Podthoughts

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "No Agenda"

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The best descriptor for this podcast is unlikely. It's a show where two white guys bullshit about the culture, yet it's not exactly an according-to-Hoyle TTWGBAC. The hosts reside neither in their twenties or thirties but in their forties and fifties, and if we're talking about literal residences, they broadcast not from Mom's basement but from their palatial manors in London, San Francisco and Port Angeles. One host happens to be podcasting entrepeneur and former VJ Adam Curry; the other happens to be tech pundit John C. Dvorak. And they do it live. Twice a week.

The result is a program that on some level resembles a thousand other podcasts out there, but on others isn't like anything else at all. Two-dudes-chatting, a format as basic as they come, is how No Agenda [iTunes link] [stream] started out, but over time and with the aid of Curry's persistent internet gearheadedness it has evolved into a streaming, intercontinental, parodic, paranoid extravaganza. Whether this will be any given listener's thing seems a roll of the dice, but Curry and Dvorak's conversation darts in so many direction that it's almost difficult not to find something compelling in it.

It also helps that, as the first paragraph may have hinted, these aren't your garden-variety podcasters. While — let's admit it — most podcasters are eccentrics, a refreshingly different set of eccentricities afflict Curry and Dvorak. When not tinkering with internet stuff or piloting around the world with his 60-year-old Dutch pop star wife and teenage daughter in tow, Curry, nicknamed "Crackpot", weaves elaborate conspiracy theories out of information triangulated from, say, a sketchy Russian newspaper, three seconds of CCTV footage and a panicked call-in on Muskogee AM talk radio. (The "New World Order" is his pet theme.) Dvorak, nicknamed "The Buzzkill", alternately looks askance at (some of) Curry's wilder conjectures about the global power structure and grumbles about such ultra-curmudgeonly topics as how kids don't have paper routes these days. (For a figure so central to the last couple decades of technology culture, he also seems to have odd technological habits: refusing to use headphones while recording, for instance.)

An accurate encapsulation of No Agenda's topical range proves elusive; suffice it to say that the show's recent overarching preoccupation appears to be, broadly speaking, surveillance and information security. Still, Curry and Dvorak have time for more general global geopolitical topics as well as personal-scale stuff, like whether one should order Cliff Richard's wine while vacationing in Portugal. Perhaps the least resistible element of the program — for your Podthinker, anyway — is its satire of that quintessential fish in a barrel, commercial radio. The show is streamed during recording before it's podcasted, and Curry uses this close-enough resemblance to terrestrial broadcasting to poke a good deal of fun at it. One segment of the intro, for example, introduces "Crackpot and The Buzzkill in the Morning", and Curry lets fly with the series of sound clips he's rigged up whenever he or Dvorak says something particularly morning zoo-y. (This is much funnier than it sounds.)

With this barely-describable yet surprisingly entertaining mixture of qualities, No Agenda has gathered a sizeable and, more important, impressively devoted following. Your Podthinker admits that he's come to enjoy it much more than he ever expected to, though not quite enough to code expressly No Agenda-themed web apps like some of the true devotees have. That requires a lot more concern about the World Order, New or otherwise.

Vital stats:

Format: streaming, intercontinental, parodic, paranoid TFWGBAC
Running since: October 2007
Duration: 1h20m-1h45m
Frequency: twice a week, Sunday and Thursday
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Podthinker Colin Marshall is kind of interested in IP law, though. Discuss it with him at colinjmarshall at gmail, discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Adam Carolla Podcast"

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Radio drama first sparked your Podthinker's interest in audio entertainment, but it was the mighty bellows that is Adam Carolla who, throughout your Podthinker's middle and high school years, grew it into a raging, all-consuming blaze. This was back when, along with all of media's Dr. Drew Pinsky, he put in two hours a weeknight forcefully, cogently making points about sex, drugs and traffic laws on Loveline. What a tragedy it was when he left the program in 2005 to helm KLSX's morning show. The loss, however, looks on track to be more than compensated; ex-Loveline fans are getting their reparations, and then some, in the form of Carolla's new podcast [iTunes link].

