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I may have mentioned this before, but I’m a podcast addict.

The list of podcasts I’m subscribed to currently exceeds eighty. Seriously. Not that I listen to every episode they all put out, and some of them are probably dead or at best wildly infrequent.

But there’s fairly continuous churn. I’m constantly dropping and picking up series as I discover new stuff or lose interest.

Here, then, are my five favourite podcasts that I picked up in 2016. Something on this list for most kinds of listeners and they’re all worth your time, at the very least for sampling purposes.

Crimetown
From the podcast empire that is Gimlet Media, this is by far – by far – my favourite true crime podcast amongst those I’ve tried. The genre exploded in the wake of Serial, of course, and I’ve found one or two other decent ones. But Crimetown is astonishingly good. It’s a hugely ambitious serialised documentary about organised crime, local politics and law enforcement in Providence, Rhode Island; mostly in the 1980s. It’s like a true-life audio version of The Wire. Full of recurring characters, interviews, archive recordings. Unmissable.

Liftoff
The place I get 90+% of my astronomy, space exploration etc news and info from these days. A highly accessible, all-encompassing bi-weekly update on all things space-related. Rockets, satellites, probes, planets, exo-planets, moons, stars and so on. A wonderful example of what podcasts can do: plugging a gap in TV and radio output through the simple mechanism of two guys who love their subject and know quite a bit about it talking about what’s going on and what’s caught their attention. If you like space stuff, of whatever kind, this is for you. (Part of the RelayFM podcast network, which has a heap of other geek-friendly shows you might want to check out).

Talking Politics
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I sampled quite a few politics-related podcasts last year. The only one I’m still listening to regularly is Talking Politics. It’s from Cambridge University, and it’s mostly just a bunch of folks talking about big picture issues (and sometimes specific events) in politics around the world. Inevitably, there’s an emphasis on British and US politics, but they talk about European stuff a lot and get into major developments elsewhere sometimes. Kind of non-partisan in that they’re more interested in understanding what’s going on than pushing specific agendas, but the individual participants do, of course, have opinions so possibly not for you if you’re allergic to the so-called ‘intellectual elite’.

2000AD Thrill-Cast
For those who don’t know, 2000AD is a legendary British sf anthology comic that started up in the late 1970s and – kind of miraculously – is still going. A truly formative experience for a big chunk of us Brits whose interests lay in that direction. Even those who don’t know it might have heard of Judge Dredd, it’s most famous character, right? This is their official podcast, loaded with interviews with famed writers and artists, talk about the comic’s history, key past and current stories and characters etc. etc. If you ever enjoyed 2000AD, you should listen to it. If you’re into comics, you should listen to it. If neither of those things apply to you … maybe not?

Imaginary Worlds
A podcast that looks at the culture surrounding sf and fantasy in all media. Sympathetic, smart and rarely obvious, it’s touched on a crazily wide variety of topics: Star Wars, Harry Potter, Avatar: the Last Airbender, LARPing, D&D, fantasy maps, Godzilla, Batman … the list goes on and on. Invariably just as is interested in the people who consume and support the media as it is in the properties themselves, it’s a weirdly unifying approach to all of geek culture.

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I’d probably have a whole other list if I did this next month, but I thought it’d be fun to rattle through my five favourite podcasts right now, off the top of my head. I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts, so there’s an absolute heap of deserving stuff I’m not mentioning, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. And one other thing: these aren’t exactly recommendations. I’m entirely ignoring the question of whether these particular podcasts might appeal to anyone other than me. They appeal to me enormously, for sometimes personal or idiosyncratic reasons, and that’s all it takes to get them on this list … you have been warned …

In no particular order:

Revolutions – a great history podcast that’s working it’s way through a load of the world’s most significant revolutions, one per season. The British Civil War and American Revolution have been covered, now we’re deep into the big daddy of revolutions: the French. Each episode is reasonably short, the tone is accessible and very appealing. Full of fascinating details and wry humour. Great.

Let’s Talk Comics – there’s no particular shortage of interview podcasts relating to comics out there, and I listen to several, at least now and again. This one is frequent, well-produced and delivers pretty meaty interviews with a pretty wide range of people involved in the mainstream comics industry: artists, writers, publishers etc etc. Tends to take a life-story approach, and it’s always interesting to hear how people first got started in the medium, as both reader and professional creators.

