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15 Podcasts for Extremely Specific Kinds of Nerds

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and many of them can be described as "nerdy." But I have recently realized that the specificity of the nerdiness in some of these programs is incredible. Please enjoy this list of 15 beloved, and profoundly, specifically nerdy podcasts.

1. The X-Files Files

Kumail Nanjiani's The X-Files Files is a detailed re-watch of The X-Files, with an increasingly impressive list of guests and analysis of the show. Whether you watched and loved The X-Files or you've never seen it, there's an opportunity here for you; the idea is you watch two episodes and the podcasters give you deep commentary on the podcast (often including period research and production notes).

Kind of Nerd: The X-Files nerd.

Format of Show: Two people talking. (Typically Nanjiani and a Los Angeles-area friend; occasionally The X-Files writers or other creators are on.)

Place to Start: Episode 1, "Pilot," "Deep Throat" with Devin Faraci. It helps (but isn't strictly necessary) if you've watched the first two episodes of The X-Files recently. The show is on Netflix, so you probably have no excuse not to dive in.

Play

Subscribe Here: Feral Audio or search in iTunes.

2. The Pen Addict

It may be hard to believe that a podcast devoted to the love of pens could run for 132 episodes and still be going strong. That's why I love The Pen Addict. Honestly, my pen tastes are super-pedestrian (a Pilot "Dr. Grip" is just fine), but hosts Brad Dowdy and Myke Hurley bring us the finer things about the act of writing. Like, the physical act. When the pen talk runs dry, topics like paper, ink, and even (shudder!) pencils come up.

Kind of Nerd: Pen nerd.

Format of Show: Two dudes talking (about pens). Often with a guest.

Place to Start: "The Daily Carry," an episode in which the hosts discuss the types of pens (and notebooks/paper) they carry every day. A lot of the talk is also about how the guys divide up their notebooks (plus notebook brand preferences). Super solid.

Subscribe Here: Relay FM or search on iTunes. (Also check out Dowdy's extensive website.)

3. Naval History Podcast

Buckner F. Melton, Jr. is a highly qualified naval history nerd. He has written books about naval history, he has a podcast (perhaps the podcast) about it, you get the picture. I'm just going to quote here from his podcast's "About" page:

Having written two volumes on naval history, and frustrated in my attempts to locate a good, accessible, up-to-date textbook on world naval history, I decided a year or two ago to write one myself. About the same time I figured that producing a companion podcast might be an interesting exercise. The result you now see on your screen.

This is a terrific podcast in part because it's so specific. I suspect that people who like naval history will love this podcast, and those who don't care about naval history—well, they can just look elsewhere on this list!

Kind of Nerd: Naval history nerd.

Format of Show: Narration/lecture.

Place to Start: Episode 1: An Introduction to Sea Power, in which Melton makes the point that seafaring has been a frontier for technological advancement pretty much throughout human history, long before we were geeking out on things like electricity, cars, or computers.

Subscribe Here: Naval History Podcast site.

4. The Internet History Podcast

Brian McCullough's Internet History Podcast deals with the history of all things Internet-ish starting with Netscape and ending with the iPad. So, it's not all Internet history, it's just this particular era of what happened online between two points (so, yes, there's a lot of AOL and Prodigy in here). It starts with McCullough reading chapters of a book he's writing about the era, then quickly turns to "supplemental" episodes featuring interviews with various people who were there for important moments (for instance, engineers who worked on Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer, or people who worked for online services in the 90s). McCullough returns for chapter episodes (basically like a free audiobook, released in chunks) every few months.

Note: I met Brian early this year, and appeared on his show twice for "analysis" episodes. I think this will further convince you how nerdy it all is. I don't get any money or other compensation from this project, I just dig it.

Kind of Nerd: Internet history nerd (best if you're a '90s Internet history nerd).

Format of Show: Varies. At times it's McCullough reading chapters of his book-in-progress, though the great majority of episodes are interviews with people who worked on early Internet projects.

Place to Start: "She Gave the World a Billion AOL CDs - An Interview with Marketing Legend Jan Brandt." If you've ever wondered how and why those AOL CDs (and floppies) were everywhere, this is it.

Subscribe Here: Internet History Podcast site (has prominent links to iTunes, Stitcher, and a plain RSS feed).

