BlogOfTheMoon

Monday, 15 February 2021

Podcast Recommendations: Culture and Ideas

Podcasts are all the rage right now. I listen to a fair few, and I’ve got opinions about them. Opinions that I’m happy to share with you. You can read the first post in the series, where I talk about the SF podcasts that I’ve enjoyed here, and read on for my opinions about podcasts in the hand-wavey category of culture and ideas.


99 Percent Invisible

99 Percent Invisible (99PI to its friends) is a very difficult thing to describe. Nominally it’s a podcast about architecture and design, but their actual remit is so much wider than that suggests. Recent episodes have included stories about Santa Fe’s Pueblo Revival architecture; the history of movie novelisations; and how the US Government released almost the entirety of Enron’s emails (the episode on city flags and why they’re awful is a classic and was later turned into a TED talk). It’s always fascinating, and they’ve been going for over a decade now, with over 400 episodes in the archive, and an incredibly detailed website that expands on the stories in the podcast. Episodes are released weekly and are usually between thirty and forty minutes long. The only downside is that so much of my conversation these days starts “Ooh, I heard something really interesting on 99PI the other day…”

It’s hosted by Roman Mars, whose smooth West-coast tones are very easy on the ear, and from whom I learned to “always read the plaque”.

More or Less

More or Less is a BBC Radio 4 programme about statistics in the news and in life, presented by Tim Harford (aka the Financial Times Undercover Economist). So many of the numbers we get bombarded with in the media are either only superficially true, based on a misunderstanding, or are just outright lies. More or Less has been gallantly standing up for the truth and to improve public understanding of numbers and statistics for years now.

It’s an excellent show, usually talking about the stats that have come up in the media the week prior to broadcast, and they take listener questions too. They try and get to the original source of statistics, delving into the scientific literature and talking to the experts (experts! Remember them?). Obviously the last couple of series have been pretty focussed on Covid-19, but they occasionally still find time to talk about other things (butterfly decline in the UK in a recent episode, for example). Episodes are half an hour long.

Reasons to be Cheerful

Reasons to be Cheerful, a podcast about political ideas, completely rehabilitated Ed Miliband for me. Released from the shackles of having to be bland and media-friendly (not that that really worked for him), he’s surprisingly passionate and funny. This podcast was started in the wake of the 2015 general election and consists of him and radio presenter Geoff Lloyd discussing ideas in the political and cultural sphere and finding reasons to be cheerful. From universal basic income to improving public transport to the four day week, they cover a broad spectrum of ideas. And they do it in reasonable depth too. They interview a series of experts, and are generally happy to let them talk about their expertise, without that horrid macho interruption so common in media political interviews. They do sometimes make the usual mistake in “UK” politics of thinking UK = England, which can be a bit frustrating at times, but there’s more than enough more general conversations that make up for it.

They’ve got great chemistry together and are obviously good friends off-mic. At times, I feel I listen to it for the the banter between them as much for the ideas.

Episodes are released weekly and there’s over 175 episodes in the archive. The episodes tend to be about an hour long.

Reply All

Reply All, aside from being a function that you should think very carefully before using in your email client, is a podcast about the Internet: about the people who shaped it and how it shapes people. This is another podcast that interprets its remit broadly. They’ve featured episodes on feelings of impotence in the face of the climate emergency; trying to explain QAnon; finding out about the story behind JenniCam, (a blast from the past for Internet users of a certain age); and looking at the story behind spam recordings that sometime briefly take over American government phone numbers. It’s a fascinating insight into the underbelly of the Internet, and the feature where they explain some of the weirder memes floating around the web/social media to their boss has shown me parts of Internet culture that I wish I could unsee, but it’s really interesting from an anthropological point of view.

In tone, it’s often quite light, and the hosts mock each other mercilessly, but they’re not afraid to share their feelings and to go into quite dark places at times. There was, for example, a multi-part story where one of the producers talks to a man in prison for murder, having discovered him because he wrote a blog from the inside (on paper, that his mother took away and typed up for him).

The show is normally released fortnightly, but the schedule can sometimes be vaguer than that, and they always take some time off in the summer where they run reruns. There’s over 170 episodes (including reruns) in the archive and episodes started off at running under half an hour, although these days they’re closer to between forty minutes and an hour.


So there’s the second set of podcasts, the next set will probably fit whatever the theme the post will be about a bit better. You can find the other posts in the series below.

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Podcast Recommendations: Speculative Fiction

My first introduction to the world of podcasts came from my friend Kenny Park in the mid 2000s when he pointed me to Escape Pod, a science fiction podcast, which ran free short stories every week. I eventually worked my way through the archive as it stood then (and wrote a blog post listing my favourite stories), and also subscribed to its spin-off podcast Podcastle when it launched. I dabbled in a few others over the years, but my listening time was limited.

