Tad’s Podcast Recommendations

I have a long commute. I listen to lots of podcasts. I want other people to listen to the podcasts that I like, and I’ve spent a long time finding a bunch of them that I find reliably entertaining and/or informative (usually both). I’ll update this page as I discover new ones. Please feel free to recommend podcasts you think should be on this list.


this lifeThis American Life

This is the first podcast I ever listened to…because I listened to it before it was a podcast. I remember hearing the first episode of TAL on KQED in San Francisco in 1995. I was hooked.

Episodes made their way online fairly soon after and that was the main way I listened, starting with Real Player and eventually downloading mp3 files.

I can’t imagine that there are that many folks out there who haven’t heard TAL, but if you haven’t, start with these lists of episodes chosen by the creators of the show:

The Short List

Other Favorites

Early Shows (I recommend “Who’s Canadian” from this list)

They produced two seasons of a TV show based on the series, and it was pretty darn good, too. In 2014, Ira Glass, Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass toured a fantastic stage show that combined Ira telling stories and Monica and Anna dancing. It should not have worked, but absolutely did. If One Radio Host and Two Dancers comes back around, go see it!


JJhoThe Judge John Hodgman Podcast

I’ve been a fan of John Hodgman before I knew who he was. He was the wrote and performed two of my favorite This American Life segments:

Invisible Man vs. Hawkman

It’s Another Tequila Sunrise

In fact, I recommended “Invisible Man vs Hawkman” to people for years before I put it together that that voice was the same as the PC guy from the Apple commercials! The point is that I remain a fan of John Hodgman and I was excited to hear that not only does he have a podcast, but it’s a People’s Court style adjudication podcast!

On every episode, Judge John Hodgman hears a “case” brought against each other by listeners who Skype into the “courtroom.” Bailiff Jesse Thorn acts as a combination Rusty Burrell and Doug Llewelyn and alternately keeps the proceedings on track and derails them. I like the podcast, but I fell in love with it after Episode 103: Gas, Grass, or Justice on which Paul F. Tompkins is a guest expert in the case, but hangs around to clear the docket with the judge and the two go on a long ramble about haunted hotels.


Flophouse_ATC The Flop House Podcast

I found The Flop House when it was mentioned on the Judge John Hodgman podcast. Hodgman met Flophouse co-host Elliott Kalan on The Daily Show, where Kalan is now Head Writer, and Hodgman is a semi-regular correspondent. Why would I not try a podcast about bad movies recommended by both Judge John Hodgman and Bailiff Jesse Thorn?

It actually took me a while to start listening to The Flop House because I mistakenly thought I should see the movies being discussed before listening. I finally found one I had seen to start with and…it didn’t matter!

The guys watch a bad movie before recording the podcast and then summarize the plot (if possible) and then pass judgement (is it a goo/bad movie, a bad/bad movie, or a movie they kind of like). Then they recommend good movies you actually should watch, followed by a letters section. Not only do you not have to watch the movies before listening, they might keep you from watching a truly terrible movie.

But insight into terrible movies is not the reason to listen to The Flop House. The hilarious banter between Kalan, fellow Daily Show writer, Dan McCoy and their pal Stuart Wellington is the reason. These are three extremely funny guys who also have the easy comfort of long-time friends…and you will soon find yourself drawn into this group of friends and their in-jokes. Remember the first time you laughed at an MST3K callback to an earlier episode. That will happen listening to The Flop House.

Start after episode 11, when Elliott became a regular on the show. Do start back in the early episodes and work your way forward to enjoy the development of regular features like The Flop House Housecat, letters from Elliott’s brother David, Castle Freak, and words that sound like other words.

Not only is this a podcast I wish I’d thought of, it’s one I wish I was on.


WritersBloc_ATCcoverWriters’ Bloc With J.R. Havlan

I discovered Writers’ Bloc when Elliott Kalan on The Flop House mentioned his upcoming appearance on his Daily Show coworker’s podcast. Do you see a pattern here?

J.R. Havlan was a writer on The Daily show for almost 18 years, and while many of the guests are current or former writers on that show, most of them have gone on to write for other shows, doing the kind of comedy writing that Havlan himself never has: multi-camera sitcoms, single-camera sitcoms, late night talk shows, sketch shows and animation. The result is a writer interviewing writers about the specifics of the type of writing they do.

