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Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The KunstlerCast

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Vital stats:
Format: interview-conversations about “the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl”
Episode duration: 12m-1h20m
Frequency: weekly

Suburbia sucks, and ever-rising energy prices will soon destroy it. There you have the collected ideas, in caricature, of self-styled public intellectual James Howard Kunstler. For twenty years, he’s worked the city-planning, architecture, transit and urbanism/New Urbanism beats, territory where self-styled public intellectuals have been known to tread. Perhaps you’ve read the work of activist-journalist Jane Jacobs, to whom Kunstler often gets compared. When her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities grew famous and influential, the caricature of her ideas developed as follows: modernist urban planning (i.e., freeways and function separation) sucks, and if you let it happen, it will soon destroy you. These caricatures fail to convey the depth and nuance of Jacobs and Kunstler’s writing, as caricatures do. Alas, it seems that public intellectuals, especially self-styled ones, pay the price of caricaturization to find purchase in the zeitgeist.

If you wish to know more about precisely why Kunstler thinks suburbia sucks, allow me to suggest The KunstlerCast [iTunes] [RSS]. Taking a more unusual form than it might at first seem, the podcast presents a weekly conversation — more formal than a two-sided gab session, but looser than an interview — between Kunstler and co-host Duncan Crary. Aside from the occasional field trip to real streets and malls and such, each episode has Crary asking Kunstler for his thoughts on a certain subject, be it a city he’s recently visited like, say, Portland [MP3]; the work of another urbanist like, say, Jane Jacobs [MP3]; or even the very definition terms as basic as “urban” [MP3]. This may sound a tad technical or academic, but Kunstler, neither an academic nor a technician, seems constitutionally unsuited to letting conversations go dry. The man comes armed with judgments, often swift and harsh, about which cities he finds livable, which cities he finds hellish, and which cities he feels certain that energy crises will simply sweep away.

Kunstler premises many of his opinions, if not all of them, on his observation that the end of cheap energy — the “peak oil” crowd has taken to him, and he’s reciprocated — means the end of the energy-burning lifestyles dominant in America since the Second World War. Your detached, single-family, lawn-surrounded McMansion? Your hour-long freeway commute? Your 11-miles-per-gallon SUV? (Or your hybrid SUV, for that matter?) Prepare to kiss ’em goodbye, warns Kunstler. He worries that the country has fallen into hopeless denial about all this, but I feel no particular anxiety. If you, like me, grew up in a remote bedroom community dreaming of the ability to go to a building that wasn’t a house, you probably have the maracas out and ready for your dance on suburbia’s grave. Suburban energy inefficiency didn’t really bother me, but crushing suburban tedium sure did. Like the rest of a wave of twentysomethings Kunstler at times acknowledges (and whose presence I notice more and more in Los Angeles), I’ve made a flight, perhaps permanent, to density, diversity, and carlessness.

Listening to The KunstlerCast therefore gives us urbanites the buzz of having our suspicions spoken back to us, although Kunstler and Crary can get themselves into such acerbic feedback loops about suburbia that the show starts feeling like an echo chamber. As these guys beat up on the defenseless ’burbs, I sometimes want to cry out like the kid who watched Homer Simpson beat up the Krustyburglar: “Stop, stop, he’s already dead!” Much more interesting conversations happen when Crary gets Kunstler going on the hows, whys, and whats of suburban development: how did so much of the United States wind up so sterile, same-y, and inconvenient? Why did we let it happen? What physically makes these cities so undesirable? Kunstler does his best, in other words, when generating less heat and more light. I’ve thus found Kunstler’s descriptions and analyses of various cities, heighten them though he may, the most fascinating of all. (Though I admit to wincing when he exaggerates about places I know, as when he flatly speculates that it must cost Angelenos “a thousand dollars a week” just to park their cars [MP3].)

