Audio Content

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After becoming a truck driver, I began listening to many podcasts, lecture series, and audiobooks, forming many opinions. Here are some notes mostly for my own benefit which you may wish to peruse. They are sorted by type of thing, and then by quality.

Contents

Podcasts

Excellent

History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps

This is my favorite podcast. The host is droll often enough, and true to its name it covers its entire subject matter. There are a lot of boring episodes, especially the interviews, which tend to actually bring forth the philosopher stereotype of endlessly discussing what some obscure figure meant by some arcane phrasing. Listen to this podcast. But skip episodes that bore you. Boredom is the enemy! Don't build a habit of zoning out while listening to stuff. Peter Adamson talks very slowly, so this one is particularly important to speed up. I listen at 1.9x in most situations, 1.5x while driving.

I actually lament having gotten all the way caught up to it before I started listening to other podcasts on any sort of regular basis. Maybe I'll wait until 2165 when it's finally finished and listen to it all again.

Also, it acronyms to hopwag, which is fun to say. Hopwag.


Good

Hardcore History

Despite charging ridiculous prices for episodes and having ads, and not trying for high degrees of factual accuracy, this is way too good not to recommend. If you listen to podcasts and one of them isn't Hardcore History, you're making a mistake.


EconTalk

If you plan on listening to this, you better start early, because there's so damn much of it. It's been going since 2006 nonstop. And unlike many podcasts, it focuses on timeless things, so the old episodes aren't simply irrelevant. Furthermore, unlike most interview show hosts, Russ Roberts focuses on asking informative questions of his guests instead of just praising them for their new book or whatever. So there's a lot of stuff worth listening to. At the same time, it's one of the shows where you lose little by skipping episodes that bore you or where the speaker's accent is incomprehensible. Any time Mike Munger is on, the episode is great.

I first listened to the first episode in late 2014, I think. I remember thinking, wow, these people don't know what they're talking about, and I could totally make a better podcast than them. Then I thought about it some more and realized their failure to comprehend the situation they were analyzing was a bit more sophisticated than my intuitive understanding of it. Sometimes it takes a nuanced understanding to realize that something is puzzling. And it was forgivable for two economists in 2006 to be ignorant of the literature in behavioral economics, and I'd already familiarized myself with it.

Other recurring guests who are great include Arnold Kling, Nassim Taleb (when he's making any sense), Dan Klein, Robin Hanson, Robert Frank, Bryan Caplan. There are plenty of great episodes with guests who only appear once. The quality of an EconTalk episode is directly proportional to the quality of the guest, but there are a lot of guests and you can skip the crummy ones and probably never run out.

I highly recommend this podcast. You'll learn how to take a fruitful perspective which Roberts likes to say centers around the writings of Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek. The only thing I think is missing is more of an appreciation of Goodhart's Law.

I found the podcast kind of boring as a whole until I started skipping episodes that sounded like they wouldn't interest me. I started having a much better experience with it after that. I recommend you do this with every podcast, not just EconTalk.


Douchy's Biology Podcast

Despite being aimed at the Australian equivalent of high school kids, this is the most educational podcast I've ever found. The host is an actual biology teacher, and he cares deeply about both the subject and teaching it, so he knows exactly how to explain what he's explaining in a way that can be easily understood. It's also really entertaining.

The first run was in 2013, and he took those episodes down. You can still get them, but you gotta pay up. As of 2017 he is doing another run, covering the same material. You might want to download the episodes quickly in case he takes them down as well. When he took the old episodes down and required payment for them, oh and by the way you have to be in Australia to buy them (!!!), I was tempted to move this podcast down a few notches on this list. But no. At the end of the day it's still Good.


Meh

Review the Future

When I first started listening to this because Sarah Perry and Robin Hanson happened to be guests on it, I was a bit shocked that the hosts were Ted Kupper and Jon Perry, two of my very first ever Twitter followers. It hurt when they unfollowed me, because they were there at, essentially, my beginning. I guess they did so because, essentially because, I more or less stopped tweeting about transhumanism. I am still a transhumanist but I mostly stopped waving the flag after the six months or year of enthusiastically reading tons of transhumanist stuff wore off. So it goes.

Anyway it's a really good podcast. The first 41 episodes are just the hosts talking together, sometimes in lecture mode and sometimes in conversation, about futurism. They are not incredibly stupid, and they think more about the future than I do about anything, so they're worth listening to. Half the time it seems like they save me time by coming up with the same things that I would if I had just thought about it longer. Alas some of the time they reveal their ignorance about some topic with their speculations. But no one could blame them. The future includes every topic imaginable; who can be an expert on everything?

After episode 41 they start having guests most episodes and become a more traditional interview show. Quality suffers as a result, so I bumped it down several notches on the list after making it that far. At least one of their guests was so stupid it pissed me off, and yet they took him seriously. Still highly recommended overall.


Second Enumerations

I might be biased because of my close personal connection with the host of this podcast, but I think it fills an important niche in the educational podcast genre. It is readings of essays that are usually about important principles about how to think or practical epistemology. The host does a very good job reading most of the time, although the essays can be hard to understand in audio format some of the time. This is one where you might want to actually read along while listening instead of listening while driving or washing dishes or walking from place to place or whatever.


The GiveWell Podcast

Woe! Nothing was higher quality than this. It seems that everyone at GiveWell is brilliant and intellectually honest. Exactly the sort of people I want to listen to as much as possible. They started the podcast as an experiment and ended it after just three episodes due to insufficient interest. If you care about my intellectual quality of life, tell them to start it back up again! Tell them podcasts take a while to gain traction! I want to listen!!


[TLDR]

Despite being hosted by journalists, this podcast is pretty good as bite-sized anthropology of humans on the internet. One episode early on is inexplicably from an entirely different show, and then the podcast unceremoniously ends after 49 episodes. Such is life. Still a nice break from all the hardcore lectures and whatnot I spend the bulk of drive time listening to.


Futility Closet

Entertaining historical anecdote/trivia/curiosity podcast. The main flaw is that it's mostly designed for people who also read the Futility Closet website. I actually like it a lot because it's so different from all the other podcasts.


The History of Rome Podcast

I used to have this in the Good category, for being decent without having ads, but then it started having ads. God damn I hate ads. Fucking ads are everywhere! Mercifully an actually finished podcast means that, having caught up on it, I can reduce clutter on my podcatcher, which right now has 116 "podcasts" displayed. The main problem here is that the host is so boring. Peter Adamson of the hopwag doesn't try to be exciting, but he doesn't speak in a dreary monotone like Mike Duncan, either.

In addition to having a boring voice, Duncan has a boring writing style. He's boring! But for someone who listens to as many podcasts as I do, that's fine. Switching from exciting people to boring people adds variety, which overall leads to less boredom.


Hello Internet

The ads in this podcast are more annoying than in any other podcast I listen to. I listen anyway, skipping them, because I like it a lot. It's not educational at all, just two dudes talking. But the dudes are likeable. That's all there is to it.


Very Bad Wizards

The first episode of this podcast was one of the first episodes of any podcast I'd ever listened to. I'd planned on starting a podcast and wanted to learn something about the medium. It took three and a half minutes before the hosts actually started talking about their topic. This sent me into a paroxysm; I really REALLY hate having my time wasted like that. Now that I've listened to lots more podcasts I can see that my standards were far too high. They aren't trying to have high level intellectual debates on important topics. They're trying to have a light conversation, and I understand that now. They talk about things I care about a lot, which gets them a lot of points from me. And for some reason, it's better than any other podcast at causing me to actually think. I can't account for this at all.