Want to know what about the writer’s room at The Simpsons? Pitching shows to networks? Blocking in a Community script with dummy dialog to keep things moving when you get stuck on a scene? Havlan asks about all of them and genuinely wants the answers.

He’s the perfect combination of insider and outsider. Required listening for anyone interested in writing for TV.


TWITThis Week in Tech

I’ve been listening to TWiT for almost as long as it has been around. My mom listened to Leo Laporte‘s radio show forever, and I was a big fan of The Screen Savers, and even appeared on the show once with my friend Benton Jew. TWiT is something of a continuation of that TV show in audio and video podcast form.

Unlike Leo’s radio show, TWiT is not really for lay people. It’s for tech nerds who would be interested by a 20 minute discussion of Net Neutrality or the best kind of keyboard. The quality of the show can vary widely depending on that week’s guests, but Leo and good natured crank John C. Dvorak are almost always there to anchor the show.

I don’t listen to the show every week anymore, but instead dip in every month or so.


wtfWTF with Marc Maron

As with This American Life, it’s hard to imagine anyone hasn’t at least heard of WTF if they haven’t listened to it before. And that’s because it’s compelling. And it’s compelling because Marc Maron is a…complex personality, but one you root for…and most of the comedians he interviews are also…complex personalities.

I go through phases with WTF. I’ll listen regularly for a month or so, then stop for a month or so. But every time I his a “meh” episode with perhaps too much Marc Maron drama/news and a less-compelling guest, I notice an interview with someone I really like pops in the queue and I’m back in.

WTF has a premium membership model, so the latest 50 episodes are free, but older episodes are only accessible using the subscription-based app. The good news is that you can buy a single month if you want to binge. I listen free most of the time, but will get a one-month subscription if we’re taking a road trip.

Here are some of my favorite episodes:

Episode 177 - Garry Shandling; This is a great example of WTF at it’s best. Marc’s insecurities play an important role in this interview, and Gary Shandling confirms that he’s a remarkable person as well as a huge comedic talent.

Episode 498 – Ru Paul Charles: This is a great, life-affirming episode. Just great. Ru Paul is on my hero list now.

I didn’t know there was such a thing as being a “comedy nerd” but I guess the box of comedy records in the garage qualify me as one, and probably accounts for my familiarity with so many of Marc’s guests.


SavageLove-lovecast-dan-1400The Savage Lovecast

This one is not for everyone and is NSFW. Dan Savage is, in my opinion, an American hero. With his husband, Terry Miller, Savage created the It Get’s Better Project to address LGBT teen suicide. He also made the Santorum thing happen (no, I’m not going to link to that. You can look it up if you need to). He does good work.

He also hosts a heck of a sex advice podcast.


mothThe Moth

True stories, told onstage. without notes. That is the core of what The Moth is all about. Some of the stories are funny, some will make you cry, but all of them are fascinating.

This is one of my favorites:

“Blues Clues, Stowaways and Marital Surprises” – Steve, the host of Blue’s Clues relates a grown-up story about fame and dating.

Most of the individual stories are less than three minutes long, so The Moth makes for good dishwasher loading/unloading entertainment.


NormNorm MacDonald Live

Each episode of Norm’s interview show starts with a sketch bit with Norm and his sidekick Adam Eget. I reflexively skipped these the first few times I listened (conditioned by Marc Maron), so I could get right to the funny interviews. Then I listened to one. Holy crap. I forgot how funny Norm MacDonald is. I went back and listened to the opening sketches I skipped.

This podcast is not for everyone. You probably already know if you like Norm MacDonald. If you do, give it a try. If not, pick an interview with someone you do like (Russell Brand, Ray Romano, Fred Willard) and give it as try.

I noticed that the interview with Gilbert Gottfried was so long it spanned two episodes. Holy crap. Gilbert and Norm are really funny together. If you like them…which you may not. Gilbert is a thread that runs between several of the podcasts on my list.

This is one that you can either watch on YouTube or listen to as a podcast; I listen to the audio version.


