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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.

Most Played Songs

The top 10 most played songs in my iTunes library, probably dating back 10 years or maybe more:

  1. “River Out of Eden” by Frameshift, from Unweaving the Rainbow (2003)
  2. “Mandelbrot World” by Jack Foster III, from Jazzraptor’s Secret (2008)
  3. “Journey’s End/The Traveller’s Lament” by Magenta, from Home (2006)
  4. “The Seventh House” by IQ, from The Seventh House (2000)
  5. “A Crack in the Ice/Pins and Needles/Double Vision” by Arena, from The Visitor (1998)
  6. “End on a High Note” by The Flower Kings, from Paradox Hotel (2006)
  7. “There Was a Time” by Spock’s Beard, from Octane (2005)
  8. “Squonk” by Genesis, from A Trick of the Tail (1976)
  9. “If The Sun” by Glass Hammer, from If (2010)
  10. “Believe/No Place For the Innocent”, by Pendragon, from Believe (2005)

This is a pretty representative list of my musical tastes over the last 10 years, largely neo-prog rock with a smattering of other proggy stuff as well. These ten are tracks which I am more inclined to just pick and listen to because I really, really like them.

This list would have looked very different in years past. In 1991 it would have been dominated by Jethro Tull and The Who, while in 1999 you probably would have seen Sonia Dada and Collective Soul. I (re-)discovered progressive rock in 2001, stopped listening to commercial radio, and prog has dominated the list every since.

Weird that Home is the only one of the ten albums not available on the iTunes Store – Magenta seems to have only a couple of albums available there, and not their best ones.

I Still Buy Compact Disks

I don’t buy many compact disks, mind you, but a pack of four just showed up today:

New CDs

These came from Kinesis, one of the progressive rock sites I’ve been buying from for years. While I do buy most of my music online these days (mainly from the iTunes Store), I still buy a few CDs for two reasons:

  1. There are a few artists whose work I have more-or-less complete on CD, and I enjoy them enough that I want to keep buying their physical albums. There aren’t many of these: Jethro Tull, IQ, Jadis, and if The Who or Pete Townshend ever release another album, I’d buy that on CD, too.
  2. There are also some albums I want which I can’t easily find online (meaning, for download from iTunes or Amazon). The Jack Yello and Landmarq albums in the picture are two of those. There are even a few albums I can’t even find domestically on CD, which is weird, especially in the case of Presto Ballet, whose whole catalog save one album is available on iTunes. Strange. I could probably hunt around and find them for legal download somewhere, but I don’t really want to kill myself, not when I know I can get the CDs from stores I’ve used before.

One of my projects for later this year is to go through my CD collection and decide what I want to keep and what I want to get rid of. I’m sure I’ll get rid of most of it in the long term, but in the short term just culling the marginal stuff is a good start. Get down from 4 boxes of CDs to 3 or even 2.

It’s a far cry from my college and grad school days, when I was buying 1-2 CDs per week. On the other hand, I have fond memories of marching through Jethro Tull‘s back catalog in 1989-90. Making mix tapes to listen to on the tape player in my car. I spent a lot of time on that stuff, but it was fun at the time. Not all wasted time is actually wasted.

Martin Orford Retired

I recently downloaded Martin Orford‘s two solo albums, Popular Music and Classical Songs and The Old Road, having enjoyed his work with IQ and Jadis in the past. Listening to them recently, I wondered when he might have a new one coming out, as I knew he’d left both bands.

A quick Web search reveals that he won’t have a new one coming out, because he’s retired:

This is the story of an artist who did something extraordinary and rather unique in the rock business: he retired.

In 2009, Martin Orford, one of Britain’s most respected keyboard players and founding member of IQ, decided to end his career in music. A few short months after he left the band, he played his final solo concert, making it very clear that he never would return to either studio or stage.

It was not the lack of new ideas or fading love for music that forced Orford to leave it all behind, but an enemy he couldnt beat: the Internet.

According to him, illegal downloading was the ‘beginning of the end’ for the music scene so he decided to make his stand – If people wouldn’t pay for music anymore, there would be just one way to teach them: don’t produce the music.

