Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Podcasts by Maximum Funsters


In my column on Experts and Intermediates, I introduced the genre designation "Two Twentysomething White Guys", by far the most common format in podcasting. I think I can dial it in even further: "Two Twentysomething White Guys B.S.ing About Culture" (TTWGBAC) sounds altogether more descriptive. In this first installment of my destined-to-be-epic series of Podthoughts on podcasts made by Maximum Funsters, I give you two new additions to this proud tradition.

From Max Funster crazyforswayze comes the just-about-weekly Stop Podcasting Yourself [iTunes link], starring Vancouverite twentysomething white guys Graham Clark and Dave Shumka. (How to tell them apart: Graham sounds weirdly insincere, while Dave sounds weirdly sincere.) Amid a sea of TTWGBACs, the program's geographical grounding makes it stand out: the hosts routinely discuss such distinctly Canadian things as MuchMusic, ugly people on television, public transportation, and aspiring to be a mailman. They also discuss such distinctly Vancouverian things as being accosted by junkies and enviro-proselytizers on every square of the sidewalk.

To Americans, most Canadian stuff feels civilizedly bland, sort of pleasantly inferior, but that's not the case with Stop Podcasting Yourself; it's pretty solid, not that it entirely skirts the standard suite of new-TTWGBAC issues (about which more below). It's already being embraced on the forum as, and I quote, "comedy gold", and blindsiding bits of top-flight humor scattered through the first nineteen episodes stand in evidence. Example: a guest who's planning to cross Canada by Greyhound, when asked why he opted not to hitchhike, replies that he's "not that cool." Graham adds, "And you don't want to be that raped."

Also of note is the show's heavy use of segments, each of which has its very own jingle. Now that's production value. The concepts of these segments vary widely in workability — "Overheard" is a bottomless well of goodness, "Pop Rocks Minute" is a valiant effort, "Celebrity Odds" plays the dangerous game of trading solely on ridiculousness — but that's balanced out by the fact that turnover is high. Even the shortest-lived segments — and here I'm thinking of the likes of "Paxton or Pullman" and "Blanchett or Winslet" — are just about worth the shot Graham and Dave give them.

From Max Funster Semisorick comes The Internet's Maximum Potential [iTunes link], where the TTWGBAC phenomenon comes straight outta Milwaukee. In a slightly-more-frequently-than-weekly free-form discussion — a very, very free-form discussion — hosts Drew Steck and Rick Katschke (how to tell them apart: Rick sounds a lot like American Movie's Mark Borchardt) wend their way around such cultural events of our time as the Sex and the City movie (I feel the need to point out that one of the hosts claims to have watched every episode of the television show, and also claims heterosexuality), Phantom Planet's live show (apparently, it sucks), and Alice Cooper's Starbucks patronage. The guys also occasionally lapse into sports talk; having never heard of sports, I feel unqualified to comment, but I thought it was unusual enough to make a thing of.

Because it's almost ten installments newer than Stop Podcasting Yourself, I have commensurately less to say about The Internet's Maximum Potential, suffice to say that I've heard some promising stories and exchanges. For instance, in the third episode [MP3], one Maximum Potentialist, a film major, recalls a dopey, garrulous dorm-mate who was hell-bent on bringing The Giver to the silver screen. That or making a movie about how Holocaust-like genocide could happen today, but it wouldn't be set in an African country — that doesn't sound realistic. (Maybe that doesn't translate well to text, but you should hear Rick tell it. Or Drew, I forget.)

As with any TTWGBAC, the listening experience improves as you get to know the twentysomething white guys behind the mics. Thus, there's a pretty serious time investment required, but the returns on that time increase. For the first episode or two, you'll always be like, "Who? What? Which one's talking? Why are they talking about this? Was that an in-joke?" But the disorientation always subsides. Put in the work on TTWGBAC-listening, and sooner or later you'll have a large stable of twentysomething white male perspectives with which to compare notes on what's going on in the worlds of film, comedy, and old Third Eye Blind albums.

I have only one recommendation for these TTWGBACs: nobody's forcing you to go the whole hour, so you can stop recording before you run out of steam or edit the show down down until it ends before you run out of steam. It's admirable to want to give the listener all the material you can, but there's something to be said for leavin' 'em wantin' more, even if that means a shorter podcast. This will also minimize the number of what I call "So... yeah" moments — any podcast-listener knows them all too well — and when those hit the cutting room floor, everyone wins.

