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Voices in my head, 2022

Listen to podcasts long enough and you are bound to develop tastes. After 15-some years, mine are these: conversations over stories, with minimal to no editing, and lasting no longer than a couple of hours per episode. Even within these constraints, the list of podcasts I could listen to is near-infinite. Yet these are the few to which I keep returning:

  1. Omnibus, which survived John Roderick’s attempted cancelation to continue providing two poorly-researched topics per week. Highlights of 2021: Mobile Jubilees, The Bottle Conjuror, Officials General, Merkins (yes, those), and The Phantom of New Guinea in which the curious popularity of an obscure Canadian detective show in Serbia makes an appearance.
  2. EconTalk, which continues to be the best general-interest interview show for people who’d rather avoid snake oil salesmen. Highlights of 2021: Dana Giola on poetry (which is in fact the best episode of 2021), Julia Galef on her book Scout Mindset (which I am yet to read, but oh well), Anja Shortland on lost art, Bret Devereaux on ancient Greece and Rome, and Johann Hari on lost connections (which reminded me of a particularly sad episode from my tenure as a heme/onc attending).
  3. Healthcare Unfiltered is the first new healthcare-related podcast I’ve started listening in years. Chadi Nabhan is a good interviewer with an even better access to relevant guests, particularly when he attempts to bring together both sides of a twitter-heated medical debate. Highlights of 2021: Bishal Gyawali on clinical trial design, Aaron Goodman and Matt Wilson on CNS prophylaxis for DLBCL, Barbara Pro and Mehdi Hamadani on PTCL, Mikkael Sekeres and David Steensma on mid-career transition, and Aaron Goodman versus the world, supposedly about randomized clinical trials.
  4. Plenary Session was back on my playlist this year, and mostly Covid-free. Highlights of 2021: Chris Booth, Adam Cifu, Manni Mohyuddin, Bapu Jena, and again Aaron Goodman (who should really start his own podcast instead of squatting in other people’s).
  5. The VPZD Show is the one about Covid. Prasad and Damania have their hearts in the right place and fairly sharp minds; they can evaluate evidence on merits and are willing to admit past mistakes. Without mourning days past when these characteristics were more common — because in fact they weren’t — I’ll just note that in times like these, they are essential. Highlights of 2021 include the entirety of the show, which has only just started.

Previous editions: 2021202020192018The one where I took a break from podcastsThe very first one

Voices in my head, 2021

If there is a theme to this year’s list it is the intentional omission of all things biomedical, which I hope is self-explanatory considering (waves around) all this.

  1. Omnibus, wherein two nerds, one professional the other amateur discuss topics of great interest, including bad architecture, bad cinema, a bad sister, and a very bad husband. It is at once entertaining, educational, and en…titilating?

  2. Lex Fridman Podcast, wherein the said Lex Fridman, an AI researcher from MIT, discusses history with Dan Carlin, programming with Chris Lattner, cryptocurrency with Vitalik Buterin, Joe Rogan with Joe Rogan, et cetera, et cetera. File under “good for exploring the back catalogue, not so much for regular weekly listending”, like so many others.

  3. 20 Macs for 2020, which is a weekly-ish countdown of notable Apple computers, with comments from notable Apple aficionados. Listen and appreciate how enthusiastic some people can be about some things.

  4. Dithering, which is a — shock, horror — paid podcast, but one well worth your money and time if you know the two men responsible, Ben Thompson and John Gruber.

  5. People I (mostly) admire, wherein an economist of some fame and with a good sense of humor talks to, well, people he (mostly) admires, including Ken Jennings of the first podcast on this list, and what a nice way to end it.

Previous editions: 2020 - 2019 - 2018 - The one where I took a break from podcasts - The very first one

Voices in my head, 2020

EconTalk with Russ Roberts is the best interview podcast I’ve listened to, period. Unlike Tyler Cowen Roberts focuses on an issue or two, not the personality being interviewed. He gives fewer if any passes. The effect is that I feel like I’m actually learning about the thing in question, not just getting acquainted with Cowen’s personality du jour. Whether any learning actually takes place at my advanced age is another matter.