Sunday-School-Logo-April1Penn’s Sunday School

Outspoken atheist, libertarian, reality show contestant, magician, juggler, father, husband, and self-professed asshole, Penn Jillette preaches love every Sunday from his in-home studio in Las Vegas. 

I started listening to this one from the very first episode. For the first four or five of them, Penn was very careful to mention that this podcast thing was an experiment and might go away at any point. Over 100 episodes later, it’s still going strong.

Penn, fellow juggler Michael Goudeau and improv comedian Matt Donnelly discuss current events, cephalopod news, monkeys, and whatever Penn is up to (which right now is a crowd-funded thriller in which he plays the villain). That’s it. Three smart funny guys who like hanging out letting us listen.

Yes, there is lots of (mostly respectful) discussion of religion, atheism, and Libertarianism, but they really so discuss squids and monkeys…and magic.

Like Norm MacDonald’s podcast, when Gilbert Gottfried was a guest on Sunday School, it took multiple episodes to contain the comedy. This one is also available on video and you can watch it live on Sunday afternoon.


 gilbertGilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast!

Here it is. Where the multiple streams of Gilbert Gottfried converge and condense. This podcast is pure, uncut Gilbert. But that can be very funny and he gets guests that he genuinely wants to talk to, even if most people don’t know who they are.

Comics often joke that Gilbert’s newest cultural references in his act are from the 1940s, and they are not really wrong. But I grew up watching The Lone Ranger, The Little Rascals and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon every morning before elementary school. I was also fed a steady diet of classic Universal monster movies. Gilbert’s co-host, Frank Santopadre is an expert on old Hollywood in his own right.

So, guests like Larry Storch, Adam West, Butch Patrick, and Barbara Feldon should not be surprising. Gilbert and Frank are genuine fans of this stuff and are genuine fans of these people. It makes for great interviews…but it’s still Gilbert, so there are questions about Uncle Milton’s…um…equipment, Paul Lynde’s anti-semitism, and Charles Nelson Riley giving his young male costars on Lidsville a bit too much attention between takes.

Oh, and the Danny Aiello episode is amazing!


ByTheWay_1600x1600_Cover-1024x1024By the Way: In Conversation With Jeff Garlin

This one can be a bit polarizing. The “in conversation” part of the title is accurate. Jeff Garlin is doing a good portion of the speaking in this podcast. The good news is that he can be as charming and funny as he is somewhat abrasive and loud.

Most people know Jeff Garlin from Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Larry David was an early guest on the show. The guests are people that Garlin is genuinely fond of or admires and he makes no apologies for gushing more than a bit. And he gets great people to share the stage with him at Largo in Los Angeles.

He does sometimes repeat the same story, and he does use certain phrases over and over (a great big bowl of ________), and that may be a good reason not to binge this podcast.


dead authorsThe Dead Authors Podcast

Paul F. Tompkins is at his best when he becomes H.G. Wells somewhat monthly at UCB to interview dead authors that he has whisked from their own time with his Time Machine. And now you know the premise of this show.

Improv comics and actors play the roles of the authors being interviewed and do either lots of research…or none, before having an improvised conversation with Wells about their lives and work. It works most of the time and when it works best, it is extremely funny.

But Tompkins’ recurring role as Wells is what keeps it all together for me. Over the course of podcasts, we learn of his rivalry with Jules Verne, favorite contemporary TV shows and places in LA where he like to take visitors from other eras. He’s great and this is a role tailor made for him. Chapter 7: P.G. Wodehouse, featuring Brian Stack almost made me wet my pants. ‘Nuff said.


Planet_MoneyPlanet Money Podcast

Planet Money is a spin off of This American Life. It’s origin story begins with a series of reports which aimed (and succeeded) to explain the subprime mortgage crisis in a way that normal people could understand. And then Alex Blumberg and his team kept going, producing more economic stories for TAL, and eventually starting their own podcast.

It turns out I like economics. Or rather, I like economics when it is presented in and interesting and accessible way. This podcast was my gateway drug and the Freakonomics podcast was the next logical step. You may not think you like economics, but you might too, and this podcast is a good way to tell if you do.