Rationally Speaking

This podcast would definitely be higher on the list if it didn't spend its first hundred and thirty-two episodes with Massimo Pigliucci. Once he finally leaves the show, the quality shoots up dramatically, but that long backlog of episodes with him will permanently leave the average episode quality at mediocre at best no matter how long Julia Galef puts out good episodes on her own. I really like the post-massimo episodes because almost unique among show hosts, Galef actually thinks. She doesn't do it consistently brilliantly, and it's sometimes frustrating how seldom she's heard of relevant concepts despite being president of an organization devoted to that sort of thing, but you can tell from her questions that she does actual independent thinking about the subject matter. Another reason it's good is that she somehow manages to find a lot of worthwhile guests I've otherwise never heard of, like one of the scientists who figured out how to get much better estimates for the number of neurons in various mammal brains.


Science and the Sea

The episodes, at two minutes(!) are the shortest of anything on this list. They pack a heck of a lot of info into those two minutes! It's impressive. The rss feed only goes back 10 episodes, so subscribe immediately.


RequestCast

I tried this on a whim. Turns out I enjoy it a lot!


The Eastern Border

Really entertaining look at Soviet life and history. The host sometimes makes linguistically interesting speech mistakes.

Originally I had this in the Good category out of pure Russophilia. I moved it down upon realizing that, and moved it down again as over time an increasing proportion of episodes are taken up by ads, filler, and other non-content timewasters.


The Pirate History Podcast

Unfortunately, it seems like almost all the educational podcasts are about history. For me, this one is useful, because something about the host's intellectual style leads to his conveying more about the general air of the time instead of the "one damn thing after another" style the others have all adopted. It's a good complement. Yarrr

Also, he has a really nice voice. That counts for a lot.


The Knowledge Project

I skip most episodes because I couldn't care less about finance or wine. The ones that remain are good enough. It's a pretty standard interview podcast I guess.


Invest Like The Best

I only discovered this and subscribed to it subscribed to this because Kevin Simler was one of the guests. I finally made it to his interview, and was disappointed by how uninteresting it was, even though Simler is usually really good at seeming interesting. I guess I already knew everything he had to say. I'd even already read the books he recommended at the end!

The host of the podcast reads Paul Graham, Kevin Simler, Scott Alexander, and Venkatesh Rao, marking him as someone with good taste. This was more surprising than it should have been given that they're all sort of adjacent.

Most of the episodes are about finance or investment. I don't know anything about those things, and I don't care to. I think there's something wrong with you if having to think about such pecuniary things doesn't make you feel sick. It's like being the sort of person who watches ads instead of skipping them in disgust. What's wrong with you? That's the only reason this is low on the list. If you like those topics you should probably listen to this, but I can't tell because I zoned out through almost all the discussions, not really understanding anything they said.

Favorite episode: Eric Maddox, The Ace of Spades


Future Strategist

James Miller is an economist, singularitarian, and LessWronger, so I expected this to be right up my alley. It only sort of was. Miller isn't as incisive as I'd have expected given those traits, but he is still better at not being an idiot than most of the hosts on this list, so I give him credit for that.

Arguably the biggest flaw is that he has a really high-pitched voice. It doesn't exactly bother me, but I expect it will subtly, subconsciously make people less interested in listening to him.


Talking Machines

Long ago this was in the Good category, back when this list had like 20 total items on it. The reason I demoted it so much is because it slowly devolves into having nothing whatsoever that I can understand, except the hosts taking every opportunity to bash AI risk concerns and manipulate their guest into doing the same. Evil and misleading. Still probably worth listening to if you can understand the technical stuff.

Like AstronomyCast below, it has the problem that one of the cohosts understands technical details and knows what he's talking about, and the other is a journalist. The journalist adds nothing of value.


The Skullscast

Let me tell you a story.

In perhaps 2008 or 2009, I discovered the phenomenon of "Let's Play", a thing where people record themselves playing video games and talking over the footage of that, usually live and preferably with buddies around. Some of these can get really entertaining. Kaz and medibot were some of the first LPers that I discovered. I went and watched everything they'd ever done. And I watched everything their friends had done, because they sometimes appeared in those things. And I tried to find everything they were in and watch it. I think there might have been a point at which I succeeded. I still spend spare time watching Kaz play video games on stream, as well as his friend Slio9.

So it's really nice for me that there's this podcast by Kaz and medibot. Unfortunately I have no interest whatsoever in most of the episodes because they're about Magic: the Gathering, a game I absolutely refuse to get sucked into. The ones that aren't, though, warm my heart.

This podcast probably won't interest very many people. Skulls.


The Infinite Now

TIMESCANNER's podcast is this new genre of silly science fiction. I don't usually care for fiction, but I like how short the episodes are. That really helps break up time between really long sessions of other things.


ycombinator

I have no idea how I found this. I can't seem to find it again by googling, so I provided the rss feed I'm using. It's great stuff but unfortunately for me it's all stuff I already know from reading Paul Graham essays, and not the really good stuff about rationality and living a good life, but about starting startups. Poor Elon Musk is competent at everything except public speaking. He's as inarticulate as a stupid person.


Science, Ethics, and the Future

This... "podcast" is just Brian Tomasik reading his own essays in the whingiest most boring voice he can muster. Also, it seems to be dead with just five episodes. Still goes above bad because he's able to think of the important considerations and he thinks about really important things.


Algocracy and the Transhumanist Project

The format is "standard interview podcast". What distinguishes it enough to be so high on this list is that usually both the host and the guest know the subject matter really well, maintain high levels of depth and nuance, and discuss an interesting, important, complex subject matter without dropping the ball. Thus it demands a lot of the listener: high levels of philosophical and scientific vocabulary, ability to follow complex chains of thought without pen and paper. I learned about it via Review the Future, below, and thus they showed me their superior in the futurism podcast niche. One of my great lamentations is that nothing in audio format goes into much depth. This is the only exception.

I put this on the list in the Good category after two episodes. Then it regressed to the mean, which I should have expected. Then it started to get boring and guests started appearing who had no idea what they're talking about, which took it down several more notches.

Note that the RSS feed inexplicably only goes back 9 episodes. Because of this, I started with episode 3, and I'm not even sure how to get the first two on my podcatcher. Someone tell the host to fix this.


You Are Not So Smart

I was bamboozled by the excellent first episode. It's so good, full of nuance and interest (entirely because of the unique guest) that I held out hope for a long time with subsequent episodes that it would stop sucking. But it never did. YANSS has always been a poor man's Less Wrong. The "cookie" gimmick in every episode is completely horrible; not only do I not want to hear about cookie recipes, I don't want to hear about bullshit news in psychology about studies which aren't going to replicate anyway. The host has a nice voice though.


Indie Game: The Podcast

Just regular layfolk talking about video games and not being obnoxious. Turns out that's good enough for me. It ends after six episodes.


A Brief History of Mathematics

The title is misleading; it's really tiny biographies of some mathematicians. Its main flaw is in giving the sort of standard lies that popular presentations of math by large news organizations always do.


Great Moments in History

Made in the 1920s, which automatically makes it great. It's a series of fake news broadcasts of some of the most momentous occasions ever. Because they're so old, they seem cheesy, but they're cool just the same.


Bad

Waking Up with Sam Harris

Some of the episodes of this are actually good. I skip a lot of them because they're about stuff I have no interest in. In the ones I dodn't skip, Harris sometimes spends sooo much time detailing his petty squabbles. I don't understand why he's so popular. It's like his only unusual quality as an intellectual is unlimited endurance for rapid engagement with other people. Maybe that (and a large dose of luck) quite suffice. Anyway, because he's so popular, he's able to pull in some really high quality guests, which honestly is enough reason for me to listen to this podcast. And I must admit, his intellectual integrity is endearing. I was impressed when his conversation with Paul Bloom led him to actually start changing his dietary habits back to a more vegan one. I was impressed that he managed to get roughly the correct view on AI safety issues, though he probably got there via social proof from Elon Musk and Max Tegmark, neither of whom got it by independent thinking either.