[Tough but fair freelance Podthinker Colin Marshall hacks under the cyber-handle colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts here, or submit your podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Slate's Culture Gabfest"


I have a friend who believes there's no point in political discussion, because it's merely the playacting of fixed psychological biases. While I'm not quite to that point — I'm still pretty sure all political discussion is psychological playacting except mine — I find myself inching toward his position with each passing day, which is why I haven't made a habit of Slate's Political Gabfest. Fortunately for me, the web magazine of web magazines has started a sister podcast to that ultra-popular offering: the Culture Gabfest [iTunes link]. Sure, cultural discourse may be the circular, brain-dead expression of ossified unreason too — I should know, since I blog about it — but at least you don't have to hear about caucuses.

Mirroring its political relative, this gabfest has a panel chat about the implications of recent events and developments in culture from, as the description says, "highbrow to pop." The panel has varied a bit since the podcast's inception early in the year, but it now seems to have settled on erstwhile "Dilettante" (and my favorite member of the Slate Audio Book Club, about which more in a future column) Stephen Metcalf, film critic Dana Stevens and social (and fashion) commentator Julia Turner. For half an hour every two weeks, they trade opinions on what's goin' down in film, art, music, television, the news, mixed martial arts, and Miley Cyrus. They then cap it off with their "endorsements," recommendations from each panelist about what cultural artifact they're currently experiencing.

Penciling pros and cons onto the ledger, I find that I should by all rights dislike the Culture Gabfest. I prefer bold statements to hedged, mealy-mouthed equivocations, and boy, do these panelists ever make with the hedging; one iTunes reviewer comments that Stevens used the phrase "sort of" 36 times in the process of evaluating one film. This gives the listener next to nothing to latch on to, little to agree with, little to disagree with. I don't care if you're right or wrong, guys; just, please, make statements that can potentially be right or wrong, rather than ones nebulous and untestable against the cultural facts before us.

Discussing Barack Obama — arguably more a cultural phenom than a political one — the crew, who sound like they've thrown up in their mouths whenever a Republican is mentioned, wearily moan about how, sure, they would vote for a literate, thoughtful, candidate who admits to reading Philip Roth, but the flyover certainly wouldn't. Alas, even my iPod, a cutting-edge new model, doesn't come equipped with a "Shut. Up. Just. Shut. The. Hell. Up." button. (Disclosure: I'm from the coast too, though west rather than the east.) Also, this podcast provided my unwelcome introduction to the hideous term "booshie", as in, "to tend to one's booshie rooftop garden after reading the works of Michael Pollan."

The problem may be the lack of a deflater. As another iTunes reviewer put it, the show "needs a co-host with a functioning B.S. detector." That it does, and considering the deflationary role that Metcalf sometimes plays on the Audio Book Club — I clenched my fist victoriously when he stated, albeit in a roundabout way, that Eat, Pray, Love sucks — I'm surprised he can't bring himself to do the same here. One episode [MP3] begins with the question of whether that LeBron-James-and-Giselle-Bundchen Vogue cover was racist. The correct answer is "Who cares?" Without someone to straight-up declare that right away, the panelists only get halfway there, and they do it in a meandering fashion.

But I enjoy the Culture Gabfest nonetheless, especially when glimpses of what it might one day become shine through the haze. One example relevant to Max Funsters is their death-of-George-Carlin segment [MP3]. I'm pro-Carlin, but Metcalf admits to always having disliked him. Rather than simply attacking, though, he explains with clarity and intelligence why one might not like Carlin's stuff; he made me understand a perspective different from my own. In culture as in anything else, that's valuable. (Though, staying with that episode for a moment, Metcalf et al utterly failed to get across to me the appeal of Liz Phair.)

I've focused on negative points here only because, when they're corrected, this'll be one damn fine podcast. It's still early in the game, and, like any enterprise, it improves a little with each iteration. The idea at its core, articulate three-way conversation across the cultural spectrum, is a sound one, and I'm confident that, in time, it'll realize a good deal more of its potential. Until then, brace yourself for the occasional lapse into hand-wringing weenieism.