Hello Internet – some folks will just not like this one, I suspect. It’s a fine example of the ‘two guys talking’ podcasting school. No specific theme, though many recurring topics, so its appeal depends entirely on how interesting or engaging you find the two guys and the subjects they choose to talk about. Me, I’m interested and engaged. These guys make their livings from their YouTube channels (in fact, they’re both quite famous YouTubers), and I find stuff relating to that fascinating when it comes up. One of them also has a highly distinctive and structured view of the world and of life that you may or may not always agree with (or even find palatable) but it makes for entertaining, thought-provoking and often amusing listening at times.

Wait, What? – my favourite comics-related podcast. I like it so much I pay for it, via Patreon! Another entry in the ‘two guys talking’ category, this time talking very specifically about comics. All sorts of comics. It’s sometimes meandering, sometimes tangential, sometimes doing a deep-dive into stuff I know very little about, but for whatever reason I always enjoy it.

TetZoo – and here we are at the quirkily unique end of the podcasting spectrum. What’s podcasting for if it can’t produce the kind of audio you just would never, ever hear anywhere else? This is a scientific podcast with a focus on tetrapod (i.e. anything with four limbs) zoology. I’ve got a lot of zoology in my educational background, so I can follow most of what’s going on, but fair warning: quite a bit of jargon is involved. However, because this is podcasting rather than radio, there’s also a lot of silly humour, cryptozoology, sf movie talk, running jokes, vaguely disorganised unprofessionalism. I really like it. Once again, it’s ‘two guys talking’, and it’s very like eavesdropping on them just having a rambling chat in the pub.

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I’ve been slowly sinking further into the Twitter lark over the past few months. Baby steps, you know? But I’m really quite immersed now. Which is another way of saying: if you’re actually curious about what I’m doing, seeing, thinking etc., you should probably follow me on Twitter these days. I show up over there a whole lot more than here nowadays.

As a sampler, just three things I’ve talked about, or tweeted about, or retweeted over there of late:

An Inventory of crap on the ocean floor.

A vaguely surreal, cumulatively creepy drive through the streets of the world capital of mad and sad: Pyongyang, North Korea. The longer I watched it, the more I found myself thinking ‘this is just … weird.’ So clean, so empty, so lifeless. So few people.

See what fun I’m having over there? Honestly, this is what fun looks like. Really. Anyway, feel free to follow my fun.

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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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I like parasites.  They do the craziest things; things that rightfully belong in sf, fantasy or horrror fiction rather than the real world.  Like create zombie ants. Biology’s a great place to trawl for story ideas.

If you’re currently eating anything, might be an idea to finish that before watching this.  Just saying.

CreatureCast – Lancet Liver Fluke from Casey Dunn on Vimeo.

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Here’s some interesting reading.  The US National Intelligence Council has released its Global Trends 2030 report, which you can get as a free pdf download here (the pdf via DNI.gov link is the one you want).  It’s a chunky document – 160 odd pages – but full of interesting odds and ends to feed the imagination.

To be honest, it’s full of not especially interesting qualifications and statements of the fairly obvious, too, but that’s because 2030 isn’t actually all that far away so to a certain extent they’re predicting the continuation of trends that are already well underway. Still, it’s interesting to see someone trying to pull everything together and reach some sort of consensus on what the big shapers of the short-term future are going to be (clue: the word ‘China’ crops up a lot).

There’s so much stuff that I could pick out for mulling over that it’s far too much for one post, so we’ll call this Part 1 and see if I ever get round to coming up with a Part 2 or more.  Maybe I will, maybe I won’t

So, to start with:

There’s a good deal of talk about the potential effects of NEW TECHNOLOGIES in various fields. The track record of anyone predicting with any real accuracy the exact nature and – even more so – the social and cultural effects of new technologies, even on a relatively short timespan, is not great, so all this kind of stuff is really just thought experiment.

But the thing I thought most interesting is a (slightly subtextual) theme running through some of those discussions in the report: that developing countries might well stand to benefit more than developed countries from even quite dramatic technological innovations (like 3D printing, for example). Although the initial benefits are in the places rich enough to be early adopters, the real game-changing transformation (with truly global effects) wrought by these technologies might be elsewhere, slightly later.  I think there’s already an example of this kind of thing: mobile phones have had a huge impact in the rich world, but in truth I think that impact is rather superficial and incremental; whereas in Africa it might be genuinely transformational of society and economy.  And if you transform Africa’s society and economy, you inevitably get globally transformational results.

The exception to that thing about new techonologies is shale gas extraction, combined with improved ability to access tricky-to-get-at oil, in the US.  I think many of us Brits aren’t fully aware of quite what a big deal this is in the States (maybe lots of Americans aren’t either?), although it’s starting over here too.  Anyway, I was struck but just how potentially pivotal a moment the authors of this report think it might have been when some bright spark said ‘Hmmm, I think I might have an idea how to get that gas out of there … let’s call it fracking.’

