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A quick post, prompted by my (very belated) discovery of a blog I really like, which connects to a podcast I also like to jointly deliver a World War II theme.

The blog first: World War II Today is one of those brilliant ideas that only the internet, and blog architecture in particular, makes possible. A day by day chronicle of WWII, presented in a ‘today, 70 years ago’ format with oodles of attention to detail and professionalism. Very cool. Obviously works best if you put it into your rss feed or some other subscription-like service, so you get a daily update. I love both the idea and its implementation. It’s a really remarkable achievement, I think.

The podcast second: The History of WWII Podcast is a staggering undertaking. A biweekly, or thereabouts, podcast delivering an enormously detailed narrative of … well, pretty much everything that happened during WWII. It melts my brain even to consider the amount of time and effort that’s going into this. I don’t even know how long it’s already been running for (I assume years), but it’s on episode 83 or so, and has reached early 1941. Japan and Russia and the US aren’t even really involved yet. This one could run and run. The early episodes are a little bit rough around the edges, but as time goes on they become more and more polished and well-narrated.

If, like me, you like your history, especially with a military flavour, these two are gems. That is all.

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It’s been a rough week or two for your local podcast addict (that’s me).

First, my venerable, cheap little mp3 player reached the end of its useful life. It did so in small increments, over a month or so, but finally started doing so many unpredictable and unhelpful things that I was functionally unable to listen to podcasts. This, it turns out, is not a state of affairs I am comfortable with. I got antsy and agitated. I cursed the poor little mp3 player every time it didn’t work as it should. I got angry with it, which is a frankly pathetic and humiliating state for a grown man to get into with a tiny bit of tech kit that lets him listen to stuff.

Finally, I panicked. Yes, panicked. I entered some weird kind of dissociative state in which the absolute number one priority in my life was to get hold of a new mp3 player. Not in a day or two – which would have allowed me to pick and choose and assess options carefully and buy it online – no, I had to have it immediately. So I went to a shop and bought the cheapest one they had in stock. End result: I can listen to podcasts again, but I’m doing so on a little piece of junk player that’s completely inappropriate for the job and I’m going to have to buy a properly selected new one very, very soon.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere, but I’m not sure precisely what it is so I’ve clearly failed to learn it.  So it goes.

And now, it turns out a patent troll is attempting to destroy podcasting entirely.  You have got to be kidding.  Except not: there really is a company out there (called Personal Audio) claiming it holds a patent for basically the entire concept of podcasting – not the technology or precise methodology or any particular techniques involved, you understand, the concept – and that everyone everywhere should therefore stop doing it or pay them a fee.

This is a ridiculous idea, if you ask me.  With due apologies to any US visitors, I’ve got to say that the US patent and legal systems are not, however, exactly renowned for their unfailing opposition to that which initially appears ridiculous, so the whole thing’s got serious enough that the Electronic Frontier Foundation is now involved, with a (hopefully hyperbolically titled) Save Podcasting Campaign.

Patent trolls are not good or helpful in any area of endeavour, if you ask me (which nobody did, obviously).  Patent trolls who go after something to which I’m very obviously hopelessly addicted (see above) feel like they’ve personally and vindictively researched my interests and drawn up a business plan, the main objective of which is making my life that little bit less enjoyable.  Boo hiss, I say.  If it looks like the evil troll is getting anywhere, I may even have to go so far as to donate money to the knights in shining armour trying to slay it …

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Two of my very favourite podcasts this time around. Paradoxically, the two specific episodes I’m going to point at are not exactly typical of the podcasts concerned (if anything, they’ve kind of swapped their normal areas of interest with one another in these particular cases), but they’re both good and they’re right in the bullseye of some of my own interests. Zombies! Biology! Cryptozoology! This is exciting stuff to me, hence the exclamation marks.

Monster Talk is pretty much always a fun show, especially if you’re interested in … well, not strictly monsters, but cryptozoological and superntural oddities in general.  All of it seen from a skeptical, scientifically informed point of view.

This time around, though, with the March 20th episode, entitled The Zombie Apocalypse, they’re talking real science and real creatures, and real crazy stuff at that.  Fungi that turn ants into zombies.  Parasites that (this sounds crazy, but it’s actual science) … parasites that live in 12% of Americans’ brains, 60% of French brains (!), and can affect human behaviour.  Rabies as a behaviour-modifying parasite.  All sorts of fascinating stuff.

