A Collection of Great Podcasts - Part 4 of 4: Science & Technology

Let’s Talk About Tech

This show is part of the Saturday Edition news show on BBC Radio 5 Live, hosted by the deep, rich tones of Chris Warburton. It used to be called The Joy of Tech (which explains the URL stub), and features a family of web, tech, and other science-y experts discussing the latest news and updates in their worlds. And most of the time, these experts include Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann (of Answer Me This! podcast fame) who are just a pleasure and a joy to listen to. Apart from the generallly informative nature of the show, the chemistry that Chris Warburton shares with the guests is simply fantastic.

The Infinite Monkey Cage

A witty, irreverent look at the world through the lenses of science with Robin Ince and everybody’s favourite scientist who’s not Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox. They only do about 6 shows in a series, and there are two series in a year. This hardly seems enough for this informative and funny show, but that appears to be par for the course for most good episodic British TV and radio programmes.


Hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, I find it extremely difficult to concisely explain what the show is about. Wikipedia says “The show attempts to approach broad, difficult topics in an accessible and light-hearted manner and with a distinctive audio production style”, but while accurate, somehow this just doesn’t capture the true depth of the show. I was skeptical about it for a long time, until I gave it a proper listen. I wasn’t instantly hooked, but once you grok what’s going on, it’s like a light switches itself on and you’re suddenly plunged into examining the nature of beliefs ands truths you held to be incontrovertible.

See all the posts about the podcast collection here.

A Collection of Great Podcasts - Part 3 of 4: Entertainment

7 Day Sunday

One of a clutch of weekly news satires that I listen to, this is a hilarious panel discussion style podcast hosted by Al Murray. He’s joined by Andy Zaltzman most of the time, as well, which just jacks up the funny in the show to new levels. Mostly because of Andy’s “boy who cried wolf” relationship with facts. I’m also a big fan of news satire shows and try to watch or listen to most of them.

Answer Me This!

This show has no real reason to exist. Its premise is that listeners send in questions and the daffy duo of Helen Zaltzman (yep, Andy Zaltzman’s sister) and Olly Mann – ably supported by Martin the Sound Man – answer these questions. Why would these questioners not use the Internet? Because the hosts are just that good, that’s why. They aren’t really media professionals (or at least, they weren’t till this show became famous), which gives the show an endearing quality that is really rather hard to define. I got obsessed at some point and listened to all the free back-episodes that I could, then went out and bought their book, watched all their videos on Youtube and memorised all the jingles. One could never get too much Helen and Olly.

Friday Night Comedy - The Now Show

This is another satirical take on the week’s UK news headed up by Hugh Dennis and Steve Punt. Largely in sketch form, there are also topical funny songs and stand-up routines by popular comedians. This is part of the same Friday Night Comedy podcast as The News Quiz – the two shows appear to alternate every other month.

Ian Collins Wants A Word

After listing everything out here, I realised this is the only “shoot the shit”-type podcast that I listen to. That is all Ian Collins and Sideshow Kev do in this show. Not much news, although some big ticket items are occasionaly discussed, with Collins bringing in a pragmatist Tory angle. There are a couple of other sections that are really funny, and my personal favourite is the collection of Random Acts of Irrational Annoyance. They bring on a guest (nearly) every show, and have a bit of light-hearted chin wag. On occasion, they’ve even brought on people who they were clearly poking fun at (Tony Topping, Alex Jones, and David Icke)!

Mark Kermode & Simon Mayo’s Film Reviews

This is the definitive film review show. Mark Kermode is the (very opinionated, and sometimes just wrong!) film critic, while Simon Mayo brings to bear his considerable radio experience and plays a very capable second fiddle. They discuss the top 10 movies at the UK box office for the week, Mark reviews the movies that’re released that week, and bring on a prominent film personality to discuss an upcoming project, all intermingled with listener interactions and reviews. All this sounds quite pretty basic, but they do a damn good job of it, and the show has built up a strongly dedicated fan following (yours truly included) over the many years it’s been running. Mark Kermode’s occasional headlong dive into an outright rant about shitty or annoying movies are quite legendary, with the review of Sex And The City 2 being of the best examples.


