My 2014 Podcasts

Earlier today I tweeted about the podcasts I’d added — and removed — for 2014. A few people asked me about what else I listened to, so here’s a list. I might also write another post about why you should listen to podcasts and how to get set up.

New Additions

The Memory Palace (7 min): The first episode of Nate DiMeo’s The Memory Palace I listened to was Six Stories, about Otis’ development of the elevator. Lest you think this would somehow be an informative yet dry treatment, let me assure you that it was a beautifully told story about the sheer danger and romance of those early elevators. Six Stories was rebroadcast by 99% Invisible (see below) and convinced me to investigate The Memory Palace further.

I don’t take subscribing to new podcasts lightly — we don’t have unlimited time, after all — so I test them out for a while. The next episode I heard, Shadowboxing, ensured that The Memory Palace immediately exited probation. Shadowboxing was even better than Six Stories, about the life of John L. Sullivan, a champion boxer. There are a lot of conventional ways in which you could tell the story about such a person, but this one was different and its path was satisfyingly unguessable. “Now I get why Nate only podcasts once a month,” I thought. If anything it reminds me of what 99% Invisible was like before Roman Mars (IMHO) mistakenly heeded some listeners’ requests to lengthen the show.

The Memory Palace doesn’t appear to have any ads, which simultaneously pleases and worries me. I should totally go and donate to him right now, and maybe hire him to do an audio tour of some museum I like.

Snap Judgment (50 min): Take 16 minutes and just listen to Where No One Should Go. It has the quality of the very best radio, a personal story that unfolds deliberately and then ratchets the pressure higher and higher and higher. Just don’t listen to it before bedtime.

From NPR and PRX. I cheated a bit on this one because I haven’t listened to many episodes so I’m not fully sure I’ll stay subscribed, but the linked clip was so good that I’m happy to give it a shot.

Harmontown (2 hours): Heard of Community? This podcast is by its showrunner, Dan Harmon, and it’s actually a live recording of a weekly ‘town hall’ stand-up session he does in LA with his friends. About 50-75% of the episodes are absolute gold, full of ridiculous free-wheeling one-up joking, and enhanced by a never-ending cavalcade of guest comics and writers (last week was Mitch Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development). Apparently Robin Williams was on a couple of episodes, so I’m saving those for a rainy day. There’s also usually a live D&D session at the end as well.

The remaining 25-50% of episodes can be pretty dire; this week saw them talking about gender relations. It was very earnest and well-intentioned, I’ll give them that, but I’m kind of glad I don’t have to listen to undergrad bull sessions any more. If it sounds like an episode is about to turn into this, just skip it – there’ll be another good one along next week! Continue reading “My 2014 Podcasts”

Schubert and the Trout Quintet

Schubert, I feel, would have no sympathy for procrastinators. Before he died at the age of 31 – the age at which Beethoven wrote his first symphony – he wrote over 1000 pieces. More than 600 of those were ‘just’ songs, but they also included major works such as operas and symphonies. A friend of his said he was capable of writing seven songs in a day, with one of those seven being a masterpiece.

The most impressive fact from the Radio 3 programme I learned all of this from (which will sadly be no longer available very soon) was that the presenter, Steven Johnson, calculated the time it took Schubert to write his final three piano sonatas is equal to the time it would take for him to copy them; and these were some of the greatest works in piano music.

The reason I came across this programme was an article in the New York Times suggesting that listening to classical music requires both an ability to appreciate, and equally the patience to sit through, long pieces. I used to play the piano and violin to a reasonable standard (for an amateur), an achievement I would ascribe more to hard work and parental cajoling than any innate talent, and so I would consider myself somewhere in the middle of ladder when it comes to appreciating classical music. Put it this way – I don’t listen to Classic FM, but I don’t listen to Radio 3 either.

I tend to enjoy more melodic or dramatic pieces, a preference that causes my jazz-loving friend Alex much amusement when I ask him for jazz songs that ‘have more of a tune’ to them. This explains why I prefer Schubert’s wonderfully melodic Trout Quintet to his more complex Unfinished Symphony (which I also enjoy a lot). Feeling a little defensive about my apparently unadventurous tastes, I did a search for the Trout Quintet to find some commentary on it, and discovered that Radio 3 had aired a programme dedicated to it less than a week ago.

Schubert wrote the Trout Quintet at the depressingly young age of 22, as a commission from Sylvester Paumgartner, a wealthy music patron and mining engineer; Paumgartner suggested that he incorporate the melody from one of his extremely popular songs at the time, Die Forelle (The Trout), hence its name. If you like the Trout Quintet, it’s well worth listening to Die Forelle, which is quite a catchy tune.

Listen to a stream the fourth movement of the Trout Quintet (probably the most popular, and unsurprisingly my favourite as well).