Unfortunately, people seem to like to pay Kunstler, as they like to pay most public intellectuals, to talk about the future. Forced into prognostication, a mug’s game if ever there was one, even the best tend to fall back onto an uneasy mixture of untestable provocation and squirrely hedging. Kunstler doesn’t wallow in that, but I get the sense that his proclamations on the coming age, some of which border (if only psychologically) on the apocalyptic, serve more as potential memes than tools of enlightenment. Murmurs of “James Howard Kunstler says peak oil will turn women back into homemakers” or “James Howard Kunstler says we’ll travel only on rivers by 2030” may not accurately represent either the future or Kunstler’s idea of the future, but I suppose they get him attention. And attention, I note with a sigh, seems to be the name of the public intellectual’s game.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

Judge John Hodgman Episode 59: Spare the Hodg, Spoil the Child

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Gail brings this case against her sister Aimee. Gail believes she and her nephew Ray are similarly sensitive kindred spirits. As a loving aunt, she thinks she should be able to comfort Ray when he's upset, even over rule-breaking, and help him handle his feelings. Her sister Aimee believes Gail is unnecessarily coddling Ray and encouraging him to become an overly emotional child. Who is right? Only Judge John Hodgman can decide!

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Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: Benedict Cumberbatch, Morgan Webb, Craig Finn and Jason Kottke

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Show: 
Bullseye
Guests: 
Benedict Cumberbatch
Guests: 
Morgan Webb
Guests: 
Craig Finn
Guests: 
Jason Kottke

Culture Recommendations with Jason Kottke

This week's pop culture picks come care of Jason Kottke, of Kottke.org. Jason tracks down the best the internet has to offer, but this week he's all about documentaries. First up, it's a pair of short documentaries about Allan Benton and his ham. Allan is the owner of Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams, and we travel inside both his office and curing house in the films.

Next, it's the feature-length documentary Senna, profiling the thrilling and ultimately tragic tale of Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna. Senna is not just for Formula One fans -- it's a gripping profile, and the racing footage is thrilling no matter who you are. It's currently available on Netflix Instant.

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Sherlock Actor Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch is a British actor currently bringing Sherlock Holmes to life in PBS's Masterpiece series Sherlock, alongside Martin Freeman of The Office as John Watson. While Cumberbatch and Freeman are the latest in a long line of actors to play these characters, there is something fresh about their adaptation: Sherlock takes place in the present day, updating the classic detective to our modern era. In the past year, Cumberbatch has memorably stolen scenes in period dramas like War Horse and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Benedict tells us about bringing a new take to an iconic character, and what keeps Holmes relevant to both writers and audiences all these years later. He also opens up about how a life-threatening altercation while filming in South Africa in 2004 left him changed as a person. The Series Two finale of Sherlock airs this Sunday, May 20th, on PBS's Masterpiece. Series Two will be available on DVD just two days later, on Tuesday the 22nd.

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Craig Finn on The Song That Changed My Life

Craig Finn is the lead singer and guitarist for the Brooklyn rock outfit The Hold Steady. Earlier this year, Finn released his debut solo album Clear Heart Full Eyes. This week he tells us about the song that changed his life: The Replacements' "I Will Dare", off their 1984 album Let It Be.

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Video Game Journalist Morgan Webb

Morgan Webb is a video game journalist and the co-host of X-Play on the G4 TV network. Webb fell into work in front of the camera entirely by accident via a research position on Tech TV's The Screen Savers, and it wasn't long before she wound up in front of the camera. Tech TV would eventually merge with G4, and X-Play is now the longest-running program on the network.

Morgan talks about what it means to be a gamer, what she loves about the gaming experience, and her struggle for journalistic legitimacy.

Thanks to Dave Ciaccio for editing this segment.

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The Outshot: “People Get Ready” by Curtis Mayfield

For The Outshot this week, Jesse basks in the warm, loving glow of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready", and explains exactly why the singer's smiling face hangs on the wall above his son's crib.