This used to be a hilarious sketch show satirising the week’s news events, headed up by Margaret Cabourn-Smith. Unfortunately, it’s been off air for so long I can barely remember what it was like! I recall it being very similar to The Now Show (mentioned above as part of Friday Night Comedy), so it’s possible that it was just subsumed into that programme instead. Which appears even more likely as Cabourn-Smith is a regular fixture over there as well.

Simon Mayo’s Confessions

Every weekday Simon Mayo hosts the drivetime programme BBC Radio 2, which is made up various little bits between song requests, like book reviews, cookery and general talk. One of these bits is the Confessions corner, where listeners write in confessing to some embarassing act in their past that they’ve not really owned up to. Simon Mayo reads these out, and the assembled panel take a call on whether they’ll forgive the sinner or not. The confessions are often quite mundane, but Simon’s delivery and the forgiveness banter make this one of the shows I most look forward to every week.

The Bugle

This is the funniest, and one of the best, podcasts I listen to. Another weekly news satire show (billed as an “Audio Newspaper for a Visual World”), this pdocast features Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver holding forth their hilarious – and occasionally sensible – views on the news of the week. This is one of the few shows I’ve encountered that has a relatively global approach to the news discussed, and also has a fan-base of total nutters. It used to be hosted by The Times Online, then went independent in January 2012. This was shortly after Andy Zaltzman launched a series of hilariously blistering attacks on Rupert Murdoch and the New Corp empire in the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal. Coincidence? Nobody knows.

See all the posts about the podcast collection here.

A Collection of Great Podcasts - Part 2 of 4: Quizzes

Do The Right Thing

A discussion-style show which asks an assembled panel of comedians about the right or wrong thing to do in any given situation. Hosted by Danielle Ward, this show is a reasonable amount of fun but can get really loud and raucous at times. Susan Calman comes on every so often, which is an obvious shot in the arm for any show.

Friday Night Comedy - The News Quiz

This show is hosted by Sandi Toksvig and is the BBC Radio 4’s version of Have I Got News For You - a quiz show based on a satirical take on the news of the week. The News Quiz is pretty much entirely UK-centric. When this show is on a break, then the Friday Night Comedy becomes a topical sketch show called The Now Show hosted by Hugh Dennis and Steve Punt, which is quite funny as well.

International Waters

Internation Waters is an interesting concept – pit a team of two comedians each from the US and the UK in a battle of pop culture trivia. It’s also a little different from the other shows in that it appears to be a monthly podcast. That makes me somewhat glad – I don’t think I could take too heavy a dose of the host Jesse Thorn’s brand of humour, which is reasonably drowned out here by the 4 comedian guests. (As an aside, his other podcast – Comedy Bang Bang – is highly rated in the community, but I’ve always found it quite dull. Probably because the guests and recurring “funny” bits are not particularly entertaining.)

*[EDIT: I’m mistaken here. The host of Comedy Bang Bang is Scott Aukerman, and not Jesse Thorn. They sound quite the same though.]

A quick note here: All podcasts from appear to have a fair amount of monetisation effort behind them in the form of solicitation ads in the middle of the podcasts. I listen to enough BBC/NPR podcasts that this gets a little annoying after a while. YMMV.

NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!

Another gem from the NPR stable, “Wait Wait…” is a both a panel as well as a dial-in quiz show. Hosted by Peter Sagal, the prize for victorious callers is a great one – they get the dulcet tones of Carl Kasell to record a voicemail greeting message for them! Peter Sagal is really extremely funny, and Carl Kasell… well, I would listen to Carl Kasell reading a dictionary out aloud. The panel features some comedians quite regularly, who are also really funny and well-informed. Some large global news items are covered, but this podcast is a whole lot funnier if you’re roughly in the know about the US political scene.

