Podcasts: Getting Smarter While Washing the Dishes

Podcasts: Getting smarter while washing the dishes


I love books, but they’re kind of hands-on. You can’t read while you’re cycling down the superhighway, or hanging laundry, or washing the dishes, or any of the host of other mundane activities that consume great chunks of our lives.

Being the kind of person who gets antsy if any spare moment is left unfilled, I can’t believe it took me so long to dive into the magical world of podcasts. All that dead time, now brimming with life! It’s kind of trippy that you can be buying bog roll at the supermarket while an astrophysicist sits in your head and explains how black holes work. A vast ocean of knowledge and entertainment is available at the push of a button, and is 100 PER CENT FREE.

It’s probably unhealthy to try and cram activities into every waking moment – I set aside dedicated quiet time to think about nothing whatsoever – but solitude and reflection was not exactly what I was getting when I pushed a trolley through a crowded grocery store anyway.

The point is, podcasts are an amazing way to get a tiny bit less dumb every day. The medium is really starting to boom, which means more great free content for you and me. I haven’t got into audiobooks to the same degree, because I like being able to take notes from actual books, and they generally cost money (if you do want to have a trial run with Audible, you can get your first two books for free here).

After trying out loads of different shows over the last few years, these are the ones I like best. I’ll keep this post updated as I come across more gems (send me suggestions!) For want of a better classification system, I’ve split them up into learning, fun/learning, and pure unadulterated fun.

Learning

Conversations with Tyler

Tyler Cowen is an economics professor at George Mason University, and author of the excellent Marginal Revolution blog. He has very broad interests, to the point where he seems to have a well-informed opinion about pretty much everything. That makes the format of the podcast extra interesting, because it truly is a conversation between Tyler and his guest.

Favourite episode: Ben Sasse – the US Senator who occasionally drives for Uber for shits and giggles – on adolescence and adulthood. Close second: Peter Thiel.

Rationally Speaking

This show is produced by the New York City Skeptics, but rather than sneering at religion or superstition, it explores the merits of all sorts of scientific and philosophical topics. A great primer for overcoming fuzzy thinking and acting more rationally, which seems more and more like a worthy pursuit to me.

Favourite episode: Stoicism, which is one of the specialties of co-host Massimo Pigliucci. Close second: Willpower.

EconTalk

This show has been going for more than 10 years, and it’s not hard to see why it’s had such an amazing run. Some of the crunchy economics stuff goes over my head, but most of it’s accessible to anyone with at least a passing interest. There are hundreds of episodes to choose from spanning all sorts of different topics, and an insanely high calibre of guests (over a dozen Nobel laureates have been on the show).

Favourite episodes: Philip Tetlock on superforecasting, Matt Ridley on climate change.

Recode/Decode

Kara Swisher is a bona fide badass. She’s one of the most respected journalists in Silicon Valley, and I love her brutally honest, no-bullshit interviews on all things technology (for background, check out her fascinating interview on the Tim Ferriss show).

Favourite episode: Marc Andreessen on venture capital, tweet-storming and sleep.

The Ezra Klein Show

Ezra is editor-at-large of Vox. While not quite living up to its billing as the great hope for accurate and nuanced journalism, Vox is not as consistently bad as most sites, and Ezra is one hell of a smart guy. I skip the politics stuff, which bores me to tears, but he has all sorts of other cool guests on.

Favourite episode: Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens (the best book I read this year), on meditation and artificial intelligence.

Waking Up

Sam Harris made his name as one of the ‘new atheists’, but I mostly skip his episodes on religion and Trump, which get pretty repetitive after a while. The guy has loads of experience in meditation and psychedelics and a doctorate in neuroscience, so his episodes on secular spirituality are way more interesting to me. He’s not afraid of saying things that are outside the Overton Window, and has a Spock-like ability to remain calm and measured when debating guests. Let his soporific voice wash over you.

Favourite episodes: What is technology doing to us? with Tristan Harris, being good and doing good with Will MacAskill (author of one of the best books I read last year).

Tim Ferriss Show

I really appreciate Tim Ferriss, even though his marketing schtick is a bit much for me (discussed at length in my review of the Four Hour Workweek). To me, this podcast is his greatest legacy. Interviews with big stars normally last a few minutes, and they’re only there to plug their latest movie or book. These episodes go for literally hours, are uncut, and get deep into the weeds on the habits and practices that make successful people successful.

Favourite episodes: It’s impossible to choose with more than 300 episodes, but I highly recommend Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Foxx, Will MacAskill, and Derek Sivers.

Tropical MBA

This show explores every facet of location-independent business, freelancing, start-ups, productivity, and the nomad life in general. It has loads of practical advice, and offers transcripts of most episodes, which makes it easy to go back and pull things out.

Favourite episodes: Entrepreneur and author Taylor Pearson on 90 day sprints and goalsetting, computer scientist Cal Newport on ‘deep work’

 

Fun/learning

The Infinite Monkey Cage

Rockstar physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince host a panel show full of pithy British wit and fascinating science.

Favourite episode: Are we living in a simulation?