[Freelance podthinker Colin Marshall can be reached at his secret e-mail address, colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts or suggest future ones on the forum here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: alt.NPR, part deux


We're back to alt.NPR's suite of podcasts for this week's Podthoughts. If you missed my coverage of the first three, check it out here. All of this week's shows range from ten to thirty minutes a podcast, and all are allegedly biweekly. Operative word: "allegedly". If I've noticed one common problem with alt.NPR podcasts, it's that they're a long way from regularity. They sound good and all, so if they could just get the uploading thing down, alt.NPR would be an unstoppable e-radio behemoth. Or something.

As a die-hard Turbografx-16 player — you think I'm kidding, but I'm not — I can't claim to be the target audience for video game news: I suppose commentary about the PlayStation 3, Wii and XBox 360 has about as much relevance for me as coverage of the Uzbekistan Youth Curling League. But as a twentysomething American male, I nevertheless feel that video games constitute the culture of my people. Even if I don't get all the specific references, I can't say I don't enjoy the occasional fix of gamer discourse, whether provided by friends, a Penny Arcade strip, or the more flip-flopped half of Jordan, Jesse, Go!. alt.NPR's Press Start [iTunes link], a "podcast on the art and craft of video games," fills the need equally well. Game journalists Kyle Orland, Ralph Cooper and Robert Holt chat about what they've been playing, which releases they're looking forward to, and what they think of current industry trends. They also do interviews, recent subjects of which include Nintendo's Vice President of Marketing [MP3] and this one dude who built an arcade machine containing every console known to man [MP3]. Even as an owner of zero current consoles, I'm likely to come back to Press Start every so often, but I don't know if I can make it priority one. Let's be realistic; there's a lot of Bonk's Adventure to be played, and it's not gonna play itself.

The Youthcast [iTunes link] is a project of Generation PRX, an online social network — I understand those are all the rage lately — for young, hungry, up-and-coming, health-insurance-free public radio producers. (Would that I could tell you that PRX stands for Public Radio Xtreme, but alas, it means "Public Radio Exchange".) The neat thing is that the pieces are made by high-school- or college-age producers. The less neat thing is that I once again find myself having to break out the term "This American Life-y", which I apply to a regrettably high number of shows. Either I've got to come up with a more catchy term with the same meaning, or Ira Glass has to be less influential. Youthcasted stories are, as one might expect, about pretty standard Young Person Issues: whether or not to go to the prom [MP3], whether to go to college or become a bigtime rapper [MP3], and where to turn now that International Male is no longer flamboyant enough [MP3]. Par for the course, there's also some Iraq stuff in there and concern about teen suicide. Fortunately, none of it's dull. I'd imagine the most fitting audience for the Youthcast is Youthcasters themselves; that is, young people looking to break into the This American Life-y — d'oh! — branch of public radio who want to keep any eye on the competition.

The producers of Love and Radio [iTunes link] must also be aware of the problem of This American Life-yness, because they seem to have attempted to skirt it with sheer weirdness. Recently on the program, we've heard from a guy who makes art out of roadkill [MP3], the owner of a business that cleans up old corpses and "filth" of myriad varieties [MP3], and a performance artist who routinely gives away all her money in the world [MP3]. That's a fine sort of differentiation from the mainstream, although the production is distractingly weird; if I hadn't vowed long ago not to employ the widely, badly misused descriptor "random", I'd be very, very tempted to break it out now. Odd, unsuitable music; herky-jerky, sometimes repetitive speech editing; thin context; it all creates an eerie sort of atmosphere, which sometimes works well but sometimes doesn't work at all. And that's just the story segments; there are other ones, bizarre ones, as when a series of discomfiting voices read out loud scraps of text found on the internet [MP3]. Maybe the word for this is "experimental radio." Beats plain vanilla, at any rate.

[Direct all correspondence to colinjmarshall at gmail. Podthoughts discussion thread available here. I'm working on a special series of Podthoughts on podcasts by Max Funsters; if you do one, let me know about it here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Zen is Stupid"


I'm not a Buddhist. Let's get that out of the way right now. I'm not even an aspiring Buddhist. I've never even considered becoming a Buddhist. Buddhism isn't among my top hundred interests — hell, it's probably not among my top thousand. Thus, I suppose I'm a totally unsuitable reviewer for a Buddhist podcast.

But wait. Gwen Bell and Patrick Reynolds, co-hosts of Zen is Stupid [iTunes link] aren't Buddhists either. At least that's what they say in the episode about Buddhism [link]. They prefer to call themselves, say, "students of Buddhism" or "people who practice Buddhism." That's a good sign; it contraindicates my least-loved quality of the young American Buddhist. You know the type: superciliously strutting around in that more-enlightened-than-thou way, constantly mentioning how Buddhist they are. Insufferable.