NPR’s Ask Me Another

This is the best “quiz show” podcast I’ve ever heard so far, and also the best NPR podcast. Shot live in an NY theatre, it throws brainteasers, traditional trivia questions and vocabulary puzzles at a series of contestants. The host is Ophira Eisenberg, who is accompanied by a clutch of “puzzle gurus” and a musician, who is usually Jonathan Coulton. Even though it is ostensibly a competition, the good-natured banter that runs throughout is one of the best parts of the show. Fortunately, most of the content here is general pop culture trivia, although heaving a healthy appreciation of US cultural references will significantly enhance your enjoyment.

See all the posts about the podcast collection here.

A Collection of Great Podcasts - Part 1 of 4: News & Analysis

I love listening to podcasts.

They’re a great way to consume informative, thought-provoking and funny content while also keeping abreast of what’s happening in the world. Additionally, podcasts are great company for a run or while at the gym, because they engage the mind just enough to keep you plugging away at a constant pace while being distracted away from any tedium and exertion.

In line with my general OCD for keeping my digital assets organised, I’ve classified my podcast subscriptions into categories in BeyondPod. (As a quick aside, BeyondPod is simply the best podcast manager app I’ve ever used, and is a very functional RSS/Atom feedreader as well!) These categories (and therefore the sequence of posts on this topic) are:

As always, a subscription may not fit neatly into just one category, but it’ll have to do.


A great show where a different person in each episode examines one issue relating to policy or interesting new ideas from multiple angles, in each episode. I may not agree with quite a few parts of some of the discussions, but they’re very well researched and presented. A heavy focus on the UK, but some episodes are quite general.

Any Questions and Any Answers

Any Questions is a panel discussion programme featuring a few UK politicians and some people from other walks of life responding to questions raised by members of a live audience, chaired by an absolutely terrific moderator called Jonathan Dimbleby. The politicians are just as useless as you would expect them to be, and tend to waffle on without really answering the questions. After a few months, there is a rather monotonous drone of a buzz-saw going back and forth through popular dead horses. Despite all of this, it still makes for compelling listening. Recommended only if you want to keep a finger on the pulse of rumblings within the UK.

Any Answers is a sister programme hosted by Anita Anand, where BBC Radio 4 listeners dial in with their take on the issues that were discussed in the prior installment of Any Questions. The latter show is somewhat pointless as a podcast, but some of the viewpoints expressed are quite repulsively fascinating. Also, I greatly admire Anita Anand’s handling of Joe Q. Public’s heated ramblings. And she’s married to Simon Singh, who is awesome.

Freakonomics Radio

SuperFreakonomics might have come in for some criticism, but there’s no doubt its predecessor Freakonomics kick-started the trend of economists holding forth on interesting linkages between seemingly unrelated phenomena. A little unfairly, I might add, since The Undercover Economist was published a little earlier. The latter could be considered the hipster Freakonomics.

At any rate, the podcast continues the trend of analysing and exploring “the hidden side of everything”, and, as the NPR blurb puts it – “prepare to be enlightened, engaged, perhaps enraged and definitely surprised.”

KCRW’s Left, Right & Center

This is the first non-NPR American podcast I’ve regularly listened to. It’s a great little 30 minutes of debate between panellists from across the political spectrum (suitably calibrated to an American scale), and the discussions are always impassioned, without devolving into shouting matches. And despite the “present different sides of the issue” approach, the viewpoints are actually quite sensible and interesting.

NPR Series Weekends on All Things Considered

NPR gets about as close to BBC Radio as an American economic/political system will allow. All Things Considered is a popular news-magazine style of radio show, and the podcast is a curated selection of the stories covered by ATC that week. Great for US-centric news, some general information, and a generous sprinkling of esoteric music, literature and culture.

See all the posts about the podcast collection here.

The Single Best Reason to Upgrade From Ubuntu 12.10 to 13.04

I quite like the Unity interface. I don’t really get the hate for it around the interwebs, and it seems like most of it is driven by a resistance to change.

However, my single biggest annoyance with Unity had been the odd way it handles switching between multiple windows of the same application.

Previously, you would have to click on the application icon in the launcher, and if you had multiple windows open, it would show you an Exposé-style view of the windows, and you would have to select one of them.