Cue the departure of a significant chunk of this column's readership — at least, the ones who didn't bolt upon reading the subject line. Thanks, no doubt, to projects of dubious reputation like The Man Show and Crank Yankers — not to mention occupying the time slot vacated by Howard Stern — Carolla seems to have gained popular perception as a misogynistic, illiterate vulgarian. While he readily admits to enjoying himself a good fart and never having properly learned to read — L.A. Unified School District, you see — he's certainly nowhere near the misogyny league of even, say, an Andrew Dice Clay. What vulgarity he enjoys somehow isn't the pointless, wheel-spinning vulgarity of the morning zoo frontman, and any persistent difficulty with the printed word hasn't harmed his overall perspicacity and formidable command of the spoken word. The Adam Carolla podcast strips away the all commercials, market research and program director-imposed detritus that's clouded the man's genuine self for so long, revealing him to be what dedicated Loveline listeners always knew and insisted he was.

Almost immediately after KLSX, citing the toughness of things all over, converted to a cheaper format and thus 86ed all its talk show hosts, Carolla got his technologically savvy buddies Mike Cioffi and Donny "The Weez" (an oft-dropped name from the Loveline days) together and began podcasting. After a brilliant opening rant about the state of the radio, he brought on guests to chat with: Dr. Drew, his co-hosts from KLSX [MP3], that sort of thing. Soon, the podcast was frequented by a surprisingly wide range of Carolla's friends and acquantances, like David Alan Grier [MP3], Star Trek's George Takei [MP3] and a tipsy Seth MacFarlane [MP3].

The format is blessedly spare: Carolla and his guest talk. That's it. (Sometimes The Weez interjects.) The podcast provides pure, unadulterated conversation, uninterrupted by spot blocks, resets and time checks. While Carolla still has plenty to say, and say hilariously, about old standby subjects like the grotesque mores of the entertainment business and the utter mental desolation of childhood, adolescence and adulthood in the San Fernando Valley, the most pleasing part of the package is that, unencumbered by the need to periodically do bits or allay the sexual distresses of 15-year-old snowboarders from Mission Viejo, he turns out to be an excellent interlocutor.

As someone who's devoted a large band of his life to studying and perfecting the art of broadcast conversation, your Podthinker would submit that Carolla is as skilled at — perhaps more skilled at — connecting with his guests as a real human being than the most respected interviewers working today. It's on the strength of this wit and humanness that the podcast, barely two months old, has risen to the top tier of your Podthinker's listening priorities. First thing each weekday morning, it's a shot of Carolla, straight up. Welcome back, Ace Man, to the land of the living.

Vital stats:
Format: news variety
Running since: February 2009
Duration: ~1h
Frequency: weekdaily
Archive available on iTunes: all but first two

[Podthinker Colin Marshall has been certified as one of the nation's top five Germany or Florida players. Challenge him at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Economist"

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The Economist
has long been your Podthinker's news source of choice, not just because it's actually well-written, nor because its covers are often hilarious, nor because of its dedication to internationalism, though any one of those qualities would constitute more than enough to recommend it. No, what's particularly, especially, near-uniquely choice about it is its sheer variety. Between no other pair of glossy covers does one discover nearly as much different stuff as is to be found between The Economists'. Perhaps not everything inside will be grippingly fascinating to everyone, sure, but it's well-nigh guaranteed that something will be. Top that, Readers' Digest.

It's a pleasure to report that The Economist's podcast [iTunes link] upholds the very same ethos of subject diversification. That's not so say that the show is dissolutely all over the place, anchored as it is by a few recurring segments. The most common and straightforward of these is "From the Paper", a selection of articles from the week's audio edition: leaders, financial stories, book reviews, the paper's world-famous obituaries, that sort of thing. Other episodes offer more focused content, such as interviews with the likes of U.K. shadow schools secretary Michael Gove [] and geek-stuff publisher Tim O'Reilly [], fireside chats (now on hiatus) between editors Christopher Lockwood and Adrian Woolridge and reports from The Economist's many, many correspondents on such handy topics as how to get around and do business in Thailand. (Turns out you shouldn't bow. Just shake hands.)

