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Yet More Audio Dramas

Today I’m concluding my survey of podcasts I’ve been listening to. Here are the audio dramas which don’t easily fit into any of the categories from the last few entries.

Reminder: I’m a bit over 2 months behind listening to audio dramas which are still ongoing (longer for a few I’m catching up on), so some of my comments might seem dated to people who are all caught up.

  • Within the Wires: A Night Vale Presents offering, I wasn’t thrilled with the first episode of this when I listened to it, as the first season is presented as a series of relaxation tapes for a resident at a clinic. I went back to listen later and it turns out there’s a lot more going on here, starting with it taking place in an alternate history which diverged sometime before World War II. The second season is presented as a series of tape narrations of a renowned painter’s artwork by her friend, from throughout the 70s and 80s. WtW doesn’t have a “story” as such, but is heavy on atmosphere. Although not the sort of thing I’m naturally attracted to, it’s one I look forward to. Season 3 started a few weeks ago.
  • The Bright Sessions: One of several highly-regarded podcasts I’m catching up on, this one finished its run recently. It’s is about a psychologist who counsels people with superpowers. It’s skillfully written and it certainly fits in with the many comic books which have worked in the “normal people with superpowers” territory. At six episodes in, I expect that the story will start developing its themes further soon, as I think the current characters and structure will soon lose its novelty.
  • WHEN in Rhapsody: I’ve only listened to the first two episodes of this so far, but I’m intrigued: Most of it surrounds production of a radio show in a small town in the 1930s, featuring concern about the coming war and a science fiction audio drama. But there’s also a brief injection of the same radio station from the 1960s, so there’s the promise of something crunchier going on here.
  • Victoriocity: A whimsical crime drama taking place in Even Greater London of the 19th century, it’s full of steampunk and silliness, and is much funnier than Welcome to Night Vale while having a similar sense of humor. The first episode didn’t grab me very strongly, but it’s gotten steadily better. Season 1 is complete and season 2 is forthcoming.
  • It Makes a Sound: Another Night Vale Presents show, this one about a woman who discovers an audiotape from an early 90s local concert by a musician of whom she has fond memories. As a journey of self-discovery for the woman and those around her it’s quite moving, but you have to suspend your disbelief about a lot of the plot (for example, her inability to get hold of a cassette player, or to do any research about the musician). There’s nothing fantastical in the story, it’s all down-to-earth. I wish the ending had had some more surprise to it – there were a couple places I thought it might be going which were just not relevant, and it didn’t really go somewhere else instead. Not sure if there will be a second season, but I’d listen if there is.
  • The Amelia Project: A very stylish series about a secret group which specializes in staging peoples’ deaths at their request and setting them up with a new life. The basic format is an interview with the client working through how they’re going to accomplish the feat, so it’s largely about the audacity of the nonsense they come up with. But as the first season goes on it emerges that there’s a little more going on, which presumably will drive the second season. I found it somewhat repetitive at first, but it grew on me.
  • The Far Meridian: A podcast from The Whisperforge, which produced ars Paradoxica. Peri is a young woman who lives in a lighthouse, and one day when the lighthouse starts moving to a new location each day. The narrative leaves a lot of the basic plot to be filled in by the listener; for example, it seems Peri is supposed to be agoraphobic, and she’s searching for her missing brother in a haphazard way. She makes connections to other people, but mostly off-screen. It seems like some of the narrative takes place in the past, but it’s difficult to tell. It’s strangely interesting in a dreamlike way, but the ongoing story is too fragmented for my tastes, and the sometimes-lengthy digressions about life and existence don’t interest me. I’m hoping there’s a big payoff at the end of the first season. The second season started recently.
  • Fireside: Alex takes over a radio station in the town of Hamilton, and is later joined by Angie. Alex is fully bought-in to the narrative of the town council and basically shills for them, while Angie is much more critical of the shady goings-on, which involve kow-towing to a couple of large corporations. I’m not sure where this is going as it’s mostly the two of them arguing and reporting on the ongoing events in town, but there doesn’t seem to be much real progress. I feel like the narrative is a little too oblique to the actual events going on in the town. It’s been on hiatus for a while.
  • What’s the Frequency: A 1940s story of a private investigator/thief, his ward, some gruesome murders, and a bizarre radio drama. You’d think I’d have included it in my entry on suspense podcasts, but there’s not a lot of suspense; instead it’s more of a surrealist – maybe postmodern – style (the web site describes it as “psychedelic noir”), with a lot of odd sounds and transitions and storytelling choices. Very little of it works for me, other than the two main characters who are amusingly quirky, but otherwise it seems like more flash than substance. The first season recently wrapped up, but at 3 episodes in I’m not sure I’ll make it to the end. Presumably the title comes from the famous attack on Dan Rather.
  • The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air): One more Night Vale Presents production, this one about an entertainment troupe which broadcasts a popular radio show from the top of the Eiffel Tower (!), and the tower’s janitor (played by creator Julian Koster) who is enamored with them and keeps getting in their way. The stories are an endearing sort of nonsense, and one feels for the poor janitor. Reminds me a bit of the comic book Terminal City.

And that’s the lot – quite a bit more writing than I’d expected when I started this project. But it’s been fun diving into all these podcasts, and discovering more and more as I keep listening.

Did I say “the lot”? Well, unless you count podcasts of which I’ve only listened to a couple of episodes, like Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magical Services, Greater BostonSuperstition, Magic King Dom, or Midnight Radio. Or podcasts I haven’t even heard the first episode of yet, like Hit the Bricks, The 200 Year OldMythosMirrorsZooPalimpsestProject NovaThe Magnus ArchivesProject OzmaWho Killed Julie?, or Arden.

