Closing thoughts

It is easy to distinguish when a presenter is enthusiastic about a topic. It is particularly apparent in each of the above programs, which is one of the reasons for their selection. The enthusiasm for a given topic seems to produce a palpable energy, dragging the listener along. One can’t help but be interested in those who are interested in being interested.