That changed a few years ago when the world just got too much for me and I stopped listening to the BBC radio news programmes on my commute to and from work, which opened up more time to listen to podcasts, so I expanded my repertoire. Skip to 2020 when lockdown and working from home meant that to continue some exercise I was doing long walks every day after work, which gave me even more time. My podcast collection has built up a lot in that time, so I thought I’d talk about a few that I enjoy. I say a few, I’m going to be talking about quite a lot really, so I’m going to split this across multiple posts. First up is my first love: science fiction. I’ve been an SF nerd since before it was cool, so below are the SF- and general geek podcasts that I’ve been listening to.

Escape Artists

Escape Artists is the parent company of Escape Pod, the podcast that got me into this spoken word audio stuff in the first place. They’ve got four podcasts, covering science fiction (Escape Pod), fantasy (Podcastle), horror (Pseudopod) and Young Adult (Cast of Wonders). I only listen to the first two, since horror isn’t really my thing and I’m probably not exactly the target market for YA fiction.

All the EA podcasts are free and are listener funded. These days they’re a SFWA-recognised pro-paying market and they also put the full text of the stories they publish up on their websites too, which is great.

Escape Pod

Escape Pod is one of the oldest and longest running SF fiction podcasts around, running more or less continuously since 2005, with over 700 episodes to its name. As I mentioned above, my pal Kenny introduced me to it and I spent an enjoyable few years working through the archives. Original host Serah Eley was personable and her intros (later outros) were always thought-provoking and interesting. Eley left after about five years at the helm but a succession of editors have kept the ship steady since then. Eley’s original intent was to provide fun SF stories (and fantasy in the early days, before Podcastle launched). Some of the later editors have taken the show in darker directions, but that original guiding principle is still there and keeps me coming back, week after week.

Stories are run weekly, and they sometimes have flash fiction interspersed in there too, although these days, they tend to run a few flash stories together in a regular episode. Episodes are usually between 25 and 45 minutes, although some can run longer. They sometimes run even longer pieces, split up over multiple weeks.

Podcastle

Podcastle is Escape Artists’ fantasy podcast. It started a few years after Escape Pod, in 2008, and there over 650 episodes covering pretty much the entire fantasy genre. Like its siblings, it runs weekly stories, with episodes ranging from 20 minutes to about an hour. It also sometimes runs longer stories over multiple weeks.

It’s had some great editors over the years, including founding editor Rachel Swirsky and the multi-award winning Ann Leckie. Podcastle (and its siblings, to be fair) has done an enormous amount over the last few years to increase representation in the stories it tells, whether this is stories from LGBTQ+ writers, writers from around the world or under-represented minorities. This is a wider trend in SF fandom, and I’m glad to see it in my SF fiction podcasts of choice.

Robby the Robot’s Waiting

Robby the Robot’s Waiting is a pretty new discovery for me. It’s a podcast about (mostly media) sci-fi hosted by two former editors of SFX magazine (Rich Edwards and Dave Bradley) and a sci-fi journalist (Tanavi Patel). I discovered it because they had a couple of special episodes where they got together the other editors that SFX has had over the years to talk about it on its 25th anniversary. I’ve been a reader of SFX right from the start so was interested in hearing all its past (and current) editors in conversation. From there, I looked at a few of the episode descriptions of the show and was intrigued enough to listen to some. The gang obviously love their subject and enjoy nerding out together on the show, which makes it a joy to listen to, even when they’re talking about shows I’ve never seen or wasn’t that interested in.

The format is to start off talking about what they’ve been consuming since the last podcast, then a guest that joins for the rest of the show, starting with a deep dive into a piece of SF from the past (Buffy, Flash Gordon and New Galactica have all been done); finishing off with news about upcoming SF. It’s not been running all that long, with fourteen main episodes since July 2020, as well as a bunch of specials. The (main) episodes are released fortnightly, and are about an hour long.

The name is apparently a Bananarama reference.

Til Dice Do Us Part

I must confess that I’ve got a personal interest in Til Dice Do Us Part, it’s a podcast about tabletop RPGs run by my dear friends George and Ailsa. George has been the GM for my RPG group for over three lustra now and I’ve whiled away many an hour talking about roleplaying. And now he, and his partner Ailsa, decided that these conversations should be available to a wider audience.