Planet Money is an example, like TAL before it, of a radio show that uses reporters with, let’s say unconventional voices as on-air presenters. Zoe Chace would not have found her voice on the air 20 years ago. You might find her annoying at first, but hang in there. Remember how weird Ira Glass and Sarah Vowell sounded at first? And then she got cast as the voice of Violet Parr in The Incredibles. Start with the most recent episode.


startupStartUp

This should not be a compelling podcast.

But it totally is.

This American Life and Planet Money producer, Alex Blumberg is starting a new podcast network and StartUp is the first podcast he is producing. And StartUp is about Blumberg starting his new podcast network, or more precisely securing funding and setting up his new company.

It’s a story you never hear and it’s fascinating. It’s emotional, and educational, and inspirational. If you have any interest in entrepreneurship, venture capital, podcasting, documentary journalism, or if you are just a fan of Alex Blumberg, or Planet Money or This American Life, you should try this podcast. Start at the beginning!


serial-social-logoSerial

Serial is another, more direct spin-off of This American Life and it has the opposite format. Instead of several stories on a theme each episode, Serial follows one story over the course of many episodes…like a serial. For the first season, Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder do an amazing job of pacing and structuring the tale of a murder investigation and conviction that is anything but open and shut. Of all the podcasts I listen to, this is the one I really wait for each week.

I hope they keep doing more and I hope they are able to find more stories that are this compelling and which keep you coming back week after week. Listen from the beginning!


Freakonomics_iTunes_Square-newFreakonomics Radio Podcast

Based on the unlikely bestseller of the same name, this is the other economics podcast I listen to. Economist Steven D. Levitt and writer Stephen J. Dubner are an unlikely team that apply economic principles to all manner of everyday problems and conundrums. It makes for fascinating, informative and often surprising listing. Start with the latest episode (they are often timely), and you’ll know pretty quick if this one is for you. If you like this one, odds are you will like Planet Money. They have very different personalities as podcasts, but look at economics in a similar way. I wish they would join forces on some projects!


real timeReal Time with Bill Maher

This is one of the podcasts that I listen to that is really a TV show masquerading as a podcast. I’m not sure why HBO publishes the audio of Bill Maher’s political comedy panel show, but they do, and I’m glad. It lets me enjoy it even though I don’t subscribe to cable. I’ve been a fan of Maher since Politically Incorrect way back when and he’s only gotten better with the format.

The only downside to listening to the show rather than watching it is missing out on the visual gags that are part of almost every episode. Atheist, liberal, pot-smoking Maher may not be to everyone’s taste, but he gets great guests of every political stripe and treats them all with respect…but does call bullshit on things they say if he thinks they are…well, bullshit.


pd_rachel_video The Rachel Maddow Show

MSNBC goes even farther than HBO and publishes both an audio and a video version of Rachel Maddow’s daily news and opinion show. They used to do the same with Keith Olbermann’s show (before he imploded <sigh>), and that’s where I became a Maddow fan when she used to guest host for him and then got her own show.

I love Rachel Maddow. She is an unabashed Liberal who treats all of her guests with common decency and is careful to correct herself is she makes factual mistakes on the air. But the goal is not to make any such mistakes and she frequently starts interviews with guests by asking “In that introduction did I get anything wrong misrepresent anything?” Who does that? Rachel Maddow.

She’s also goofy and passionate and a friend to our active duty military and veterans alike. She also shares cocktail recipes on many Friday shows. We’ve made several. They are good.


Radiolab_1Radiolab

Radiolab is a podcast version of the popular public radio show about science, the scientific method and the wonder of everyday things. Sometimes this show teeters on the edge of being overproduced, and sometime it goes over that line. Jad Abumrad is a musician as well as a host and radio producer. He loves creating soundscapes. The goal is to help illustrate the often challenging concepts being described on the show. The sometimes distract from it. But usually they do hat they are supposed to. Likewise, co-host Robert Krulwich sometimes aims for goofy and relatable and bleeds uncomfortably close to embarrassing. He doesn’t really end up there ever…but almost.

Having said that, the podcast is really great and does an great job of making science interesting. It’s great storytelling. The “Emergence” and “Colors” episodes are amazing!