 

Stuff You Should Know

If I didn’t listen to SYSK, how would I know why men have nipples, or who gets to name continents? Some people don’t like this show because the hosts will happily go off on a 10 minute tangent about some obscure film or the stomach bug they had over the weekend, but that’s exactly why I love it. The bromance between Chuck and Josh is a joy to behold, and occasionally I even learn something (do take them with a pinch of salt at all times, especially on the hard science topics).

Favourite episodes: How Freak Shows Worked, How Poetry Works

StarTalk

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, offset by a comic foil in Chuck Nice, mashes up science and pop culture. They get huge-name guests, have lots of laughs, and it’s all aimed at the layperson. I especially like it when Bill Nye fills in, because he’s basically the real life Rick Sanchez.

Favourite episode: The science of Game of Thrones

Freakonomics

Reading the Freakonomics books was how I first realised economics was fascinating rather than deathly boring. The podcast stays true to those quirky roots in its quest to explore the hidden side of everything, and Dubner is a very level-headed and amusing host.

Favourite episodes: How to become great at just about everything, In praise of incrementalism

Planet Money

This NPR show offers quick little bite-sized episodes on pretty much anything and everything related to money, which is a nice way to fill 20 minutes.

Favourite episodes: Libertarian summer camp, the Block Chain Gang

 

Fun

The Worst Idea of All Time

A couple of Kiwi comics watch the same godawful film every single week for a year. Their slow descent into insanity is fascinating to watch, with lots of belly laughs and dark moments along the way. It’s been especially nice having some comforting New Zealand accents in my ears as I’ve been trotting all over the place.

Favourite episodes: The infamous Prawn Salad from season 1, or Land Sharks from season 3 (note that they’re not going to make much sense without starting from the beginning of each season).

You Made it Weird

Comedian Pete Holmes has that Mark Maron-style habit of turning literally every conversation into a personal therapy session, but he makes up for it by being funny and goofy and the most adorable human being you will come across.

Favourite episodes: Sarah Silverman, Bo Burnham

 

I’ve been waging a constant battle to keep my backlog of subscriptions below 50 hours. Now I’ve finally cleared the jam, and on the lookout for new recommendations again. Please leave a comment or send me an email and let me know your favourite shows!

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Kylie

I really like the Ted radio hour for something thought provoking and wait wait don’t tell me for something funny yet current events related (mostly usa though). They are both from npr I think. I haven’t delved much into the world of podcasts though but am looking forward to exploring more!

Maryam
Sonnie Bailey

Hi Richard, I enjoy your blog.

Podcasts are a great medium and I’m surprised at just how much they’ve improved the quality of my life.

A few things I’d add:

* It’s worth using a podcast player rather than, say, the default podcast player you use in iOS. It makes a huge difference in your listening experience. I use PocketCasts and recommend it highly. It costs a few bucks, but a friend of mine recently thanked me for the recommendation, saying it’s the best purchase he’s ever made.

* Single-ear bluetooth headsets are great for listening to podcasts, especially while you’re doing chores. You don’t have a cord getting awkwardly in the way. And there are other people around, you have an ear free to listen to them if they want to talk to you. You can get them very inexpensively from Amazon etc. (Just don’t wear them in public – as Wired magazine pointed out, even Brad Pitt can’t pull it off!)

* It’s worth bumping up the playback speed. I’ve incrementally increased my playback speed to 2x. Once you’re used to it, it’s hard to go back to normal speed! It’s a great way to get more podcasts in your life.

You’ve given a great selection of podcasts. I’m personally subscribed to nearly 200 podcasts and almost all of yours are on my list. (Of course, I only listen to episodes I think I’ll be interested in – if I can get up to 5x I might be able to listen to each episode…)

Some other podcasts to consider:

* The Cracked Podcast is great – it’s surprisingly cerebral for a comedy podcast. I especially recommend diving into the earlier episodes, circa 2013-2014. http://www.cracked.com/podcast/?year=2013 and http://www.cracked.com/podcast/?year=2014

* Richard, as a blogger, you’d probably enjoy Darren Rose’s ProBlogger podcast.

* Malcolm Gladwell may have his detractors, but his Revisionist History podcast has some excellent episodes (I especially liked “A good walk spoiled”, the first episode of season 2).

* If you’re interested in Rationally Speaking, you might also enjoy Review The Future and The Bayesian Conspiracy.

* The “Flash Forward” podcast is often interesting

* If you’re interested in tech and the media, “Exponent” (co-hosted by Ben Thompson from Stratechery) is full of insights.

* I’ll also put in a cheeky plug for the NZ Wealth & Risk podcast 🙂 http://wealthandrisk.nz/podcast

Tim Rands
Tim Rands

Definitely check out Jocko Podcast. His latest with Jordan Peterson is insightful as fuck.

The Gezellig
The Gezellig

If you’re after something that combines obscure knowledge with quality humour, I highly recommend No Such Thing As A Fish. Made by the research team for the QI tv show, they each present their favourite fact of the week and just riff of them. Hilarious and super interesting.

Shane Hogan
Shane Hogan

99% I visible is pretty damn good. A show about design/architecture, it lifts the lid on why this gs are designed the way they are. Also 20,000 hertz does a similar thing for all things audio.