It’s a pretty new podcast, with just half a dozen episodes under their belt at the time of writing, but they’ve got a varied format, with different segments that they bring in and out of episodes, including the Elevator Pitch, where they talk about a specific game system that they’ve played (well, played in Alisa’s case, more likely to be run in George’s); quizzes on deep dives into the subject matter; and Ask a GM, which is, er, exactly what it says on the tin. Topics that have come up include inclusivity in gaming; dealing with nervous players; and how to handle sex and relationships in a game.

Specific games that they’ve talked about include Night Witches, King Arthur Pendragon and Umläut: Game of Metal. Although George and Ailsa have been part of a few other groups over the years, I’m a member of what I’m egotistical enough to call their “main” RPG group, and have played in all the games they’ve talked about so far. It’s been fun revisiting those, although they’re good enough at talking about them that you don’t need to have played the games to find them interesting. Whether you’ve just got a passing interest in D&D or you’re a hardcore indie gamer, there’s a lot to enjoy in this podcast.

I especially enjoy their little fictional menagerie of podcast helpers, including Twike the social media goblin, the Inch-High Incel (more a hindrance than a helper, that one), and, my personal favourite, the Mailer Daemon. The fake adverts mid-episode are often hilarious, advertising such things as SheDice (dice for girls!), fictional game systems and dating apps for superheroes. Episodes are around an hour long and are released fortnightly.

Imaginary Worlds

Imaginary Worlds was a recommendation from my friend Matthew. It’s tagline is that it’s a show about how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief. The host, Eric Molinsky, is a former animator and radio producer and is an all-round geek. Each episode he takes a deep-dive into a particular subject within the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres, whether that’s an analysis of the uncanny valley; learning about Magic: The Gathering; the composer behind the original Godzilla films; or discovering tabletop RPG-ing and, later, LARP. There’s occasional mini-series topics for which have included looking at aspects of Doctor Who, and superheroes from the angle of sidekicks.

It’s a thoughtful podcast with Molinsky never skimping on the research for his subject that episode. Episodes are released fortnightly and are usually around half an hour. It’s been running since 2014 and there are over 150 episodes in the archive.

Our Opinions Are Correct

Our Opinions are Correct is my newest podcast, and I’m only a handful of episodes in so far, but I’ve got a feeling it’ll be a keeper. It’s presented by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders, the same duo who founded io9, and is the two of them talking about subjects within science fiction that interest them. It’s very broad-ranging, and talks more about literary SF than, say, Robby the Robot’s Waiting. The first three episodes have covered the first season of Star Trek: Discovery; mind control in SF; and SF novels that have stood the test of time.

The hosts are knowledgeable, both in terms of breadth and depth of knowledge of the genre, and their conversational style keeps it ticking over nicely. It’s been running since 2018 and has won the Hugo Award for Best Fancast for its first two years (in 2021 the hosts recused OOAC since they’d already won twice, which, I think, shows some class).

Episodes are released fortnightly, with about 75 in the bank already, and are about forty minutes long.


Next up will be a mix of podcasts that I’ve hand-waved together under the category of culture and ideas. Do you have a favourite podcast? I’d love to hear about it (although the last thing I need is yet more podcasts).

The other posts in the series are:

Friday, 1 January 2021

Happy new year

Happy new year to everyone!  My annual retrospective is now up, as usual, on my website.

After a harder year than most
We’re thankful to have got through
While we remember those who didn’t
Once again we look forward with hope

Happy New Year

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

RIP John Hume

Politicians come and go all the time. I must confess that I haven’t given much thought to John Hume in many years, so I was taken aback by how much his death, announced yesterday, moved and saddened me.

Hume was a towering figure in my youth, when I was just starting to become politically aware. He was a voice of reason, always calm, always compassionate and yet passionate. He was hugely brave in insisting that the paramilitaries needed to be brought into the fold while the violence was still going on.

More than anyone other than maybe Mo Mowlam, I associate Hume with the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement isn’t perfect, and hasn’t stopped all the violence, but even from my now-distant vantage point, it’s a hell of a lot better than when I was growing up. And that’s in no small part due to John Hume.

RIP sir. Your legacy lives on.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Links to the Hugo Awards 2020 short fiction

I’ve not been entitled to vote at the Hugo Awards since I was a member of LonCon in 2014, but I still find the awards a good way to keep up with the state of the art in speculative fiction, and while I can’t read all the longer works, most of the works in the shorter fiction categories are available online. Escape Pod used to run the short story finalists every year in the run-up to the awards, but they stopped doing that on the grounds that the short fiction was now pretty widely available online.

Locus usually list all the nominees and links to them, but for 2020, they haven’t linked the short fiction that is available for free. So for my own reference, and for anyone else who wants to read good, modern speculative fiction, here they are, all collected in one place.