AstronomyCast

This one is bad because it's aimed at a completely lay audience with no scientific literacy whatsoever. It has the EconTalk issue of having run continuously since 2006, with the associated endless backlog. I still listen to it because it seems relatively free of bullshit, although the misleading metaphors and summaries that leave out most scientifically relevant information, the lies to children, are quite irksome. Also, there are two hosts, an actual scientist, Dr. Pamela Gay, and a...nother person. I don't know what the other person's doing there. He never says anything interesting. It should just be the scientist.


The Cracked Podcast

Yeah, it's funny, but so much of what they say is wrong or misleading that I can't in good conscience recommend anyone listen to it. Yes, even David Wong. Though not as much when he's just poking at widely-held wrong beliefs. But make no mistake. This is not an educational podcast. It's more important than you might realize to avoid listening to false statements. People tend to end up remembering as true even those statements which are explicitly labeled as false, especially under cognitive load. I know this because I read it somewhere. It's a phenomenal act of hubris to think you are immune to this effect and won't be thus making the world worse in expected value by exposing yourself to entertaining bullshit.


STEM-talk

The format is standard interview podcast. I place it so low on this list because their choice of guest is often, uh, questionable, because they spend more time fellating the guest than trying to get information from them, and because they interrupt the interview over and over again to remind you which podcast you're listening to, which is infuriating. I know what god damn podcast I'm listening to. Don't interrupt it.


Psychology of Video Games

God, so much self-promotion. No, I am not going to support you on Patreon, you whiny-sounding son of a bitch. It's an odd choice to start a podcast when your voice is as whiny-sounding as the host's.

This podcast was helpful to me in reminding me how non-fluent in concept-wielding the average social scientist is. Most of the podcasts on this list have the audience and breadth of subject matter to pull in star social scientists like Paul Bloom, Andrew Gelman, Roy Baumeister, Robin Hanson, Philip Tetlock, George Ainslie, Dan Ariely. These are not average social scientists. The qualities which make them popular are not entirely inversely correlated to those qualities which make a social scientist smart, so with that selection effect in place you might think that most social scientists are interesting people with something to say, if not necessarily brilliant minds to fawn over. Not so. Due to its limited subject matter, this podcast seems to have no choice, since there's always a guest, to pick an average psychologist or video-game-psychology-adjacent (e.g. ergonomics) guest, and that gives a more accurate impression of the practitioners as a whole probably. It's not that optimistic a picture, because yes of course these are smarter than average humans but they aren't nearly smart enough. Terrible to think that science is in the hands mostly of these people.

You should listen to this a bit to hear what the people responsible for mobile games expertly designed to distract you as much as possible have to say for themselves. Do they feel any guilt whatsoever? Do they even so much as acknowledge they're making the world worse? No! They concoct fantastic rationalizations about how what they're doing is actually good. The level of self-deception is through the roof. You have to hear it to believe it. And then you have to unsubscribe from this shit podcast.


The British History Podcast

The host spends a LOT of time on personal speculations and on trying to sound cool. I had this in the Meh category until I did a quick estimate for how much time he spends on his on personal and not very intelligent speculations. It's like half the podcast. Also the host spends increasing amount of time per episode on obnoxious self-promotion, trying to get you to listen to his other podcast, as if you really wanted to even listen to all of this one. I moved this further down the list when I realized the host is kind of a derp, repeating himself a lot and structuring his sentences in paragraphs in ways that don't make any sense and represent muddled thinking. Still, I can't really have enough different educational podcasts to fill the time, because there aren't really any good ones. This list is graded on a curve, sadly.

Addendum: I don't remember anything I hear in this podcast. I had suspected this, and it was confirmed when I got to quiz episodes. I highly commend the practice of including quiz episodes, but this case they actually got me to unsubscribe.

Some trivia. In the first episode, the host claims that half of your ancestors are women. This is not true. A lot more than half of your ancestors are women, since many more men than women fail to reproduce.


The Co-Optional Podcast

I'm clearly not in the target audience. It seems this podcast is only intended for people who already follow TotalBiscuit in some manner, since he constantly references his videos and writings. I don't understand why you'd make a podcast and then assume everyone listening is also reading your writing and watching your videos. They're completely different mediums; maybe some people are truck drivers and have a LOT more time to listen to stuff than watch and read stuff?

Anyway, I'm kind of lost as to what the hell he's talking about most of the time, but I keep listening because the episodes are short and so they make good breaks between longer things, and because the host is impressively intellectually honest for someone in his field.


The Tim Ferriss Show

Like Sam Harris, Ferriss is famous enough to pull in some high-quality guests. I skip most of the episodes but I continue to listen because he does manage to talk about some neglected important things. The reason it's bad is that Ferriss, like most people, suffers from the delusion that productivity advice isn't a worthless black hole for cognitive activity. Self-help. What a fucking sham.

He's a terrible interviewer, always asking the same unenlightening questions.

Also, he's a charlatan. How has he got so many people fooled? His only skill is networking.

Favorite episodes: Samy Kamkar, Astro Teller and Diane Teller


The History of the Mongols

I gave this an honest shot. I listened to several episodes. But I had to stop because the host's voice sucks so much.

Listen. If your voice sucks, don't start a podcast. It's not what you're meant to do.


Lore

Similarly, the host of this one's voice sucks. I can't really remember why else this one was bad, but I remember continuing to give episode after episode a try, and then realizing after every single one that the podcast was just bad.


Adversarial Learning

Not offensively bad, but I don't know what they're going for here. I was not entertained, and nor did I learn anything. Ya gotta gimme one of those two, or some other compelling reason to listen. Maybe you'll get something out of this that I didn't, and just in case, I encourage you to try it. Joel Grus is a cool dude. Maybe machine learning as a topic is just too far over my head.


Partially Examined Life

This podcast started out pretty good. The first several episodes I liked a lot and am glad I listened to them. But then there's like 50 episodes in a row that are members-only, and of course I'm not going to fork over money to listen to a bunch of dudes who aren't as smart or philosophically sophisticated as I am (though, much more philosophically knowledgeable and conscientious) talk about shit. Then it turns out that, despite explicitly saying they DON'T do this, they assume you've listened to all of those episodes when the free ones resume, and I can't understand a single word they're saying. I kept trying with many episodes, but couldn't. Yeah. Anyway my favorite is their episode on Camus. You might try that one. God they were unfair to Peter Singer. But then, most people are.


Cortex

Ugh. Completely devoid of value. It doesn't matter that I want to smear CGP Grey's voice on pancakes. There's nothing of interest here. The hosts just talk about their workflows. You might be able to glean one tiny speck of useful information from there, but if the signal to noise ratio is too low for even me to gain enough from it for it to be worth listening to, who could possibly benefit from it?


Intelligence Squared

The people who are interested in "debate" for its own sake are so much stupider than the people who are interested in the things people debate over. This podcast is for the former.

And it's nothing but politics. Politics. Not even once. The first episode that wasn't about politics was full of bullshit. Some business and politics presentation and speech writer talking about the """science""" of """"buoyancy"""", referencing nothing but bullshit papers that happened to be in vogue at the time, which were later overturned. Hearing that made me really appreciate Rationally Speaking and Very Bad Wizards, who have much higher (though, of course, still not sufficiently high) standards.

The episodes that aren't debates are TED-style talks, mostly nonsense, and given with necessary visual aids that are of course absent in the podcast form.


WTF with Marc Maron

I listened to the Barack Obama episode and came away with a vast feeling of having learned nothing. Looking at the episodes, they all seem to be about pop culture stuff I've never heard of and don't care about. I am willing to say that you shouldn't care about them either. They don't matter. Care about things that matter.


Singularity Bros

The hosts were a bit less obnoxious than I'd have expected from the title, but they're not smart enough to be worth listening to. I tried three episodes. One was an interview with someone whose accent I couldn't understand anything through. One was the dudes just chatting about their normie-tier political opinions. Wasn't offensively bad, I guess, but annoying because I knew more than them about everything they were talking about. The third was an interview with someone I found so boring I just stopped listening. Oh well. Was worth a try for me. Shouldn't be for you now that you've read this.