99invisible-logo-itunes-badge99% Invisble

Attention design nerds of all kinds! This podcast is for you! While there is a general focus on architectural design, many other kinds of design get love from host Roman Mars.

All game designers should listen to Episode 77: Game Changer right now.

All graphic designers should listen to Episode 54: The Colour of Money and Episode 06: 99% Symbolic (the flag design episode) ASAP.

But the truth is everyone should listen to all three of those episodes, and all of the rest of them, too. They are entertaining, informative and funny.


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Lord Vader Breaks Down A.B.C.

Darth Vader is here from downtown, here from Emperor and Tarkin, on a mission of mercy…

Darth Vader describes the principles of ABC, Always Be Choking on a blackboard

Lord Vader breaks it down.

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Thoughts on Godus

godusAfter a few days playing Godus on my iPad, I thought “Man, I wish there was a normal, not free-to-play version of this.” I also had these thoughts at various points:

  • “Oh man, it’s another Tapped Out-style Skinner Box game!”
  • “Please let there be a way to build a church soon, so that a pastor can automatically collect all this belief for me”
  • “Wait! My people like trees? Why did you teach me that destroying them was a way to earn belief?”
  • “This game is beautiful…and I’m only going to see a tiny part of it.”
  • “Hey! I’m supposed to be playing god, but I’m being manipulated to keep performing tasks and follow arbitrary rules to benefit an unseen game designer.”

Yesterday, after trying unsuccessfully to get a farmer to work on an abandoned field, I checked the web for some info and discovered…there is a normal, not free-to-play version of Godus! The PC and Mac versions are available on Steam! WTF?!

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 6.28.17 PMBut after a quick scan of the support forums, it seems that the $20US, non-iOS version still makes you wait in real-time for things to happen. So, like the free-to-play version, your majority of your time engaging with the game is spent not engaging with it. Don’t most god games give you a way to speed up time at will?

One of my pet peeves is going to see a movie in 2D and seeing loads of shots that were clearly designed for 3D projection…and which totally fail to work in 2D. Why not create alternate versions of the shots for the majority of viewers who will see the film in 2D? It always pulls me right out of the film. I’m looking at you Oz the Great and Powerful.

It sounds like the PC/Mac version of Godus was similarly built as a free-to-play game and plays as such, even if you paid $20US for it.

I blame Peter Molyneux.

I really liked Black and White. I liked Fable. Fable II was pretty fun, but disappointing. Remember what Peter Molyneux promised us the dogs in Fable II would be like?

I wanted a whole game of just that dog!

Finally, just watching Beca play Fable III made me angry. But Godus promised a return to the style of game I loved in Black and White and it looked beautiful. Yes, I would give him another chance.

And I did…for one week. I just deleted Godus from my iPad. Playing it, I constantly felt like I was fending off a particularly aggressive homeless person demanding money every time you are on your way to work (or the store, or the park…).

It’s really too bad. As mentioned (twice), the game is beautiful, sculpting the world is fun, and most disappointingly, you can see a potentially meaningful game there, just under the surface. You can see the game as it may originally have been conceived. One that asks players to ask questions about the nature of wielding godlike power. About how you treat those you are responsible for. About providing trinkets and distraction for believers to keep them loyal. About harming the neighboring tribe to make it less attractive to “your” chosen people.

I want to play that game.

I’m sad that good, thoughtful game designers are being distracted from making good, thoughtful games, because they are chasing the quick money to be made making Skinner Box games.

ftlFTL is a fantastic game that could easily have been wrecked by being shoehorned into a free-to-play model–not that there haven’t been moments when I’ve wished I could pay real money for some extra scrap!

While there have been a few bright spots in the free-to-play space, notably Hearthstone, which makes me very proud to work at Blizzard, it’s mostly junk that plays on the same psychological weaknesses that keep people sitting in front of slot machines for days on end. Candy Crush was fun…until it made me feel terrible.

And yes, I still want to play a version of Fable II in which the dog is the focus.

husky_02

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Leckman Back Yard Renovation Time Lapse

More time-lapse videos of people we paid to destroy our house…

 

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Leckman Kitchen Renovation Time-Lapse

The day before demolition began for our kitchen renovation, I dug out my iPhone 4, a long USB charging cable, a Gorillapod, and updated my copy of iTimeLapse. After a few tests, I set it up to capture the process of destroying and re-building our kitchen.