As a longtime Economist reader, your Podthinker can't help but be delighted at hearing the paper's distinctive, plummy house style read out loud, especially by actual Englishmen (and sometimes Englishwomen). Non-Economist-readers' mileage may vary, but the information provided is still pretty darn solid. It helps if you care as much about the United States' financial bailout plans as El Salvador's presidential election as the G20 summit as what Togo's finance minister happens to think about cloud computing. If you don't, you'll still find one out of four or five episodes fascinating; if you do, welcome to paradise.

For a publication so slick, proper and professional, though, its podcast can be surprisingly rough-edged. There aren't many major problems, but the devil, as always, is in the details: choppy editing, sometimes iffy sound quality, hiss from the voice that's coming in over Skype. (C'mon, even GarageBand can attenuate that!) But, for fellow Economist addicts out there, this sort of thing can be overlooked with time. The fact of the matter is that this podcast taps the same source of information as does the newspaper, magazine, newsmagazine — whatever you want to call it — without which we can barely endure seven measly days in a row unless we're prepared to suffer irritability, violent tremors and — probably — a spastic colon. Perhaps we should simply be grateful that they don't charge for it. After all, where else can one learn if and when Indonesia is at a crossroads?

Vital stats:
Format: news variety
Duration: 5m-30m
Frequency: not quite daily
Archive available on iTunes: last 20

[Podthinker Colin Marshall knows how best to store his current issue of The Economist: in his back pocket, vertically folded once. If you know a better way, tell him at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "All Avant-Garde All the Time"

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On the hunt for experimental video and public-access television archived online, your Podthinker posted an Ask MetaFilter queston on the subject in order to mine the knowledge of hepper net-dwellers. The most valuable return was a recommendation of UbuWeb, a behemoth repository of avant-garde content in video, sound, text and image form. Joy at this discovery of untold cultural wealth was matched only by confusion at navigating it. The site isn't poorly designed — far from it, in fact — but the question of where to start looms large.

An effective solution, at least where the sound archives are concerned, is All Avant-Garde All the Time [iTunes link], UbuWeb's limited-edition podcast that surveys and unearths treasures from its vast storehouse. It's hosted by Kenneth Goldsmith, a man of indisputable avant-garde credentials: he's not only a poet and programmer on the great WFMU, he's also UbuWeb's publisher and sound editor and the curator of the Popular Guide to Unpopular Music. It's fair to say he knows his stuff, unconventional-media-wise, and it's not as if most of us have a better tour guide standing around, waiting for to be asked for a jaunt through an enormous, forbidding artistic labyrinth.

On each episode, Goldsmith introduces and provides a bit of background on the day's theme, whether it's recordings from the legendary "three-dimensional" Aspen magazine [MP3], selections from the equally whispered-about Tellus cassettes [MP3] or just a grab bag. The content itself consists of a spray of short clips linked to the theme, and "short" is most definitely not an accidental descriptor; often, mere seconds go by before Goldsmith springs in and starts chatting about whatever it was we've sort of just heard a scrap of. Fortunately, everything played is available on UbuWeb for merely the price of the calories required to make a few mouse clicks, so the podcast's listening experience is much enhanced by having UbuWeb open and at the ready in case the desire to hear something in full arises.

And that desire will arise. As with any avant-garde art collection, All Avant-Garde All the Time presents, in roughly equal measure, the intriguing, the mystifying and the unbelievably strident. That's the nature of the experimental, after all; some of it's going to work and some of it won't, but when it doesn't work, it does it impressively, almost viciously refusing to work. The appropriate idea to whip out here is that of emergence, of seemingly unrelated elements working independently and yet together to produce something nobody would have expected. Often, in the works the podcast highlights, the formula is some combination of words, abstract sound and delivery, whether emotional or technological. Sometimes the formula consists of a bunch of people dragging benches across the stage. (It sounds much as you're imagining.)