Quite a pity. I suspect we’ll see an upheaval in artists of all sorts who aren’t willing to put up with the changes in the marketplace (both legal and illegal) and retire – or, more quietly, never start their careers to begin with. For myself, I’m just sad that it means artists I enjoy (or might enjoy) will stop producing work.

By the way, I have no guilt over downloading Orford’s two albums: I downloaded them from iTunes, so I legitimately paid to get them.

You should, too. They’re quite good.

Edit: Here’s an interview with Orford about leaving the music business. One quote: “But I absolutely refuse to work with the Internet; as far as I am concerned it’s the worst invention in the history of mankind, and I consider it to be my natural enemy.”

That’s Entertainment

So most of my trip east has involved visiting Mom, taking care of Mom’s house (including doing a lot of cleaning and organizing), and working. But outside of that, I’ve been trying to keep myself entertained – mainly because otherwise I’d just be sitting in this big house by myself.

I eventually figured out that the NPR station to listen to here is WGBH, but once they finish the morning newscast I don’t find the rest of the programming that interesting. Plus, I’m spending a fair bit of time in the car, so I wanted to find a music station to listen to. Unfortunately, it seems like almost all of the music radio in Boston sucks: Faceless pop music, and endless classic rock stations playing stuff I’d listened to hundreds of times before. Very oddly, one station has a program hosted by Alice Cooper, who I’d always associated with hard rock bordering on metal, but after an hour of listening to his show I don’t think I’d heard a song harder than Boston (the epitome of AOR).

What I really wanted was a station playing current rock music, which I’m out of touch with. I eventually settled on WBOS (a.k.a. “Radio Ninety-Two Nine“), which isn’t quite what I wanted, but does play some current releases. Unfortunately they seem pretty stuck in 90s rock, with the usual assortment of bands with singers with lousy voices (R.E.M., Green Day), or who wouldn’t know a melody if it bit them on the ass (Soundgarden, Pearl Jam). Still, it’s the best I’ve found. I even heard a song that I liked enough to download from iTunes! (“Some Nights” by Fun. I’m a sucker for vocal harmonies. Alas the rest of the album isn’t more of the same, so I grabbed only the one track.)

A big part of my distracting myself has been visiting Debbi’s family: Her sisters, her brother-in-law, and their kids (and two dogs!). They have a house on the beach on the south shore, and I drove down each of the last two Sundays and on Independence Day. I got to swim in the ocean, and we all had dinner together. I contributed some food, too, since I didn’t want to just mooch off of them. It was a lot of fun.

I’ve also had dinner with Dad a few times. And Saturday we drove for my annual pilgrimage to one of the larger comics shops in the area, Web Head Enterprises in Wakefield, where I found a bunch of stuff. There was a huge accident on the freeway on the way back, so we took the longer route through Waltham where we went to The Outer Limits, where I found some more stuff.

Thursday night I got together with my friend Bruce for dinner in the North End, and this week I hope to have dinner with my friend Charley as well. It beats sitting around the house (after I’m tired of cleaning).

What’s fallen by the wayside compared to an actual vacation has been reading: I read most of a book on the flight out (mostly waiting to board due to the 2-1/2 hour delay), but only about 60 pages since. Ah well!

And the Red Sox certainly haven’t been entertaining me, as they’re having a pretty weak year.

But watching them beats silence when the sun goes down and I’m all alone in the house. All-Star Game tomorrow!

Grill Fiend

Following my half-week of getting rid of stuff, we had a pretty busy weekend.

Yesterday we went up to San Francisco for a party/concert being thrown by Genentech, Debbi’s employer, for its employees. It was a benefit concert, part of a “giving back” program they’re doing this year. They rented out the ballpark (as they did for their Christmas party a couple of years ago), and had some surprise musical guests. We had a pretty good time (hey, free ballpark food!), but the music wasn’t really either of our tastes. Following an opening act by a former employee, the acts were Natasha Bedingfield (whom I’d never heard of, and who was an okay mix of pop, soul and hip-hop), The Fray (a straight-ahead alt-rock group who played one song I’d heard), and Counting Crows (the 90s alt-rock group whose early stuff I’d enjoyed, but they’re not among my favorites). As I’m more of a prog-rock guy, and Debbi’s a country gal, it wasn’t quite our thing. But it was a nice getaway day, and it’s the thought that counts, right?

