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Ask HN: What audio resources can improve my technical skills during my commute?
200 points by bberrry on Sept 4, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 93 comments
I want to become a better developer and ideally get more into artificial neural networks also. Looking for audiobooks mainly, as I've found most podcasts quite light on substance. Any recommendations from the HN crowd?

Just sit. Silently. Give your brain a break -- that might be more helpful than keeping yourself busy.

These replies are unhelpful and off topic. Author asked for technical resources, not a bunch of opinions about why they are wrong to want this and what they should do instead.

Inevitably other people besides OP will be curious about things to do during their commute and might stumble in here with less specific criteria.

Inevitably other people and OP will not care about off-topic things

If a commute takes 1 hr and that is a time of day when you typically have peak productivity/ mental energy then one is hardly likely to want to just sit there in silence. Do you not think that if you were in prison you might want pen and paper at least?

Well, that might depend on the commute. I'm on the train from 8:20-9am, and I've not yet had coffee, so there's no productivity to be heard of there, and at 5:20-6p the productivity tank is definitely empty.

Perhaps the morning side could, if I were awake. Although, on the afternoon commute, I read stuff such as on HN because I am mentally spent. (Though if it's too rigorous, like a deep CS paper, that might get passed over.)

Maybe s/he already does this before or after the train ride.

A lot of us already do, however audio resources are handy so eyes and hands are free to do even more healthy things like jogging.

To add to this, try meditation too. It can be done while sitting and with the noise around you on a train, and you don't have to look odd by closing your eyes (though you could pretend you are sleeping). However I find it is most comfortable in a private place. I usually listen to music or try to read if it does not make me nauseous, but nothing to do with my studies.

I used to commute in silence or listening to the radio for my daily Silicon Valley drive (237 Milpitas to Mountain View), and by the time I got to work, I'd be angry, frustrated, and cognitively spent.

Listening to audio books has allowed me to relax, enjoy the reading, and get to work excited about the day.

I treat the time as a chance to "read" those books which I wouldn't normally spend either my work hours nor my free time hours on. It's a chance to get informed on topics that are only slightly related to work, but expand your mind in ways that will make you a better thinker, and thus a better programmer.

The books I've found particularly good on audio are:

* Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

* Thinking, Fast and Slow

* How Not to be Wrong

* Ready Player One

* Neuromancer

Thinking Fast and Slow was really good, I've listened to it a couple of times. As a framework for thinking about working and learning it really clicked with me. I think I've been gently influenced by this book in many ways, including how I set my expectations about other people, and what "system" they might be employing at any moment. This has helped reduce my overall stress levels and increased my patience with myself and others. Even if the science isn't 100% perfect (is it ever?), these are usable models that approximate behavior and can be practical when taken with a grain of salt.

And if you're looking for meaningful books to listen to, there was a solid discussion 2 days ago:

Ask HN: What books have made the biggest impact on your mental models? | https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15155833

If you have an audible account -

* The Hard Thing About Hard Things

* The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

* Rework

These books were amazing in audible format. (I have listened to a hundred or so).

I've been doing audiobooks on commute for the last year or so and have particularly enjoyed these as well:

* anything by & narrated by Bill Bryson

* The Phoenix Project

* We Are Legion (We are Bob)

* SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

* The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language

Do you mind sharing where you have found an audiobook of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Doesn't look like it's available on Audible or Scribd.

I got mine from Audible at the link below. If you do use it, please SKIP THE INTRODUCTION. If you haven't read or listened to the book before, it gives away some major plot points as part of the author's update.


Thanks. Not available in Australia unfortunately:

"We're sorry. Due to publishing rights restrictions, we are not authorized to sell this item in the country where you live."

Mullvad VPN

I made this mistake and I'm 1/4 of the way into the book. Can't tell yet how big of a mistake it was.

My local library has it via Overdrive. It's on my holds list (#6 on 5 copies - any day now :) ) YMMV.

I listen to python podcasts: https://talkpython.fm/ and https://www.podcastinit.com/ . Outside of purely technical subjects, I also like "talking machines" about ML: http://www.thetalkingmachines.com/ . Maybe they won't improve your "core" skills, but it's good with keeping up to date with cool recent libraries or new language developments. I use an app on android that pre-downloads podcasts on wifi and allow me to listen to them at 1.5X speed.

I wouldn't recommend audiobooks, as they require more focus and context than podcasts and it's harder to find during the commute.

The idea of technical podcasts intrigues me.

But, I just clicked to see the content of 'Talk Python' podcasts, and it seems that a lot of it is meta-talk... smart people talking about the fact that they're going to teach someone, _not_ teaching the postcast-listener stuff (besides perhaps the knowledge that some X and Y module exists?).