My top 5 episodes: - Keith Smith on free market health care - Venkatesh Rao on Waldenponding - Adam Cifu on the case for being a medical conservative - Patrick Collison on innovation and scientific progress - Andrew McAfee on more from less

Honorable mentions: Cowen, Holiday, Hossenfelder, Bertaud

Conversations with Tyler are as good as ever. This year’s favorites: - Mark Zuckerberg and Patrick Collison - Margaret Atwood - Masha Gessen - Emily Wilson - Ezekiel Emanuel

(Note that the majority are episodes with women - Cowen has Roberts easily beaten here)

Breaking Smart with Venkatesh Rao I would recommend to anyone who’s enjoyed the above-linked interview Russ Roberts did with Rao on one of the better Breaking Smart essays. It’s 15-20 minutes of Rao performing mental stretching excercises, solo.

Plenary Session with Vinay Prasad is another podcast that shines with the solo performances, but the interviews aren’t half-bad either. That isn’t a surprise, since this year Prasad has talked to David Steensma, Frank Harrell, Adam Cifu, H. Gilbert Welch, and Clifford Hudis, among others. Sadly, the podcast still doesn’t have a proper website, so I can’t link to any of these episodes directly.

Voices in my head, 2019 edition

  1. Plenary Session. Many friends and coworkers are amazed that anyone would voluntarily subject themself to Vinay Prasad‘s tirades, but his podcast is well-behaved and a pleasure to listen. The monologues are better than the interviews, which is to be expected: he’s been monologuing his whole life and interviewing for less than a year. And yes, some of his guests/collaborators need too much coaxing, but sock puppets only reinforce the national meeting atmosphere that the name evokes.
  2. Conversations with Tyler. Still great. You can start at the beginning, or with the one with Daniel Kahneman, but start somewhere. Most are excellent and all are good, even the ones you wouldn’t guess from the interviewee’s name and bio.
  3. The Knowledge Project. Farnham Street/F.S. has gotten some good press, and for good reason. It’s self-improvement for people allergic to the self-improvement label.
  4. Revisionist History. Yet to listen to the latest season, but I can’t see it going badly. Malcolm Gladwell is a pro.
  5. The Glass Canon Podcast. In the absence of a regular gaming night (never schedule a campaign around three doctors’ schedules), I listen to other people playing tabletop RPGs. No better entertainment, I say.

Voices in my head, 2018 edition

(voices as in podcasts, not a psychotic episodes)

  • Conversations with Tyler: I much prefer this over his mostly spartan, often cryptic, and always clueless about things medical blog Marginal revolution. Cowen‘s interview style brings out the best from people; it is also a good and rare example of clear thinking. Compare and contrast his chat with Malcolm Gladwell and Patrick Collison’s chat with Cowen: when answering, Gladwell uhms and ahhs and changes direction mid-sentence; Cowen pauses for a half-second, then produces paragraphs of prose that could have been lifted right out of an encyclopedia. Not to belittle Gladwell — for one, I’d be even worse (as anyone who had to finish my sentences for me can confirm); and two, he is responsible for
  • Revisionist history: He had me at Food Fight. Gladwell embraces and owns his Well, actually kind of story-telling — even the show’s name is a big Well, actually to the Gladwell-haters. And good for him, because the stories are marvelous in both topic and style, and make me want to read his books again.
  • Sources and methods: Two ex-spies talk about learning and cognition. They are still in intelligence-gathering mode, interviewing guests you‘re unlikely to hear anywhere else. It’s how I learned about Tinderbox (and you can too).
  • America the bilingual: One part pep-talk to encourage the pre-1990s waves of immigrants to America to take up a second language, one part advice to parents raising multilingual children. The latter validated my plan to ~~save money~~ strengthen the offspring’s Serbian by shipping them across the Atlantic to spend some quality time with the grandparents.
  • Novel targets: Finishing of the list of men talking to each other is the best oncology podcast I’ve come across. It may be heavily slanted towards immunotherapy, and not zealous enough in dampening the hype, but it tries.

Podcast time

Another year, another round of podcast recommendations:

No, it’s not your browser. The list is empty.

After 10 years of attaching electric appendages to my head using flimsy earhooks some call ear-phones, I have decided that one voice in my head at a time is quite enough, thank you, and that there are better ways to muffle the sounds of everyday existence than the nasal overtones of middle-aged white men.

Who will be crushed to lose me as a listener, I am sure.

I haven’t suddenly decided that they are all bad, mind you—I have spent cumulative months listening to them, so they must be good. The problem is, I like them too much.

