May 11, 2017 — May 26, 2022

Figure 1

Podcasts are a thing. Since being an academic has destroyed all joy from reading the written word, audio is my remaining narrative pleasure. (C&C audiobooks).

Podcasts are a vexing artform. Like many artforms delivered serially they tend to start ragged, peak, then become boring parodies of themselves. Presumably this is because it takes a while to build up an audience, and then target and profile that audience, so there is an incentive to produce never-ending content torrents, because that is the easiest format to financialise. As a result, they overflow the banks of their concept, or at least dilute it until the flavour is weak.

Even at the peak of any given show podcasts have highly variable killer-to-filler ratios. Accordingly I rate podcasts by how frequently they seem to me to be killer, as a hint as to how many episodes you might wish to audition before giving up and deciding my recommendation is not for you. The more a podcast apes the radio and commits to a regular schedule, or commits to advertisers and needs to make up volume, the more likely that it is that any given episode is unexciting filler. Alternative, some of them are not laser focussed on my interests alone, which is allowed I suppose.

Podcasts set the bar for shallow engagement with science, history and current affairs. “I heard in a podcast that…” denotes that I hear something interesting but failed to treat it as important enough to follow up. This is probably what I should expect from an artfrom which is designed to keep me exactly engaged enough to do the dishes without breaking the dishes or getting bored.

On the plus side, podcasts for now open the door to some odd and interesting voices who entertain and occasionally inform me cheaply, and in a way that seems somehow less pathological and/or sleep disrupting than prestige TV shows.

So, recommendations. Having mention that recommending some of them is fraught because the unschooled might start on a waste-of-time or off-message episode, let us do it. These concerns aside, there is entertaining stuff being produced, and educational stuff, and titillating stuff, and stuff that gives a strong but baseless sense that it is educational by making you sound erudite at parties without requiring substantive effort or transformative understanding. It is hard to search for that last quality, but here, try a podcast search engine, Listen notes. Open Culture’s podcast list also includes excellent recommendations. It skews a little virtuous and improving for my smutty lowbrow tastes, but I got some good ideas from there.

For now I am dumping some names which I will link to and expound at some hypothetical time in the future when I have leisure, but for now I can at least remember that I need to reference them.

1 Stats/ML/AI

  • Talking Machines (feed) by Neil Lawrence and Katherine Gorman. Boasts has a mix of high-grade science journalism about machine learning, useful insights for practitioners and social and philosophical concerns. 90% killer.
  • Data Skeptic (feed) founded by Kyle Polich but now with a large crew, does socratic-method introductions to useful concepts in machine learning. 80% killer.
  • The TWIML AI Podcast (feed) is interview led. 50% killer. Something about host Sam Charrington’s manner enthuses me. He does not seem to dedicate so much of his time to appearing cutting-edge (although the content is cutting edge), but rather is curious and good at humbly asking the dumb questions that I wish I was better at, and finding interesting people to ask them. I skip the purely industrial/implementation focussed episodes.
  • Betancourting Disaster Opinionated, practical podcast on the frontiers of Bayesian inference. 70% killer. Subscriber only.
  • Lex Fridman Podcast (feed) 40% killer. Some good interviews with thinkers in machine learning plus also a ragtag cast of other internet provocateurs of more disputed acclaim, and a side-order of sociological/philosophical/political/economic speculation.

There are some other podcasts that I have auditioned, but none with so high an ROI for my own purposes as these. Ones that failed to make my list did so because

  1. they skew shop talk and industry trends rather than research, or
  2. they lack the tightness of editing and production values to stand out in the competitive world of tightly-edited podcast.

This is not to say that those other ones will not appeal to you, dear reader, just that they did not appeal to me so much that I diverted work time into linking to them.

Further, this is a growth area and there are more that I have not yet given a proper listen. Here are some more podcasts auditioning for a spot on the list.

Honourable mention, DeepMind: The Podcast (feed). Now defunct. In-house promotional podcast from Deepmind that does pretty well at explaining your AI job to your grandparents.

2 Sound

3 Culture

a.k.a. snob gossip.

4 History

  • In our Time by Melvyn Bragg, best viewed via the Braggoscope
  • Rear Vision (feed) produced by the (Australian ABC) is genius. Each episode is historical context for one current event, kind of like we imagine the media should be.
  • Cautionary Tales (feed) is pop-economist Tim Harford’s version of Aeson’s Fables from economic history.
  • Tides of History (feed) is a great economic history podcast. Presenter Patrick Wyman also has an entertaining CV with a rare cocktail of working proficiency in dead languages and MMA. 90% killer on the normal episodes, 50% killer on the interview episodes.
  • Stephen Fry’s Great Leap Years. 100% Killer. A fan’s history of telecommunication, which sounds terrible but is exquisite, unless you are the kind of person who likes to imagine that the current miracles of modern information technology are unremarkable, in which case what are you even doing on this corner of the internet? It has now been augmented/replaced by…
  • Stephen Fry’s 7 Deadly Sins (feed) which is also delightful in an erudition-porn kind of way.
  • Rum, Rebels & Ratbags (feed
  • The China History Podcast (feed). 90% killer. It took me a while to warm to host Laszlo Montgomery but now I am hooked. He is so curious and enthusiastic about epic stories of the various peoples of China and their complicated history, warts and wonders both, and is just so warm in inviting you to share his wonder. The world where we are all as interested as Laszlo is a better world.
  • Nice Try! (feed) is a history of attempted utopias
  • Damn Interesting (feed) is a history of small amusing episodes from history with great sound design.
  • Byzantium And The Crusades (feed) is a quixotic project to walk through the crusades with an angle that they represented a “Byzantine world war”. For sure they document an interesting chunk of history from a commanding perspective.

5 Smut and dick jokes and fiction

My tastes run puerile. Everything here should be considered to have a content warning for swears, sexual content and lowbrowness.

6 News/popular science/economics

7 Asia, especially Indonesia

When I lived in South east Asia the podcast scene was not massive. But now it is.

I would like some more podcasts from Indonesia and about Indonesia, but also the East-Asian/South-east-asian context generally.

8 Podcasts everyone I know likes but I didn’t get into

Benjamin Walker’s theory of everything Unable to listen without contemplating how much more fun this should would be for me to record than to listen to.

Night vale. Enjoy the merch but did not enjoy the listening required to earn the moral claim to the merch.

Joe Rogan experience. I like the idea, but I do not have the time for this kind of marathon entertainment, for the same reason I do not have time for Netflix binges. I think that part of the attraction is supposed to be entering a fugue state of interviewness. I would possibly listen to Joe Rogan edited highlights?

9 Make your own podcast why not

See podcasting.

10 Unfiled, auditioning

11 Misc

  • Julia Black, How Lex Fridman’s Podcast Became a Safe Space for the Anti-Woke Elite seems … fair? Presents both some sus things and some good things about the guy. tl;dr it’s complicated. If you do not like the guy, you can read this negatively and if you do like him, you will not find anything especially damning here about his interests and incentives. I do not know Dr Fridman personally, so this background is beside the point for me, since it does not strongly inform the content of his interviews.

    I would like an analysis of his incentives as regards the podcast. For example, notoriously, he does not push back on his (diverse and interesting) guests, even when they say very crazy stuff. Is his pushback as strong as it could possibly be while still attracting interesting people to interview? What is the optimal frontier of softball interview questions and hardball guests, and is Lex on that frontier?