Goldsmith maintains an admirable attitude toward all this, appreciating individual pieces for whatever is possible to appreciate about them. Sometimes his enthusiam verges on theatrical, and sometimes he displays that odd avant-garde-enthusiast tendency to deem something amazing without marshaling the necessary supporting evidence — one memorable moment of irrational exuberance comes when he claims John Giorno "predicted the internet" — but he just as often expresses wonder at how "insane" a particular work is. Don't underestimate that; real insanity is hard to find.

Vital stats:
Format: curated avant-garde clips
Running since: December 2007
Duration: ~15m
Frequency: six-weeklyish
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Podthinker Colin Marshall believes himself to be avant the garde of podcast reviewing, though he is non-reclusive and can still be easily reached at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Night Air"

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For any Podthinker, describing whatever podcast happens to be under review is job one. Typically, that job is pathetically easy: "It's two guys talking about kung fu movies in the basement", say, or "It's two guys talking about indie rock in the basement". Accurately conveying the nature of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's The Night Air [iTunes link], however, is a much taller order. In fact, it's downright difficult. Happily, blessedly, refreshingly difficult.

One might call it a breath of fresh air, and given the program's slogan, "Breathe it in", that's appropriate. Despite seven years in existence and distribution by a major national broadcaster, The Night Air is very much its own thing, a show of a form that, despite the widest possible range of listening, your Podthinker has never even hears imitated, let alone duplicated. It's more pure experience than simple listening material, and it's experience not possible in any other medium. The pithiest encapsulation might be to call it an "audio collage", though the term carries an incorrect connotation of slapdashedness. "Themed, soundtracked public radio remixes" is a less elegant string of words, but it's truer.

The Night Air picks a topic each week — family, salt, fire, fidelity, disco — and, armed with the ABC's vast radio broadcast archives, cuts and pastes a variety of speeches, coversations and comments on that topic together into a whole new entity. The scissors are the the editing room's splicers; the glue is all kinds of neat (mostly ambient, sometimes illbient) music. The result must be heard to be understood; as a listener, the effect is of floating through space and time on a series of musical rivers while voices heard off from all directions speak their context-free piece on the week's subject.

The lack of context to the clips and the free-forminess it encourages separates The Night Air's productions most sharply from the thousand other (primarily This American Life-inpired) audio documentaries around. Any one episode contains the voices of sages, crackpots, youngsters, oldsters, advertisers, protestors, moralists, libertines, orators, mumblers, the living, the dead, celebrities and everymen — and it's not made explicit which are which! As confusing as that sounds, it's in practice a beautiful thing; rather than being constructed by the producers, the show's backgrounds, segues and connective tissues of every kind are instead assembled in the listener's imagination, causing a richer experience than any scriptwriter could reliably craft. This is a program that — and don't labor under the impression that this quality isn't an astatine-grade rarity — trusts its listeners to process and assess what's being said. In the "Tower" episode, for instance, the recurring diatribes of a 9/11 conspiracy theorist are not introduced by a solemn announcer intoning that, yea, verily, we are about to hear the ravings of a madman; presumably, the audience has the advanced mental capacity required to figure that one out themselves.

The Night Air raises in the non-Australian listener — in this non-Australian listener, at least — a strong why-can't-we-have-something-like-this? stripe of jealousy. But it's the beauty of the podcast age that, well, we do have this, no matter where we happen to live and no matter what national media happens to dominate the local airwaves. More's the pity, then, that the ABC sees fit to make only four episodes available on the podcast feed at any one time. Public radio techies, you've been told, mostly by this Podthinker, time and time again: this handful-at-a-time nonsense is not acceptable, especially when the content is this so sonically delicious.