Watching me pack up the kitchen is not the most exciting start, but it gave me a chance to get comfortable with the set-up.

 

This was the main thing we wanted to capture, but the demo itself shook the shelf that the iPhone was on, introducing an unintentional pan to the shot.


 


 


 


 


 


 


 

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NPR’s Andy Trudeau Discusses Oscar-Nominated Scores

star_wars-scoreFor years, when Oscar season rolled around, one of my favorite rituals was listening to NPR Music Editor, Andy Trudeau, discuss the nominated scores in detail on Weekend Edition. I learned so much from these pieces, not just about motion picture scores, but about music. NPR hasn’t put together a page with links to all of Andy’s stories, so I collected all of them I could find on the NPR site. There are a few missing, but I was happy to find most of the ones I remember from the past decade.

1997 Oscar-Nominated Scores: L.A. Confidential and composer Jerry Goldsmith (audio not available)

1997 Oscar-Nominated Scores: Amistad (audio not available)

1997 Oscar-Nominated Scores: Kundun and Good Will Hunting (audio not available)

1997 Oscar Nominated Scores: Titanic

1998 Oscar Nominated Scores: Life is Beautiful and Pleasantville (audio not available)

1998 Oscar-Nominated Scores: Elizabeth

1999 Oscar-Nominated Scores: Angela’s Ashes and American Beauty

1999 Oscar-Nominated Scores: The Red Violin

2000 Oscar-Nominated Scores: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Gladiator

2000 Oscar-Nominated Scores: Chocolat and Malena

2000 Oscar Nominated Scores: The Patriot and the scores of John Williams

2000 Oscar Music Wrap: Andy looks back the scores of 2000 and ahead to 2001

2001 Oscar-Nominated Scores: A Beautiful Mind and A.I. Artificial Intelligence

2001 Oscar-Nominated Scores: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

2001 Oscar-Nominated Scores: Monsters, Inc.

2002 Oscar-Nominated Scores: The Hours and Road to Perdition

2002 Oscar-Nominated Scores: Catch Me If You Can and Far From Heaven

2003 Oscar-Nominated Scores: Cold Mountain, Big Fish, and House of Sand and Fog

2003 Oscar-Nominated Scores: Finding Nemo and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

2005 Oscar-Nominated Scores: Pride and Prejudice

2005 Oscar-Nominated Scores: Finding Neverland and A Series of Unfortunate Events

2005 Oscar-Nominated Scores: The Village and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

2005 Oscar-Nominated Scores: Munich and Brokeback Mountain

2005 Oscar-Nominated Scores: Memoirs of a Geisha and The Constant Gardner

2006 Oscar-Nominated Scores; Notes on a Scandal

2006 Oscar-Nominated Scores: The Good German and Pan’s Labyrinth

2006 Oscar-Nominated Scores: Babel and The Queen

2009 Oscar-Nominated Scores

2010 Oscar-Nominated Scores

2011 Oscar-Nominated Scores

Here are some additional stories by Andy Trudeau about film scores and composers:

Andy Trudeau’s Top 10 Film Scores of All Time

Elmer Bernstein: Man with a Golden Ear

Morricone Recognized for Impact on Movie Music

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Yes, A Starship Scale Comparison is a Good Idea

Screen Shot 2013-09-29 at 6.57.52 AM

You know that guy’s spaceship scale chart that everyone’s linking to this week? It’s causing me stress, and I can’t take it any more.

I just posted a comment on Smithsonian Magazine’s blog. it’s the sixth time this week that I’ve posted basically the same thing. I did the exact same thing about five years ago in response to *another* artists “original” idea to make a scale chart for spaceships. I figure I’ll be doing it again in a few years:

“While Mr. Loechel’s poster does a great job of putting everything together, I feel compelled to direct you to Jeff Russell’s Starship Dimensions site: http://www.merzo.net/

The Starship Dimensions site has been around since at least 2002, and over the years, many artists, like Mr. Loechel, have taken the information (and often the artwork) from Starship Dimensions and reconfigured it into works of their own. Unfortunately, it is almost always done without attribution.