TetZoo is a new kid on the podcast block, and a rather different kettle of fish.  It’s a pretty full-on zoology ‘cast, going into fascinating detail on all manner of things relating to animals, extant or extinct.  Those with four limbs, anyway, which is why its full title is Tetrapod Zoology.  Lots of serious and (if you’re like me) fascinating science, strange facts about the living world, stuff about dinosaurs and their kin.  Plus occasional discussions of sf and horror movies.  Just because.

But the hosts, Darren Naish and John Conway, are also interested in cryptozoology (approaching it from a scientific, skeptical but not entirely dismissive point of view) so this week for their third episode they produced a looong episode all about bigfoot and the sadly ever less convincing evidence for the big hairy ape-man’s actual existence (not that I ever thought it was remotely convincing, mind you).  All the background you could ever wish for, if you’re curious about what sensible, informed folks think about the sasquatch these days.

And as a side-note, John Conway makes nice pictures.  I think he’d be an interesting choice for anyone looking for an out-of-the-ordinary book cover …

Previous instalments of Perusing the Podverse, wherein I reveal just how odd my listening habits are (and believe me, we’ve only scratched the surface of my podcast addiction so far), can be found here.

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In years gone by, I’ve tended to pop out a Miscellany post to mark the festive season.  Don’t know why.  Don’t know why I’m about to do it again, but here I go.

For Likers of Sketches

D(ungeons) & D(ragons) & D(oodles) is a fun little tumblr from Tom Fowler, featuring amusing and striking sketches of a fantastical sort.  Only a handful of images there so far, but it’s worth a look.  Guy can draw.

Image is (c) 2012 Tom Fowler / BIGBUGIllustration.com.  Just so you know.

Weekly Sketch Up is a weekly (funnily enough) column at iFanboy that collates and reposts some of the nicest recent comics-related sketches showing up on the interwebs.  Well worth a browse if you like to see comics artists having a bit of fun.

For Likers of Expensive/Dangerous Toys

Probably too late for this year, but how about asking for a JetLev Flyer when the next gift-giving season comes around?

Or perhaps I could tempt you with a wingsuit?

For Likers of Photography

2012 was, I think, one of the better recent years for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, a long-running British institution for those of us who like (a) wildlife and (b) pictures of it.

You can browse a full online gallery of the best images of 2012 on the Natural History Museum website. I confess, it’s a bit of a pig of a site, navigation-wise; but with a little bit of pointing and clicking you can get a look at some stunning wildlife photos (when you eventually find an ‘Enlarge’ button, click that and you will be amply rewarded). And if that tickles your fancy, well you can browse another seven years’ worth of photos there as well.

The exhibition of the winning photos has already started a global tour which runs through next year, and if it’s showing up anywhere near you I’d highly recommend checking it out. Seeing the actual photos at full size is quite the experience if you’re into this kind of thing. Mysteriously, the tour doesn’t seem to include the USA – sorry, USA folks.

For Likers of … Well, Wild Scots Really

These folks show up on the streets of Edinburgh most summers, always drawing a big crowd of passers-by and always being about the best street theatre you could ever wish for: Albannach

Albannach @ Sunday Pub Sing from Highland Renfair on Vimeo.

And since I’m on the subject of music, let’s repeat my old and tired trick of putting a bit of guitar in these miscellany posts. This time, it’s courtesy of Antoine Dufour:

For Likers of Apocalypses (and Podcasts)

As the world’s ending … tomorrow, is it? … why not treat yourself to a podcast on the topics of apocalypses?

Apocalypse Now and Then from the BackStory podcast is a fun and informative dig around in the history of apocalypses and end-times in the USA.

And thanks to Edd Vick for directing me to the BackStory podcast as a whole, back in the comments on this post.  That’s how us podcast lovers spread the love, after all; it’s all about word of mouth.  So why not check out this extensive exercise in word of mouth over at SF Signal on the subject of SF/F podcasts, and do some exploring in the audio wonderland?  There’s something in there for everyone. (Everyone who likes a bit of sf or F, anyway).

Should, for some unforeseen reason, the world fail to end, Happy Holidays to one and all.  Hope everyone gets a minimum of stress and a maximum of happiness over the festive season.  (If the world does end, that minimum and maximum will no doubt be reversed, but don’t fret it; it’ll all be over soon, I imagine).