The Memory Palace

I almost want to like this one. But over 40% of the space in each episode is taken up by ads. Unacceptable.


Bruce Lee Podcast

This is run by Bruce Lee's daughter, and I'm a fan of the man himself, so I had high hopes going in. Well, I had hopes. Turns out the hostesses are obnoxious, stupid, self-interested fools with nothing interesting to say. A shame they're in charge of his legacy.

You could totally get something out of this if you had your brain tuned to the right frequency. Sort of like how Marcus Aurelius's Meditations work for me as a reminder to Become Stoic regardless of whether the claims therein make sense or are true. But it doesn't work for me. And I'm the one making this list. Bad it is.

The main technical flaw is that the hostesses' obnoxious chittery laughter is WAY louder than their speech, so if I turn the volume up enough to understand what they're saying, the laughter, which happens all the time (why? what's so damn funny? nothing. nothing at all.) hurts my ears. Another is the constant background hum that could easily be removed with Audacity's Noise Reduction filter. It's interesting how many podcasts are run by people who don't know what they're doing.


Seminars on Long-Term Thinking

Really wanted to like this, because I'm a fan of long-term thinking. But there are just too many problems. Most of the speakers aren't actually saying anything. There's 10 minutes of introduction at the beginning and 30 minutes of questions at the end of every lecture (a small problem if you can skip those parts, and a large problem if you're limited in file storage space). And most of the episodes rely on visuals, which you can't see even if you want to, unless you become a paying member of the Long Now Foundation. I wouldn't recommend it.


Criminal

Another one that I can't understand the popularity of. I suppose it is not super terrible if you don't have a healthy distaste for journalism. At best it can be considered intellectual empty calories.


The Heart

The idea of this one is one I approve of, and could have gotten a lot out of if it were done well. But instead of being heartfelt true stories and sad romances and, I guess, smut, it's just stupid bullshit. Some episodes might satisfy you if you have certain ideological proclivities and no ability to reflect on them.


Pragmatic

I'm really sorry I tried this. It's just two people talking about Apple products, which I have no interest in. One of them is merely not very smart and the other is a blubbering idiot.


The Countryside Hour

This was one of the last BBC podcasts I ever tried, and it turned out to be just as unlistenable as the rest of them. Who thinks it's a good idea to interrupt every thirty seconds with a phone number?


Stuff You Missed in History Class

It was so long ago, I can't remember why this one is bad. Just trust me on it.


Stuff to Blow Your Mind

Same. Don't listen to anything by NPR or the BBC.


Doing Good Better

This one is so bad that it's not even worth my time pointing out all the reasons why. It's only three episodes, so why bother? I will just say this: the problem isn't the content, but the way it's presented.


Radiolab

It infuriates me that this one is so popular, because it's one of the worst podcasts of all time. All the super-obnoxious genre conventions of a radio show, put into a podcast for scientifically illiterate people to feel like they're learning. I hate it. It's sometimes nominally about things I'd actually like to hear about, too. Such a shame.


SciFri

Basically, same deal. Interrupting with phone numbers. Why?


Future Thinkers Podcast

Idiots.


The Nerdist

Can't remember anything about this one.


The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe

It's just a circlejerk with no information in it. I guess this is as good a place as any to soapbox about the skeptic movement in general. I used to see them as sort of doing good on average, because they're one of the few groups on earth that even purports to care about epistemology. But they really don't. They're just a tribe like any other, making noises about epistemology but no more. The closest thing to a principle that differentiates their belief-generation procedures from any other group's (as opposed to the usual arbitrary process that determines the memetic makeup in a cohesive group of humans) is the absurdity heuristic, which, you'll be shocked to find out, is a heuristic. Not a rule of inference. The Less Wrong community, such as it is, does a lot better with its cargo cult Bayesianism.


Conversations with Tyler

Tyler Cowen isn't really worth listening to. And this podcast has some of the worst sound engineering of anything on this list. Most parts of most episodes are impossible to listen to even if you want to. And you shouldn't really want to.


My Brother, My Brother, and Me

Randall Munroe called this podcast "excellent". Wow. That's incredibly poor taste. I tried an episode and it was a little entertaining, so I thought maybe I'd include it among the podcasts I regularly listen to. Then there were what felt like 45 minutes of ads, structured in such a way that it was hard to tell that it was advertisements. Unacceptable.


Inward Empire

Too boring. By boring I don't mean I'm uninterested in the subject matter. I mean the host just can't hold my attention. I have things to listen to that can hold my attention. That won't thus feed the habit of losing focus.


Men

Tried it based on the title alone. I approve of manliness. I want people to be manlier. Unfortunately, these guys are ignoramuses and they filled their podcasts with ads disguised as content. No.


Breaking Bio

I could not get two minutes into the first episode. After hearing something like 10 people introduce themselves, I realized I was not going to be able to follow the conversation. I looked at the episode list and realized the expected net value of information from listening to even one episode to determine its quality was negative.


NOAA Diving Deeper

Imagine a podcast made by government-employed environmentalists and you'll get a pretty good idea of why this is bad. It is fake, obviously scripted (who do they think they're kidding?), very very badly written propaganda. It's a shame because the information is stuff I'd find interesting if presented better and there don't seem to be any other many oceanography podcasts.


The Bayesian Conspiracy

If you wanted to sabotage the rationalist movement, making this podcast, telling people about this podcast, allowing this podcast to exist, would be a good start. Maybe I've spoiled myself by limiting myself to talking to mostly high-quality members of the movement. If the average members are basically as awful as the people in this podcast, which I guess they are, then the movement as a whole does deserve to be destroyed, and has earned every bit of disapprobation hurled upon it, even by the uncomprehending outsiders.

I hate these people for being the first "rationalists" to start a podcast. If it were me instead... Man...


A History of the World in 100 Objects

Can't remember why it was bad. If memory serves, this was one of the BBC or NPR ones, so probably for the same reason all the other ones are bad.


Historicool

There are too many good and decent podcasts to bother listening to any where the audio quality is this bad. I tried listening to the first episode and basically couldn't understand what they said over the sound of the engine running. I don't care if the audio quality improves later, because the hosts sounded like they were mostly bullshitting and wasting time anyway.


WTF Do We Know?

Unfunny, ignorant idiots just talking. Ugh.


The Patch

Can't remember.


The Most Useful Podcast Ever

Can't remember.


No Such Thing As A Fish

Can't remember.


Awful

Freakonomics Radio

This one is bad for exactly the same reasons Radiolab and The Cracked Podcast are bad, except cranked up to 11 and put together.


This American Life

It's totally content-free. I don't see how you could listen to it and think you've listened to anything. I listened to some of the first episodes ever. It's a very old podcast, so maybe I thus haven't given it a fair shake and should try the newer ones. If there's anything there, let me know and maybe I'll give it another try. Or let me know if this evaluation is correct so I can remove this disclaimer.


The Economist Radio

Episodes did not play on my podcatcher (Podcast Addict).


Queued


Lectures

Excellent

TTC - The Story of Human Language

I don't have much to say about this lecture series, except that I really want you to listen to them. Its great virtue is in lacking the serious flaws that make every other lecture a poor choice for trying to listen to them while driving as part of my self-education.

They're really interesting. I can't explain why exactly. It's not the subject matter. The lecturer seems to know how to hold attention.

They're pretty old. It's interesting that he once uses the phrase "it's pretty much proven at this point that" regarding a claim that has since been disproven. Knowing things is hard.

They are so good that I got sad when I was down to three lectures left.

Despite all this approbation, I think you'd be insane to pay for them. $200? Who does The Teaching Company think they're kidding? Luckily, my copy fell off the back of a truck.