Best Novelette

Best Short Story

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Life in the Bunker

Something important that I missed from my last post about life in lockdown is The Bunker. Right at the start of the pandemic, before official lockdown happened, my friend Morag (finally) joined WhatsApp and set up a small group of friends to keep our mutual morale up in the uncertain times that were to follow. This group quickly grew into a much larger support group of friends that I don’t always see very frequently in person.

Particularly right at the start, when we were still trying to adjust to the new rules, The Bunker (as the group quickly became known) was vital. In the very early days, it was a chance to worry about what was happening in a safe space, and also to take our minds off the outside world. It’s since become my go to place when I feel a bit low and just fancy hanging out with some friends, knowing that someone will be around with some geek chat, stupid memes, or gifs (all the gifs!), possibly all at the same time.

The Bunker was the first thing that came out of this for me that wasn’t wholly negative and I hope it continues well after Covid-19 is crushed by the advance of medical science. It’s like the old Io group of years gone by, reconstituted (Morag compared it to one of my parties, which is also where old Io types tend to congregate, but only a couple of times a year).

So thanks to Morag for both the idea and for inviting me to shelter in The Bunker. I look forward to lots more esoteric geek chat and many more gifs in the weeks, months, and, indeed, years to come.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Life in Lockdown

We’re now into our eighth week of lockdown. And, to be honest, I feel fine. I’m actually surprised by how fine I am about it. Preceding lockdown, I was just back in the office after nearly a month of staggered strike action, so it felt odd to be out of the office again almost immediately.

Work in lockdown

We started working from home the week before full lockdown, when the government was just encouraging us to work from home, and the day before I left the office, I was talking to a colleague, saying how I wasn’t looking forward to working from home and how I’d probably drop into the office a few days a week. And then, bam, we’re all told to stay in our houses, except for essentials.

In just a few weeks, I’ve grown to thoroughly enjoy working from home, especially since I pulled out a second monitor and discovered that (despite what Google says), you can Remote Desktop from Windows 7 Professional to Windows 10 Enterprise Edition and make the RDP session stretch across both monitors. I had been very much missing my second monitor (#FirstWorldProblems, I know) and this resolved that issue (at the expense of a cluttered desk). I am thoroughly enjoying not having to commute into work every day, and I’m also finding that, for the most part, I have fewer meetings as well, which is fantastic. My work are awful for unnecessary meetings (how often have I walked out of a meeting and thought — or, indeed, said out loud — “that could have been an email”), so anything that discourages that can only be a good thing.

I’m lucky in that I can work from home pretty easily. My team quickly adapted to using MS Teams chats to replicate conversations in the office and after some trial and error, I eventually settled on the best way to do video calls (my workstation is a desktop PC so didn’t have a webcam, although I got one later, so video calls were done with a tablet balanced on a pile of books to start with).

I think even after this is over, I’ll try and work from home several times a week, if I can. I don’t know viable that will be; at the moment it works because everyone is doing it, but if most people are in the office and you’re the only one who isn’t, then it might be harder. But I think it’s worth trying.

I do, very much, appreciate that I’m in a very privileged position to think this way. I don’t have any children or dependants. I think my colleagues and my friends who have kids are finding it much harder than I am, and some would welcome a return to the office.

I settled into a routine fairly quickly. After we started working from home, but before lockdown, I was walking as far as the bus stop and back every morning, to get myself going, heading out at lunch time and again in the evening. Lockdown put a stop to that, but I kept a long walk after work, usually along the canal and back (although I did still take a quick spin around the block in the morning to start my day, but don’t tell anyone).

One thing I do still miss is someone else making lunch for me. I’ve always made my own dinners, but for a long time now, I’ve tended to have lunch in cafes and restaurants when I’m at work. I miss that, although I do enjoy sitting to read after lunch and only having a few steps to get back to my desk afterwards, which gives me more time to read.

Play in lockdown

That first week, all my weekly social interactions were canned, but it wasn’t long before we started to use Google Hangouts for a virtual pub meet, and virtual roleplaying, and using Discord and first Vassal and later Tabletop Simulator for Friday board games night. Soon, my regular social life was back in full swing. It was hard not going for dinner with friends and several long-planned theatre-trips were cancelled, but the regular stuff was back.

Initially, though, even that was difficult as every time I had a video call, I was reminded that I was apart from my friends and couldn’t hang out with them. That’s got easier as time as gone on — humans are pretty adaptable — but I still miss just being in the same room as my pals.