Gwen and Patrick aren't like that. Though they operate on a different Weltanschauung than I do, their podcast allows me to examine and consider that Weltanschauung without being buried under monstrous heaps of 'tude. Each week, Gwen and Patrick take on a topic of modern relevance, be it diversity [link], driving [link], nostalgia [link], hipsters [link] or h8erz [link], and spend ten to twenty minutes approaching it from whatever Zen Buddhist perspective they can muster. (And it's always Zen — they sometimes give the nod to other branches of Buddhism, but remain loyal to the Zen game.) For example, after a one-night stand, a Zen Buddhist might not wake up feeling like the bottom of an ashtray; they might wake up and cheerfully launch into a session of zazen, which, I gather, is this practice where you sit still for a long time. The duo's attitude has drawn no small amount of scorn on iTunes from self-proclaimed Zen old-schoolers, which shows they're on the right track: in any field, if you're pissing off the old guard, you're doing something right.

So what, for the non-Buddhist, is appealing about all this? First and foremost, learning about someone else's take on the world never fails to fascinate me, especially if that someone else adheres to a system of thought that I don't. (And, as the most a-religious, a-spiritual — as distinct from unreligious and unspiritual — person I know, they almost always do.) Second, unlike some religions I shall refrain from naming, Zen Buddhism has elements that can be genuinely thought-provoking even for the outsider, such as the concept of mindfulness, keeping maximally aware of the present moment, or the concept of beginner's mind, disregarding biases and preconceptions when entering new informational territory. I wouldn't be surprised if this sort of thing one day maps to new discoveries in neuroscience.

I must admit, however, to an inability to get with certain other elements of Buddhism which, in many hands, seem to generate a kind of irritating nihilism. "Everything is everything," intones the garden-variety lazy Buddhist I talk to, "so it wouldn't be right for me to have an opinion on anything." Then they mumble something about the limits of language. I was thus happy find that Gwen and Patrick take on this sort of nonsense without giving in to it; they are indeed opinionated, and they seem to have no problem taking action. That's not to say that their discourse is completely devoid of muddled thinking — they've more than once fallen into go-nowhere discussions about how one should practice Zen, but they shouldn't expect to gain anything from it, but they do gain from it, but wait, no they don't, because you're not supposed to want to improve in Zen, but maybe they do, or don't — but for the most part, they mix Buddhism with pragmatism, which is precisely what most ancient beliefs sorely need.

[Direct all correspondence to colinjmarshall at gmail. Podthoughts discussion thread available here. I'm working on a special series of Podthoughts on podcasts by Max Funsters; if you do one, let me know about it here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "I, Cringely"

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Not long ago, amidst research for an interview with a big Silicon Valley guy, I Netflix'd a copy of the 1996 PBS series Triumph of the Nerds. Re-watching the program, a brief history of the early adventures of such personal computer pioneers as Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, I came away with two impressions: surprise at how nineties everything looked — boy, I never thought I'd say that — and approval of the hosting skills of that guy in the glasses, khakis and tucked-in polo shirts. (That's how we dressed in the nineties, you see.) He not only knew his stuff, but his skills at what us Max Funsters might call "dad humor" were honed to a fine edge.

He of the shirts and the specs is one Robert X. Cringely, a veteran observer of and commentator on the computing scene. He's done a handful of other PBS series, including one nobody but me has heard of where he builds an airplane by himself. More to the point, he writes a weekly column called I, Cringely and, still more to the point, it's available in podcast form [iTunes link].

Robert X. Cringely is many things: "sex symbol, airplane enthusiast and adventurer," his about page modestly proclaims. "A dirty old man," he calls himself in one podcast. Googlism says the following:

  • robert x. cringely is well known throughout the computer industry
  • robert x. cringely is simply the net's best commentator
  • robert x. cringely is in fact a real person
  • robert x. cringely is full of shit
  • robert x. cringely is really getting on my nerves; i'm trying to remember why i signed up to get his column in the first place
  • robert x. cringely is a fun

(I like that last one the best.)

Clearly there's some controversy here. Are we talking about a titan of tech journalism, or some gossipy hack? As anything about which opinions so widely vary interests me, I couldn't help but catch up on his body of work. Agree or disagree with his pronouncements — I considered using the word "opinions," but no, they're pronouncements — you have to admit that he's the most reliably entertaining computer pundit in existence.