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Nobody much likes Mondays, right?  Well, not most people anyway.

Here’s three little things from the internet that might entertain or interest you, to compensate for the fact that the next weekend is once again as far away as it’s ever going to get.

First, an audio short storyBullet in the Brain is by Tobias Wolff, and was published in The New Yorker.  In this podcast right here, it’s read and discussed.  It’s by some distance my favourite story out of those I listened to when going through my ‘listen to all The New Yorker‘s story podcasts’ phase a year or two ago.  Beautifully written, terrifically clever, yet really quite short and simple.  In fact, I might have to go listen to it again myself once I’m done with this post …

Second, a tumblr that made me smileDiana Prince’s Diary is a masterful little bit of whimsy.  Diana Prince is, for anyone who doesn’t know, Wonder Woman’s identity in mundane society.  Bridget Jones’ Diary is, for anyone who doesn’t know … well, everyone knows what Bridget Jones’ Diary is, right?  So, this tumblr is a melding of the two: Wonder Woman’s diary in the pitch-perfect tone and style of Bridget Jones.  V. funny.

And third, participatory democracy at its very best.  The Whitehouse has an official online petition system, whereby if enough people (currently 25,000) sign a petition the authorities are required to give a formal considered response to the request their citizens are making.  So, at the time of writing, just over 23,000 more signatures are required to force the US Government to reveal its position on the proposal to ‘Establish a new legal system of motorcycle-riding ‘Judges’ who serve as police, judge, jury and executioner all in one’.  Sounds like a plausible idea to me, though I can foresee one or two pitfalls.  Come to think of it, it sounds like a vaguely familiar idea …  Splendid.

(the Diana Prince tumblr via Comics Beat, the Judge Dredd petition via Bleeding Cool)

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This is by a looong way the most famous and widely listened podcast I’m ever likely to mention in one of these podverse posts, and therefore the one least in need of me flagging it up. But I figure there must be people out there who don’t know about it, and it is in any case a good gateway for those not yet converted to the joy of the podcast universe because it’s got good, meaty content and high production values.

The Nerdist Podcast is kind of the flagship show on what has become a virtual independent mutli-media empire run by Chris Hardwick.  There’s a whole load of other podcasts and even video shows that form part of the ecosystem, not many of which I actually know much about though I suspect there’s something in there you’d like, but I am here today to point at the flagship.

Specifically, a couple of recent episodes that I kind of liked.

Nerdist #277 is worth checking out, for two reasons.  Those two reasons are, conveniently, the two items that each make up half the show.  First is a conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson, which covers all sorts of stuff I find interesting, most of it clustered around the subject of Science.  Quite a few fun little bits and some pretty serious little bits in there, such as examples of spectacularly bad design in human evolution, the point of education, different ways of solving a Rubik’s Cube etc.  The second half of the show – it was released round about Halloween – is a ‘true’ ghost story.  You may or may not find it creepy, or even enjoy it, but I was quite taken with it mainly just because I think it’s no easy thing for someone to sit there and deliver an apparently unscripted, extended monologue about their own creepy experiences that is remotely engaging or has any kind of satisfying narrative flow and pacing.  I thought they did a good job, even if it maybe goes on just a little bit too long.

Nerdist #279 is an interview with Kevin Bacon.  It’s a good example of what I like about such podcast conversations: so long as the interviewee is willing to play along they can often get to places, and cover material, that you would very rarely see discussed at any length in print or on TV.  That’s partly because they’re often long (this is up around the hour mark, and there’s hardly anywhere left in our short attention span culture – other than podcasts – where you hear or see famous people talking at such length) and partly because, I imagine, they feel less formal and perhaps less consequential to the celebrity involved, and they’re therefore more inclined to go with the flow.  It’s not quite as casual as just eavesdropping on an unstructured conversation, but it’s not a million miles away from that either.  So here you get Kevin Bacon talking about finding a cheap apartment in New York in the 1970s, his 90 year-old father’s campaigning and protesting, the experience of being in the Animal House movie, the addictive nature of fame, and much else.  It’s a good, calm listen.

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My undoubtedly fruitless quest to convince the world that podcasts are the future of entertainment, education and quite possibly all human interaction continues, with an all-history extra-full instalment.