Like everyone else, I’ve been baking quite a lot during lockdown. The only problem is that I live on my own, so I have to eat everything I bake on my own. I can’t even give any to my upstairs neighbours (which I did at the start) as they’re Muslim and it’s Ramadan. That hasn’t stopped me though, with bakes including potato and cheese bread, cream-cheese filled banana bread and peanut-butter brownies. I definitely think I’m eating more during lockdown!

Leaving the house in lockdown

Apart from my daily long walk, the only other time I leave the house is to go shopping. I’m not vulnerable or a key worker or anything, so I’m happy to leave the online shopping slots to people who need them and just walk to the supermarket once a week as usual. For the first few weeks, there were long (although fast-moving) queues to get in, and lots of empty shelves. The queues are now much shorter, and almost all the shelves are full again. This is the only time when I’m in close proximity to anything resembling a crowd, and at the start, I was so starved of human contact, I even broke my cardinal rule and chatted to the person at the checkout!

Getting my parents home

The one big thing that I did worry about for a long time was my parents. They went on holiday to visit family and friends in India in February, long before Covid-19 was a major worry. They were due to be back at the start of April, but India closed itself to commercial air travel long before that. For a while, they thought that their commercial flight would just be delayed by a few weeks, but after the second cancellation, I got them registered on the wait list for the British Embassy’s repatriation flights (which only started after a degree of public pressure was put on the Foreign Office). Then there were several weeks of agonised (for my sister and me) waiting. My parents were safe with family and in no danger, but it was stressful at this end.

Eventually, a flight did come up, and the embassy arranged transport to the local airport and I was able to watch them leave the country in real time on Flight Radar. The Foreign Office only arranged for them to come into Heathrow, but there were still some flights back to Northern Ireland, and I got them on to one of those, and arranged for my uncle to collect them from Belfast. Watching the the flight, along with my sister on WhatsApp, was the only thing that kept me going through a dull Zoom meeting that was going on at the same time.

Also, can we take a moment here to appreciate the fact that I can, sitting at my desk in Glasgow, watch pretty much any commercial flight in the world with sensor readings, altitude, direction, current location and much more, in real time. Sometimes living in the future is actually pretty cool.

Human contact in lockdown

So, week eight and I feel fine. At this stage, I think I could work from home indefinitely, but I would really love to see my friends and family again. One issue with living alone is that I haven’t touched another human being in that long. And while I’m not necessarily the most touchy-feely of people anyway, the fact that I can’t pick up my nephlings or hug a friend is emotionally hard, even if in practice I might go weeks or months without doing so.

Politics in lockdown (or why Nicola Sturgeon is still awesome)

Finally, I can’t go through a post about life in a pandemic without talking about the political aspects. While we might applaud the UK government for the largest employment support scheme ever seen in the UK, their handling of issues like PPE for front line staff and the shambles of their handling the end of the lockdown has been disastrous. I’m very glad that in Scotland, we’ve got a consistent and clear message coming from Nicola (not to mention Janey Godley giving us the uncensored version that Nicola’s thinking but isn’t allowed to say 😉 ).

Monday, 6 January 2020

Exporting GoodReads reviews to a WordPress blog

In a previous post, I discussed wanting to take a backup of my book reviews from GoodReads. In this post, I’ll go into how I did that in more detail and provide my code for anyone who wants to do something similar. It’s quite lengthy, so details under the fold.

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Sunday, 5 January 2020

Book reviews, now cloud-free!

I’ve been reading books forever. I mean, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love just sitting down with a book and spending hours getting lost in it. And I’ve been writing about books for years now too. I’ve reviewed pretty much every book I’ve written for the best part of three lustra – that’s over a thousand books. Originally, these reviews were part of the 50 Book Challenge that was facilitated through IoForum back in the day. When that slowly faded away, I moved to using GoodReads, which I still use to this day.

However, with one thing and another, I don’t really trust any cloud-based provider to not disappear one day so I spent a weekend figuring out how to mirror my existing (and future) reviews from GoodReads back to LordOfTheMoon.com. I’ve now done that, and all my book reviews are now available on the new Book Reviews section of this website.

I still intend to keep writing on GoodReads. Whilst I’m not a great one for social media, I do quite like seeing my friends’ book reviews; but each review I write will be mirrored here, for posterity (and, to make it easier for anyone to follow my own book reviews, an RSS feed is available).

I’ll write a more technical post on the details later, and maybe make the scripts I wrote available to others, if anyone’s interested.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Happy new year

Happy new year to everyone!  My annual retrospective is now up, as usual, on my website.

As the year turns
We gird our loins
And dare to hope for better

Happy New Year

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