Today we went for a bike ride through Shoreline park, having lunch at the Shoreline Cafe, and then ran some errands. And this evening I cooked dinner on the new grill I bought last week (a Weber Genesis E310). I assembled it over a couple of days late this past week, and this afternoon I hooked up the gas and ran through the tests in the manual to make sure there weren’t any leaks in any of the gas connections (I wonder how many people actually do this, or read the instructions at all, when they get a new grill?). I fired it up and it worked fine, so I grilled steak, asparagus, and red bell peppers for dinner, as well as some chicken for Debbi’s lunch salads this week. It went perfectly smoothly, and tested great, too! It should be a nice upgrade over my old Weber Q (which, to be fair, did a great job for me for seven years).

Now I need to figure out what to do with the one-and-a-half small propane canisters I have left over from my old grill.

Here are a couple of pictures of the new toy:

RIP Michael Jackson

When I was a young teenager, Michael Jackson was almost inescapable: His music was on every pop radio station, and he was one of the darlings of MTV. His album Thriller was a generational advent, especially when the video for the title track showed up (it’s still influential today).

So I couldn’t help but pay attention to Michael Jackson as a teen. Despite this, I never bought any of his albums or singles. They were nice enough, but mostly not my thing. (Though to be fair, I did enjoy his music casually, especially the “Thriller” video.)

To be fair, Jackson at his best was better than dance-pop music (especially the synth-pop of the early 80s, which was largely execrable and which, unlike Jackson’s music, sounds even sillier today than it did then). It had some depth and complexity to go along with the rhythm and melody, and I think that’s what over the long haul separated him from most of his contemporaries. Jackson was also a showman, but what he brought were not just slick dance moves and a pretty face (although he brought those, too), but a sense of grown-up style atop his fundamental energy and enthusiasm. Really, all of this is perfectly captured in the cover to his album before Thriller, Off The Wall. Even in his later years, I think it’d be fair to say that Jackson was basically a big kid in an adult body.

Why do so many pop stars become so eccentric? Okay, everyone’s eccentric in their own way (look at me, for instance. No, on second thought, stop looking at me), but something about the rise to the top or the fall from the top seems to make these people nuttier than normal. Arguably Madonna and George Harrison’s eccentricities are more the result of the media coverage that they received, but consider Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, who embraced their eccentricities and ultimately crafted their images around them, and then seemed to get stuck in a feedback loop of getting weirder as they’re farther removed from their peak.

(Aside: Elvis, The Beatles and Jacko are clearly the dominant pop stars of the 50s, 60s and 80s; who was the dominant star of the 70s? The Bee Gees? Somehow they don’t seem to be in the same class.)

Jackson’s later years became more spectacle than performance (his last album was released in 2001), but his death yesterday still reverberates (even though I’m still a little surprised at the number of passionate Jackson fans out there today). I can’t yet think of the music of my teen years as “golden oldies”, but Jackson’s passing is a big step towards making it so.

(Another reminiscence at Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Midgets.)

My iPod Knows Me

Appropriately enough, on my after-lunch walk my iPod decided to play “Time” by Hootie and the Blowfish.

Laser’s Edge Christmas Sale

Progressive rock retailer The Laser’s Edge is having a Christmas sale, running from now through the end of the day tomorrow, Christmas day. (The Laser’s Edge is in New Jersey, so that’s probably midnight EST.) If progressive rock is your thing, I recommend running right over and buying some stuff.

I don’t write about my progressive rock interests as much as I’d hoped, but if you’re interested in checking out some of my favorites, I think you can’t go wrong with any of the following:

I’ve bought dozens of CDs from them over the years and have always been happy with their selection, prices, service and friendliness.

Modern Prog on iTunes

Huh. The iTunes Music Store has some introductory playlists for modern progressive rock that you can buy and download.

It’s a little strange that the lists contain no Spock’s Beard (which the iTMS does have) or Flower Kings (which it doesn’t). It seems like it focuses mainly on progressive metal. They may just be at the mercy of what’s available on the store, but it might also be the result of biases of whoever composed the list. Although to be fair there are a number of band listed with whom I’m unfamiliar, so maybe I shouldn’t talk.