Uh… I may have a problem.

Suspense Audio Dramas

I’m not naturally attracted to suspense stories, though I appreciate some forms of horror (the world-building and inventive dread of Lovecraft and his ilk), and the craft that goes into top-flight suspense yarns (e.g., Alfred Hitchcock). But by-and-large I don’t get a huge rise out of being kept on the edge of my seat, and the longer it goes on, the larger the payoff has to be to work for me. Since I think this puts me at odds with what writers of suspense stories are trying to do, that means this genre is not generally for me.

That said, I’ve accumulated a number of suspense and horror podcasts that I listen to regularly, each with a rather different flavor. Not all of them are suspense in the sense I describe above, but I think they’re adjacent, at least.

Reminder: I’m a bit over 2 months behind listening to audio dramas which are still ongoing (longer for a few I’m catching up on), so some of my comments might seem dated to people who are all caught up.

  • I Am In Eskew: A horror series (with occasional Lovecraftian overtones) about a man who lives in the city of Eskew, location undetermined. Strange things happen to him and other people in the city, and there’s a dreamlike – often nightmarish – quality to the story, with the constant sound of rain in the background. Genuinely creepy. I’m several episodes behind, but the story is starting to branch out to the world beyond Eskew, and I’m very curious to see where it goes.
  • Six Minutes: An adventure serial about a girl who isn’t what she seems. Holiday is found in floating the water during a boating trip, and, amnesiac, is adopted by the family who found her. But her new parents seem to know things about her, and her new brother and sister help her try to find answers. As the title says, each episode is about six minutes long, and typically ends on a cliffhanger. The production values are very high, though I find the teenage hijinks of Holiday and her siblings to get a bit tiresome and I wish they’d get on with the story. I infer that Six Minutes is aimed at an all-ages audience which is why some parts of it drag for me. But overall I’m curious where it’s going – I just with it would go there faster.
  • Moya: A one-man podcast about an inspector in the fictional nation of Moya who is sent to an outer district during the winter to investigate a homicide. Moya feels like a sort of alternate England, perhaps set around the 1950s, with undertones of 1984. The narrator has a strong – but not thick – English accent, which gives the story an unusual feel. Fundamentally the story is a police procedural set in a remote and uncaring land. I found the ending of the first season a little abrupt, but I’m curious to see what happens next.
  • Blackwater Falls: A young man goes to the town of Blackwater Falls, Vermont to look for his missing sister, and finds that there are a number of strange disappearances in town, as well as other problems. I’m not very far in, but it’s intriguing. There’s not very much about it online that I can find, so the audio must speak for itself.
  • Welcome to Night Vale: This is seemingly the most successful audio drama out there, and it spawned the Night Vale Presents network. I jumped in without catching up shortly before episode #100, and I found it… okay. The town of Night Vale is a place where all sorts of fantastic things happen, as told (mostly) by the local radio host voiced by Cecil Baldwin (who is great). The stories are dark and often nonsensical, and it’s heavy on humor and wordplay, but frankly I don’t find that a lot of those elements work – it’s not nearly as smart or clever as it thinks it is. Certainly I’ve never felt the urge to catch up on earlier episodes.
  • Alice Isn’t Dead: I’m partway through its third and final season, and I think this is the best of the Night Vale Presents offerings. Keisha becomes a trucker to take her away from memories of her wife, Alice, who disappeared, but who Keisha suspects is still alive. Keisha uncovers a broad conspiracy involving manlike monsters and sinister organizations, but at its heart the story is a travelogue of the eerie bywaters of the United States. Jasika Nicole is great as Keisha. Might appeal to fans of Tim Powers, or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
  • Station Blue: A young man is hired by a company to staff a station in Antarctica for 6 weeks. I had expected this was going to end up being some sort of cosmic horror story, but it’s mostly been about the anxieties of this guy living alone in the middlest of the middle of nowhere. I’ve been waiting for more information about the company he works for, what’s happened in the past at the station, and so on, but that doesn’t seem to be what the podcast is doing. So it seems the podcast is not a great match for me.
  • The Archivist: A story about the end of the world, told through audiocassette recordings made by a young man named Cash during the event, and played by an artificial intelligence sometime in the future. It’s fundamentally a suspense/survivalist story, and though the precipitating events are fantastic, the story by and large is pretty straightforward. I recently finished the first season and despite a little bit of timey-wimey stuff, I’m not sure there’s enough going on to bring me back for a second season.

Next time I’ll wrap up with a few more audio dramas which don’t really fit into any of these categories.

Science Fiction Audio Dramas

These science fiction audio dramas include some of (what I imagine are) the most complicated podcasts in their writing, acting, and production. This genre also includes what are my two (maybe three) favorite audio dramas, so I, at least, appreciate all the hard work.

One of the pitfalls of such production is that the warts can be more evident and more disruptive than in simpler podcasts. Audio quality is really important, especially in maintaining a comparable audio volume and clarity among all the actors. I suspect this is a lot easier to say than to do, as there are some clearly-very-high-production podcasts which don’t quite get this right. I try to cut them some slack, but it does take me out of the experience. One actor being noticeably quieter than the others, or a slight hiss in the audio for one voice, can be very distracting unless there’s an in-story explanation for it. And when it’s two people who are supposed to be in the same room having a conversation, it jars. While this isn’t likely to make me drop a podcast I’m otherwise enjoying, it might keep me from sticking with a new one I’m having trouble getting into.

Reminder: I’m a bit over 2 months behind listening to audio dramas which are still ongoing (longer for a few I’m catching up on), so some of my comments might seem dated to people who are all caught up.

