Information acquisition, serendipity, & value - ditching the commentariat?

My philosophy of general intelligence is roughly expressed in the Terry Pratchett quote (from the Nome Trilogy, “Truckers”):

“There’s some things we can’t think because we don’t know the words.”

Basically, I try to intentionally put somewhat-undirected information into my brain, based on the idea that learning the occasional random thing might provide either a new thing for me to be curious about, or a new and interesting explanation, clarification, link, etc. related to other things I know.

Beyond that, I like to have a certain amount of general knowledge of what’s going on. I like having some idea of what the news is, as well as a general status of what Apple is up to since I’m thoroughly into that ecosystem. And some good tech news updates are good, since I work in that space.

That said, a lot of “news” isn’t news - it’s commentary about the news.

I know that “news has to news”, and everybody wants to toss in their unique (or not-so-unique) take on things, but it quickly gets repetitive. I love hearing about Apple announcing a new product or initiative, for example, but I don’t necessarily need to hear a dozen hours of commentary about it.

I’m also becoming more and more cognizant as time goes on of the fact that my time is limited. A 30 minute daily news podcast to “stay informed” is potentially pushing out something else I could be doing that might be more valuable.

So I’m in the middle of a culling, re-thinking my strategy, and trying to generally be a little more intentional about what goes into my brain.

Basically, I mentally have a 2x2 grid. One axis is “low focus / high focus”, and the other is “low utility / high utility”.

I obviously want to minimize the time expenditure and maximize the utility of anything that’s “high focus”, and as much as possible I’d like to have almost everything be “high utility”. This, of course, defines “utility” not just in terms of “useful information”, but in terms of “I’m glad I spent that time”.

I’m playing with a few ways to do this:

  • Finding podcasts that summarize / briefly explain more than comment. Have I ever mentioned that I really miss “Subnet”? :smiley: For podcasts so far, “5 Things”, “Apple News Today”, and “Up First” seem to be good for news.
  • Finding headline + synopsis email lists. A headline plus a few sentences is actually enough for me to get the gist of most news stories, and I can dig more on anything that interests me. For email newsletters, I’m playing with “SmartBrief”. If you’re interested in the evangelical Christian take on the news, “Disrn” has a very nice daily email summary of their stories / headlines.
  • Intentionally cultivating good, brief sources of serendipitous, random info. For books, “The Intellectual Devotional” series is great. I’m playing with some podcast sources, but not enough experience with any to comment yet.
  • Replacing some previous long-form podcasts and such with long-form courses that are higher-value to me, but haven’t had a bunch of time for. Right now I’m starting a world history course through The Great Courses.

Does anybody else think along these lines? What are your favorite high-density sources for information? How have you intentionally curated your information intake? Anything else I should be considering?


I agree that a lot of news vendors are like watching reaction videos on YouTube. Why do I want to watch someone watching a video?

Some of the news vendors have text only versions, which might let you curate faster.
cnn, npr.

Al Jazeera seems to do more reporting and less commentary.

I find Heather Cox Richardson’s daily summary a good way to keep up with politics.

As far as podcasts, 30min a day is 15hrs a month, basically a week of 24/7 in a year. Now that I don’t commute, I don’t listen to podcasts anymore. Many of them (thankfully not MPU) have a definite “morning zoo crew” vibe. I really don’t want to hear about the sandwich they ate.


I still use RSS for the headline & summary part of this. Assumes you can find sources that suit, but it’s quick, easy and cheap. I use NetNewsWire on Mac and iDevices and it works quickly and well

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I do. I avoid daily news like the plague, literally and figuratively. But your grid and your general approach are very similar to how I operate, most notably your definition of utility.

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My only cover-to-cover read is The New York Review of Books — sorry, it’s expensive but worth every penny. I get some enjoyment out of the curated selections in The Browser — paywall, and not as well edited a collection of suggested articles as it was two or more years ago. I also take a look at Aeon a few times ago to see what’s new. Then I take in a handful of weekly or monthly newsletter subscriptions.