I think I'm just asking too much here... because creating instructional content takes _time_... to organize, think about, record, review, etc. Hm, maybe instead of complaining, I'll have a go at it...

the Talk Python series is actually a great way for Python programmers to discover authors and libraries you wouldn't organically come across on HN or GitHub browsing. I highly recommend it to intermediate python programmers to expand their knowledge scope.

I don't think the audio-only format lends itself to programming instruction, but they can be good for exposing someone to high-level concepts, new developments in the field, or discussions and debates on programming practices.

Do it, and post here.

If you're looking for something less technical and into finance, the Better Off podcast with Jill Schlesinger is interesting. She covers various financial instruments and how you might combine them, pros / cons, etc. They also have viewer call ins every week which are nice to make the advice immediately pragmatic. After listening to a few episodes I feel more equipped to approach finances like I'd approach a programming project knowing about different languages, standard libs, popular packages, etc.


I second Talking Machines. The O'Reilly Data Show is really good too. The Threatpost Podcast isn't bad, but the episodes are kinda hit or miss. If a hack was something stupid there is only so much you can say. "Hospitals are running XP and they got hacked" isn't going to be interesting no matter what you throw at it.

Apologies for off-topic question, but which Android app do you use? My favorite app (Overcast) is only available on iOS and I cannot recommend it to friends on Android-based devices.

Here is a technical podcast I listen to on my commute home: https://softwareengineeringdaily.com

I don't listen to every episode, however I feel it's technical breadth and depth is fairly decent.

I second the recommendation - not too deep to make your commute mentally tiring, but still useful enough that you learn new things (even as starting points). Covers a wide range of topics, from machine learning to infrastructure, which may also help you open your views.

A similar one would be: http://www.se-radio.net/

There are also some more tech-specific ones, such as Talk Python to Me, Under the Radar (iOS dev), etc.

I find SE Radio (IEEE) to be less captivating than Software Engineering Daily.

I think it's partly because the latter has better production values, better pacing and attracts more prominent guests in the field(for instance, Martin Kleppmann, Neha Narkhede, etc.)

I find myself not being able to get through an episode of SE Radio.

I also listen to SE Radio (mainly back episodes as they don't release often). This other one look great!

My contribution would be FLOSS Weekly with Randal Schwartz (most of the time).

I third this. Software Engineering Daily tends to focus on decently technical topics (microservices, data pipeline architecture, distributed systems, deep learning), but makes it accessible to the motivated software engineer.

I like the format of the interviews. The host is not an expert in all the topics that are discussed, but he does a good job asking intelligent questions and making the conversation accessible for software folks with only a casual understanding of a particular topic, say like Bitcoins, containers, etc.

I feel the fact that the author is not an expert actually makes the show more interesting. It's kind of like an ELI5 podcast for practicing software engineers.

I often come away from each episode feeling like I have have learned something useful.

(This may be someone OT with respect to the specific OP question/circumstance, but...)

You are probably developing to/for a domain. (Healthcare, hardware, finance, etc...)

Part of being successful is having good domain knowledge and understanding.

If the technical aspects of your work don't translate well to an audio presentation, understanding of the domain(s) you are concentrating on might.

Then, when you're doing something, or in a meeting about it, you have a better understanding of the "why". And of whether the tactics and strategy under consideration make good sense, or of how they might be improved.

This is also a means of going past "pushing buttons" to becoming responsible for design decisions and the like.

If you're like me, nothing. I need to sit down and find ways to break something to understand how it works.

What I do find useful is listening to books on practice or management. Something like The Pragmatic Programmer, The Practice of Programming, and Clean Code. These are high on substance but (relatively) low on examples, so I feel I can still benefit from their insights without having to be in front of a screen.

That's cool. I didn't know there were audio versions of those books.

Classical music. Learn it. Learn how to listen it, learn to feel it. It is really fun, when you able to understand it. And it helps to move away from current problems to return back from other side afterwards.

Oh... And it will greatly increase interconnectivity of your brains, especially if you would not just listen, but play it too.

It may be not just classical music, but modern styles a way simplier, they lack centuries of development by hundreds of musicians.

> Learn it. Learn how to listen it, learn to feel it.

As someone willing to give this a try, where would you suggest one starts?

Go to the symphony. Ideally, go with a friend who enjoys classical music.

Also, spend some time trying different classical music from different periods / parts of the world. You might find you prefer Steve Reich (Music For 18 Musicians) more than you like Bach (Well-Tempered Clavier) or Shostakovich (10th Symphony) more than you like Schoenberg (... good luck).

Spend some time finding a favourite composer. Start with a composer you like, and then try other composers who were alive in the same time and place.