If you've got a song that lifts you up like this one does, share the warmth on the MaxFun forum by picking your own Outshot.

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Stop Podcasting Yourself 217 - Nicole Passmore

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Guests: 
Nicole Passmore

Improviser Nicole Passmore returns to talk West Edmonton Mall, Gene Simmons' kids, and marathons.

Download episode 217 here. (right-click)

Brought to you by: (click here to see the whole recap)

Throwing Shade #29 - Obama Hearts Gays, Field Guide to Chicks, AgainstMe!, Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson

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Despite the fact that NOTHING happened last week, Bryan and Erin talk about Obama's commitment to gay rights, the best book in the world - "Field Guide to Chicks of the United States", Tom Gabel of AgainstMe!, and Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson and his one man war against women. Cowabunga, dude. 
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Jordan, Jesse, Go! Episode 223: Chop for Chop with Colt Cabana

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Guests: 
Colt Cabana

Pro wrestler Colt Cabana of the Art of Wrestling podcast joins us to talk about wrestling in Japan, at the Gathering of the Juggalos, and about the porn studio upstairs from our new digs.

My Brother, My Brother and Me 104: I Hate You, Ron

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It was a pretty momentous week, wasn't it? We know you're expecting to hear our erudite evaluation of recent events, but we can't do that for you, because we're not erudite, nor are we "news people."

Suggested talking points: Independence Gay, Expiration Date, Raccoon Chocolate Heist, Gosling Party, Kara-okay, D for Nachos, Prom Noise, Tumblr Dog

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Big Ideas

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Vital stats:
Format: elucidation of oft-name-checked but thinly understood ideas
Episode duration: 9-20m
Frequency: monthly, almost

My brain has filed Benjamen Walker, host and producer of WFMU’s Too Much Information, as one of our time’s major public radio martyrs. Yes, the man seems alive and well, but public radio martyrdom doesn’t require literal death. He can go on breathing, eating, sleeping, and working, making intricate audio pieces for which people express great admiration on the internet; he simply must symbolize the bizarre thanklessness of crafting fine sonic media. When Bill McKibben wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books on just this phenomenon a couple years back, he quoted Walker directly:
[Too Much Information is] good enough that 240,000 people have downloaded some of the twenty episodes he’s made so far. That’s a lot of people, but it’s zero money, since podcasts, like most websites, are by custom given away for free. Walker’s previous show, a similar effort called Theory of Everything, was widely promoted on the Public Radio Exchange, and six public radio stations across the country actually paid for and ran it. “I think I made $80,” he says. “If I thought about it too hard, I would just quit. It’s much better not to think about it.”
This brings to mind Memory Palace creator Nate DiMeo’s alternately encouraging and debilitatingly discouraging article on public radio production. Walker commented with a j’accuse against stations willing to pay for digital consultants, brand consultants, and “content executives” instead of, uh, content. A bold declaration, you might think, although I personally would have tossed in an indictment of stations’ badly limiting and increasingly shameless tendency to pander to, and only to, listeners’ fear of having their ignorance exposed at the office water cooler. No surprise, then — or not so much of a surprise, anyway — that Walker’s latest high-profile project comes not in collaboration with a traditional public radio outfit, but with the British newspaper the Guardian. Together they bring you The Big Ideas [RSS] [iTunes], a podcast on just those.