After Our Time

After listening to an edition of In Our Time about the Jacobite Rebellion, I found myself writing yet another post on this weblog inspired by that wonderful Radio 4 programme. As I was finishing it, I thought that with all the posts I was making relating to In Our Time, I should really make a new category for it. Or better yet, a new weblog…

A couple of weeks later, and I’ve set up a weblog – plus a forum and wiki – dedicated to In Our Time. Following much deliberation, I decided to name it After Our Time (thanks Naomi!) and I’ve already stocked it up with a few posts. I won’t spend too much time describing it here, since you can find that information on After Our Time’s first welcome post, but I have high hopes for it. In Our Time is a very unique programme with, I hope, very interesting listeners. I’m looking forward to meeting them on the website, even if – like all online communities – it does take time to grow. If you don’t want to keep checking After Our Time or subscribe to its RSS feed, you can always glance over to the sidebar on this site, where you’ll find links to the latest After Our Time posts.

The main impact on will be that I write a little less here; or more precisely, all of the posts that I would have written about In Our Time will go on the other weblog. So there’s really no loss, providing that you liked those posts in the first place – and if you didn’t, it’s actually a gain!

And if you wanted to read my post about the Jacobite Rebellion, and Scottish Bioweapons, here it is…

On the other side of silence

A little while ago I manage to acquire the last four years worth of In Our Time, a Radio 4 panel discussion that covers every subject under the sun in a very engaging and thoughtful manner. I’ve been working my way through the archives, usually alternating between topics that sound interesting (e.g. Agincourt, Tea) and those that don’t (e.g. Rutherford, Architecture and Power). I do this out of some bizarre autodidactic desire to learn about stuff that I really don’t care about but probably should know the basics on.

Today I had one of those ‘uninteresting’ topics that I felt I should listen to: Victorian Realism. I have to say, topics don’t sound much more uninteresting than that. But here’s the predictable twist – I really enjoyed it. This was partly because the panelists were all interesting and disagreed with one another (which, depressingly, happens far more often on humanities than scientific topics), but mostly because of George Eliot, whom I have never read before.

A. N. Wilson made the interesting point that George Eliot’s ‘realistic’ novels are “every bit as artificial as the novels of Dickens, or for that matter, every bit as artificial as Alice in Wonderland. This is the paradox of talking about realistic fiction, which is by definition, fiction isn’t real.” Prof. Philip Davis then carried this forward with a very powerful passage:

But this artifice is used as a means of trying to penetrate deeper into reality than we normally manage to do, and that’s why the realist novel is a great help to us in doing our thinking. Let’s think about the voice of George Eliot in Middlemarch. She says this:

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

All ordinary human life – we can’t fully hear it. We can’t fully see it. We’re in it, but we can’t get hold of it. We need the novel to increase our realisation of our situation, and when George Eliot says, if we could fully understand all human life, not only would it be boring, but it would blow our minds. We’d die of that roar that lies on the other side of silence. By that I take it she means, if you as you look at your neighbour and could actually hear all the stuff going on inside him or her, it would be incredible.

Despite the fact that I was in the middle of a long row at the gym, it struck me as a very profound insight into human life. I don’t hear them very often at all.

Being forced to read semi-realist novels at school banished any possibility of my exploring the genre of my own will, but I may have to now. I also didn’t know that George Eliot was a fan of Darwin, and that Middlemarch was influenced by it, but that’s another story.


It turns out that I’ve been using the term ‘epistolatory’ when what I really mean is ‘epistolary’. Think of all the precious seconds I’ve lost, typing out those two extra words. Think of those lost Google hits.

Epistolary literature refers to fiction where the story is told in the form of letters written by the protagonists; often the stories are passed off as being real, e.g. ‘I discovered this set of letters in a trunk given to me by my uncle…’ Given this reality-bending shtick, you can imagine that epistolary fiction is of interest to me.

How much interest? I’ve written about epistolary fiction before, at least tangentially, but I’ll admit that I didn’t really understand them very well. So when my favourite radio show, In Our Time, discussed the topic of Epistolary Literature a couple of months ago, I was quite excited. And then I left it there for weeks, unlistened.

This was partly because I was busy, but the real reason was that I was worried about what I might learn. Was epistolary fiction left to drift in a sea of colourful but niche books, abandoned after readers tired of all its silly tricks and contrivances? Or perhaps worse, would it have sailed on, transforming seamlessly into modern fiction – completely anticipating everything that will happen with ARGs? I didn’t think I wanted to know. Might the academics on the show know far more about my own job than I did? It was an unsettling thought.
In Our Time discussions are generally quite good, but lately they’ve been mixed. There have been a lot of inexperienced speakers and a lot of tedious arguments and misunderstandings. I’m always amazed and slightly in awe of the fact that despite these sometimes very serious problems, the producers never seem inclined to re-record the show, let alone edit it. Anyway, on the coach back from Oxford to London, I finally listened to the epistolary literature discussion.