Also, beware of orchestral renditions of pop music. Some of it is good (Alarm Will Sound's album of Aphex Twin), but most of it is awful (Vitamin quartet).

Hope that helps.

If you want a course, Robert Greenberg's How to Listen to and Understand Great Music - it's on Audible.

I would recommend Arthur Rubinsteins Chopin nocturnes. They are very minimal, and a perfect entry point into classical.

Can you recommend any minimalist classical music (other than Arvo Part) please? Not bland, it can be sensual like Gnossienne or dramatic as... tabula rasa?

My main issue with most classical music is that they feel too heavy and I feel physically sick.

You might be asking two different things.

Minimalist: Steve Reich, Henryk Gorecki, John Adams...

But it sounds more like you're asking for classical music that isn't overwhelming. In that case, go for chamber music - this is for any small ensemble. You might particularly like things like Mozart wind ensembles (quartets, quintets), Faure or Ravel trios or quartets (sometimes with piano), etc. There are a lot of Mozart cds "for children" that are good here too, since young children like smaller ensembles better than big orchestras.

Not sure what you mean by "heavy", but you might give Vivaldi a try; start with the Four Seasons. It's not minimalist, but it's much lighter than e.g. Beethoven, and not as "serious" as e.g. Bach.

The idea of Bach as always being "serious" is really untrue. Source: me! I make actual money singing Bach.

Indeed there is a great deal of joie de vivre to be found within the music.

However I find it very difficult not to listen intently to Bach. And I mean that in a good way, but disqualifies his work from being my "working background" music. My pick for programming music is the complete Mozart symphonies. They're also works of genius, but I can be in their presence without my mind being constantly drawn to them and away .

I also go for the Renaissance lute works of John Dowland. In many ways the pop music of the day (and noticeably less sophisticated than the baroque that immediately followed) this somehow puts me in the right mood for UI design.

Maybe my impression comes from high school piano, when I succeeded in playing various Bach pieces (selections from Well Tempered Clavier among others), but for the life of me couldn't memorize the dang things.

Perhaps "serious" is the wrong term; maybe "methodical" or "mathematically inclined" is better.

Thanks for bringing up Four Seasons. I listened to Spring, it doesn't really fit what I asked about and initially I thought it was too poncey. But then it develops on like a teasing narrative (if that even makes sense, my musical vocabs is way too limited) - interesting!

Philip Glass's piano works might be just what you're looking for.

Or how about Steve Reich's Music For 18 Musicians? That could be too much, or it could be just right, depending on what about the music makes you feel sick.

I also like LaMonte Young and Terry Riley, but they might be too spacious if you're looking for compelling melody.

Oh, and stay away from John Adams. (Other people reading this looking for heavy minimalist music: go for John Adams. Start with Short Ride In A Fast Machine, and then dig in to the operas.)

Jazz is good too, for those of us who like jazz :P

This is not really audio, but when it comes to programming, I don't think any sort of listening material (by itself) is ever going to top visual material. In that department, I recommend this app:



Have you checked out itunes u? There you can find actual lectures from too universities recorded. Mostly they require video to get the most of them but i find that just hearing the sound can still be very informative.

Specifically, stanford has some great cs material, and you could also look into andrew ng's machine learning course (i think that one was on coursera).

Sometimes the O'Reilly Data Show https://www.oreilly.com/topics/oreilly-data-show-podcast get a bit deep. Try a few epsiodes.

This. Ben Lorica is not the best interviewer--he interrupts his guests way too often and way too abruptly--but he has a reputation of being one of the best networkers in Silicon Valley, so his guest list is usually comprised of the best people in the field.

I quite enjoy https://softskills.audio

It's not in any way technical, but I think it might help with the "become a better developer" goal. It's also a good bit of light relief.

Blinkist is worth checking out. I like using it to determine which books I am going to actually read.


Just curious which membership tier you're using?

Linear Digressions is a great podcast to add to your list. It is not as regular as some of the others but the subjects are great. The hosts are also good.

I find Siri reading company wiki pages helps a lot. I only get about 50% but enough that I know what to revisit at work

My commute I grab a paper off sci-hub from a journal, print it out at a corner store and read it to and from work. If it must be a podcast one I enjoy is the Type Theory podcast http://typetheorypodcast.com/

I listen to non-technical audiobooks during my walking part of my commuting - psychology, self-help, history and science fiction.

I've also installed mobile apps for pluralsight(paid by my employer), udemy, udacity -- which allow me to download content and watch it in the subway; but I stil have to re-visit the course material and type things on my computer if I actually want to learn anything, otherwise its just more junk food for the brain.

I don't think there are many text-only technical audiobooks, so if you actively drive that kind of sucks, because you can't watch videos, but then again, you're not missing much, I don't think there's anybody who aquired any technical skill by just listening to an audiobook.