  • Girl in Space: If you asked me to pick the single best audio drama in production now, it might just be this one. (And if it’s not, then it’s the next one.) The main character, X, is a young woman raised by her scientist parents on a decaying research ship orbiting a peculiar star. Her parents disappeared years ago, but she continued their work. Then a corporate fleet shows up to claim her ship and work for their own. The first-person-present narration works brilliantly, and X’s musings on existence and her peculiar situation – as well as the jerktastic behavior of many other humans she meets – is human and insightful. There’s an ongoing mystery which gets revealed in little bits over several episodes, and it all adds up to the most engaging audio drama out there. If it has a flaw it’s that the supporting characters are a little too stereotypical, but I suspect that’s actually the effect they’re going for (you can hear the sneer of the lead heavy whenever he speaks, for example); it’s just a bit odd next to the humanity of X.
  • The Strange Case of Starship Iris: After the war against the aliens, a revolution leaves humanity governed by an oppressive Republic. Violet Liu is the last survivor of the research ship Iris when she’s rescued by a group of smugglers. Their adventures take them around the edges of human civilization, as well as encounters with some interesting aliens, as they try to figure out what was going on aboard the Iris and to what extent Violet was (knowingly or not) involved. The cast and dialog is first-rate, and there’s clearly something going on behind it all. I feel like the newer episodes have lost focus a bit (perhaps the long hiatus after the first five episodes had an impact on the creator’s plans or approach), but I still look forward to each one.
  • ars Paradoxica: A 21st century scientist’s project goes wrong and throws her back to the Philadelphia Experiment in 1943. She starts a new life as part of a secret war project, trying to replicate her discovery and figure out how it works, and maybe get back home. I’m only a few episodes in – up to the end of World War II – and each episode has been clever and engaging, with a strong period feel and fun cast of characters. And of course time travel and other high-tech hijinks. I believe the show recently concluded, to rave reviews, so I’m really looking forward to making my way through it. I’m enjoying it at least as much as the two above.
  • Wolf 359: Another heralded series which recently ended, about the hijinks aboard a space station orbiting the star of the series’ name, presumably no relation to the Star Trek battle around the star. Communications officer Doug Eiffel narrates the events; he’s a hedonistic slacker who butts heads with the commander and the chief scientist, and the stories so far slot right in alongside other comical SF series. But there’s a hint that the first contact with aliens is coming, and I imagine that will concern much of the series once it happens. Each episode so far is basically a set-piece for the quirks of one of the three characters on the station, which makes it lightly amusing but not (yet) remarkable.
  • Startripper!!: The web site’s summary reads, “Follow Feston Pyxis, a former file clerk who left it all behind in search of the best times the galaxy has to offer, on a road trip through the cosmos!” And that just about covers it: The exuberant Feston flies from place to place to sample the many experiences the universe has to offer. Three episodes in, it’s difficult to figure out if Feston is naïve and lucky, or secretly up to something. The high-energy tone of the series – which feels like a more optimistic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – suggests the former. Lightweight but fun.
  • All’s Fair: A 6-episode series about a Victorian woman who invents a time machine and travels to humanity’s future, where she repeatedly encounters a man in increasing positions of importance in government. Things don’t go well. Smart and to-the-point.
  • Tides: One of the most-lauded audio dramas currently running, about a scientist who gets stranded on a planet with an unusual and massive tidal cycle, exploring the local ecology and trying to stay alive until her crewmates on the ship orbiting the planet can rescue her. Julia Schifini as Dr. Winifred Eurus might be the single best acting talent I’ve yet heard in the audio drama universe, with a tremendous range of emotion and amazingly clear enunciation. And the podcast needs her because the story is very uneven. The suspense of her trying to stay alive is engaging and suspenseful, but the long asides of her describing the local fauna does not hold my interest at all. Maybe it’s a matter of what kind of science-fictional nuts-and-bolts interests you, as the brief description of the local cosmology around the planet was way more interesting to me than all of the biology bits put together. Your mileage may vary. I presume the status quo will get shaken up sometime soon since I can’t see Dr. Eurus remaining alone and wandering around like this for much longer, as the set-up is getting repetitive.
  • Marsfall: Another current audio drama which has gotten rave reviews, but which I’ve struggled to embrace. Certainly it shows a tremendous amount of technical ability in its production, and the acting is generally strong, but I’ve found the story to be pretty shaky. It’s about one of several commercial missions to colonize Mars later this century, with a commander who has an art background (that’s an early plot point), and an AI supporting the colony which is less frightening than HAL, but more suspicious than Data. Things go wrong as soon as the colony arrives on Mars, with several waves of mayhem over the first seven episodes. But I’ve been frustrated with the frequently-unprofessional behavior of these supposedly professional colonists. I also guessed one of the big surprises in the first season very early on, which made me wonder why none of the characters figured it out, since the evidence seemed to be screaming it at them. It feels like it’s aimed at casual fans of SF television shows as opposed to serious readers of SF (basically the opposite audience from Tides). Hopefully the second season will have a tighter story with characters acting less erratically.
  • Athena: An “audio journal” about a young woman growing up on a starship who decided to steal a shuttle and head to Earth. Episodes are short, so with me being 5 episodes in there’s not much backstory so far (for example, how can Athena and her people be human given their background?). Athena’s voice – which I assume is the podcast’s creator – has unusual vocal mannerisms which gives Athena an unusual feel. I’m hoping this will be more than a coming-of-age story, as it sounds like it will be a fairly short story when it’s finished, it might not be.

Next time I’ll run through some suspense and horror audio dramas.