The flood of oil and gas that innovative production techniques has unleashed in the USA could have dramatic and far-reaching effects, according to this report, and other commentators.  Imagine the geopolitical ramifications of a world in which it’s not the US but China that relies on Middle Eastern oil; or the environmental and economic effects of plunging oil prices.  Incidentally, I get the impression that the folks behind this report think massive exploitation of the USA’s domestic energy reserves of this sort is pretty much the only plausible driving factor for continuing USA economic prosperity, expansion and dominance of the sort that characterised the second half of the 20th century; without it, they seem to be anticipating continuous and probably accelerating comparative US decline of the sort that’s arguably been underway for quite a few years now.

And one last sidenote on technology: there’s no talk in here at all, unless I missed it, of space technology or exploration.  No colonising missions to Mars, no asteroid mining, no transformational effects of Asian space programmes.  Which strikes me as a pretty accurate prediction.  Amazing how the optimism and ambition for space-related stuff of just a few decades back has been extinguished to the extent that it’s not worth even mentioning in the context of 2030.

The most fun bit of the report, especially for science fiction fans, is the bit where they talk about BLACK SWAN EVENTS that could throw everything up in the air at almost any point.  Although, to be honest, they’re a little bit predictable and unexciting as black swan events go.  Which suggests, if nothing else, that if such an event does show up, it’s as likely to be something they haven’t thought of … that being kind of the definition of a black swan event, really.

Global pandemic – yeah, don’t suppose anyone would leave that off such a list these days.  Nuclear war – sadly not something you could pretend isn’t possible, even if it’s unlikely to be a globally destructive one these days.  Solar geomagnetic storms – well, technically could happen, so fair enough to include it I guess (but no catastrophic asteroid strike?  Less likely, I know, but always fun – in the loosest sense of the word – to ponder).

And also not showing up in the list: NASA discovers life on another planet.  Which I guess wouldn’t have sufficiently massive impact or effects to qualify as a black swan of the sort they’re listing, but still: fits in with the pattern of space-stuff just ain’t that big a deal, even if it has profound scientific or philosophical implications.

Then you get to … faster climate change.  And oh, don’t get me started on the subject of climate change.  All I’ll say is: faster climate change is, I’d guess, an order of magnitude more likely than any other of the supposedly ‘black swan’ events listed in this report.  I don’t think it remotely qualifies as a black swan.  Indeed it’d be so unsurprising to me if it turned out to be the case that I’d call it a white swan with maybe just a hint of grey about a few of its feathers.

And that’s probably enough for now.  Plenty more to talk about (including the stuff that strikes me as the most potentially significant determiners of our 2030 future) if I ever do get around to Part 2 …

 

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So, we – as a species, obviously; I had nothing to do with it personally – landed a thing the size of a small car on Mars.

It’s amazing, I think.  On a clear night, you can sometimes see a particular point of light in the sky, and we sent a robot car there.  It’s up there, trundling about on that tiny point of light in the sky right now.  A trivial miracle in the world of science fiction space operas, but in the more modest reality we’re required to live in it’s a wonderful thing.

I get all the reasons why the various exploratory space programs have been so curtailed over recent decades; I understand why the miracle of putting men on the Moon forty plus years ago hasn’t led to the still greater miracles it could (and in a perfect world, perhaps would) have led to.

It’s a shame, though, that our astounding capacities – which the Curiosity rover demonstrates in a relatively modest way – haven’t had the chance to bloom unchecked. If they had, we’d probably be drilling down through Europa’s ice by now, and enjoying the visions of planetary dystopia provided by multiple probe landings on the Earth’s psychotic twin.

But for now I guess it’s enough to look at an apparently mundane image like this, taken within the last 24 hours:

and reflect on the fact that it is, and always will be, amazing to get photos from another world.  Especially when, as this rather over-excited video explains, the method of getting a camera into place to take those photos is so wonderfully, spectacularly like something out of a science fiction movie it seems wildly improbable:

I mean, they landed this car-sized thing, on a planet millions upon millions of miles away, with a rocket-powered Skycrane. Seriously? To me, that looks like the kind of wildly over-optimistic concept put about by technologists or futurists now and again; looks fantastic, but somehow never quite works out, because of all the technical and practical complications they never mention in the full flow of their optimisim.  But this time, they really did it.  Cool.

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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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