History is the cream on the cake of my life.  Or something like that.  It’s a source of fascination, pleasure, thought-provocation, endless and limitless in its capacity to pass my time in a way that feels at least a little bit worthwhile.  I sincerely believe it’s an immensely fertile preoccupation for any writer, or wannabe writer, of speculative fiction in general and fantasy in particular.  There’s nothing like a few history podcasts to remind you that the real world has produced more strangeness, wonder, complexity and subtlety of event than any writer of the fantastic ever dreamed up.

So I thought I’d wheel out the creme de la creme, with some examples of recent history podcasts that tickled my fancy.

Annoyingly, I can’t find any easy way of linking to individual episodes for your downloading pleasure, so I’m going to be pointing the way to looong lists of episodes here, with some specific directions for where to find whatever I’m talking about in particular.  But that’s no bad thing, to be honest, because the podcasts in question offer rich, rich pickings for anyone inclined to some self-guided browsing.

First up: In Our Time, which I think I’ve mentioned here before, long ago.  It’s a BBC radio production, with every episode podcasted after broadcast.  It’s a fast-paced but serious exploration by academics of one topic per episode – anything from scientific theories to history to philosophy to literature.  That might sound a bit off-putting, but in the main it’s kept pretty accessible and informative.  Every so often, it delivers an eye-opening, entertaining introduction to something I’ve never heard of, never thought about, never cared about; you can’t ask for much more than that.

You can find the 43 most recent episodes right here, and there’s a ton of good listening there.  On the history side, a couple that particularly interested me, starting with Hadrian’s Wall, on July 12th.  Britain’s biggest and most dramatic ancient monument (makes Stonehenge look like a dinky little set of stone dominoes, really), and a lasting testament to the deep, deep roots of Anglo-Scottish … tension, should we call it?

And a bit more downward scrolling (passing along the way King Solomon, the Trojan War and Marco Polo, all of which are quite interesting in one way or another) will get you to Clausewitz’s On War, at May 17th, which I liked because I’d heard of the man and his book often enough, without ever knowing anything much about it.  This episode fixed that, although – as is sometimes the case – it left me wanting to know a good deal more.

But don’t let my picks guide your listening: there’s something there for almost anyone, I’d have thought.

Second up: Ideas, which is kind of, sort of, like a Canadian version of In Our Time, except that it’s done as more straightforward documentaries/interviews/think pieces.  Shares the characteristic of jumping around all over the map of human thought and interest, though, and therefore now and again throws up nice little historical items.

Again, list of recent podcasts is to be found here, and a modest little bit of scrolling will get you to three episodes called The Sword Brothers, Parts 1, 2 and 3, which deal with, in order, The Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller and the Teutonic Knights.

Just amazing: religiously inspired warriors founding and defending hospitals for pilgrims, crusading, terrorising – in the case of the Teutonic Knights – huge areas.  Full of fascinating details – especially part 3 for me, because I knew least about the Teutonic Knights before listening – and a great introduction to the crusading Orders in general.  A thing I never knew, and which I thought was cool: one of those three knightly orders survived all the way through to the present day, and still exists, more or less.  Crazy thing, history.

Third up: The Norman Centuries.  Another one I think I might have mentioned here before, but if so I can’t resist revisiting.  Everyone who takes an interest in history tends to acquire a particular affection for or interest in specific little bits of it, odd little corners of the human past that for one reason or another seem especially interesting.   For me, it’s the Byzantine Empire, and indirectly its competitors/opponents/allies.  Of all those competitors, the Norman Kingdom of Sicily is probably the most unusual, romantic and perhaps the least generally known.

While William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, was busy conquering England in the 11th century, other of his ambitious compatriots were doing the same to southern Italy.  The end result was a multi-cultural Kingdom that lasted far longer than it had any right to and during its lifetime challenged, sometimes humbled and often deeply alarmed the greatest powers of the age: the Byzantine Emperor, the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.

This is done as straightforward, relatively brief talks that build up into an extended narrative history of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily from its origins to (presumably, because they haven’t got there yet) its end.  Helpfully, they appear in chronological order at that link, so you can start at the top and work your way down.  It’s easy listening, and really is an amazing tale of what a few well-armed and determined men could achieve at that time in history, if they had the bloody-minded ambition to fight for what they wanted.

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The Ink Panthers Show is an example of a particular category of podcasts that, generally, I like the idea of more than the reality.  You might call it the ‘garage podcast’.  Friends just getting together, talking about stuff and putting it out on the internet for everyone to hear.