Conspiracy Fiction Audio Dramas

After several years of Magic, poker and science podcasts, I dipped my toes into fiction podcasts – or, as most of their creators prefer to call them, audio dramas – with Welcome to Night Vale and a couple of other podcasts from the Night Vale Presents network (which I’ll talk about in more detail in a future post). But it was just a sideline to the nonfiction podcasts until…

I don’t remember where I heard about The Polybius Conspiracy, a 7-episode documentary about an urban legend surrounding an early-80s video game, which seemed like a great piece of niche investigative journalism. Or at least, I thought it was a documentary, but it turns out it was mostly fiction. Something about it seemed too good to be true, but it was so well done it fooled me. Which left me pretty mad.  But there was a silver lining:

In the form of Wil Williams and her blog. I found her review by searching for information about the Polybius show. Exploring her site and following her Twitter, I found – well, I honestly don’t know which shows I found first through her, but a year(ish) later most of my podcast subscriptions are audio dramas, including several completed ones and some long-running ones I’m catching up on.

So I’m going to survey the ones I’ve listened to in groups, starting with what I think of as “conspiracy fiction” audio dramas: Podcasts which present a conspiracy or urban legend as if it were real. But they’re a lot more enjoyable when you know that they’re fiction.

The biggest risk with podcasts of this genre is that they’ll dance around the edges of the story and not get to a satisfying payoff. That basically happened with Polybius, which kind of petered out at the end. I think of this as “X-Files syndrome”, where an unwillingness or inability to take the story to (or at least towards) a satisfying ending drove me away from that show in its third season. (The fact that The X-Files was running opposite Babylon 5 – while B5 was smoking all the other genre shows with its deliberate storytelling – probably didn’t help.) The journey is enjoyable up to a point, but the payoff is a critical part of stories like this. I don’t think everyone agrees with me on that (evidence: the persistent and baffling popularity of The X-Files), but to me it’s make-or-break: If the writers just want to do weird stuff and don’t have a fairly concrete payoff in mind from the beginning, then I’m probably going to find it more frustrating than enjoyable.

Note that since I’m a bit over 2 months behind listening to audio dramas and catching up on some older ones, some of my comments might seem dated to people who are all caught up.

  • TANIS: It seems it’s just about impossible to get into this genre of podcasts and not eventually end up listening to TANIS, from the Public Radio Alliance. Host Nic Silver (an alias of writer/producer Terry Miles) explores the lost city (?) of Tanis starting from a few hazy clues, but quickly going down the rabbit hole of deaths, disappearances, shadowy figures, and corporate espionage. He’s aided by his new friend, the hacker MeerKatnip (MK). The show is in its fourth season, and I’m nearing the end of the first. I definitely worry about X-Files syndrome with TANIS, but so far the ride is enjoyable. The interactions between the out-of-his-depth Silver and the snarky MK are the highlights of the show so far.
  • Rabbits: Another PRA production, which ran for one season (a Kickstarter for a second season failed), and arguably it’s even better than TANIS. Host Carly Parker is searching for her missing friend, and ends up being dragged into the latest iteration of a centuries-old game called Rabbits, which has mostly avoided appearing on the Internet. While the last episode is a little less than I’d hoped for, it does have a satisfying conclusion, and there are a lot of neat cultural Easter eggs along the way to read about on Wikipedia. If they do somehow do a second season, I hope they delve into the mechanics and outcomes of the game some more (even though I’m sure they haven’t really thought about those, but I think they have to in order to keep interest).
  • The Last Movie: Another PRA creation from Nic Silver, this one dropped all six of its episodes at once earlier this year. Nic and MK investigate the rumored “Last Movie” of the 1970s, which supposedly kills everyone who sees it. A pretty good introduction to the PRA style, but it’s not as good as TANIS or Rabbits.
  • Limetown: The first season (back in 2015) concerned a fictional corporate town in Tennessee, all of whose inhabitants disappeared ten years ago. Reporter Lia Haddock investigates what happened to them. I’m not as high on this story as some people are, as I wasn’t wild about the revelations or the conclusion, find them all a bit pedestrian for fantastic fiction. But I enjoyed it well enough to see if they develop it in a more satisfying manner in the upcoming season two. From what I’ve read that this was one of the first of the modern wave of podcasts, so with several years since the first season ended, simply assimilating what others have done in the form in the meantime might make for a more satisfying story.
  • Mermaids of Merrow’s Cove: A public radio reporter goes home to her town in New England to investigate apparent kidnappings and murders of young women who appear on the beach and which locals suspect are mermaids. I’m 3 episodes into this 6-episode series, and it’s pretty good, though I find it not as polished as PRA’s offerings; in particular I find the story and acting to feel a bit contrived. The high points so far have been the reading of the journal by an early inhabitant of the town.

Next time I’ll cover the science fiction genre, which include some of my very favorite audio dramas I’ve discovered to date.

Nonfiction Podcasts

Last time I ran through the gaming-related podcasts I listen to, so here are the other “nonfiction” podcasts in my feed.

Public radio podcasts

Many shows from public radio outlets are also released as podcasts. Some of these include bonus material, but they also come with reruns which may or may not be of interest. This is a great way to listen to shows that aren’t available in your area, or which are broadcast on a schedule that doesn’t match your own.

  • Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!: NPR’s weekly news quiz show, which has been running for over 20 years, hosted by Peter Sagal and Bill Kurtis, with a rotating panel and a weekly guest. Always entertaining, often informative, I probably started listening not long after it started and I’ve never stopped. I still hold out hope that Charlie Pierce will come back someday.
  • Ask Me Another: Hosted by Ophira Eisenberg with musician Jonathan Coulton, this is a trivia quiz show with one or more weekly guests. Not the laugh-fest that Wait! Wait! is, but a fun diversion.
  • Says You: A long-running panel game show revolving around language and wordplay, I often forgot to catch it because it airs here Sundays at 4 pm, and for a long time you had to pay to get the podcast feed. Now it’s freely available, and it’s very funny. Sometimes the games are fiendishly clever.
  • Serial: A podcast from This American Life which focuses on a single topic each season. I listened to season 2, on Bowe Bergdahl, which I found a bit overlong for its topic. The season 3 teaser just dropped a week or two ago.
  • S-Town: A spin-off from Serial, about a man in a small Alabama town who invites a reporter down to investigate a suspicious death, and then things take a disturbing turn. This 7-episode podcast is complete, and while there is some extraneous material, there’s also a lot going on, and since it’s reporting on true events, not everything gets tied up in a bow. However, I think the central mystery was given a perfectly satisfying conclusion at the end. Atmospheric, creepy, tragic, I found S-Town very compelling, and superior overall to Serial. (For a different opinion, see Wil Williams’ review.)

Scientific American podcasts

I listen to a couple of podcasts from Scientific American, which – along with Wait! Wait! – might be the ones I’ve been listening to the longest:

  • 60-Second Science: Despite the title, these are 2-to-4 minute reports on recent developments in science. Releases every weekday.
  • Science Talk: A longer-form usually-weekly podcast usually focusing on a single topic – an interview, a book, etc. – with special episodes each year when the science Nobel Prizes are announced. Both of these podcasts cover the full range of science, so unless you’re interested in everything in science there are bound to be some that won’t grab you. Nonetheless both are informative and engaging.

Political & legal podcasts

I’m not a big political wonk (my occasional Twitter rant aside), but in the last year I’ve added a couple of new podcasts in this area to my subscriptions:

  • Congress, Two Beers In: From the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. One of the hosts is Matt Glassman, who I discovered through Thinking Poker. What appealed to me about him is that he talks less about politics per se, but about government – how it works, how politics affects it, etc. – which is an angle not often reported on in the mainstream press. This is in this vein, and I find it very informative, especially given the current governmental clusterfuck we’re living with. Approximately bi-weekly.
  • Make No Law: By Ken White of Popehat, who is a popular figure on Twitter. This podcast focuses on developments in first amendment law throughout U.S. history, including Supreme Court rulings and the national scenario and individual actions which led to them. Releases approximately monthly.

Progressive rock podcasts

As you may know, I’m a big fan of progressive rock music. There are several streaming radio stations I’ve listened to, but not many podcasts that I’ve found – or at least not ones that hit my particular style that strongly. But I do listen to two:

  • Progtopia: A bi-weekly podcast that when I discovered it typically had a single interview with an artist or band each episode, including playing a few of their songs. Now it includes one or more shorter interviews, a roundtable with the main host and some other people involved in or covering prog, and an opinion essay. I think I liked the old format better as the newer content doesn’t add much for me.
  • NewEARS Prog Show: This is a radio show by the New England Art Rock Society which airs on WEMF in Boston. Each episode is 2 hours, and it seems to run in seasons, with season 4 having finished earlier this summer. As a radio show it plays a bunch of music and then has two or three interviews. I’ve discovered a few bands through it already, and I only found this show earlier this year. Plus, you can’t beat the Boston accents!

Others

  • The Geekbox: A weekly podcast about geek hobbies. This used to be a roundtable with several people who worked in or around the videogame industry, plus the guy who owns the comic shop I go to. Life developments have recently reduced it to just two hosts, which has not grabbed me as much. Plus, the non-videogame content has been reduced, and since I don’t play many videogames – and no console games – that limits its appeal for me. So after listening to it for almost 8 years, I’ve recently dropped it.
  • Retropod: A short several-times-per-week podcast about historical events, especially ones which have been in the news recently, e.g. because some new information about them has come to light. I just started listening recently.
  • Fiat Lex: All about dictionaries and how they work, by two people who have each worked in the business for years. (Did you know dictionaries are a business? They are!) Approximately bi-weekly.
  • Query: A bi-weekly podcast answering tech questions from listeners, with an emphasis on Apple products. Some useful stuff in here that you might not easily find out about unless you obsessively follow the tech press (and really, who has time for that?). Recently had a co-host switch as one of the original hosts was hired by Apple.
  • Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone: Paula Poundstone and Adam Felber are both hilarious on Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!, and this is their second stab at a podcast after last year’s Live From the Poundstone Institute. Both shows have struggled a bit to make their conceit feel natural, with the new show being based around interviewing experts in a couple of subjects and then having Paula offer (humorous) advice on what they’ve learned. The first two episodes were really rough, and although it seems they have an audience, it’s not as evident as in the last show. It’s gotten better since then, but it feels like it could use some editing to get down to the best stuff. Releases weekly.

Next time I’ll dive into my latest hobby: Audio dramas.

Gaming Podcasts

I’m breaking up the “nonfiction” podcasts I listen to into two entries: Gaming podcasts, and everything else. As I said in my intro, a few Magic: The Gathering podcasts have been key in keeping me motivated in running. I also listen to a couple of poker podcasts. I’ve listened to several others of each, some of which have ended, some of which I’ve dropped, but the ones included below I’ve been listening to for quite a while.

One common thread in these podcasts is that the hosts clearly put a lot of work into planning out their episodes and staying on topic (presumably through skillful use of editing and post production in some cases), so you know what you’re going to get: A consistent product, and a clear indication when an individual episode is going to be different. I’ve listened to a few podcasts in each category which don’t exhibit this discipline, and they often end up running 90-120 minutes per episode, and/or spend a lot of time in rambling digressions which don’t hold my interest.