Behold my modified CAGE questionnaire for podcasts:

  1. Have you ever felt you needed to Cut down on your time spent listening to podcasts? Doing it right now.
  2. Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your listening to podcasts at inappropriate times? Does my wife count as people? If so, then yes.
  3. Have you ever felt Guilty about listening to a podcast instead of doing something else? You mean like sitting in the car 10 extra minutes after coming back home from work, waiting for an episode of Radiolab to finish? Umm…
  4. Have you ever felt you needed to put on your headphones first thing in the morning (Eye-opener) to finish listening to last night’s podcast, or to get a head start on completing the unplayed list. “Felt like?” I do it all the time.

Aced it.

Granted, being mostly free, not too hard on your body, sometimes educational, and often entertaining, podcasts are not the worst thing in the world to be addicted to. But to be alone with your thoughts is exceedingly rare when there is a toddler in the house—rare enough that you do not want to spoil it by introducing external stimuli which make it impossible to string a chain of thought longer than the 30-second commercial break for Squarespace.

Farewell, voices. It was good while it lasted.

Programming, meet medicine

John Siracusa is a programmer. Merlin Man is a lifehack guru-cum-internet personality. If you are in a medical field, there is no particular reason you would know them.

They co-host a podcast that modestly has themselves as the subject matter. It is one of the best new podcasts this year, second only to CGP Grey’s (though with Road Work coming out this week, it may be a three-way tie). In this week’s episode, Siracusa had this to say about programmers (link to the audio here—it sounds better than it reads):

Plenty of people can espouse information telling some younger programmer “make sure you always call ‘srand’ before you call ‘rand’”, and they can easily tell you “don’t listen to that guy, you should not call ‘srand’ before you call ‘rand’”.

Neither one of them really understands it, because they can’t explain it. If that young programmer is saying “But why? But why? Why? How do these things work together? Explain it to me.” and they realize “Oh, I can’t explain it. All I have is this…”—it’s not a cargo cult, but it’s more like—”I have this practice that I’ve learned through supposed bitter experience that if I didn’t do this one time and something didn’t work, then I did do it, then it did work.” Very often in programming you can sort of learn that way where basically “I tried this one thing and it didn’t work, or this bug happened, then (I did) this other thing, and the bug was fixed”, and come away from that with a rule, or a heuristic, or something you think is an unwritten law without actually understanding the underlying…

Remind you of anything? In medicine, “cargo cult” is exactly
the term I would use. Programming’s saving grace is that it is a finite system created by humans, and—at least in theory—knowable. The human body is as black a box as it ever was—the only difference between now and the 1800s being a stronger flashlight.

So, programming clearly shares this with medicine: most of its practitioners don’t have a firm grasp of what they are doing, and don’t understand the underlying principles of their craft. Why, then, do we fool ourselves that adding programmers’ idiosyncracies to physicians’ by the way of electronic medical records, clinical decision support systems, and ultimately AI-run e-doctors, will somehow “fix” medicine instead of making it bad in a different way?

On medical euphemisms

Observe George Carlin discussing how euphemisms are invading the English language:

I first heard a version of this years ago, back in Serbia, while I was still a med student. It hadn’t left much of an impression, but I can imagine myself nodding my head and thinking ha ha, yes, stupid Americans, ruining their own language, or something comparably obnoxious.

Well, I’ve, erm, matured since then. True, some euphemisms now inspire rage instead of vague amusement, like my two favorites:

  • I just wanted to let you know” instead of “I’m telling you”, and its relatives “Please let me know”, and “Thank you for letting me know”. Physicians are particularly fond of this, for we are the gatekeepers of knowledge, and the only reason you know something is because we are letting you. Don’t worry though, it’s not just you, we say that to each other all the time.

  • I don’t feel comfortable doing xyz” instead of “I don’t want to do xyz”, as mentioned here.

Most of them, though—particularly ones we use with patients—have a good reason to exist. The Radiolab segment which inspired this post made fun of “making someone comfortable” being used for dying ICU patients. Instead of… what, exactly? Euthanasia? There is a difference between giving someone drugs usualy meant for comfort—opioids, primarily—in order to kill them, and giving them opioids for pain and comfort knowing it may shorten their life.

Then there are turns of phrase used because they are euphemisms. “You should get your affairs in order”, “your time is becoming limited”, “at this point we should concentrate on quality of life, not quantity” are all ways of saying “I don’t know when you’ll die, but it will be soon, so start planning the funeral”. I am sure Mr. Carlin would appreciate getting it straight, but not every patient is as stoic. We can easily be more blunt if asked to do so, but you cannot un-hit a patient with a sledgehammer like that. So the default is to err on the side of softness.

