The Power of the Pod

The Power of the Pod

I love podcasts. I started listening in 2005 with an Apple iPod I got the year before. To really date me, I used a 3.5mm auxiliary-to-cassette adapter plugged into my truck's tape deck so I could listen while commuting.

Phylum is fully remote and I no longer have a commute, but I still find time to listen while running, traveling, or doing chores. There is something magical about how a long run zips by when distracted by an engrossing podcast. On road trips in the nineties, I would listen to AM talk radio to stay awake since human voices and original dialog would keep my mind engaged. Some people prefer music in these situations. I prefer content.

Hack Your Brain

The options for content have expanded significantly since 2005 and there are at least a dozen podcasts that I follow each week. I discovered podfasting in 2016 as a way to fit more of them in. Podfasting is listening to audio content at playback speeds at or over 1.5 times the rate at which it was recorded. The basic premise behind it is that humans are capable of processing spoken language about twice as fast as they are at delivering it. Whatever science there may be, it works for me. Here are the listening stats covering my last seven years of podfasting:

That’s over 200 days of audio content consumed in less than 96 days of wall time! Skipping commercials and automatically skipping certain intros and outros saved over 9 days of time. Trimming silence even worked at the lower playback speeds, but was abandoned as the rate increased. However, the biggest time saver of all is variable playback speed. That feature alone has allowed me to listen to twice the volume of content in the same amount of time.

How to Podfast

This is what one of my co-workers said when I told her about my podfasting habit:

I accidentally hit the 2x speed button without realizing when listening to one of my regular podcasts and thought I was having a stroke!

The trick is to go up slowly. Find an app that allows for fine grained control over the playback speed. I like Pocket Casts, which is available with a freemium model for both Apple and Android. Start at 1.1x playback for a few weeks, then move to 1.2x for a few more weeks, continuing to increase the playback speed slowly like this over time. Your brain is very elastic and will adjust. There will even come a point when listening to "normal" real time playback sounds comically slow.

There is a limit for digesting technical content at increased playback speeds. That limit appears to be around least for me...because past that the words are just too close together. It also depends on the podcast and the hosts: how they speak and the density of the material they are covering. Non-technical podcasts, when I'm able to truly focus (like in an airplane with my eyes closed) are okay up to 3x speed. Some new or just very interesting technical content will have me scaling back to 1.5x speed.

I think the concept is the same for speed readers (which I am most definitely not) in that they are just looking to get the gist of the material and read blocks at a time instead of word for word. Listen with a soft ear, letting the content wash over you, and you’ll be surprised at how much you retain.

Podcast Recommendations

Many podcasts have come and gone since 2005, but these are most of the ones I currently follow...some of which have been around the whole time!

Technical Podcasts

The earliest podcasts were mostly covering technology content and that is still the genre I consume the most. I have found that listening to technical topics is the best and easiest way for me to stay current on trends in my career field.

  • This Week in Tech
    • The first podcast I ever listened to, starting in April of 2005 and every week since
    • Round table format, with insightful discussions on the general technology news and trends of the day
  • Security Now
    • Listener from the beginning, starting in August 2005 and every week since
    • Very technical and covers security news and topics in depth
    • There is a lot of filler content and the host, Steve Gibson, talks slowly enough that this one is safe at 2.3x playback, even with the technical content
    • Currently 941 weekly episodes and originally set to end on episode 999, Steve Gibson just announced that he will continue past that milestone
  • Talk Python To Me
    • Python is my favorite programming language and the one I use to develop and maintain most of the Phylum integrations
    • This was the first Python-focused podcast I encountered in 2015 and it is still relevant today
    • It really helped me to learn more about the ecosystem and popular third party packages
  • Python Bytes
    • Another Python podcast, but covers weekly developer news in a shorter format than the long form interview style of "Talk Python To Me"
  • The Real Python Podcast
    • This is a hybrid of the interview and news roundup formats
    • A lot of the news comes as summaries of the excellent PyCoder's Weekly newsletter
  • Python Test
    • Hosted by the author of "Python Testing with pytest"
    • Just this week the show changed it’s name from the more general “Test & Code”
    • The host’s reason was “It’s mostly about testing. It’s mostly about Python.”
  • Rustacean Station
    • We use the Rust programming language at Phylum for the CLI, the API, and most of the backend code
    • I'm still learning the basics of Rust and this podcast has helped to get familiar with general concepts, updates to the language, and popular crates
  • Software Engineering Radio
    • Evergreen educational topics for professional software developers
  • Meta-Cast
    • Long running podcast on agile development practices
    • The earlier episodes are great for getting a sense of Agile

General Interest

While I never got into the true crime podcast wave, there are a number of popular general interest podcasts that I follow and can recommend.

  • Freakonomics Radio
    • "Freakonomics" co-author Stephen J. Dubner uncovers the hidden side of everything
  • The Economics of Everyday Things
    • Title says it all, with episodes on the shorter side, making it easy to catch up or binge
  • 99% Invisible
    • Ostensibly a podcast about design, it really also uncovers the hidden side of everything
  • Cautionary Tales
    • "Stories of awful human error, tragic catastrophes, daring heists and hilarious fiascos"

Good for the Young at Heart

Even my elementary school aged son likes podcasts. We listen to a handful of them together while driving around town or on road trips. Here are some of his favorites.

  • Smash Boom Best
    • Funny debate show pitting two things against each other
  • Brains On!
    • An ELI5 science podcast answering questions from kids that adults will also find challenging and interesting
Charles Coggins

Charles Coggins

Senior Software Engineer, responsible for integrations and author of the "phylum" Python package. Documentation and quality champion, runner, baseball and scout dad, pod-faster, and lover of outdoors.