So, these really are the cream of the crop that I’ve found for each game, at least as far as what I’m looking for in these podcasts goes. YMMV.

Magic podcasts

  • Limited Resources: Probably the podcast I look forward to the most each week, LR covers the limited (draft & sealed) forms of playing Magic, which are the formats I mostly play these days. Besides being a clinic in playing, LR is also a clinic in producing a professional-grade weekly podcast on its topic, with insight, humor and depth. I discovered LR back in 2012 because I figured there must be a podcast on Magic drafting out there, and this was honestly the only one I could find at the time. It had already been around about 3 years by then, and it was already very solid. Host Marshall Sutcliffe also does commentary on the Magic pro tour. Co-host Luis-Scott Vargas is in the pro tour hall of fame, also does coverage, and brings great analysis and usually-great humor to the show. Both of them show their enthusiasm for and expertise at the game in every episode.
  • Good Luck High Five (formerly Magic the Amateuring): The GLHF hosts have backgrounds in improv comedy and so they’re the rare podcast which is able to dive into off-the-cuff humor and make it work – but I think it’s because they have the discipline to not let it get away from them. They cover all forms of Magic in a friendly and upbeat way, and have both played competitive magic and worked in coverage of competitive events. They’ve recently picked up the proverbial baton of keeping their listeners apprised of developments in the MtG world, which I enjoy even though I’m not strongly plugged in to that side of the scene.
  • Drive to Work: By Mark Rosewater, the head designer of Magic, who records it while – you guessed it – driving to work. He releases 2 episodes each Friday. Rosewater has a great mind for game design and his podcast is worth listening to if you’re interested in Magic design, game design, and to some extent any sort of design.
  • Kitchen Table Magic: An interview podcast about the personalities and histories of the game. Host Sam Tang does a great job bringing out his subjects’ love of the game, and in the cases of long-time players their historical perspectives on the game. For anyone who’s watched the Enter the Battlefield video series, KTM is a more in-depth and regular feature with many similarities. Organized by “seasons”, it comes out weekly with some gaps in the middle and end of each season.
  • Allied Strategies: As a rule I’m not a fan of podcasts in a “friends hanging out” format, but this one makes it work, and I think it’s because they’re very good at knowing when to ad lib and when to rein it in. Two of the friends have been professional Magic players, and all three are entertaining and insightful. Not every episode is deeply interesting to me, as they rotate through a variety of Magic topics, but I listen to most of them. They usually end the episode with an amusing story from a recent event.

Poker podcasts

  • Thinking Poker: Much like Limited Resources, this is a fine example of producing a focused podcast. Co-hosts Andrew Brokos and Nate Meyvis open with a usually-short intro (a bit longer when they themselves have been playing in major tournaments), then launch into a strategy segment analyzing one or more hands. The rest of the episode is usually an interview with someone from the poker world. Some of the most interesting interviews have been with people who are only tangentially part of the poker world, and the hosts are excellent interviewers. Episode 200 is a good sampler of interviews with several of their best guests.
  • Just Hands: This podcast started off as what its name implies, individual episodes analyzing poker hands and that’s it. It’s been extending a bit into interviews, especially as one of the original hosts has recently left and the other is having a different guest each week. It’s a good listen, though I think their strength is in hand analysis.

Next time I’ll cover the rest of the nonfiction podcasts.

Podcast Person

A few years ago I started running again, and I’m still going. I’ve tried it before and haven’t stuck with it, but what’s kept me going this time, in no small part, is that I listen to podcasts while I do it. They keep my mind occupied by something other than how much running sucks. 😃 And I’ve used my OCD to keep myself going, because if I miss days then I fall behind on my podcasts!

My podcast app of choice is Overcast on my iPhone, using AirPods for listening. I was initially skeptical of AirPods, but their connectivity and convenience has been great; I think I’ve only ever once had one fall out of my ear, and never while running. I understand that they don’t fit all ears naturally, but they work great for me.

I listen to most podcasts at 1.3x-1.5x speed since I’m more interested in consuming the content than the ambience the podcasts provide – although I’m more likely to listen to audio dramas at a slower speed than nonfiction podcasts, since in those the ambience is more important. Some podcasts can be listened to at higher speeds, depending largely on how fast people talk. Once a podcaster I listen to at 1.3x guested on a podcast I listen to at 1.5x, and it was… interesting.

While running I almost exclusively listen to podcasts about Magic: The Gathering. But I listen to lots of other podcasts at other times: While driving by myself or with Debbi, while walking after lunch or in the evening. I don’t often listen to podcasts while doing other things (working, reading, writing), though I have a couple of music-oriented podcasts for which I sometimes make an exception. I’ve listened to some other nonfiction podcasts since about 2010, as well as some “infotainment” shows such as NPR’s Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!

Last year I dove headlong into listening to audio dramas (having previously listened to only a few Night Vale Presents shows), and now they make up the bulk of my listening in the car. I’m only about two months behind in listening to them! There are podcasts I have in my feed whose first episode I haven’t even gotten to yet! Heck, the total running time of podcasts I’m trying to catch up on (at a rate of about 1 episode per week) might be longer than the running time of podcasts actually released during the week. But I should catch up – eventually. Assuming no other great podcasts get started in the next, oh, eight months or so. That’s totally possible, right?