Though new, the show has already attracted an engaged following. Just look at the robust commenting going on below its posts at the Guardian’s site, especially those about Nietzsche’s declaration that “god is dead” and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” By “big ideas,” The Big Ideas clearly means the ideas you hear referenced every day, but of which — let’s face it — you’ve probably never sought a full understanding. Conventional media wisdom surely endorses not only this podcast’s method of using what many people feel kinda-sorta familiar with as a “hook,” but also its episode length short enough for any attention span. You’ve heard how Marshall McLuhan said that “the medium is the message” and don’t quite grasp what he meant, right? Well, you got ten and a half minutes? [MP3]

The program’s iTunes page reveals a certain listenership overlap with the BBC’s In Our Time (reviewed by my esteemed predecessor Ian Brill), another venture dedicated to the elucidation of semi-known concepts. Think of The Big Ideas as In Our Time Walker-ized: still made up of conversations with scholars of the day’s subject, but artfully cut together and compressed with music, historic sounds, and a unifying sense of humor rather different than any you’d hear on Radio 4. The show’s constructive critics tend to complain about the fact that no episode, even the ones on especially complicated or relatively obscure ideas, runs longer than about twenty minutes. They’re not wrong to do so, since Walker’s skills have shone brightest in his long-form productions, but I do admit that, in my ideal radio world, all shows would resemble the most recent installment of Too Much Information: 57 minutes with the guy who draws Zippy the Pinhead. Alas, I suspect that sort of thing meets limited immediate acceptance in our bite-oriented, post-99% Invisible soundscape.

Still, I enjoy 99% Invisible as I enjoy Too Much Information as I enjoy In Our Time as I enjoy The Big Ideas — let a thousand flowers bloom. DiMeo actually cites 99% Invisible as the rare bright, shining star in the chilly emptiness of podcast-to-radio professionalization. McKibben named Ira Glass as a similarly respected (and thus imitated) force for creativity in the radio-to-podcast direction. Long ago, I heard that Glass once toiled and toiled for only $60,000 a year and furrowed my brow at the injustice of it all. Now the forbidden thought of ever making that much — or half that much — triggers my wildest, most opulent fantasies. With The Big Ideas, Benjamen Walker offers us a hybrid of In Our Time and 99% Invisible while playing the Glassian combined role of guide, audience surrogate, interviewer, and auteur. I hope he’s well-compensated these days. If not, I hope he’s read McKibben describe radio in England and Australia — “new programs appear regularly,” “how literate and engaged the programming” — and considered setting sail for greener, more appreciative broadcasting pastures.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

International Waters Episode 3: Exploding Draculas

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Margaret and Humphrey in London
Guests: 
Andy Daly
Guests: 
Erin Gibson
Guests: 
Humphrey Ker
Guests: 
Margaret Cabourn-Smith
Guests: 
John Crace
Guests: 
Kurt Andersen

Andy Daly, Erin Gibson, Humphrey Ker and Margaret Cabourn-Smith compete for their nations’ honour in the pop-culture quiz show where land laws do not apply. With special guests Kurt “Explodo” Andersen and the Guardian’s John Crace. Hosted by Jesse Thorn, written by Jordan Morris and produced by Colin Anderson.

If you think you've got what it takes to write a round of International Waters then drop us a line: iw@maximumfun.org and don't be shy, why not like us on Facebook too!

Reminder: MaxFun Meet-Up @ This American Life is THIS THURSDAY!

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Just a friendly reminder that this Thursday, May 10th is not only the night Ira Glass brings This American Life to the stage (and movie theaters across the country), but it's also the night of our massive, nation-wide MaxFun Meet-Up to celebrate!

LA area MaxFunsters are encouraged to join us Buffalo Wild Wings Burbank after the show (which we'll be taking in at the AMC Burbank 16) for a night full of new friends and maximum fun! Jesse Thorn, Jordan Morris, Erin Gibson, Bryan Safi and all of us behind-the-scenesters will be there. Will you?

And fear not out-of-towners, as Burbank is hardly the only place to get in on the action. MaxFun listeners all across the country and organizing their own meet-ups: New York, Portland, Iowa City and Indianapolis are all onboard, with the potential for countless more meet-ups. If you live in a major American metropolis (or even a small one!), chances are there's a MaxFunster in your area dying to see this show and chow on some chicken wings afterward. Organize yourselves by heading over to the MaximumFun Forums.

Have fun everyone! We can't wait to see you.

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