5. Hello Internet

On Hello Internet, C.G.P. Grey and Brady Haran discuss all sorts of things, which is entirely the charm of the show. But these guys are both professional YouTube video creators, which is, let's face it, an unusual job. So while the show isn't about YouTube (it's more about their particular passions—Haran's interest in plane crashes, Grey's opinions about education and robots and Kindle typography, the one time Haran ended up with a barn owl in his house, and so on), it's a smart, funny conversation between two people who happen to inhabit (indeed, create) a part of the Internet that's pretty special. For me, this is the best new podcast of 2014.

Kind of Nerd: YouTube producer/plane crash nerd.

Format of Show: Two dudes talking.

Place to Start: Either the first episode, Being Wrong on The Internet (embedded below), or #13: Nobody Owns the Facts (with the owl story and plenty of discussion of The Hobbit), or #8: First World YouTuber Problems.

Subscribe Here: Hello Internet site or maybe the Hello Internet YouTube channel (note: YouTube channel runs well behind the audio release schedule, but contains some extra stuff!).

6. Oh No, Ross and Carrie!

Oh No, Ross and Carrie! is an investigative podcast, exploring fringe science, spirituality, and the paranormal (...so you don't have to). If you ever wondered what's up with reiki or whether dowsing might work, this is the podcast for you.

Kind of Nerd: Skeptic nerd.

Format of Show: Two hosts discuss their adventures. (Sometimes includes guests or field recording.)

Place to Start: Ross and Carry Try Oil Pulling. Gross and great.

Subscribe Here: Oh No, Ross and Carrie page on Maximum Fun.

7. Random Trek

Podcasting: the final frontier. These are the podcasts of Scott McNulty (and his guests). Their mission: to watch episodes of Star Trek; to seek out new jokes; to boldly go where no podcast has gone before.

So, yeah, they pick a random Trek episode (all series, all seasons) and discuss it. It's pretty great.

Kind of Nerd: Star Trek nerd.

Format of Show: Host plus guest talk Trek.

Place to Start: "Indiscretion" (DS9) with John Siracusa. This is interesting in part because Siracusa doesn't particularly care about Star Trek (he's more of a Star Wars man), but he's willing to dig in. It's also fun when he pronounces "Cardassians" like "Kardashians."

Subscribe Here: Random Trek site.

8. The Golden Horseshoe Review

So, look, I'm not a big Disney park nerd. I've been to the parks in Florida a few times, but that's pretty much it. What's fascinating to me is that I enjoy hearing other people talk about this stuff—like, the pros who have been everywhere and seen everything, and have opinions about it all. That's what you get on The Golden Horseshoe Review. Hosts Alex Pasco, Greg Maletic, and Louie Mantia are what I would consider Disney Pros.

Kind of Nerd: Disney Theme Park nerd. (Note: not being one of these nerds, I'm not sure if the term "theme park" is technically correct—the pros seem to say "Disney park" for the most part—but I'm giving it a shot here.)

Format of Show: Panel discussion.

Place to Start: Episode 43: Alex and Cabel in Tokyo, Part 1. Basically, what's up with Tokyo Disneyland? And its weird new hotel? And the merchandise? And the ability of humans to actually wait in line properly? Let the experts explain. (With special guest Cabel Sasser!)

Subscribe Here: iTunes.

9. Slate's Serial Spoiler Specials

Sometimes there's a podcast so huge, it spawns podcasts in its orbit. Serial is that podcast. In Slate's Serial Spoiler Specials, Slate writers critique Serial episodes. It's interesting when people in the media discuss the media, because the discussion is not just about the content of Serial, it's about the production process behind it. Because Serial is about a real crime, there is plenty to discuss in the process/journalism arena. Warning: this thing is, by definition, crammed full of spoilers.

You may also dig Serial Serial from The A.V. Club.

Kind of Nerd: Serial podcast nerd.

Format of Show: Panel discussion.

Place to Start: Serial Ep. 5: Slate's Spoiler Special. Also relevant is Rabia Chaudry's blog.

Subscribe Here: Slate's Serial Spoiler Specials on iTunes.

10. HowSound

In HowSound, Rob Rosenthal explores and explains the production process for various bits of radio journalism. Sometimes this means talking about journalistic ethics, other times it's literally about how to make an audio recording or edit a story in a way that makes sense. As a public radio nerd myself, this is a fascinating look into how radio stories get made.

Note that if you're interested in making radio or podcasts, you must familiarize yourself with Transom.org.

Kind of Nerd: (Public) radio production nerd.

Format of Show: Interview/critique.