I, Cringely tackles the critical technology questions of our time, including, recently: What do information technology consultants actually do? [MP3] Why isn't Apple getting on board with Blu-Ray? [MP3] What's going on in Steve Jobs' head? (That one's sort of a Cringely leitmotif, actually.) [MP3]

Cringely regularly exhibits two tendencies: a fixation on Moore's Law, and a penchant for bold predictions. He's not always on target — his current official batting average is .571, which still beats pure chance — but at least he's not one of those of mealy-mouthed, ass-covering equivocators who play it safe but don't play it with guts. Plus — and this is the most important part — he admits when he's wrong. Bob's predictions for 2008 [MP3] include the personal computer's giving of ground to smaller devices that are already morphing — to use a nineties term — into something more PC-like themselves, venture capitalists' turn away from ad-revenue-only firms like Facebook, and Apple's replacement of the mouse with something more happenin'.

(He also predicts that his program NerdTV — billed as "essentially Charlie Rose for geeks" — which gets my blood moving, as I am the biggest Charlie Rose fanboy who has ever lived, and also something of a geek — will return for a second season. You can download the first one now as podcasts and vidcasts.)

Do note that not every I, Cringely column is of general interest: good luck understanding, for example, his piece on Azul Systems' new mainfraime [MP3] if by quirk of fate you don't happen to do a lot of mainframe computing yourself. And hey, isn't this just Robert X. Cringely reading his column out loud? Yes, but he's hell of good at reading. Besides, reading it yourself would be so Web 1.0.

[Direct all correspondence to colinjmarshall at gmail. Podthoughts discussion thread available here. I'm working on a special series of Podthoughts on podcasts by Max Funsters; if you do one, let me know about it here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: alt.NPR


"Edgy" and "NPR" aren't terms you'd normally hear in the same sentence. "Edgy" and "alt.NPR" aren't terms you're going to hear bandied around together either, but NPR's podcast-only programming is a step in the right direction: the one leading to a transfusion of vital new lifeblood into public radio's rigid arteries, clogged over decades by conservatism of programming — ironic for an institution so tied in the public consciousness to liberalism — and a self-reinforcing feedback loop of audience expectations. (NOTE: The opinions expressed in Podthoughts are not necessarily those of Maximumfun.org, but I do know that Jesse's no more thrilled by A Prairie Home Companion than I am.)

We're thinking Podthoughts about three alt.NPR podcasts this week. First, B-Side Radio [iTunes link]. The key to this show is that This American Life is side A. Modulo a nuance or two, the programs share a format: a few "real people," sometimes the producers of the show itself, share stories, each related to a theme. The most obvious differences between B-Side and Ira Glass' juggernaut is that B-Side comes out monthly rather than weekly, contains (on the average) more stories per minute, and covers topics of slightly less consequence. That's not necessarily a bad thing — TAL's production tends to inflate the importance of its stories, which makes me cringe — but one must be in a certain state of mind to appreciate a cop who impersonates Fat Elvis on the side [stream], Mexican teen moms [stream] or video game nerds [stream]. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't puzzled as to why B-Side appears to have no higher aspiration than to be the junior varsity version of public radio's hippest, youngest show — average listener age: a spry 47! — but that modest ambition is more than enough to satisfy public radio addicts like you and me.

What Would Rob Do? [iTunes link] is a biweekly examination of "life's most trying dilemmas" from Rob Sachs, a producer and director on Tell Me More. It's a slightly less focused affair than it sounds: the dilemmas in the purview of Rob's assistance include staining your shirt (useful!), clogging a friend's toilet (useful!), getting trapped in an elevator (still pretty useful!), and, uh, auctioneering. A better title might be Who Would Rob Consult?: since his own knowledge seems unsuited to address any of these situations, Rob interviews experts to get the answers, as when he rings up Michael "Let's Get Ready to Rumble!" Buffer for advice on coming up with a catchphrase. This reduces Rob's own role to that of a goofy middleman, peppering his delivery of the information with an occasional corny remark, but he gets better at it every time. His conversations with whichever co-host happens to be around (sometimes Jordan, Jesse, Go! guest Mike Pesca) used to sound uncomfortably stiff and scripted, but they've become much more delightfully off-the-cuff with time.