This behaviour was even applied in the Alt+Tab switcher! This made switching between same-app windows a colossal pain, as what was previously practically instantaneous had now become bit of a chore.

Now with Raring Ringtail dropping, this has been fixed.

You can switch between windows much faster by right-clicking the app icon in the launcher, where the options now include a window listing.

While Unity overall feel a lot snappier and includes some subtle visual refreshes, this is the one killer “fix” that makes the upgrade to 13.04 completely worth the minimal effort involved!

A Collection of JS Visualisation Libraries

Just a quick post to make a collective note of some of the few graphing libraries I am attempting to try out over the coming weeks. Base frameworks like D3.js and Raphael.js appear great, but might just be involve too much work if all I want to do is throw together a quick few visualisations.

dc.js: A multi-dimensional charting library built to work natively with crossfilter and rendered using D3.js.

NVD3: Re-usable charts and chart components for D3.js.

Polychart2.js: Graphing library that takes many ideas from the Grammar of Graphics and the R library ggplot2, and adds interactive elements for usage on the Web.

Highcharts: Interactive charting library supporting many, MANY types of visualisation!

Chart.js: Simple HTML5 Charts using the canvas element. Currently doesn’t support interactivity, but looks great.

Flot: Plotting library for jQuery, with a focus on simple usage, attractive looks and interactive features.

Rickshaw: JS toolkit for creating interactive time series graphs.

YUI Charts: A charting module based on the YUI library.

xCharts: Yet another D3.js based library. Some of the examples don’t appear to work currently.

Flotr2: A fork of Flotr which removes the dependency on Prototype and a few enhancements.

Now it may turn out that most of these end up going unused, but hopefully that means I would have found the best fit library and will stick with it!

Analytics Syndication Services: A Paradigm Shift to Align Your Core Competencies

The Backstory

As is often the case with people who are “between jobs”, I was whiling away time on Twitter the other day. A glass of some excellent Pinot Grigio later (OK, it may have been 3 glasses), I arrived at the inescapable conclusion that my Twitter timeline was filled with crap. And not just any kind of crap, but the kind that was so terrible it wasn’t just a time-sink, but also actively made you stupider by engaging with it in any manner.

And so I decided to embark on pruning my lists down to a manageable number, and removing any mostly useless follows. The big realisation here was that very few “famous” people have anything of worth to say, so pretty much all the sportspeople and actors were unfollowed as part of the spring cleaning.

Another conscious decision was to follow a bunch of people somewhat related to my professional interests (data science, programming, analytics, data visualisation, etc.) and see if I could engage in some of the conversations that were happening. The unfortunate outcome here has been that of severe disillusionment with the field, owing to a pretty solid validation of Sturgeon’s Law. A really great proportion of “thought leadership” that is out there in the BigCo business intelligence world is self-serving at best, and actively counterproductive at worst.

Despite this, the absolute self-confidence in all the bloviating that went on was a thing of beauty to behold. Everyone was coming up with solutions to everything.

This is when I had my business brainwave that will revolutionise the data warehousing/business intelligence world. It was so simple I’m a little surprised that it appears to be a novel idea: Analytics Syndication Services.

The Paradigm at Point A

The world is clearly enamoured of data driving everything: you have data driven decision making, testing, thinking, journalism, documents, and even, um, analytics.

But a few crucial questions remain: where is all this data coming from? What are people doing with it? And how does it learn to drive?

The core competencies

If a lot of large companies are are good at something, it is primarily in:

  1. Learning from their past mistakes (i.e. how to avoid getting caught the next time)
  2. Trying to align things (mission, vision, strategy, roadmap, and core values)
  3. A thought process of “Something must be done, this is something, therefore this must be done.”
  4. Attempting to cut costs by having one person do the job of four

So how can YOU, as a Big Data-age™ organisation, appear to be progressive, analytical, action-oriented and proactive all while increasing shareholder value?

Simply, by producing copious amounts of output that can effectively blend clever contortions of language and semantics with the authority of a collection of nicely coloured charts and a link to a CSV that says “[Dataset]”.