I don’t know Jeff Russell, but I’ve been a fan of his site since a friend who worked with me at ILM pointed me to it”

I’m not asking for journalism, I’m just asking for people to say to themselves “Wow, that’s a great idea, I wonder if anyone else has thought to do that?” and then do the freaking Google search!
</rant>

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Tad’s 2013 Summer Reading Suggestions

Summer is here and it’s time to read! On the beach, at camp, poolside, at a cafe, on a boat, on a plane, on a train…just don’t read in an automobile, it will make you sick. Here’s a list of some of my favorite summer books. They are all relatively short, fast reads with compelling plots that are well written. No giant tomes on this list. I’ll collect my favorite big-ass, long books in another post.

Wool by Hugh Howey – I was late to the party with Wool (and finally reading e-books), but I finally read it recently and it’s great! Howey is very good at feeding you just enough information to keep you moving forward, but not completely in the dark. Wool shares some DNA with The Hunger Games and Orphans of the Sky, but is not young adult fiction, so people occasionally swear and think about sex. While reading Wool, I often felt like I was reading vintage Stephen King like Firestarter, Misery or The Stand.

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan - This is the book that brought me back to contemporary sci-fi. After trying Alastair Reynolds, Stephen BaxterJack McDevitt, and Greg Egan, I turned right back to Herbert, Heinlein, Clarke and the gang with no intention of looking back. Then, my dad called me to tell me he heard this guy on BBC talking about his first book, Altered Carbon, and that it sounded interesting. He was right. Richard Morgan writes solid, hard sci-fi full of big ideas, interesting characters and, in the case of Altered Carbon, a noir mystery set in future San Francisco. One of the most compelling characters is the A.I. that runs a hotel downtown on Mission Street. No, really. A hotel A.I.

Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko - I’m a big fan of Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch film, and the book is even better. The Moscow office of the Night Watch enforces the centuries-old treaty between the forces of Light and Dark, investigating unlawful use of magic, and other supernatural activity by “The Others” who live among us normal people. It’s sort of like Law and Order meets Harry Potter…in Russia! In fact, there are two new worlds to discover in Night Watch: the secret, magic world of “The Others” and the equally fascinating world of post-Soviet Moscow.

Daemon by Daniel Suarez - You know when you’re reading a popular thriller and get pulled out because someone says some crazy batshit uninformed thing about Unix or encrypting files or e-mail or image enhancement or anything technical that pulls you out of the book and ruins the author’s credibility? Yeah, that doesn’t happen in Daemon. Suarez knows his shit and it shows…and that also makes the premise of this novel extra terrifying. What would happen if a billionaire computer game genius set up a series of daemon programs to do his biding after death? An awesome, page-turner of a novel, that’s what would happen.

Ready Player One By Ernest Cline - This one makes a nice pairing with Daemon. The set-up is similar: a billionaire computer game genius sets up an intricate machine that begins comes to life upon his death. But this time it’s more of a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory situation than a nightmare of automated killer motorcycles. The audiobook version is read by Will Wheaton, who does a great job and actually makes a cameo in the book.

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fford – Shades of Grey, not to be confused with 50 Shades of Grey, is a triumph of world-building and trusting a reader to get there without being spoon-fed (although spoons are important to this story). Like Burgess before him in Clockwork Orange, Fford drops you into a world that’s clearly related to ours, but with very different social rules and some physiological differences. And you figure bits of it out as the narrative sweeps you along, and at some point in reading, your mind goes “click” and you get it. Really deft.

Little Fuzzy, Fuzzy Sapiens and Fuzzies and Other People By H. Beam Piper – Yes, yes, it’s three shortish novels, and I should probably put series on a separate list, but Little Fuzzy is great, and you’ll want to immediately move to Fuzzy Sapiens when you finish it…and then you’ll want more after that. If you can find this excellent omnibus edition, you should just grab it. From the very beginning, it’s hard to put down Piper’s Fuzzy novels, which combine sci-fi homesteading, courtroom drama, scientists, first contact and hard questions about what it means to be sentient. The Fuzzies themselves were clearly an inspiration for both Wookiees and Ewoks, but have a charm and depth of their own. Warning: you will probably cry.