Brini Maxwell strikes me as very much a Maximum Fun sort of homemaking guru, in that she's (a) satirical, but somehow simultaneously sincere and (b) a man in drag. The character gained traction on Manhattan public access television, segments of which program are available as a a vidcast, and then spent a couple years on the Style Network. Her current podcast project, alt.NPR's Brini Maxwell's Hints for Gracious Living [iTunes link], provides about five weekly minutes on the finer points of, most recently, making stew, making cheese, making friends who eat brunch, and making furniture (or at least talking to those who do). Unlike most forms of entertainment involving drag, Brini's show is both practical and not loaded with bad disco. Though the program's content runs thin at times, Brini's imitation of the late-50s through early-70s lifestyle aesthetic hits dead-on.

Stay tuned — more coverage of alt.NPR podcasts is on the way in a future installment of Podthoughts.

[Direct all correspondence to colinjmarshall at gmail. Podthoughts discussion thread available here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Reduced Shakespeare Company"


Let's be clear: this is not a podcast meant to spoon-feed The Bard's words in puréed, sugar coated globules to shiftless, slack-jawed, grafted-to-their-white-earphones members of Generation Y. It's not the audio book of the Sparknotes to the Cliffs Notes. It's not even strictly about Shakespeare. "But surely," you stammer, flummoxed, "the very title... ?" Permit me an explanation.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company is a bunch of guys — and sometimes gals — who have been around, in one form or another, for upwards of 25 years, all the while re-interpreting — dare I say "remixing" — Mankind's Important WorksTM live on stage all around the world, even in the countries that don't speak Middle English. They take their name from their bread-and-butter flagship show, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), but they also do Western Civilization: The Complete Musical (abridged), The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged), The Complete History of America (abridged) — godless Euro-Max-Funsters, you are now free to snark about how the previous two can't be that different — All the Great Books (abridged) and Completely Hollywood (abridged).

To do all those shows, you'd have to be both well-cultured and quick of foot and brain. Fortunately for them and for us, the players of the RSC all pack foot, brain and culture with no room in their luggage to spare. I think the costumes are shipped separately, but I don't know because they haven't put out a podcast about that yet. They have, however, released 78 episodes so far [iTunes link], many of which get into the nuts and bolts of what it's like to be a Reduced Shakespearean: how to play to a tiny crowd riddled with decrepitude [MP3], how to improv your way through flubs [MP3] and how to react to laughs that don't come [MP3]. If you're keen on joining the troupe, they even tell you how to audition [MP3]. (Don't get your hopes up.)

But it's not all stage geekery; there's also plenty of specifically Shakespeare geekery: note the humor-leavened discussion of the "authorship question" [MP3] that has dogged Shakespeare's plays for so long and has caused so much ivory-tower hand-wringing, or the one about the difficulties of teaching Shakespeare to middle- and high-schoolers [MP3]. (Solution: let the kids use modern-day swearing.)

And let's not forget the internet geekery. Unlike so many staid theater groups that look down their noses at the whole of technology culture, the RSC is on the vanguard as internet presences go. There's the podcast, sure, but they've got a MySpace page and a Facebook group as well. In one podcast, they even discuss, in detail, the relative merits of MySpace versus those of Facebook [MP3]. (My understanding was that MySpace was for poor people, but apparently it's more complicated than that.) And while we're on the subject of geekery, in another podcast they discuss the difference between a "nerd" and a "geek" with The Word Nerds [MP3].

The podcast hits the tubes every Monday, with an average of twenty minutes of content per week. It's quick, and it's slick: they seem to pay as much attention to the music as they do in their live shows — and if you haven't seen one, they're on DVD — and they'll often go the extra mile with conference calls including even more members of the group or segments recorded on location at whatever theater they're playing at the time. And if you're really lucky, they sometimes send an original, Dickens-based audio production your way [MP3].

Humanities scholars say that "reductive" is the worst slur with which you can be tagged. But with their podcast, as with their other ventures, the Reduced Shakespeare Company has proven once again the detachment of humanities scholars from reality. If reduction is wrong, I don't want to be right.

[Direct all correspondence to colinjmarshall at gmail. Podthoughts discussion thread available here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "60-Second Science" and "60-Second Psych"


It's a modern problem: I'm a busy guy, but I also loves me some science. These two conditions were completely irreconcilable until the advent of the medium known as "podcasting", by which compressed audio files containing spoken information can be distributed to one's portable audio devices. (Or in my case, just to my computer — yeah, I'm one of those guys.) Scientific American, the science magazine whose surprisingly well-crafted articles belie its tacky covers, has come to the salvation of those who have just enough time for a couple daily bites of science, but not enough time to live a normal life: 60-Second Science [iTunes link] and 60-Second Psych [iTunes link].