Shifting the paradigm from Point A to Point B

This clever amalgam of verbiage and numberwang is not everyone’s cup of tea. Since companies should obviously focus only on their core competencies, they would be well served by outsourcing this function to a specialist in Analytics Syndication Services.

This way, they can preserve valuable intellectual horsepower by only allowing the true experts to make statements like:

The best insights from Big Data are visualized through analytics. Only metrics do not mean anything without context - business owns this one.


A/B tests have shown that a statistically significant number of visitors to the home page prefer the mauve button to the heliotrope one, with a p-value of < 0.05.


Our HANA setup beats an HBase/Hadoop deployment by leveraging real-time predictive analytics to increase profitability by 23.5%.

This ensures that both the purely business types and the techno-functional types have their buttons sufficiently pushed, and can confidently carry out actions that are tenuously based on above pronunciations.

Another beneficial side-effect is that companies are now free to do pretty much anything, secure in the knowledge that professionals are now at hand to skilfully weave numbers and words into a compelling narrative that threads its way back and forth between fiction and non-fiction.

Non-believers may question the validity of the data, or the enhanced interrogation techniques employed on it, but they will quickly be silenced by an even greater flood of “statistics” and “intelligence” from the Analytics Syndication Service. And gradually, it will be clear to all who care to observe – crunching statements and data pulled from the A.S.S is the next billion-dollar idea.

Why Fred Wilson Is Wrong About “DIY Data Science”

Fred Wilson, in a recent blog post on “DIY data science”, said this:

I think data science and machine learning (I know they are not the same thing) are going to be a very big part of tech innovation in the coming years. And I also know that putting powerful tools in the hands of “everyman” produces more innovation than can happen when the tools are limited to mathematicians and scientists.

This is one of those pithy expressions that sound great when rolling off the idea-train. Indeed, imagine the possibilities of insightful output that could be enabled by “democratising” data science and machine learning.

However, this is also an idea that just appears unworkable at best.

True “data science” is a process. It’s not just about a pretty visualisation or a “ka-ching!” epiphanic insight. It requires:

  1. Articulating the objective
  2. Identifying the inputs
  3. Organising the source data into the required form of input
  4. Identifying the input transformation or process
  5. Implementing the transformation/process
  6. Identifying the required output (see Step 1)
  7. Making sense of the output (see Step 1)

(Note: an underlying assumption is that the source data is clean and readily available – which is quite the joke for most data domains today)

The current state of data analysis technology has come admirably far from 10 years back, thanks to phenomenal technological efforts like D3.js and the R ecosystem (with an emphasis on anything by Hadley Wickham), and some other innovations in analysis and visualisation. However, one common factor in all of these tools is that they all only address Step 5 in the above process.

Fred goes on to say:

So what is the Tumblr or Blogger or Wordpress of data science? When will my son and his friends be able to take the NBA dataset and start running algorithms against it to produce better fantasy picks? When will my daugther [sic] and her friends be able to take the TV viewing dataset to decide what TV shows to go back and watch that they missed last year?

Well, there can be none. The blogging (or more specifically – publishing on the Web) revolution solved a problem of cost. It used to be too expensive for talented amateurs or hobbyists to publish (physical costs) and reach a wide audience (distribution costs). The lack of an equivalent for data science just means that there aren’t similar hurdles to overcome. Potential data scientists are NOT being held back by such artificial constraints. What is preventing the layperson right now from becoming data wizards is, quite simply, the lack of knowledge.

Defining a problem domain is not something that a tool can magically do. That skill comes with a healthy mix of rigorous education and experience.

The world of data science is quite exciting, and tools, techniques and education will only continue to improve and wow us, but “DIY data science” will never be a thing. At least in the way Fred Wilson envisions it.

Google Reader’s Forced Euthanasia

Like many others, I was pretty badly struck in the face by the announcement of the Google reader shutdown.

Since I’m a techie, but not really a developer, a lot of the other Google properties being shut down hadn’t impacted me as much.