Good

Astronomy 162: Stars, Galaxies, & the Universe

You might think that stripping the visuals from astronomy lectures would make them suffer greatly. Well, of course you'd be right, but you wouldn't be so right that Richard Pogge's experiment podcastifying the lectures for the second half of an intro astronomy course doesn't work well. These were some of my favorite things to listen to once per day until I ran out. I liked them so much that I tried to find them again, and to my delight discovered that the same person did the same thing with the first half of the course, and his lectures on astrobiology, which I now have queued. Man, if only graduate courses or at least higher level undergraduate courses did this. Then I could really get some depth.


Astronomy 161: Introduction to Solar System Astronomy

Works surprisingly well in audio form, because there's a lot of content and much of it is fascinating history of how the astronomical science progressed throughout the ages. Good stuff, no worse than OSU's Richard Pogge's other astronomy podcast. For some reason there are two versions: 2006 and 2007. Even though it's the same content, they're so good that I will listen to both. If he's willing to record it twice I'm willing to listen twice. Maybe I'll catch some subtle differences.


Meh

Six Not So Easy Pieces

These Feynman lectures seem like they're brilliant, but I can't tell, partly because I'm not familiar enough with the calculus, but mostly because they really need the visuals of the chalkboard he's writing on. Also, they seem to be a sequel to "Six Easy Pieces", which I didn't find.


Bad

TTC - Philosophy of Science

I wanted these to be interesting. They would have been if the speaker understood how words work. Instead he falls into the most obnoxious philosophical trap there is, spending endless amounts of time discussing what words "really mean". It's a shame because if he had just stuck to the arguably easier task of detailing what others thought, these could have been pretty interesting as history of philosophy of science. Before giving up out of sheer boredom, the one thing I learned that stuck with me was that operationalism was this actual philosophical school, not just a toolkit, which is more or less what remains. And I understood it better. So these aren't completely worthless if you can slog through them. But you probably can't.


TTC - Games People Play

Here's what I expected to say about these lectures, after listening to the first two: These are probably a pretty good introduction to classical game theory if you know actual nothing about it, and it's nice to know that the lecturer is actually informed by Schelling, still the greatest of game theory writers. But he just doesn't understand something really important, which I poorly tried to explain here and which is much better explained here, about the nature of rationality.

I endorse all of that as true. But here's what I'm going to say instead. He constantly makes references to visuals! All the time! And you need to see them to understand the lectures! Why did The Teaching Company sell these as an audio set if you need to see things to understand? What's wrong with them?


UCSD BIEB 128 - Insect Ecology

I think these lectures are good, so you should maybe check them out if you have an interest in entomology, like if you've read some books about it and talk to people about it on a regular basis. But for me they are useless. I think zero percent of what I heard in the lectures made it into my long-term memory, because it's so disconnected from everything else I listen to, because there's so much visual context I'm missing, and because it's not a compelling thing to mull over afterwards.

Listening to things that are similar to what I already listen to has diminishing marginal returns, for the usual reasons, but also has increasing marginal returns, due to how human memory works.


Dana Leighton's Abnormal Psychology Lectures

These get points from me for actually being in podcast format, making them much more convenient to listen to than, so far, everything else in this category. But that's it. They get points for nothing else. The only other thing they have going for them is that they might help you fall asleep if you need something for that. The first lecture has nothing of value in it whatsoever, and the remaining lectures are so sparse with information that, listening, you feel like he's withholding it from you to pad out the length of the lectures. There are video clips, which are inaudible. There's discussion of them afterward: they're incomprehensible. He calls upon the class to speak: they're inaudible. At least half of each sound file is completely wasted auditory space.

More importantly than all of that, the lecturer is a complete idiot who does not understand the human mind. He knows nothing. He is nothing. You will become more like him if you listen to these.

I came to all those conclusions practically before the end of the second lecture, but decided to listen to them all anyway, in case there were hidden gems later. Until he said in the middle of lecture ten, "If you commit suicide, you're not thinking." That's when I stopped listening in disgust. I have just one thing to say to you. FUCK YOU, DANA LEIGHTON. YOU FUCKING IDIOT. You don't deserve to exist. Your station at a community college is somehow too far above your talent. If Aaron Swartz, who killed himself after being hounded by the U.S. judicial system for his heroism, is the pure water of the mountains, then you are the effluvium of sewage. Die, and take your worthless lectures with you to your grave.


Awful

UCSD ECON 109 - Game Theory

Unlistenably boring.


UCSD BIMM 124 - Medical Microbiology

The worst thing I've ever attempted to listen to. Complete waste of time for a whole lot of reasons which I'm not going to even bother to try and explain. Bodes ill for other lecture series from UC San Diego, but I'll keep trying them unless they're universally bad after a lot of tries.


Queued


LibriVox audiobooks

The quality of an audiobook depends on three things: the quality of the book, the quality of the oration, and the listenability of the text. LibriVox, having volunteer readers and almost solely books from before 1923, tends to utterly fail the second and third criteria. As often as not, the volunteers are worse readers than brute text-to-speech software.

I've arbitrarily decided that free audiobooks which are not actually on LibriVox go in this category.


Excellent

On Liberty

First of all, let me say that David "Grizzly" Smith does an impressive job with the production of his audiobooks. He reads books in the public domain, supplements them with music that's in the public domain, and releases the result for free. He is very good at reading and has one hell of a good voice.

I started listening to this book thinking it would have no chance of holding my attention, as Mill's quaint 19th century writing style would make for long flowery sentences that my modern ear can't maintain a grip on. But not so! Grizzly's lively, energetic reading does wonders and makes Mill's clear-headed thinking way more engaging.

Mill is 100% worth reading. I was astonished by how good his arguments actually were, especially in the chapters on freedom of speech. And even though he makes reference to the contemporaneous political world, not one word of the book is any less relevant today. As such, On Liberty is one of the most highly recommended things in this entire list.


Good

The Early History of the Aeroplane by Orville and Wilbur Wright

This would rate an Excellent if not for the poor reading. It's such a fantastic personal account of manly science and engineering, using ingenuity and dedication to figure out experiments to perform and things to try. It's brilliantly written. I urge you to read or listen to this. It will take less or slightly more than an hour, depending on which method you choose! I've listened to it several times. So good.

The only problem with the reading, really, is that her microphone picked up every sibilant and they get delivered harshly to the ear. This could be fixed with a simple low pass filter, but the person recording evidently didn't know shit, and neither does anyone else at LibriVox. They'll probably keep plodding along with their useless task even after text-to-speech software surpasses decent readers.


The Story of Alchemy and the Beginnings of Chemistry

Peter Yearsley does a better reading of this book than most professionals. Seriously, this one's almost worth listening to for the oration alone. But even if it had a crummy reader it'd be worth listening to for the historical information and to learn to get into the head of a group of people who think VERY differently from how you and I do. That sort of thing is always useful.


What Is Man? and other essays by Mark Twain

I knew Mark Twain was a great writer. Until listening to this, I did not know that he was also a good thinker. The eponymous essay, What Is Man? is a brilliant defense of hard determinism, well-written, well-read, enjoyable, with many philosophical tangents. I liked it a little bit less when I started to think that, rather than having the Old Man character say exaggerated things for the purposes of clarity and punchiness, that those were Twain's actual unmodified views. Maybe they're not, anyway, and that doesn't really detract from how good and worth reading the essay is.

I'd just experienced a personal loss of my own when I was listening to The Death of Jean, and I nearly cried. It's heartful.

The essays afterward vary in interestingness and importance. This lowers the average quality from what it would be if it were just the above two essays, but I still highly recommend A Scrap of Curious History. I'm not finished listening to these, so I'll update this again later.

The reader does a superb job; he's an old man that sounds like what Mark Twain "should" sound like. My only quibble is that he doesn't wait long enough between sections, but that's such a minor point it's like complaining that your swiss cheese has holes in it.


How to Live on 24 Hours a Day

As far as I can tell, this is the only good self-help book ever written. It's mercifully short, brilliantly written, and contains good and actionable advice mysteriously absent in the millions of pages of bull-, horse-, and goat-shit always flowing forth from contemporary inspirational gurus.