Straight Man by Richard Russo – This is one of the funniest books I have ever read. Russo is a really good writer and it’s too bad that Straight Man is the first of his books I read. I had unrealistic expectations going into Empire Falls, which is a fine novel, but it’s no Straight Man. The first time I read it was shortly after I joined academia full-time, and Russo captures that particular type of disfunction, insulation and pettiness perfectly. Even if you just went to a liberal arts college, you’ll detect the ring of truth, which Russo then pushes into absurdity…but a sadly plausible absurdity. Genius!

A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke – This novel, which even some Clarke fans are unaware of, exemplifies why he is one of the very best there is. Hard science provides the mechanisms for both the dilemma at the heart of the narrative and it’s potential solutions, and for some authors of his generation, that’s enough to hang your story on. But Clarke deftly unfolds his tale of disaster from the viewpoint of fully-realized characters on both sides of the situation. And it is definitely a situation, and Clarke builds tension as expertly as Hitchcock or  Crichton. While the scope of many of Clarke’s most popular novels is giant, the intimate nature of A Fall of Moondust pulls you in by putting a small number of real people in jeopardy  rather than all of humanity.

. Hospital Station, Star Surgeon and Major Operation by James White – Another omnibus! And it’s worse, because there are a total of twelve Sector General books! But, I started reading them at the beginning of a junior high summer vacation and by Labor Day I’d plowed through four of them. When I saw House for the first time, my first thought was “Wow, it’s like a non-sci-fi version of Sector General!” It’s a series of medical procedural stories set onboard a giant space hospital staffed by  aliens of every description. White quickly establishes the rules for his universe and builds them firmly atop the existing rules of physics, biology and psychology. Each case is an opportunity to explore what it means to be truly other and what it means to be truly empathetic. Of course, it’s much easier to be empathetic with an alien patient with the recorded personality of one of that race’s great physicians riding shotgun in your head.
Battle Royale by Koushun Takami – A few years ago, I might have told you that Battle Royale might be too much for you. That teens forced to violently kill each other for sport was too out-there a concept for a mainstream audience. But then The Hunger Games happened. There are lots of similarities, to be sure, but Battle Royale is not a young adult novel, and is a bit more graphic. It’s also almost impossible to stop once you start reading it. The film version is OK, but I read the novel first and really prefer it. I don’t often recommend the film, but I bought a second copy of the book just to loan it to people.

The List of Seven by Mark Frost – I was on-board with The List of Seven when I heard it included a scene in which Arthur Conan Doyle was trapped inside the British Museum and all the mummies started coming to life and attacking him. Then I realized that it was written by Mark Frost, co-creator of Twin Peaks! Win! The fictionalized version of Doyle, who serves as the protagonist of Frost’s novel, teams with Jack Sparks, a Special Agent to the Crown to uncover a supernatural plot that threatens England and, indeed, the world. The List of Seven feels at times like an Indiana Jones adventure, at other times like a successor to Young Sherlock Holmes and occasionally like Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

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Blade in the Face Shots

When I saw this sequence in Jack the Giant Slayer

…how could I not immediately think of this shot from Mission Impossible?

OK, to be honest, my first thought on seeing that sequence was “Oh, come on! They landed in a pillow factory!”

I know there must be more “blade in the face” shots. Let me know!

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Cinematic Musical Echoes in 1980

First, watch these two short clips and listen to the music.

So, what is that? Now, I have an audio super-sensitivity when it comes to Alien. When I was a kid, a friend with a Betamax made me recordings of Alien by putting a cassette recorder in front of their TV and I listened to it over and over and over. The sound and music of that film are part of me. I’ve recognize the ambient computer hum from Alien in about a dozen movies.

Anyway, when I was listening to the audio commentary for The Shining on the way home from work yesterday, the commentary stopped during this scene. When I heard that music cue, I didn’t see Jack Nicholson in my head, I saw Tom Skerritt!

Not the same piece, but such a similar orchestration! I make no claims that there is any connection between the two films, just pointing out a resonance.

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