Here's the list of great technical podcasts I've been listening during commute to my previous work:

* Software Engineering Daily

* Software Engineering Radio

* The Changelog

* DevZen (in Russian)

* Reversim Platforma (in Hebrew)

Look for previous shows, most of the great content is there!

PS: It takes about 5 minutes to drive to my new work, and I really miss them now.

Off topic: You can speak Russian and Hebrew?

Most of Israeli "repatriants" from USSR can

Learning Machines 101 is nice and technical

If you're feeling spent and want something less taxing to listen to try Partially Derivative it's more of a chilled out conversation on AI. It's more of a guilty pleasure for me it does feel pretty stupid at times.

Not technical, but Money/Finance http://www.npr.org/podcasts/510289/planet-money

Surprised not to have seen this aleady - https://twimlai.com/ keeps me sane when the metal-boxes stop moving.

Listen to Bach! Improve the overall wealth of your mind.

Looks like I'm a little late to the party on this one, but I'd like to recommend my This Week in Machine Learning and AI podcast here: https://twimlai.com

I try to maintain a good mix of topics and viewpoints (industry/application vs researcher), and to keep the conversation technically interesting.

Happy to answer any questions here.

Perhaps rather than audiobooks, you might look into CS lecture videos.. many of these are probably fairly 'listening friendly' and don't require too much visual focus, assuming your preference for audio is due to a driving commute..

other than that, I can only recommend more podcasts; on the systems side, bsdtalk or bsdnow are quite good (obviously bsd focused)

Are you actively driving? That limits what you can learn technically, because technical requires at least visual learning, if not actually hands on.

Stick with audiobooks about technical _concepts_ or managerial topics. I'd suggest start with either The Phoenix Project or The Ideal Team Player. From there, follow audible recommendations.

Safari Books is great. Despite the name it's a mix of books and videos, either talks from conferences or dedicated video series. A lot of it you can grok just by listening.


I feel for technical subjects, you need to sit down with a pen and paper, concentrate, understand and absorb the material. You can try listen to Coursera or Edx lectures. But to be honest, if you are learning well with that, you are probably not driving safely/likely to miss your stop.

I used to feel that way, but having listened to a few technical podcasts, I find they are a good way to get a quick but nuanced introduction to topics outside of my day-to-day. They are also a good way to learn about things that are very new and are not part of a canonical body of knowledge yet.

For instance, I've read a lot of about containerization and microservices, but actually listening to interviews with prominent people who work on building these types of things helped me learn much faster about the nuances, tricks and downsides that people don't normally talk about.

It's probably not that relevant anymore but we did try creating a more educational podcast where we focused on a specific topic each episode, about the Meteor JS framework:


I commute about 1h each way via train. I have realized that music with lyrics distracts my brain quite a bit because it keeps trying to parse the text. Since I like to read on the train (or just do nothing and let my brain rest) I have created a playlist with no audio. It's pretty much everything from XMeetsMetal (you'll have to weed out some of the stuff that has text. It's basically a guy covering all sorts of songs/theme songs in a metal interpretation. Awesome stuff:

His playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL864F807C0B279111

His channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtJVZjY6xsZUV-sYdcIFpZw

That + noise canceling headphones (I use Bose QuietComfort 20) = good commute.

I'd also like to say that meditation during a commute can be really great for setting your day.

My current favorite apps for that are Simple Habit and Kevin Rose's up and coming Oak which is in public beta now.

Martin Shkreli's This Week In Investing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0dKDJeQAds

Never listened to him talk but he's surprisingly down to earth, interesting, and levelheaded.

i must be thinking of a different Martin Shkreli...

Find a way to live closer to work or the other way around, then bike or walk? A bit of exercise gets my brain going way more than half listening to something while driving.

How about the audio book of Deep Work by Cal Newport?

Seconded. I've only just started it, but it really resonates with me so far. It is about how to better use time / avoid distraction.

Not audio or even technical, but I recommend logic problems. The only downside is that they are so engrossing you might miss your stop.

Relax, listen to music, let your mind wander.

Passive learning is a overrated. You need deliberate practice to get truly better.

Podcasts that have helped improve my technical skills:

  - Talking Machines
  - The O'Reilly Data Show
  - Software Engineering Radio
  - Software Engineering Daily
  - AWS Re: Invent series
Podcasts that have helped improve my general thinking:

  - Econtalk
  - Conversations with Tyler
  - Waking Up with Sam Harris

White noise... But the brown note should be avoided. ;-)

I'm not sure Google is good at surfacing quality recommendations as HN users.

wrong for general inquiries, I agree for specific ones. I responded to him as a general wish to learn, not a special one like coding or math

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