The friends in this case are Mike Dawson and Alex Robinson.  They happen to be comics creators, so a certain amount of their talk (and most of their occasional guests) are comic-related in one way or another, but on the whole it’s just them talking about stuff that’s happened to them, or that they’ve seen.  It’s generally not very serious, occasionally N quite SFW, now and again just a little politically incorrect.

What makes the show, for me, is that special ingredient without which no show like this can thrive: the chemistry between the two main hosts.  A lot of their humour is self-deprecating, which also appeals to me.

This particular episode, The Ink Panthers Show 124, gets the (dubious) honour of being mentioned mainly for its second half, in which they discuss psychopaths.  They inadvertently, through the application of the accepted diagnostic psychopathy checklist, discover that the internet itself is technically psychopathic.  I just thought this was funny, because of how creepily precise is the match between the criteria and the behaviour displayed on (certain parts of) the internet.

I mean, here – culled from Wikipedia – are the ‘core personality traits of psychopathy’:

  • Glibness/superficial charm
  • Pathological lying
  • Cunning/manipulative
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Shallow affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)
  • Callousness/lack of empathy
  • Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Sounds like the internet to me. Totally.

They then go on to talk about flying, riffing off this specific clip:

Which, I have to say, looks decidedly improbable but isn’t an obvious fake, so who knows?  Also interesting in that I don’t speak German, but it seems pretty obvious that the guy’s swearing in his excitement at the end, and I never knew German swearing sounded so much like English swearing (although it makes sense, since I knew the the word in question was very old and pretty much the definition of the phrase ‘Anglo-Saxon’).  You learn something new every day.

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The next instalment in my stubborn effort to convice the world that podcasts are the best thing since … well, the best thing ever, really.

People always say you shouldn’t look too deeply into the question of how sausages are made.  I disagree.  I find almost any insight into the process and trade secrets of almost any human endeavour intersting.  I’m peculiar like that.

The Nerdist Writers Panel is the inside story of how US television series get made; or, more precisely, the unique and odd way in which they get written.  In every episode, three or four writers who worked on series you know and may or may not love – Buffy, Terra Nova, Community, Walking Dead, Supernatural, CSI, Fringe, etc etc – get together and talk frankly and often amusingly about all the behind the scenes stuff.

It’s revealing and informative and sheds a lot of light on a kind of writing that’s radically different from almost any other.  Fascinating and entertaining, even if you’ve no desire to ever be a TV writer yourself; indispensible if you do have such a desire, I should imagine.

My favourite recent episode is number 26, but I’d honestly recommend just about any episode to anyone interested in hearing gifted creators talk passionately and honestly about the joys and frustrations of working in one of the toughest entertainment businesses on the planet.

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I came to a startling (for me, anyway) realization a few weeks ago.  It was this: of all the entertainment channels available to me in this media-saturated world, the one that I actually spend most time being entertained by is podcasts.  Yes, I spend more time listening to podcasts than I do reading, watching TV, whatever.

The reason’s pretty obvious, when you think about it.  Audio is the one form of entertainment you can slot into a multi-tasking arrangement, so I can consume podcasts while driving, walking, shopping, picking my nose etc.  Now I could do the same thing with radio, of course – and to some extent I do – but being a podcast junkie is like having in my pocket a constantly available radio station wherein every single bit of content has been personally selected by me to conform to my eclectic tastes.  Awesome, in short.  I’ve thought for a long time that podcasting is one of the more under-rated wonders that the internet has delivered to us.

So, I thought I’d embark on an occasional series of posts here highlighting podcast episodes I’ve listened to and enjoyed recently.

To kick things off, I offer up for your consideration Astronomy Cast #246.

My favourite recent edition of an often interesting podcast, in which knowledgeable folks discuss a question of interest to armchair astronomers, science fiction fans and writers alike: What If Something Was Different?  By which they mean, what would be the implications for Earth, life and everything if some of the circumstances surrounding our planet’s location, evolution or condition had been different.  They address all sorts of stuff from the cosmic – what if the Earth’s Sun had been one of those formed in the very, very early stages of the Universe’s life? – to the more local – what if Earth had a different number of moons?

It’s mind-expanding stuff, not only in making you think about seriously big picture stuff and providing a bit of pretty accessible cosmological education, but also in marvelling at the capacity of the human species to ask, and at least partially answer, questions like this.  If you feel your mind could do with a bit of expansion today, do go give it a listen.

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