Place to Start: #17 - Krulwich on Gorilla Cage Drama. Robert Krulwich is part of Radiolab and produces (many, many) other stories for the radio. He knows how to tell a compelling story. In this episode, Rob and Robert explore a Radiolab story about gorilla cages.

Subscribe Here: HowSound's page on PRX.

11. How Rude!

I'm going to admit right now that I have not listened to much of How Rude! because, at some level, I am just not a Full House nerd. Yes, I watched the show when I was little. Yes, I remember freaking out when Uncle Jesse the whole family danced to "Kokomo." Yes, I am more than a little confused by Bob Saget. But, listen, the point is, there's a whole podcast devoted to Full House, and I think they should CUT IT OUT. (See what I did there?)

Kind of Nerd: Full House nerd. (Yes, the sitcom.)

Format of Show: Two dudes talking, often with a guest.

Place to Start: Ep. 1: Unaired Pilot / Our Very First Show.

Subscribe Here: How Rude! on iTunes (or Libsyn).

12. The Walking Deadcast

Okay, another TV podcast, but this one often has actual stars of the TV show on it. The Walking Deadcast is exactly what you'd expect: recap, analysis, and general celebration of the show. Hosts Jason Cabassi and Karen Koppett are true Walking Dead nerds, who keep you posted on all the Walking Dead news you need to know.

Kind of Nerd: The Walking Dead nerd.

Format of Show: Panel discussion, sometimes with guests and/or stars of The Walking Dead.

Place to Start: I actually recommend the most recent episode, 164: "Coda" (S5E8), if you're new to this podcast but have been staying current on the TV show. From there, dig into the archives and find your favorite episodes. (The one with Eugene (Josh McDermitt) is pretty great, especially the bit about Eugene's, uh, "resting [redacted] face.")

Subscribe Here: Walking Deadcast Subscribe page (which basically just tells you to head over to iTunes).

13. When You Hear This Sound

From fellow mental_floss writer Rob Lammle comes When You Hear This Sound, a podcast devoted to those read-along records that (some of) you enjoyed years ago. Basically, Rob introduces the record with surprisingly detailed production notes, then lets us hear the record itself. Note: the records themselves vary in quality, though for the most part they are powerfully dated. Whether you enjoy that is your decision!

Related is Lammle's Power Records blog.

Kind of Nerd: Read-along vinyl record books nerd. (I admit: Those words, strung together in that order, start to lose their meaning when I stare at them too long.)

Format of Show: Host plus vinyl record.

Place to Start: Definitely Episode 13 - Christmas in the Stars which features the Star Wars Christmas Album (!!!)

Subscribe Here: When You Hear This Sound site.

14. The Ragged Antique Phonograph Program

On The Ragged Antique Phonograph Program, you'll hear...wait for it...recordings of old 78s and wax cylinders as played on WFMU. This is stuff you literally cannot hear anywhere else, unless you happen to collect 78s and have period playback equipment. (Note for non-nerds: a "78" is a 78-rpm record, which is a very old record indeed.)

Kind of Nerd: late nineteenth/early twentieth century recording nerd.

Format of Show: Host + guest + music.

Place to Start: Frank Crumit special from September 29, 2009, with Ian Gibbs. (Also interesting is this show featuring lots of early wax cylinder recordings.)

Subscribe Here: iTunes or WFMU's podcast central page.

15. Song Exploder

I am totally in the tank for Song Exploder. On the show, host Hrishikesh Hirway talks to musicians about how they made particular songs. Sometimes the discussion is about the recording process itself (how the layering of tracks makes up a groove, for instance, or how specific recording techniques made a certain sound); other times, it's about the songwriting process (as in the frenetic, funny episode with Hutch Harris of The Thermals). Among the many delights of this show is how Hirway deftly mixes the music into the interview, with production values that are all too rare in podcasts.

Kind of Nerd: Music production nerd.

Format of Show: Interview + music (interleaved). (Typically, we hear the song, then the interview mixed in with specific parts of the song, then sometimes the song again. This is helpful if you're not familiar with the song going in, so you know what you're listening for.)

Place to Start: You've gotta start at the beginning, then you can jump around. Listen to this: Episode 1: The Postal Service. Jimmy Tamborello from The Postal Service explains how he and Ben Gibbard put together "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" circa 2002 despite living in different cities. My favorite part is the bit about Jenny Lewis's backing vocals and the accidental loop.

Subscribe Here: Maximum Fun page or the Song Exploder site.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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