Over the next few posts I’m going to survey many of the podcasts I’ve listened to. Mainly podcasts that I’m still listening to (even if they’ve completed their runs), and ones that I enjoy, although I’ll also touch on some that haven’t worked for me. There are a few “big name” podcasts that haven’t worked for me – but there are also some that hit me just right. Maybe you’ll find a few that appeal to you.

Worldcon 76

I took a few days off to have a 5-day weekend in order to go to Worldcon 76 in nearby San Jose. This was my fourth Worldcon, and maybe the first SF convention I’ve been to in about 10 years. Fortuitously, my other three Worldcons have all been since I started my (old) journal, so you can read about them if you wish:

The weekend started off a little bumpy, though: I took Thursday off planning to go down to the con in the afternoon, while having lunch with Debbi and visiting her new workplace. However, I went out to my car and it wouldn’t turn over. I called AAA and they came out and replaced the battery – a little annoying since I’d just had the car in for its annual service a week earlier, but a friend of mine says he once had his Eos‘ battery die on him without warning. By the time it was done it was too late to meet Debbi for lunch, but I did drive to her work and we swapped cars just in case there was something else wrong with my car so I wouldn’t be stranded. (My car worked fine all weekend, so hopefully the battery was it.)

By the time I got to the con the check-in line for badges was long, and I was in it for about 45 minutes. I think I was there at the worst point, as the line was half as long when I got out of it. I did get to see my friend Jeanne from Minneapolis, whom I don’t think I’ve seen since the 02 Worldcon, and we ended up going to dinner together as her partner was seeing some sights in Silicon Valley and ended up getting stuck in bad traffic.

There was not a lot going on Thursday. I wandered through the dealer’s room and said hi to a few people (such as Anna from Illusive Comics; I’m always a bit surprised and flattered that she recognizes me). I skipped the opening ceremonies and decided to head home early to save energy for the rest of the weekend.

On Friday it was time to hit the panels. I went to a few which I thought were so-so – mainly because the panelists lacked focus or didn’t really have much to say on the topic – but I also went to some really good ones. I particularly enjoyed “A Geek’s Guide to Literary Theory” by M. Todd Gallowglas, which led me to insta-follow him on Twitter; if anything the talk was a bit too condensed and could have benefitted from another hour! I also went to see him read in the evening – he’s a very entertaining speaker. I talked to him at his booth in the dealer’s room later at the con, too, and bought his book of writing from his year finishing his MFA (I’m a few dozen pages into it as I write this and it’s good!). I did not, however, note how much his Twitter icon resembles Sean Bean. I could probably have talked to him some more (e.g., about his thoughts on writers who write novels which are in a way commentary on their earlier novels – such as Tehanu by Le Guin – or about my obsession with story structure), but always worry about overstaying my welcome when talking to authors.

I also went to a remembrance for the late editor Gardner Dozois, featuring George R. R. Martin, Pat Cadigan and John Kessel. (I ran into my friends Ceej and David there, too!) As expected, it was a series of touching and funny reminiscences, but it also felt like a sort of pre-wake for 70s and early 80s fandom: Most of the people attending were 60 and older, and had probably broken into fandom between 1970 and 1985, as the panelists did. I got a sense that Dozois’ passing had stirred something, maybe a realization that the older members of that generation were getting up there in age (Dozois and the panelists are all early Baby Boomers) and that they should consider seeing and appreciating each other while they still can, especially at Worldcon since they might not often see each other otherwise. Maybe I’m off-base about this, but that was the feeling I got. (In 15 years my generation of fandom – the late Boomers and most of Gen X – will be there ourselves.)

My last panel on Friday was on Imposter Syndrome, which ironically is what I always feel at conventions. (Heck, look at the first of my entries on the 2004 Worldcon and I was keenly feeling that back then!) I could go on about this some more here, but let’s just say that Friday night I went home early rather than going to parties where I wouldn’t know anyone, and Saturday I ended up at loose ends for dinner in the evening, had a long wait before eating a pretty good meal at Il Fornaio, basically wasting several hours by myself. Ugh.

Saturday I went to a session on libraries and library technology, which was pretty interesting. It’s all stuff my sister works with every day, I think. I introduced myself to Lynne M. Thomas, whom my sister has known for a while and whom she urged me to introduce myself to. It’s sounds like they’ve had somewhat parallel careers in some ways.

The session I took the most notes on all weekend was on plotting a story, by Kay Kenyon, an author who frankly has been on my list to read for a while but I haven’t gotten there yet. (Ah, the curse of the slow reader.) I found her breakdowns really thoughtful and useful, fleshing out some things I already knew about the three-act story structure. Should be useful if I ever actually write something!

There was also a small protest outside the convention center in the afternoon, which most attendees avoided (I certainly did, although I enjoyed reading some updates on Twitter). It was over 90 degrees in the afternoon so that must have been fun for the protestors.

In the evening I had my ill-fated dinner adventure, but I did end up at the party hotel where I ran into my friend Mark and Yvette, and met their friend Miri, and we had a good time chatting in the lounge (the acoustics of which were way too good for the volume of the band playing there).

Sunday I went to a panel on recommended webcomics, which as you might guess is a subject right up my alley (inasmuch as I have about 125 active webcomics in my RSS reader). The panel was kind of split between discussing the history of webcomics and making recommendations, and it also had 7 panelists, which made it a bit unwieldy. It was fun, but felt like it could have used more focus.