Vital stats:
Format: themed, soundtracked public radio remixes
Running since: January 2002
Duration: 30m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: four, just four

[Podthinker Colin Marshall wants to review more like this, please oh please. Recommend some at colinjmarshall at gmail, discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "SpyCast"

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Would that every museum could do a podcast. Your Podthinker wouldn't mind a shot of content from, say, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the Computer History Museum or the Liberace Museum sent to his iPod on a regular basis. Since those organizations inexplicably don't seem to podcast as yet — come on, people, it's 2009 already! — the neatest podcasting museum at present is The International Spy Museum in Washington, DC.

The content of their SpyCast [iTunes link] is almost explained by its very title: talking about spy stuff. That concept might at first conjure visions of endless hours yammering on about pen bugs and shoe phones and navel cameras and whatnot, but fortunately — or, depending on one's bent, unfortunately — the producers don't get all hung up on that James Bondy stuff. The podcast's conversations actually have much more to do with the world of espionage and intelligence as it's perceived by its own people. Indeed, the host himself, museum director and former CIA operations officer Peter Earnest, put in well over three decades in the spy game himself.

Representative inside guests include Larry Devlin, the CIA's well-known station chief in 1960s Congo [MP3], former Saigon Military Mission man Rufus Phillips [MP3] and master of disguise — well, former head of the CIA's Office of Technical Services, but "master of disguise" sounds fancier — Jonna Hiestand Mendez [MP3]. Some of the spy types who show up are surprisingly high-profile; a certain Valerie Plame [MP3], for instance. A fair number of outsiders stop by to discuss their subjects of study as well; though the topic was a bit of a departure, Earnest's chat with scholar of conspiracy theorists Robert Alan Goldberg is particularly illuminating [MP3] ("Illuminati" pun withheld). Some appearances are totally unexpected, though, true, Robert de Niro [MP3] did once put Ben Stiller through a polygraph test.

Much of SpyCast's value comes from how different it is from all the other podcasts floating around the net. Whatever one thinks of spy stuff, rarely have podcasters had such long, unusual careers as Earnest's, and almost never do they inhabit the role of the friendly, laid-back old agent — who's probably revealing less than the tip of the iceberg that is his vast knowledge of espionage — as well as he does. What is a tad disheartening is how amateurish the show's production can be. For an organization as well-respected as the International Spy Museum — it's International, after all — it sure puts out one rough-edged podcast. Music cuts out jaggedly, strange background noises bleed into the conversations, volume levels vary widely from episode to episode and the editing can be clumsy. (Occasionally, the interviews even start before they're supposed to, and it's possible to hear Earnest giving the word to the guy behind the recording computer before officially beginning.) But it's spies. Who dares say no to spies?

Vital stats:
Format: spying-related conversations
Running since: October 2006
Duration: 15m-30m
Frequency: monthly, though occasionally two come in one month
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Podthinker Colin Marshall withholds more puns that he's allowed to tell you, especially through colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Spark"

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Examining the components of Spark [iTunes link], it quickly starts to look like a big sweep for the nothing-new-under-the-sun department: personal technology, short interviews, newsiness combined with storytelling, a friendly-sounding and lightly-accented Canadian announcer and what public radio wonks like to call "sound-richness". But the show picks up these shopworn parts and does its own thing, creating a program that's unlikely to startle listeners with the bold new directions in which it's taking them but successfully connects with them nonetheless.

The production sounds, like so many post-This American Life shows, a bit like This American Life. It's an assemblage of host commentary, conversations, personal stories, atmospheric sound effects and reasonably quirky music. It doesn't encompass the whole of life, though; it mostly just covers the parts that involve using today's ever-developing technology. And it's Canadian, not American. So This Canadian Technological Life would accurately describe the show (although, under pithiness comparison, it's easy to see why the CBC went with Spark instead).