The conceit is obvious: you give us a minute plus time for an intro and sponsorship announcements, and we give you a fascinating discovery. (They've only broken from the form once, when Ben Stein angried up their blood. [MP3.]) I'd have ensured maximum information density by hiring the guy from the Micro Machines commercials, but the producers have instead opted for a series of friendly-sounding hosts who deliver their knowledge payload in a more relaxed manner, supplying corny jokes when time allows.

60-Second Science tells you the kind of geeky stuff geeky fifth-graders might geek out about. For example:

  • Lasers can generate lightning [MP3]
  • Students forced to learn math via word problems do worse on tests (hatred of those problems about Farmer Brown's pasture: validated!) [MP3]
  • A computer can learn to play the clarinet [MP3]
  • Scientists are being trained to run for political office (shyeah, good luck with that) [MP3]
  • The duck-billed platypus has an odd genome (no surprise there, I suppose) [MP3]

And I, for one, believe that there's a geeky fifth-grader inside us all. If yours has felt a little beaten-down lately, there are worse ways to revitalize it (such as hanging out with geeky fifth-graders).

More relevant but also more speculative — and yes, those of you in the natural sciences, feel free to enjoy a hearty chortle about the fact that "science" and "psych" are distinct podcasts — 60-Second Psych concentrates on the behavioral side of things, showcasing all sorts of discoveries about humans and how we got this way. Revelations include:

  • When we really want something, we're biased toward believing it's rare and vice versa (which elegantly explains the "WOW!" "L@@K!" "RARE!" arms race on eBay) [MP3]
  • Even the meanest among us have enough neuroplasticity to learn to be kind [MP3]
  • The desperate search for evidence of ESP continues to disappoint (well, doi) [MP3]
  • Us FaceSpace-addicted Gen-Yers are no more self absorbed than previous generations (but who's gonna top the Boomers, amiright?) [MP3]
  • The real motivator for exercise? Fear [MP3]

What with all the exciting work being done in a bewildering variety of fields, subfields, and sub-subfields and its implications for the way we live, it's never been more important to be scientifically informed. (Insert rant here about, oh, I don't know, stem cells or something.) 60-Second Science and 60-Second Psych do not by any means constitute all the scientific knowledge you need, and indeed, without a decent grounding in their subjects it's tough to make them stick in your mental latticework. But they are excellent supplements to a steady diet of books, magazines, newspapers and critically-acclaimed television specials.

[Direct all correspondence to colinjmarshall at gmail. Podthoughts discussion thread available here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Moth: Stories Told"

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Who holds the title of greatest living monologist? Many readers would nominate Mike Daisey, who appeared at The Sound Live in NYC, and who Jesse recently named "the official monologist of Maximumfun.org." But why is he so compelling? How can one guy, alone, just talking about the lives of himself and others draw us in like a tractor beam?

The very same friend who introduced me to The Sound wrote this about Daisey's act:

We call this a monologue, but it's storytelling. Respectable theaters don't get urban elites to shell out $25 a head for storytelling. If they advertised "Mike Daisey Telling Stories" you might expect animal crackers and milk, and possibly even a nap. "Honey, where are my footie pajamas? You know, the dressy ones?" So they call it a monologue and Mike Daisey tells his stories, and the audience sits rapt. Even after eighty or ninety minutes — with no intermission — none of the rustling, none of the coughing, none of the shifting in seats you hear in a theater or concert hall as the end draws near and attentions wander.

Storytelling: that's the skill Daisey has mastered, and I would submit there ain't a man, woman or child alive who doesn't enjoy a good story.