But I spent more time on Saturday searching out books in the dealer’s room, and getting autographs. The dealer’s room was pretty good, but it did feel like there were fewer used book dealers there than in the past, which is perhaps not a surprise due to the rise of digital books, but it is a bummer for me since I was hoping to score some specific items from my want list. I did find a few, but some others were just not in evidence. And it’s nice to pick them up in person to see their condition first-hand, and not deal with shipping. There was one George R. R. Martin book I was going to buy, but when I went to pick it up – having determined that it was the best combination of condition and price in the room – Martin was at the booth signing their stock, and when they put it back on sale they’d marked it up by $25. No thanks! But I guess it’ll make someone else happy.

I did get a different book autographed by Martin, though, and I stood through the long line to have John Scalzi sign a few more books. But I can’t complain because John is a truly nice guy, and he was signing multiple books for many people, as well as taking pictures and having conversations, yet the line was still moving along anyway. I spent most of the time chatting with the person in front of me, and I took a bunch of photos of him meeting John. I first met John back in 2002 at Journalcon, and I’m flattered that he’s remembered me when I’ve seen him since. If you’ve seen him speak or be on a panel, when he can be very much in his “Scalzi the performance artist” mode, rest assured that he’s very personable in the autograph line – or elsewhere, from my experience.

In the evening I went to dinner with Ceej and David and a couple of friends of theirs. I haven’t seen Ceej in years, and we really ought to see each other more often than that! I decided to skip the Hugo Awards ceremony, and instead finally got myself up to the Borderlands Books suite for their sponsors, which was a nice quiet space and I had some good conversations with the few people there. I wish I’d made myself go up earlier in the week!

I’d taken Monday off as well, but there wasn’t really anything I wanted to do at the con that day, so I decided to take it as a day of downtime as well.

Overall I had a good time, though 2002 is still my personal high water mark for Worldcons. This con had some behind-the-scenes controversy (which spilled over into a broader audience, or else I wouldn’t have known about it), especially regarding programming. As someone who wasn’t really affected by those issues I thought things went reasonably smoothly – at least compared to my experience at other cons – but I understand why people who were affected have some hard feelings. The biggest issue for me was that the programming rooms were often too small for the panels – about half I went to were standing room only when I arrived. Given the site I’m not sure what could have been done about that – the San Jose Convention Center is a pretty stark and unforgiving facility. (But it does have excellent wi-fi!)

So it’s been 14 years since I last went to a Worldcon, and I’m not sure when I’ll get to one next. Though there have been 4 west coast Worldcons in this century, plus ones in Las Vegas and Denver, so there will be opportunities. Despite some of my anxieties, it is a fun experience.

Social Media

I have some thoughts on the turmoil in corporate social media recently – meaning, in particular, Facebook and Twitter. For posterity, the precipitating events are:

I’m hardly the first – or the five hundredth – person to observe that this is the natural development of handing over our online social connectivity to a few corporations who are mainly driven by profit motives and which mainly make money through advertising. The details of election manipulation were perhaps harder to foresee, but it seems clear that there was plenty of room for badness.

So what now? While there’s a movement to delete Facebook (#DeleteFacebook), it is still a tremendously useful resource for keeping in touch with friends and family. (My observation is that it’s especially handy for generations older than mine.) Twitter is less useful for that purpose, but it’s more useful for keeping up with people involved in or who share my hobbies and interests.

Frankly I trust neither of these companies, as both have long histories of not caring about their users. Facebook in particular I think is deeply untrustworthy as Mark Zuckerberg’s 14-year apology tour indicates. Twitter I think is at least as incompetent as they are untrustworthy, and I’m not sure if that’s better or worse – probably it just means they’re going to sell to some large, more solvent company in the next few years. (My guess is Google will buy them.)

Should I stop using them? Yeah, probably. Will I? Probably not. But I have been making some changes in how I use them:

  • I recognize that making political posts is not going to change the opinions of my followers on these platforms. So I’ve been cutting back on doing so unless I think I have something novel to say.
  • More seriously, I’ve been trying to avoid sharing political posts unless the post’s originator is someone I know and trust. The means of political manipulation has been to promulgate divisive political propaganda – at both extremes of the political spectrum – and while I’m solidly left-liberal, I see little reason to help them.
  • I’ve also been cutting back on following people whose main social media activity is to share political content which they didn’t write. So if that’s mainly been what you’ve been posting, then there’s a fair chance that I’ve stopped following you. I follow people mainly for what they have to say, not for them sharing content from others.
  • I also use an ad blocker (AdBlock on the Mac, 1Blocker on iOS), and also a tracker blocker (Ghostery). Since ads can be a vector for malware, using an ad blocker is also a security measure. Moreover, if I visit a site which doesn’t let me read its articles because I’m using an ad blocker, then I stop visiting that site.
  • My Twitter client on both Mac and iOS is Tweetbot. If Twitter drops support for third-party clients and doesn’t come up with a good client of its own with the features that I want, then I’ll probably stop using Twitter. I’d probably do the same thing with Facebook if they ever remove the live feed.

In the long run we’re going to have to move away from corporate-owned social media networks, or at least move to ones which we pay for, where we, not the advertisers, are the customers. Maybe something like Micro.blog or Mastodon is the future. It seems like something like that should be viable, but whether it will become popular is something else altogether.

The bottom line, though, is that it’s got to be something each of us owns. Because if you don’t own it yourself, then you don’t own your own presence on the Internet.

Which, despite my relative inactivity here lately, is why I still have this blog.

(Oh: This is the second post I’ve written titled “Social Media”. Things have changed a bit in the 9 years since I wrote the first one.)

Doctor Who, Season Ten

While I’ve enjoyed Peter Capaldi as the Doctor well enough, I haven’t been terribly impressed with the stories in his first two seasons, although season nine did have two very good ones and one decent one. Did I like his final season in the role?

Find out (with spoilers) after the jump!

Read on, Macduff! »