The emphasis is on Life; while this is a show concerned with technology, it's not meant for geeks. The target audience seems to be that segment of the general listening public that finds all these shiny new gadgets on the market "neat" but would prefer not to think about integrated circuits and suchlike, those who'd rather hear people talk about the fun stuff they've done with technology than about the nuts and bolts of the technology itself. Recent episodes have been conveniently representative, featuring worries about how social networking and all that is robbing us of solitude [MP3], what it's like when a techie husband has a semi-luddite artist wife [MP3] and how Twitter allows an old grandmother to tell the world her surprisingly engaging life stories (yes, really) [MP3].

Those subjects may sound a tad hokey to the hardened technophile, but as an attempt to reach out to non-enthusiasts and entertainingly communicate to them a small sample of the myriad possibilities afforded us by today's gizmos, widgets and internets, Spark is actually pretty admirable. And it's not only valuable to listeners who don't as yet know their USB from their TCP/IP; your Podthinker, no stranger to gizmos, widgets and (especially) internets himself, was able to formulate some solid project ideas of his own while listening to the show's story subjects chat about how they've managed to fashion printer ink out of coffee grounds or print out blogs or shrinkwrap their laptop to take it into the kitchen or whatever. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

Still, for a program so concerned with the digital world, Spark is heavy indeed with the slick, busy, snippet-y feel of public radio as opposed to the pared-down, more expansive, content-oriented feel of podcasts and the new audio content sensibility they're even now ushering in. While this can be disorienting for a podcast habitué, it's presumably more comfortable for the aforementioned un-techie making the journey toward... semi-techiehood, at least. Don't be afraid; we welcome you.

Vital stats:
Format: This Canadian Technological Life
Running since: September 2007
Duration: ~27m
Frequency: weekly, approximately
Archive available on iTunes: all (which, for a public radio podcast, is astonishing)

[Podthinker Colin Marshall talks a big technological game, but still can't work Linux. Tell him how at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Kick-Ass Mystic Ninjas"

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Yes, your Podthinker sees that title. We all see that title. Clearly, it's going to be the chief task of this particular Podthought to assure the reader that, while the podcast in question is indeed titled The Kick-Ass Mystic Ninjas [iTunes link], it nonetheless merits reading a few hundred words about, or, if one swings its way, a listen.

It comes as a relief to find that the program contains no ninjas, no mysticism, and not much ass at all. (There are two kinds of people: those amused by the very concept of ninjas, and those not.) It is, in fact, a rolling cultural group discussion, one that — here comes another relief — focuses in on a single cultural entity per episode rather than meandering every which way. But another danger zone rises in the show's very subtitle: "Talking Old-School Sci-Fi and Fantasy". Your Podthinker's intensive podcast experience has prepared him to recoil at all podcasting instances of the term "old school" that do not refer to soul and/or funk, because they're often red flags signaling that one's about to stumble into a couple basement-dwellers' heated exchange about Gobots. Fortunately, the Mystic Ninjas are not children of the early 1980s but members of that odd demographic subgroup which cares deeply about pulpy sci-fi but is somehow also like 42 years old. Their "old school" is more likely 1970 than 1989.

Not that Summer, Dave, Brian and Jen shy away from the modern-ish: their podcast's official "old school" labeling cutoff only appears to be fifteen years or so. Hence the appearance of recent-seeming stuff like Robocop [MP3] and Quantum Leap [MP3] on their roundtable. But make no mistake, their reach extends pretty far backward, all the way to to the likes of Robert Heinlein's martian-Jesus allegory Stranger in a Strange Land [MP3] and Larry Niven's Ringworld [MP3], the only quadrilogy exhaustively described solely by its one-word title. These weren't the main attractions for your Podthinker, though; that the Ninjas discuss such relative obscurities as Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat [MP3] (a goofy James-Bond-in-space-y series that your Podthinker admits sucks but is inexplicably drawn toward nonetheless) and W.D. Richter's immortal The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension [MP3]. Your Podthinker is all about the Buckaroo Banzai.