The Moth understands this. You might expect it to be an insect, but no, it's an organization that promotes the art of storytelling. Founded in some guy's living room a decade ago, The Moth has grown enormously: it now holds all sorts of events featuring tales told by fascinating personalities both known and unknown, all over the country. In this case, "all over the country" tends to mean, well, both coasts, but if you're out of the 212 or the 310, you're not out of luck. The Moth, you see, has a podcast. [iTunes link]

Each installment adheres to the same rules: one storyteller, one story, ten to fifteen minutes, live on stage, no notes. This sounds like a tightrope act where to bomb is just as likely as to draw rapturous applause, but as much fun as that would be, we're dealing with story professionals here. There's the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, recounting how he entertained himself early in his journalism career by wedging the phrase "perverse and often baffling" into as many articles as possible. [MP3] There's the same organ's Adam Gopnik telling of his inability to properly use the term "LOL." [MP3] There's screenwriter Cindy Chupack describing how the prospect of signing a 30-year-mortgage may well have turned her husband gay. [MP3] And yes, there's good old Mike Daisey taking us to a very dark psychological place indeed, one where he's made to endure a seven-hour death march of an audition at the hands of worshiped indie filmmaker Todd Solondz. [MP3]

Vulnerable as The Moth's subject matter may be to the same jab The Onion made about This American Life — I guarantee you'll hear plenty about therapy, the foibles of professional life and what it's like to look for love in all the wrong places — they're two of the best games in Podcast Town when it comes to storytelling. And hey, The Moth has Jonathan Ames talking about his Christmas spent doing freebase with a transsexual [MP3], so it's not like they don't spice it up.

[Direct all correspondence to colinjmarshall at gmail. Podthoughts discussion thread available here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Experts and Intermediates"


The best thing about writing Podthoughts isn't just having justification for listening to homemade radio when I should be working, it's holding the title of Podcast Kingmaker: I wield the awesome power to anoint certain ventures with a slight audience boost, and to cruelly withhold a slight audience boost from others. This week I crown Experts and Intermediates [iTunes link], an arts-and-culture gabfest for which I've got high hopes. High-apple-pie-in-the-sky hopes. Why "high hopes" rather than straight-up "high praise"? Because, while I already enjoy the program, I think it's got big untapped potential. Before getting into what the podcast could be, however, let's talk about what it is.

Of all the new kinds of shows the Podcast RevolutionTM has loosed upon our unprepared society, perhaps the most visible format — or, I guess, audible one — is the Two Twentysomething White Guys. I am forever in the debt of erstwhile Podthinker Ian Brill for introducing me to Battleship Pretension, an excellent weekly film discussion that might also be titled Two Twentysomething White Guys on Movies. There's another swell show called Jordan, Jesse, Go! &mdash perhaps you've heard of it &mdash whose alternate title could easily be Two Twentysomething White Guys on Being Two Twentysomething White Guys... Hilariously!

Experts and Intermediates could fly under Two Twentysomething White Guys on Convergences in Cultural Opinion, which is marginally less catchy but could probably land a public radio grant. B.J., Jason and sometimes a designated "expert" take on different works of popular culture each time, including:

  • Shakespeare, especially the problematic nature of The Merchant of Venice
  • The best Spider Man and Batman story arcs
  • Hip-hop duo Atmosphere
  • High School Musical
  • 20th-century dystopian literature
  • Night of the Hunter
  • Christian rock

Looking at that list, you'd think the guys make their selections at random. But while the show is informed by a hearty spirit of randomness, there's actually something of a throughline, at least to the best episodes. I would submit that B.J. and Jason are primarily interested in works about which (a) one's experience or opinion differs sharply from the other's or (b) both of their experiences or opinions differ sharply from those of the work's fan base.

This is borne out by two of the show's regular features. The second-best, "Will We Be Infected?", has the guys pick out something popular yet, to them, unsavory — the aforementioned Disney franchise, or some thrashing for Jesus — and mainline it to see if they, too, will get on the bandwagon. The best is when the hosts give each other assignments. Typically, the item assigned is something the assigner believes the assignee hasn't consumed enough of; for example, B.J. assigns the comic-bereft Jason a Spider Man series. I love hearing and experiencing reactions to something out of one's own cultural sphere. If the podcast consisted entirely of assignments, that'd be fine by me. It might solve the show's slight focus problem, too.

What else does Experts and Intermediates need before taking the podcasting world by storm? First, regularity; a month between episodes isn't unheard of. (In all fairness, B.J. and Jason acknowledge the inconsistency, not that that makes it any easier for the fans.) And the guys shouldn't even bother talking about music without including clips for the audience; I won't utter that old "dancing about architecture" line, but come on, we gotta hear the stuff before you dissect it. These, however, are mere issues of polish, ones that a deserved kingship should provide the impetus to address.

[Direct all correspondence to colinjmarshall at gmail. Podthoughts discussion thread available here.]

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