I'd already read the book several times before listening to the audiobook, but was pleased to learn that the recording is good! The reader does a good job, only rendering a couple of sentences with wrong emphasis and giving a pronunciation of Epictetus I find distasteful (though I can't claim it's a mistake, since no one knows how it would have been said in Epictetus's time).

There is also another version, if for some reason you find this one objectionable. You could easily listen in one sitting or spread out the 7-or-so-minute recordings to different sittings.


The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The story itself is definitely Good Writing, and Chip does an excellent reading, making this a very high quality effort overall. The listenability unfortunately suffers from the florid prose, but what can you do with old-timey writing.

My favorite part was the early description of Sleepy Hollow itself. Seems such a liminal place... how i'd like to visit it


Meh

Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita is awesome! I confess I listened to a version I got from some torrent, which isn't either of the librivox versions. The version I listened to had a lame reader and the librivox versions seem worse. Even so, this is such a cool text. Like 80% of it is devoted to Krishna talking about how awesome he is, which I doubt you could get away with in any form in a modern text, and interspersed throughout are all these awesome quotes about conquering and uniting the self. Awesome.


The Art of War

This is one of those texts that people revere and reread over and over, thinking they get something out of it every time. It deserves this praise, because there really are ways to interpret its advice in such a way that it is helpful and not wishy-washy bullshit. The reader did a tolerable job.

It's nice that it's short, which means you can read it or listen to it over and over instead of just once.

LibriVox also hosts a bunch of other versions, in case you don't like the first one or want to listen to more than one version.


Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

I listened to the Mark Douglas Nelson version. The way he read Dan made me like him, even though Dan's a son of a bitch. Douglas is no actor, but doesn't do a repulsive job either.

The story itself is okay. Doctorow fails to imagine some obvious implications of the technologies he envisions. Anyone can be restored from backup but there's still only one of each person running around? Reputation-based currency but things your friends do don't affect your holdings? Please.

The protagonist over most of the book starts out doing basically fine and over the course of most of the book gets increasingly isolated, desperate, and reviled by everyone. Hit a bit close to home.


Marcus Aurelius's Meditations

If you're confronted with a travesty and you ask yourself, "What would Marcus Aurelius Antoninus do?" you will not have to think very hard. The answer is always, "he would stoically embrace it." For instance, if you were to tell him that some day his private journal would be read and recorded by a bunch of incompetent dweebs, you could expect him to stoically embrace it.

The readers are nearly all terrible, but at least I can understand what they're all saying, so this book has that going for it.

What to make of the book itself? The stoic metaphysics which Marcus Aurelius uses to justify his ethical proclamations are entirely either known today to be false or philosophically untenable. And when he doesn't use metaphysics, he says other untenable things, like repeatedly making reference to how your soul cannot be stained by any external force. 1700 years before the behaviorist revolution in psychology he can be forgiven for not knowing how easy it is to warp a human's soul to whatever ends, but does that mean his words are no longer worth hearing?

I think The Meditations are still worth listening to. It's not about the factual correctness. Stoicism is still a valuable ethic, and probably will be for a very long time. Because none of the librivox volunteers screwed up so bad that I have to skip any section entirely, I see no reason not to listen to the book over and over, trying to glean new inspiration each time.

You never read the same book twice because each time you read something, you are different. You have different things on your mind, different connections will form. The Meditations are personal enough that they should connect to something in your life.


Wild Animals I Have Known

David "Grizzly" Smith does an excellent reading in his sultry voice as usual. The book is somewhat fictionalized accounts of the complex and usually heartbreaking lives of animals. I recommend it most strongly if you're speciesist and foolish enough to think that animals other than humans lack mental states, and also too bookish to go out and make friends with them; I can think of no better antidote for such a person.

The first story brought me nearly to tears for its protagonist, even though, as a wolf, it had slaughtered thousands of cows. Funny how human emotions work.

It's so low on the list because, for some reason, I found most of the other stories pretty difficult to focus on. They couldn't hold my attention. But at least listen to the story of Lobo. And at least try the others.


An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

The first two parts were incomprehensible. I didn't understand a single word. I'm glad I stuck with it, though, because despite being almost impossible to follow most of the time, when you can keep up it is absolutely worth it. Hume was an excellent philosopher, one who actually managed to get some things right.

Sadly most of the readers are terrible, as usual. Not all, though. The one who does the last two sections has a charming voice and accent.


Bad

The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Let me emphasize straight away that the book itself is brilliant and, having listened to most of it, I believe incredibly important. All aspiring moral psychologists should read it. It is so much more interesting than Smith's other opus. It's Bad because the readers are nearly universally terrible. Some sections are so bad that I had to just skip them because I couldn't understand a word they said. God damnit, why do you bother publishing oration categorically worse than even outdated text to speech software?


The Story of Electricity

My verdict is that this is worth listening to only if you're very interested in the history of science. The reader does a pretty good job, but the book is hard to focus on because she doesn't have, say, Peter Yearsley's compelling delivery. The text makes tons of references to diagrams which probably make understanding the actual mechanical details possible. Listening to this as an audiobook, all you get is stories of how electric devices get used and discovered. Which isn't nothing.

Of note is that electricity is one of the sciences not covered in Bill Bryson's sweeping history of science, reviewed below in the Other Audiobooks section, so this can sort of fill that gap.


An Essay on the Principle of Population

I listened to this before I became a truck driver, so it took me a while to remember that I'd done so and add it to this list. I thought that Malthusian reasoning was underrated, and wanted to learn about whence they came. I still think Malthusian ideas are underrated, but I can assure you that the source of them is not. He was not a very good thinker. He wrote a lot of words and delivered very little that was interesting. The reading is tolerable, not good. There's not enough good stuff in there to be worth the time.


Russia in 1919

I liked the sound of the book and if I had an infinite amount of free time I should like to read it some day; it sounded like a very interesting set of observations. But, I don't know why, I couldn't keep focus on it at all. No point in listening to things that can't hold my attention.


The Gods of Pegana

Probably pretty interesting if you're into Lovecraft-style humans-are-totally-insignificant cosmic stories / origin myths, but scores a zero on the listenability scale. I think mostly because of how it's written.


Cicero's Philippics

The reading is tolerable. These are a mildly interesting lesson in rhetoric and history, but you're not missing out on much if you skip these, unless you're just suuuper into Roman history.


An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

Of course the book is brilliant, and the reading isn't even that terrible, but it fails the listenability criterion for being full of this overly flowery and ornate language that characterized the period. Weirdly, Smith's other opus doesn't have this problem as bad.


The Iliad

I loved reading the Iliad, but I couldn't stand listening to it. I guess it really needs to be sang, not spoken. And there's no good verse translation. Alas.


Flatland

I'd heard the book was sexist, but I didn't realize the book was almost nothing other than a lengthy description of some unimaginative caste system, with particular emphasis on how stupid and dangerous women are. A shame that I somehow stumbled into someone doing a good reading of it, because the book itself is a waste of time.

I am all for preserving history. But I don't understand why people still talk about this book. It was groundbreaking for the time, I guess. But this is not that time. There are many more books now. This one cannot be worth your time.


Essays in Radical Empiricism

I could not understand anything anyone said. Some of the readers were okay, but that didn't help: the text is gobbledygook.


The Monadology

Let me tell you about my experience trying to understand this text. First, I read it. Didn't understand a word. Then I read it while listening to it at the same time. Still didn't understand a word. Then I listened to it without reading it. At the time I had a co-driver in the passenger's seat. He literally fell asleep from how boring it was, spilling his energy drink on himself. Needless to say, I still didn't understand the text. After that I listened to the Partially Examined Life episode about the text, and still didn't understand it.


Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

There were multiple readers, but the first one's accent was too thick to understand anything he said, so there was no reason to bother continuing.