Though the selections deliver a little something for everybody, one can't help but wish for a touch more meat on the bones of the discussions themselves. They're on the short side, about 45 minutes on average, and though the Ninjas seem perfectly capable of really delving into the mechanics of the novel, film or television series at hand, they tend to stop just short. They never fail to set up the premise, retell a few of the narrative's events and express their own opinions on the quality of the work as a whole, but most every episode ends with a great deal of rich analytic soil left to plow. And if that was the effect of some strict technical length restriction, fine, but more often than not the conversation simply peters out: "Welp, we got anything more to say about this epic saga?" "Nope, don't think so. You got anything to add?" "Nope." "Okay then." The official Podthoughts Rules of Podcasting pamphlet has yet to be written, but if the project gets off the ground, the first commandment is obvious: "Thou shalt not end thy podcasts by petering out. End in a structured and decisive fashion, yea. Peter, nay."

Despite that, The Kick-Ass Mystic Ninjas isn't a bad little venue for sci-fi and fantasy chat. And that means something coming from your Podthinker, a man who finds 90 percent of science fiction (and something like 115% of fantasy) crippled to unenjoyability by a lack of consistent rules and even semi-engaging characters. But then again, he's read The Stainless Steel Rat, so...

Vital stats:
Format: group sci-fi/fantasy discussion
Running since: September 2005
Duration: 35m-1h15m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: last 20

[Shame Podthinker Colin Marshall for his enjoyment of The Stainless Steel Rat at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Thomas Jefferson Hour"

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Your Podthinker was once involved in an elementary school project requiring each and every student to spend a few weeks learning about a famous person of their choice. The sum of these efforts was a morning during which refreshments were served and the kids milled around, in costume and ostensibly in character, attempting to answer questions posed them by the parents who showed up. The kids' grasp on the facts of their subjects' lives proved shaky; representatively, the boy dressed as Einstein had a lot to say about the "theory of reality". (Your Podthinker dressed as Neil Armstrong but found the former astronaut's retirement hang gliding hobby more interesting than his time in space and thus had to bluff when asked who, exactly, it was who hit that golf ball around the moon.)

The Thomas Jefferson Hour [iTunes link] is more or less the same deal, sans the refreshments and certainly sans the incompetence. It helps that Clay Jenkinson, "award-winning humanities scholar" and portrayer of Jefferson, is not a fourth-grader. Indeed, his competence in the role far surpasses even that of the sharpest fifth- or sixth-graders. But why beat around the bush? It's no exaggeration to say that Jenkinson delivers quite possibly the finest podcast-based portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in recent memory.

The format typically runs as follows: for the first half of the program, interviewer David Swenson is joined by Thomas Jefferson, late-18th and early-19th century intellectual, enthusiastic Enlightenment polymath, University of Virginia founder, third president of the United States of America and face on the two-dollar bill, in the temporal guise of Clay Jenkinson. For the second half, Swenson is once again joined by the body and voice of Jenkinson, though not channeling Jefferson, to reflect upon the themes of the week's discussion and Jefferson's previously expressed thoughts on those themes. Though Jenkinson is apparently not briefed on any discussion's subject matter beforehand, he never fails to respond in Jeffersonian depth; no surprise, perhaps, since he's recorded over seven hundred of these shows.

Yes. Over seven hundred, 147 of which are available right there for the downloading on iTunes. The subjects range far and wide, from the events of Jefferson's life to Jefferson's broad outlook on human matters to Jefferson's views on current events as interpreted through his own life, experience and historical perspective. All subjects are fair game for conversation: American issues such as taxes [MP3], Jefferson's personal passions for gardening [MP3], books and music [MP3] and Barack Obama's inauguration speech [MP3]. That's a tiny, near-random selection of topics; if Jefferson was likely to have thought about it or would be likely to think about it today, Jenkinson, as Jefferson, has probably expounded on it.