It was wonderful. Not in sense of merely being good, or even great, but of inspiring wonder. The participants were all genuinely fascinated by epistolary literature and they managed exactly how revolutionary it was when it first emerged. Yes, epistolary fiction went over the same ground that ARGs are going over right now, and yes, epistolary fiction is nowhere near the powerhouse it used to be, but that’s because it got better. Who knew that Jane Austen was the person who really ushered in the changes? And seeing how it got better has given me ideas about how ARGs will improve as well. So I fully intend to follow up with the participants and find out more. I might even get around to reading Clarissa, all 1536 pages of it.

And I doubt I’ll ever misspell epistolary fiction again.

Shamisen Serendipity

I don’t listen to the radio any more, and I don’t listen to music TV either. This makes me dependent on other forms of media (movies, TV shows, YouTube) and other guides (blogs, friends) to help me find my music. What I’ve discovered is that I’m encountering much more eclectic music this way, and interestingly, a lot of it isn’t very recent. In fact, a few of my favourite bands had already broken up by the time I started listening to their music (alas for The Delgados…).

My latest discovery has been the Yoshida Brothers. If you’ve seen the Nintendo Wii commercial, then you’ll have heard them. The music uses the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument that is plucked rather fast. I can’t imagine how I would possibly have heard their music on the radio or on TV, and even if I did, it would’ve been difficult to discover who they were. With the internet, and in this case, YouTube, I was able to listen to it and find a note written by another viewer who knew the artist.

I’m quite curious as to how other people discover new music. We have Pandora – an internet radio station which can be customised for various styles of music – at work, and I heard a few new artists that way, but after a while it became rather boring. If you turn on the ‘Zero 7’ station, unsurprisingly, you just end up hearing songs that remind you of Zero 7, but often not quite as inspired or good.

Whenever I’m at Oxford, it’s always interesting to have a look around the music being shared over iTunes and browsing people’s libraries – if I find someone with similar tastes, I check out their other highly rated songs for ones I haven’t heard of. Of course, this only works if people actually rate their songs (a startling high number do not). A new iTunes plugin called iLike seems as if it might do the trick in terms of looking for patterns between your favourite songs and other people’s and then suggesting new artists, but I’m not sure if I’ll get around to installing it quite yet. I’m slightly surprised Apple hasn’t built in the functionality themselves, but who knows what they’re planning…

Notes on the BBC Audio Drama Festival

On Tuesday, after about five hours of sleep following the Second Life ARG panel, I found myself at the BBC Audio Drama Festival in London. As usual, I was due to give a talk about ARGs. I did think it was a little strange that I was invited to speak, because while we do have audio drama in Perplex City, it’s not our focus, but what the hell – it seemed interesting, and I thought I might learn something.

And I did. I won’t go over my talk because it was the usual introductory stuff (although I might write up something about the audio components one of these days), but I’ll provide a few notes on the other speakers. Continue reading “Notes on the BBC Audio Drama Festival”

Middle England SF

Radio 4 on SF – the Open Book series on BBC Radio 4 recently aired (12th October) a very good programme introducing people to science fiction. You can listen to the programme at the link above, which features authors such as Pat Cadigan, Stephen Baxter and Iain Banks. I was pleasantly surprised to hear a reading taken from Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Small Things

A few days ago, I received a package from Japan that I presumed contained the tape recording of the radio interview I did a couple of weeks back. I wasn’t in any particular hurry to check its contents because I don’t have a cassette player to listen to the tape, and even if I did, I still wouldn’t listen to it (I happen to think that I turn into a deranged, blithering idiot whenever a microphone is pointed in front of me).

Anyway, during a tidying session this evening I decided there was no harm in opening the package, since I could then consign the tape to a dark drawer well out of the way. As I unwrapped it, I noticed that it was far too large for just a tape; there was another carefully wrapped box inside. This was an unexpected development, and I was very interested to find out what was inside.

It turned out to be a minature folding screen of Japanese artwork; I don’t think it cost a huge amount but I was inordinately pleased about the whole thing, that someone had bothered sending this little present along with the tape. I never get anything from the other interviews I do, apart from the tape (if that), so for the last half an hour I’ve been going around with a smile on my face. These random acts of kindness always make life more interesting.


In ten minutes, I’m going to be interviewed on a national Japanese radio station about First Words. It’s been a while since I was last interviewed on the radio (BBC World Service) and that time wasn’t live – this time I’ll be live on air, plus it won’t be from an English speaking country. I predict fun and foibles galore.

I’m a bit wary of live interviews – it’s too easy to completely lose it, start talking gibberish and making stuff up; you’d better hope you’re talking to a sympathetic DJ, or else you’re in for a humiliation. I’ve done my homework though – I have several web browsers open with all the information I might need and I have large quantities of water standing by. Hopefully it’ll all go well.