Queued


Other Audiobooks

Excellent

The Blind Watchmaker

Hands down, the best thing I have listened to. Before committing to ruining his reputation with politics and militant atheism, Richard Dawkins was a brilliant popular science writer. In this book, especially in the earlier more philosophical sections, he touches upon a somewhat large number of very deep issues which very few people understand. For instance, his definition of complexity is very close to a correct understanding of the nature of optimization. For another instance, in the middle of the book he comes very close to independently inventing the anthropic principle. Very little here new to me, but still way farther than most people get!

AND. Half the book was read by the man himself! He has a nice voice and accent. One thousand percent recommended. I will probably listen to it several more times.

Now if only The Extended Phenotype, Dawkins's best and most important work, had an audiobook...


Good

The Selfish Gene

The only reason The Selfish Gene is not as high on this list as The Blind Watchmaker is that its content is more things that are easy to learn elsewhere. Its ideas, appropriately enough, achieved enough memetic fixation that, if you're someone who pays attention to me, you probably already know them. That said, the audiobook is really, really good. Again it is read by Dawkins himself and Lala Ward, both of whom are great readers. The 2011 audiobook edition puts corrective endnotes in the middle of the reading, for the obvious reason that endnotes don't work well in audio form, and for this reason the book does not feel as out of date as even the most recent text edition. And it covers so many different topics, so well. Man this is good. You should listen to this.

Now seriously. If you listen to podcasts, and you haven't listened to the best audiobooks, you're doing something wrong. Put the extra effort in to get the books, by hook or by crook, and you will be rewarded with better stuff. I'm convinced books are just better.


The Etymologicon

Probably due to weird publishing laws there are two versions. As far as I can tell both readers do an excellent job, but I was able to listen to the Don Hagen version. This book is very entertaining, works very well in audio form, and will teach you a lot of eyebrow-raising connections. A+


Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies

This is an excellent and super important book, which somehow managed to teach me things I didn't know even though I avidly followed the field up to its publication. It would be a shame if it remains for a long time the canonical text on the subject, since it's so provisional and timeful and the state of the art moves forward so quickly, but I don't know of anyone who exists whose comparative advantage is constantly pumping out updated editions. So it goes. If you want a book about impending AI doom, Superintelligence is the best there is.

I listened to this one while reading it, so I can't vouch for the listenability. This worked really well as it almost forced me to focus on the dry text. Having to close *two* programs to stop listening made me disinclined to. I wasn't able to read footnotes that way, but something had to give. The alternative was likely not reading anything at all.

Now, this audiobook is in the Good category because the book itself is so good. But the reading has a lot of mistakes, which I only was able to notice because I was simultaneously reading. Including at least one where the reader says the exact opposite of what Bostrom actually wrote. This makes me wonder if there are similar numbers of mistakes in all the other readings. There probably are...


Seveneves

The first two thirds are amazing, truly epic in a way few things are, and include a character I managed to hate more than any other fictional character EVER. The last third is a lot like a mediocre sequel. The average quality of the book would have gone up if that part of the book were removed, but I don't regret listening to it. It wasn't *bad*.

The lady who reads the first part tries to sound like a man for the male characters, and it doesn't work. People shouldn't do this.


REAMDE

This is the first thing I listened to as a truck driver. My trainer had it on a set of 31 CDs, and this was before I had my phone fully set up for listening to stuff, so I listened to it. Some parts were too scratchy to listen to, including the entirety of the final CD, so I still don't know how it ends. It was a lot of fun! Some parts felt like lazy writing, but that's 100% forgivable in a novel of this length.


The Lord of the Rings

I'd read half of this before. I expected it not to work well in audio, since it's so dense, but it actually did. Nothing needs to be said here about the text. The version I listened to was fine. Very glad this job gave me the chance to finish the book.


Discworld

Of course, this is many books, not one, but they are so close in quality that it wouldn't be worth it to have a million lines about each one. They are great! They translate surprisingly well into audio, and the alternating male and female readers are both excellent. The audio quality is pretty poor, though.

Nigel Planer is a genius at reading, probably the best reader out of everyone on this whole list.


Meh

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Went into this with low expectations because of its deceptive title. Thought it was going to be a sweeping overview of world history a la Guns, Germs, and Steel, but no! It should have been called A Short History of Science. I would have been excited to listen to this if it were titled accurately! He sweeps through histories of physics, biology, astronomy, taxonomy, paleontology, geology, chemistry, and some others. It's not an exhaustive tour-de-force, but it's about as close as you can get. Probably the most important omissions, for a 21st century book, is computer science, which isn't even mentioned. I personally also would have liked a chapter on the history of psychology, back when it was a real science. Also linguistics. Like I said, he doesn't cover everything.

It's a book with the misfortune of benefiting from being read near-contemporaneously with its publication. It was published in 2003 so lots of stuff is out of date. I would really like this book to be rewritten every decade or so to keep up with advances.

As a work of popular science, it has all the standard flaws, for instance giving all the usual wrong misleading crap about quantum physics and string theory. But where the author doesn't try to explain things he doesn't understand and instead just gives accounts of kickass scientists doing fascinating research, the book is GREAT! Engaging, fun, interesting, all the adjectives that book reviewers use to fellate their allies.

The theme running throughout the book is the precariousness of life, which is something I want more people to appreciate. There are also a number of very important other lessons in it which the author himself wasn't smart enough to realize. I've forgotten what they are. Some day I'll give it another listen and try to remember.

One small anecdote is of a researcher offering a constant reward for each bone fragment found in some small village. The locals broke up the bones into pieces to maximize their profits, illustrating a really important principle related to Goodhart's Law and the principal-agent problem, the perverse incentive.

One thing the book did leave me with was an impression that if you want to contribute to human knowledge, and you have the resources, you can do it. You don't even really need a degree. Your best bets are finding new species in the oceans or on land, or amateur astronomy. I also learned from the Long Now Foundation's seminars and The Story of Human Language that language cataloging is another good bet.


Crime and Punishment

Now here is a book that loses a lot in translation from Russian to English, from the 19th century to the present day, and from text to audio. Yet there is so much originally, that even through so many layers, there is still much to gain. Dostoyevsky was trying to be a novelist and a philosopher, I reckon, but he is far better than either of these a psychologist. It is cliche to say that he saw deeply into the human soul, and that is because it is true.

Listening to it rattled my bones. It's the most dour thing on this entire list. I stopped listening and deleted the copy of it I had about a third of the way in. I don't know why I did that or what to make of it, but that's why I put it so far down on this list. I recommend it, if you don't stop for no introspectively accessible reason like I did.


The Moral Landscape

It's read by Sam Harris himself, but as he does not understand the art of audiobook recording, it's somewhat more boring than just listening to his podcast. Also the audio quality is a lot worse for some reason.

This gets a 10/10 on the listenability criterion; it's a more followable work of philosophical nonfiction than anything else on this list. This is because Harris consciously writes to reach a wide audience and doesn't bother with florid prose or pointless technical terms. In print that can be a mixed blessing, but in audio that is ideal.

I recommend this book as being very listenable, and especially if you can't understand how a secular ethics might be objective. The thesis of the book, with which I happen to agree, is the metaethical claim that moral questions can have objectively correct answers. To defend this he makes repeated reference to the ethical claim, with which I also happen to more provisionally agree, that the sole locus of value is the subjective states of conscious beings. To him there is no remotely plausible alternative to this locus. To which I would respond: consider two universes both devoid of sentience. In one there is only homogenous desolation. In the other, there is all sorts of complex and interesting structure, waterfalls, rainbows, quasars, things we would recognize as incredible works of art, change over time, light and shadow and chiaroscuro, robots, whatever. Are these worlds really exactly as valuable as each other? I am not sure. Harris is sure. To him they're equally valuable and this is supposed to be super obvious. Aesthetics is just one particularly plausible alternative to qualia as places where value may live and it is easy to think of others.

There are a lot of arguments in the book, some good and most bad. For an example of a bad one, Harris claims that the fact that people make scope insensitive judgements about how much they'd donate to one versus a thousand victims of some tragedy is evidence that people can make errors in moral judgement and thus that the ought vs. is divide is bridgeable. But a little reflection reveals that this isn't an "error in moral judgement"; it's an error in logic. Moral judgements are still just premises, not derived from raw states-of-the-world.