Then again, most of the euphemisms we use with patients also make us more comfortable with the sitation. What I wrote above may then just be my rationalizing it away with a convenient it’s-best-for-the-patient mantra. In truth—to use another common phrase—euphemisitis is a multifactorial condition (as in, I have no idea what the reasons are, but it’s probably a little bit of everything).

Down the vim rabithole

Spending two hours each day on the train, offline and without distractions, gives me an excuse to go down various rabbit holes that a couple of months ago I would’ve thought nothing but time wasters. Starting to read the Dark Tower series—-I’m almost done with the Gunslinger—-is one of them. Re-learning vim—-if dabbling with it in high school 15 years ago counts as having learned it—-is another.

This episode of the Technical Difficulties podcast is what started it, followed by a blog post or two (nay, three) on the perfect setup. Now, I may or may not continue using vim as my primary writting tool—-I would have to figure out how to integrate it into my workflow—-but several things I picked up will always be useful:

  • git is an amazing tool for tracking changes that researchers should use more

  • don’t blindly edit stuff—-dotfiles in this particular case—-on your computer without understanding what those edits mean

  • Solarized should be your default color theme for anything

  • use your macro/keyboard shortcut app of choice (mine is Keyboard Maestro, you can just as easily—-but not as prettily—-use Better Touch Tools) to quickly position windows into quadrants, halves, thirds, etc.

  • there might not be much difference between bash and zsh if you are a beginner, but zsh has the cool customizable prompts

Yes, I am writing this in vim, previewing and exporting in Marked, then posting it manually to Squarespace. The only thing standing between me and a fancy-pants static website engine powering this blog is there being no internet access on MARC trains, and me being too cheap to get a $20-a-month personal hotspot from Spring. That is probably for the best.

A podcast a day

Fun fact: The average Maryland to DC commute is the second longest in the US, right after New York. I should know. Mine will be 90+ minutes, come July 1st. Last week, while I was finishing paperwork at my new employer’s Bethesda offices, the looks people gave me went from incredulity to pity on seeing the Baltimore address on my driver’s license and hearing my explanation that no, since my wife is still at Sinai and usually just walks to work, we won’t move. It’s better for me to take one for the team, I’d say, than have both of us suffer hellish beltway traffic from some midway point.

I could write an essay on how taking one for the team is not entirely true, but the title of this post says “podcast”, and it’s already the second paragraph, so here is my point: My commute will be long. I will need to fill that time with something. Sometimes, that will be strangers talking into my ear about things I don’t understand. Here is my list of strangers, carefully curated after ten years of listening.

Monday: Mac Power Users

Comes out every Monday morning, like clockwork. Great for learning about new hardware, productivity apps, etc. but podcasts are not the best medium for going into the minutia of somebody’s workflow.

Tuesday: Back to Work

Go read this. Having Merlin Mann talk for an hour all by himself would be good enough, but Dan Benjamin—the other half of BTW—is the best podcast host in the business. By using a simple formula, it is easy to mathematically prove that their show is the best podcast ever created.

The first 30 or so minutes are laden with inside jokes and obscure references, but even that is fun after you are several episodes in.

Wednesday: Wait, wait…

It airs each Saturday, but I like alliteration, and there is nothing else good on Wednesdays. I was in Chicago once while it was being taped, but was too late to get a ticket. Now that Carl Kasell is retiring, it’s unlikely I’ll ever be at a live show. So it goes…

Thursday: The Talk Show

Daring Fireball is a better blog than TTS is a podcast—John Gruber and some of his guests tend to ramble—but you can get good insights on baseball and bourbon.

Friday: ATP

One word: Siracusa. There are two other co-hosts, whose main job is not to screw up too badly. They do it well.

Saturday: The Alton Browncast

The John Siracusa-slash-Bret Terpstra of food. Yes, Alton Brown is a national treasure.

The Sunday potpourri

This is the time for irregular shows, or ones that don’t always have something of interest. In order of preference:

  • Radiolab • Fact: this is the best radio show ever created, and an even better podcast.
  • The Incomparable • For geeks, by geeks. Or is it nerds?
  • This American Life • Any co-production with Planet Money is a must-listen. Otherwise formulaic.
  • Systematic • Hit-and-miss, though usually a hit.
  • Technical Difficulties • A tech DYI show with show notes better than some books.
  • CMD+Space • I only listen to it when an interesting guest is on, which is once every couple of months.
  • The Pen Addict • A podcast about pens.
  • JOP podcast • The only oncology podcast worth listening to; the medical podcast landscape is dreary.

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