You mentioned being intentional about what you absorb, and I agree with that. Trust your inward sense of what’s good for your mind, and pay attention to what fosters that. Over several decades I’ve focused on 30 topical areas. None of these topical areas have anything to do with my work, economics, or specific tech companies. I’m pretty confident that 99% of the articles or books I’ve read about my areas of work (finance, marketing, information technology) are anything but boring junk. I learn more from mentors (both good ones and bad ones).


Oh boy am I with you on this one. Despite having kicked most of the Relay podcasts out of my subscription list, I still have kept the one from Subnet in the hope of seeing a revival.

I’d love to have more concise news formats. I tried a few email newsletters, but even those tend to get longer over time once the writer figures out how to milk the mailing list by either selling courses, ad space, or sponsored content.

I’ve become more vigorous in quitting and skipping. The main playlist in Overcast has become a smart playlist called “INBOX”. The podcasts listed in their only get added to my queue once they have passed the show notes or chapter title check. If the podcast doesn’t offer those they are out immediately. And yes, I also don’t auto-download anymore. So no more “fake increases” of a podcast’s download number. It’s the only way to vote as a listener.
If a YouTube video like “15 top iOS apps of 2021” pops up in my subscription list there I might click on it, but then just read the description and check for links. I often gratefully find a comment that summarizes those listicle-style videos. I also skip through videos, podcasts and books more often in general. My media inboxes are not a to-do list.

In regards to serendipity. I try to limit the times of mindless consumption. This was really an issue for me in the past, but recently Twitter and other “infinity pools” start to bore me quickly and I close them with ease.

I also have a subscription to one of those book summary services and listen to their recommendation often in the morning. They are around 10-15min. long and often introduce me to a topic I would have otherwise not looked into, such as biographies or books about economics.

Another good candidate is the Bookworm podcast. 95% of the books were at least interesting to me. The podcasts exposed me to some titles I would have otherwise skipped. What I also skip is most of the host’s private talk at the beginning of each episode.

For the podcast’s serendipity value I try to listen to the interview focussed ones and not the chitchat that most of the host-focussed ones are. The rare exceptions are ATP and MPU. But to be fair MPU has had a lot of guest interview episodes lately. Even if most of them were recurring guests it’s still better than hearing for the 20th time about some host switching between the same todo apps.

Care to share which one?

For news, how about a good weekly magazine? I find the cadence of a weekly is an optimal filter for stories that turn out to not matter, while keeping up. I barely need to supplement with glances at daily headlines to keep up with stories to discuss with clients or friends/family.

I subscribe to eight SmartBriefs for work. There’s something about the format that has you just blazing through them after awhile. I wish they’d do a more concise summary at the top. (I should probably do something about this.)

I jump around between them. Blinkist was the first one, then I tried Instaread and now I’m with 12min. Their app offers a nice 2x2 widget with a “listen now” button. So it exposes me to one random book summary each day.

Blinkist probably has the highest quality summaries and the largest backlog. Instapaper is good, but they try to overdeliver and have commentary about the author’s style and people mentioned in the book. They also comment on the general reception of the book, which I’m not too fond of. 12min is an app from Spain if I recall correctly. The quality is improving, but some of the early published summaries were a bit rough.


What criteria have you bouncing around?

I get super local stuff from a sporadic podcast (new 2-4 minute episode for every breaking story), but yeah - a weekly magazine might be interesting.

I was looking for something like that in audio form a ways back, but found most of the weekly podcasts were talking heads rather than summary.

Do you have any magazine recommendations?

For me, print Bloomberg BusinessWeek works well. I tend to skip the fun infographics and political editorial and read the longer stories. I get it for $15/year through Groupon (no digital access that way, though.)

I also like the Economist’s summaries but don’t currently have that subscription as finding a discount is impossible.

The Week is generally regarded but I’ve only read a few issues.

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Price. For me Blinkist is expensive for what it offers and they seem to be wasting money to venture into new ideas, which are doomed to fail like their “Shortcasts” podcast summaries in October last year. Since I don’t want to support this, I voted with my money.

I got access to the other two at a more affordable price via some discount some time ago. That might be different by now.

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