It takes a certain (large) amount of admiration to dedicate so much of one's life to impersonate a man on the airwaves and the internet so comprehensively and for so long. The danger such a project faces is turning into hagiography: the interlocutor assert's Jefferson's greatness, Jefferson's admirer as Jefferson modestly consents, and around and around it goes. Fortunately, The Thomas Jefferson Hour avoids this; Jenkinson openly acknowledges the man's many imperfections — spending recklessly, owning slaves — while at the same time refusing to downplay his irrefutably impressive displays of intellect and diligence. How terribly difficult it would be to listen to a few hours of conversation with the fellow and not want to get to know him better. It's perhaps dorky to come away from an experience claiming to have been galvanized to learn more about the founding fathers, but there it is.

Vital stats:
Format: conversations with Thomas Jefferson and a Thomas Jefferson scholar
Running since: quite some time ago, it seems
Duration: ~50m-1hm
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: last 147

[Podthinker Colin Marshall still has what Thomas Jefferson never could: an e-mail address, colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Big Ideas"

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Were he to declare the podcast the best medium ever, your Podthinker would probably hear little dissent (at least from this crowd). Were he also to declare it a medium with vast tracts of untapped potential, he would hope to receive the same general agreement in response. Podcasts have done a fine job bringing the music, the comedy and the Transformers-referencing conversations between twentysomething basment-dwellers, but as yet appear to have made only tentative inroads toward boosting the art of the lecture and the importance of ideas in public life. What luck that this week's podcast, its anonymous front-end announcer assures us, is in fact dedicated to "the art of the lecture and the importance of ideas in public life." Coincidence at its finest!

The podcast is Big Ideas [iTunes link], from Canadian educational broadcaster TVOntario. As the first two letters of that organization's name indicate, it's wasn't produced specifically as a podcast but is in fact an audio-only version of the television show of the same name. This sounds sloppy but is in practice a pretty decent idea; would that other talky television shows followed suit and put out equivalent handy-dandy downloadables. (Looking at you, Charlie Rose.) A guy standing (presumably) up at a lectern and speaking his piece typically loses little with the visuals stripped away, and even when important visual aids get lost in the process — when the audience laughs, one often wonders at what — the podcast's convenience more than compensates. (A video podcast of Big Ideas is also available here, if one is into that kind of thing, but, this being an audio podcast column, it receives neither endorsement nor disendorsement from your Podthinker. Also, because your Podthinker hates and fears Powerpoint in all its forms and suspects some lecturers of the crime of using it, he is too scared to try it.)

No matter the intrinsic nobility, enjoyability and various other -ities of the lecture form, a lecture program is simply only going to be as good as its lecturers themselves. Big Ideas' stable is, to mix a metaphor bigtime, very much a mixed bag. Some of its presenters talk engagingly and surprisingly intimately with the audience on rich, unusual subjects: Umberto Eco on ugliness [MP3], for instance, or Neil Turok on the cause of the Big Bang [MP3] or Tim Conley on the coordination of the self in contemporary poetry [MP3]. The downside is that the program also serves up a bunch of known polemicists, impressionistic thinkers, axe-grinders and permutations of the three: your Naomi Kleins, your Ben Barbers, your Deepak Chopras, etc.

Unsteady intellectual integrity is a small price to pay, though, for being able to listen to lectures on music and the brain, the poetics of gay male culture and creative menu design one right after the other. Think of Big Ideas as a giant, sticky ball of intellectual jelly beans which have all fused after a day spent in somebody's backpack: some are tasty, some are nasty and many are unexpected, but where else are you going to get so many flavors in a single bite? Sure, you can go through the available lectures and pick and choose only what you're already certain to enjoy, but where's the fun and surprise in that? Just grab a chunk out of that gummy cluster and chew away. With your... brain teeth.

Vital stats:
Format: lectures
Running since: November 2007
Duration: ~30m-60m
Frequency: slightly more than weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Podthinker Colin Marshall's distinguished lecture on "The Podcast Medium and the Existential Self in the Context of Post-Millennial Hermeneutic (Re)Medi[a/u]tion" is only available if you e-mail him at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

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