However, a majority of my Internet content consumption is driven by Reader, which is why it was utterly baffling that the reasoning given was ”usage of Google Reader has declined”, especially given some of the rough userbase data that have popped up. I wonder where Google gets their data from.

Embrace, extend, extinguish

RSS is a great content consumption protocol that is fully open and interoperable. Despite the “+isation” of Reader (or The Great Reader Redesign) (or maybe in part because of it), I had assumed Google would remain committed to at least maintaining Reader, even no resources were being thrown at improving it. Especially since they had thrown their weight behind PubSubHubbub, and bought FeedBurner. (Embrace!)

But having done this, Reader then essentially crowded out the entire market for RSS readers by just existing as a Google gorilla. For the most part, it appeared to be good. I was a staunch user of Bloglines for the longest time, until it stagnated, and then I played around with a few offline readers before jumping ship to Reader. Reader was the exciting new player – constantly innovating, adding new features, being fast to load, and with a great mobile interface. This went on till it effectively powered most of the popular “alternative” readers (Reeder, FeedDemon, Feedly) that relied on its (admittedly undocumented and private) API. (Extend!)

But now, it appears to me that the real reason for pulling the rug out form underneath the many millions of users was the second one they mentioned, saying “as a company we’re pouring all of our energy into fewer products”. This unfortunately smacks pretty hard of Google trying to dictate the direction of the web by trying to foist Google+ onto everyone. (Extinguish!)

What’s next on the block?

Given that in the same announcement, they also announced that they’re killing off CalDAV API access to favour their own proprietary Calendar API, I can’t help but agree with The Guardian tech blogger Ruper Goodwin:

The corporate surprise adds to the decision itself to paint a picture of a company dangerously adrift from a real understanding of its audience, and the information ecosystem.

What I just don’t get is that Google serves up ads perfectly fine when people use FeedBurner, and now they’re killing off the biggest FeedBurner client? They’ve already killed its API, and the FeedBurner site still carries the pre-Google+ design. This clearly points towards them killing off FeedBurner as well. It’s more or less official – Google hates RSS.

The alternatives

Most people are suggesting Flipboard and Feedly as alternatives, but they either really don’t get it, or their needs have diverged from the usual RSS reading crowd.

I detest things trying to learn my preferences, because my reading preferences change all the time. Sometimes I ignore a feed for 2 weeks, then catch up on all of it. Sometimes, I read every item from a source every time it’s published. I don’t want my preferences shaped by algorithms, as it always feels like I’m missing out on something. This is als why I pretty much never touched the “Sort by magic” option in Google Reader.

Additionally, magazine and river style just don’t cut it. I’m not reading a magazine or a social news site – what I need is an inbox of site updates. Whether the source is a news site, personal blog or webcomic is irrelevant, I just want to see how many updates are there, and which ones remain to be read. And horror of horrors, if I don’t want to read something, I just skip it! I would prefer to not have the cognitive load of figuring out which was the last XKCD or Penny Arcade post I read, and how many I have missed over a period of being offline or plain busy. Dave Winer is missing the point – even though the tool may be called a “news reader”, it really is an “RSS reader”.

The RSS reading alternatives doing the rounds currently are NetVibes, Bloglines (which is now just a skin of NetVibes), The Old Reader, NewsBlur, and self-hosted options like Tiny Tiny RSS and selfoss.

Or I could get off my lazy behind and attempt to build my own. The only problem with that is that I’ll probably end up hosting it on App Engine. Argh!

How to Hire a Product Manager

Product management may be the one job that the organization would get along fine without (at least for a good while). Without engineers, nothing would get built. Without sales people, nothing is sold. Without designers, the product looks like crap. But in a world without PMs, everyone simply fills in the gap and goes on with their lives. It’s important to remember that - as a PM, you’re expendable. Now, in the long run great product management usually makes the difference between winning and losing, but you have to prove it. Product management also combines elements of lots of other specialties - engineering, design, marketing, sales, business development. Product management is a weird discipline full of oddballs and rejects that never quite fit in anywhere else.