Another bad argument is the inexplicable coverage of Kahneman's experiencing self vs. remembering self distinction. Harris has some clever things to say about it, but they are irrelevant. One gets the impression that the stuff of the book is motivated entirely by what had been making the rounds in the world of public intellectuals around the time of its publishing, and a bunch of the author's hobby horses.

I don't expect you to be impressed by this book. That's not why I'm recommending it. I've told people I lean toward some kind of moral realism and they literally cannot understand me. Harris has provided a framework for objective morality, accessible to a general audience, and for that he gets a lot of credit from me.


Nudge

Nudge deserves to be influential and you probably need to read it if you think "libertarian paternalism" is a contradiction in terms. You are just misunderstanding the thesis. But most of the content is just an introduction to heuristics and biases, which I'm already familiar with. The authors do more than most books on the subject, though. They apply it to real life. They provide a very large number of examples of nudges in three major contexts and argue pretty persuasively that each individual one is net positive.

They take a rather unenlightened prog attitude toward most things: everyone should eat mostly vegetables and avoid fats (uh...), women are harmed more by divorce than men (WHAT?????), etc. But just because they're wrong about a bunch of empirical stuff doesn't mean the thesis is wrong. The whole point of libertarian paternalism is that the people doing the nudging are supposed to account for the possibility that they're wrong by not imposing themselves.

Here's an example of a failure to do just that. My phone won't let me have the volume turned up all the way with headphones in without warning me that listening at high volume for extended periods can damage ears. Okay, but what if I want to use the volume control on my headphones? What if I'm not actually using headphones, but have the phone plugged into a truck's stereo system? This is actually the case most of the time. The warning still pops up every so often, and I have to look away from the road to dismiss it, then turn the volume back up, every single time. Bad, bad Samsung Galaxy S5. Bad. Don't impose a certain volume on me. Or jeez, at least only warn once instead of randomly while I'm fucking driving.

Back on topic. The book ultimately presents an incomplete vision lacking nuance. People respond to their environments in ways that people like Sunstein and Thaler don't expect if they blindly accept the conclusions of research papers as unalterably given. I recommend reading Jason Collins for a more complete perspective. His original view of the (audio!)book is here.


Beyond Good and Evil

I listened to the Ian Johnston translation read by Alex Jennings. I probably can't usefully comment on whether you should read Nietzsche, but I can say that this audiobook is an excellent way to do it, preferably as a second or third go-through rather than a first, like I did, but you do what you can, not what you wish you could.

I wonder what it would be like to understand everything Nietzsche says. I bet he was the only person who ever did.


Snow Crash

Like any Stephenson novel, it's got a lot of good stuff going for it, but it's a lot more flawed than the others I've listened to, and some of these exacerbated by audio.


The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

It's so much easier to pirate the super popular things than non-super-popular things, or else maybe I'd never have to listen to such unenlightening pop science. I don't find Pinker's style offensive, so I listened to this. It's mostly an antidote to stupid memes about how humans are infinitely malleable and entirely culturally determined. It's good as an antidote, but I never fell into that stupidity in the first place, so the book was mostly only of use to me for the admittedly interesting speculations on culture and ethics.

Oftentimes the BS-peddlers justify their denial of human nature by saying that if we learned that humans really did have a nature, then that would justify atrocities. Pinker has sufficiently good arguments against that, but one he doesn't notice is that biology is easier to change than society. Drugs and genetic engineering work; activism and politics don't. More people should understand this.


On Bullshit

This short work, which I recommend actually reading, almost ought to be in the Bad category for failing the listenability test. Maybe it was my cognitive state at the time, but I couldn't maintain focus on it, which I tend to believe is usually the audio's fault, not my own. It's a good book though.


Bad

The Age of Em

Before I listened to this, someone told me that it wouldn't work as an audiobook. He was right. The book is dense with paragraphs that are ideally read slowly, thought about, and then rewritten in one's own words to create a more fluent understanding of them.

I am someone who has read every blog post Robin Hanson has written since 2010 and some of his papers, and listened to many interviews by him. I am deeply familiar with his thought and interested in it. But his writing style is so boring, and the reader of the audiobook so meek and lame-sounding, that it couldn't hold even my attention, even for the less attention-demanding parts. So what hope do you have?

Still, the book itself is so well done that it might be worth listening to anyway, if the subject matter is important to you and, like me, you consume information more via audio than reading.


What If? Serious Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

Pointless. It is an entertaining way to pass the time, and Wil Wheaton does a good job reading, but there's very little of interest here, and the audiobook skips over the footnotes, the images, and the hover text on those images, which are the best parts of what-if. Also, I found myself not remembering any of it, even though I'd already read all the articles on the website.


Night School: Wake up to the power of sleep

Richard Wiseman is unintentionally good at reminding the astute reader that most pop science is nonsense and bullshit. Sigh. I care a lot about this topic. This book is only acceptable as an introduction to the science of sleep and dreaming if you plan on reading much better, more serious works. Otherwise I expect you know less after reading it than before.

In case you are not convinced away, here is the exhaustive list of useful things I got from this book:

  • Imagine a happy place while trying to fall asleep. Not an exciting or sexual one; arousal is counterproductive
  • Only use the bed for sleep and cuddling and sex
  • Avoid light
  • Avoid caffeine and other stimulants; they last much longer in the bloodstream than you think

That's it. I knew about all but the first of those already. He mentions a lot of dubious or counterproductive techniques. He doesn't mention any of these which I find useful:

  • low-dose melatonin
  • earplugs
  • iterate over all the muscles in the body and relax them one by one

In his interview in the You Are Not So Smart podcast, which is how I learned about the book in the first place, he claims to have discovered "super-sleepers", people who can fall asleep whenever they want. This is a straight-up lie. No one can do that, not even narcoleptics. He just takes the range of people who have more or less trouble falling asleep, and calls the top 5% of them super-sleepers. Tetlock does something similar with "superforecasters", but is a HELL of a lot more honest about it.

Read books by honest people, not dishonest people, and maybe you'll actually learn.


Blindsight

People have recommended this book to me. I thank them for this, because now I have information about their bad taste and can ignore all future recommendations from them.

If you like this book, you are a child. You like I Fucking Love Science on facebook and you love it when people wield dozens of poorly-understood buzzwords. You don't care if a novel lacks character depth. You don't mind if book authors pretend to know more than they do.

Even if the book wasn't bad, the narrator is, so there's no reason to listen to the audiobook whatsoever.


Queued

  • A Brief History of Time
  • Foundation - Isaac Asimov
  • Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
  • 1984
  • Cryptonomicon
  • The Diamond Age
  • A Fire Upon the Deep
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
  • This Is Your Brain On Parasites
  • The Martian
  • The King James Bible
  • The Art of War
  • The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
  • Mastery by Robert Greene
  • On Human Nature by Edward O. Wilson
  • Neverwhere
  • American Gods
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People
  • Everything Is Obvious (once you already know the answer)
  • The Power of Habit
  • The Second Machine Age
  • How Not to Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg
  • Alexander Hamilton by Chernow
  • Success and Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy by Robert Frank
  • Free Will by Sam Harris
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts
  • many more, tbh

Final Thoughts

If you like something that's not on this list, especially if it's educational, tell me about it and I'll put it on the appropriate queue. youtube (and elsewhere, probably) videos and playlists are acceptable, because I can convert them into audio files and send them to my phone.

Alas, overall I don't think listening to things is an effective way to learn anything at all. I want skills! I want to learn useful things, not just be able to talk about books and whatnot. But I suppose that's the best I can do.

Something I noticed is that it is impossible to stay focused on anything. No matter what I'm listening to, my mind inevitably wanders. It happens much less often with fiction. I've decided to accept this as inevitable.