Omnibus (week of April 8, 2018)

Oh, hey! Thanks for dropping by. May I recommend a podcast that is not in the long list of reviews posted below? That podcast is the North by Northwest podcast from CBC Radio. It is the show that I work on for actual money, and we are trying some new stuff on there. For example, this week I made an alternate version of a radio story I did about a guy who designs yachts, which is more than twice the length of the radio version. In addition to things like that, you will get a whole raft of Sheryl MacKay’s interviews with interesting people in the B.C. arts world, many of whom you won’t have heard of. That’s the fun of it. And occasionally you’ll get me, just talking nonsense about pop culture and spinning weird theories. If any of this sounds interesting to you, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you’re accustomed to listening.

We return you now to your regularly scheduled tedious blather, complete with no fewer than ten podcast episodes pertaining to the Mark Zuckerberg hearings. Brace yourself.

20 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Oliver Byrne: The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid — I’ve never been a math person. I have traumatic high school memories of standardized tests and interminable homework assignments that haunt me to this day. Now that I’m out of school and making a living, I find myself interested in learning about all sorts of things I wasn’t previously interested in, but mathematics has never been one of them. Nonetheless, I was browsing through a bookstore earlier this week and I found myself unexpectedly transfixed by this volume. It is a facsimile of a 19th-century illustrated publication of Euclid’s Elements: the foundational text of geometry. The printer, Oliver Byrne, has rendered Euclid’s proofs and problems in a remarkable, easy-to-grasp illustrated format made up of blue, yellow, red and black lines and shapes. (The publisher’s jacket blurb points out that Byrne’s colour choices inadvertently prefigure Mondrian’s famous geometric paintings, and thus a great deal of Northern European and Scandinavian design. Accordingly, I’ve shelved Byrne alongside my Mondrian-inspired yellow-red-blue boxed set of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books.) With everything laid out visually, I found myself able to follow along with Euclid’s reasoning — and to see the elegance of his methods. Everything he does in the Elements can be proven with nothing more than a straight-edge and a compass for drawing lines and circles. No protractor. You can’t measure angles. Think about that for a second: say you want to draw an equilateral triangle, but you don’t have a protractor. You draw a line that’s 10cm long. You draw another line connected to it that’s also 10cm long. All that’s left is to draw a third 10cm line that connects the two — but since you couldn’t measure the angle between your first two lines, how likely do you think it is that your third line actually will turn out to be 10cm? Not very. Never fear: Euclid found a way. And that’s his first proof. It’s simple, elegant, and it makes you go “huh,” and maybe turn the page. I did turn the page. And then I bought the book. I’ve been reading it in bed, a few proofs a night before I go to sleep. I cannot tell you how calming it has been. If you, like me, associate math with stress and pressure, that is likely because you have never encountered it in a zero-stakes situation. When you read Euclid — and especially when you read Byrne’s illustrated Euclid — you don’t have to solve anything. You’re not expected to come up with an answer to a question. You’re really just watching somebody else do math. Euclid’s got it all laid out for you, and all you have to do is follow along. And if you don’t understand a step, who cares? There’s no exam. This has been a revelation for me. Its complete lack of what we normally think of as narrative or thematic content makes Euclid the best bedtime reading I’ve ever encountered. It is math as self-care. And I feel like I can’t be the only person who would experience this: surely in these times, the most therapeutic thing you can experience is a person saying to you “here are some things that are definitely true, and here is why.” Pick of the week.

Games

Stories Untold — My feelings on this game are complicated by two kinds of negative responses: technical concerns and story concerns. I’d rather not even write about the technical concerns because they’re boring, but they also defined my experience of this game, so I have to. I’ll save them for last, though. Let’s start with the story. Spoilers, ahoy. Evidently “The House Abandon,” the first of the four episodes that comprise Stories Untold, was released in some form as a standalone entity previously to this. Taken as a thing in itself, “The House Abandon” is a marvel. It presents the player with a game within a game — specifically a text game within a graphical game — and then reveals that the two layers of reality it depicts are linked. The moment when the penny drops is masterful horror: essentially, there’s a point where you realize that what you are typing into the text game is actually happening in another part of the house you’re in. The power goes out at your computer desk; you make your character in the text game turn on the generator; the power comes back on. You make your character open a door; you hear a door open. It’s immediately obvious that the episode will end when you encounter yourself. And far from curtailing the suspense, that grim certitude only makes the game more agonizing as it draws relentlessly to the chapter’s conclusion. “The House Abandon” gave me gooseflesh in the middle of a sunny Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. But here’s the thing. None of what is good about it has anything to do with the actual content of the story your character lives through. It’s a story that’s mysterious and vague, and that in no way calls out for clarification. The horror and fascination arise purely from the central conceit: that there’s somebody else in the house, and they’re doing everything you type into your computer. I don’t really care about what happened to this character’s sister or why that door is boarded up. It seems largely beside the point, and anyway I’m content to wonder. So, imagine my disappointment when the final episode of Stories Untold explains away all that ambiguity with the most banal reason imaginable: the entire game up to that point has been a series of psychotic episodes in the mind of a guilt-ridden man who killed his sister and an off-duty cop while driving drunk. This reveal causes a number of things from episodes previous to make sense in a way that completely robs them of their strange imaginativeness. It reduces a fascinating formal experiment to a Very Special Episode. It treats its own narrative as a puzzle to be solved and shelved tidily away, taking for granted that the most important element of storytelling is THE ANSWER. It seems custom-made for people whose brains fell out at the end of Night in the Woods. To sum up: the first episode of Stories Untold is a self-contained near-masterpiece, the middle two are fine, and the final one is a huge disappointment that will appeal only to those with no appreciation for ambiguity or nuance. Which, to be fair, is a large group of people. Let’s move on to my boring technical concerns. Firstly and most my fault-ly, I tried to run Stories Untold well below the minimum graphics card specs (it’s a text game, I thought, how much graphics power could I possibly need?) and by the final episode the main source of tension was not the story but whether or not the game would crash. THREE TIMES I had to restart the chapter because of freezing or crashing. And while I realize it’s petulant to complain about a game’s performance when you’re trying to run it on an old MacBook, a simple autosave feature could have saved me the trouble of having to play through the entire episode from the beginning four times. Stories Untold has no saving mechanism at all, presumably in an attempt to make you play each of its episodes in one sitting. I get that. It’s definitely best that way. But should anything go wrong, tech-wise, you can be set back by as much as an hour’s worth of progress. That sucked. And crap graphics card or no, it needn’t have sucked so bad. Secondly, there are some seriously annoying design choices throughout. At one point you are obliged to read text on a microfilm reader (making this the third game I’ve played this year to feature microfilm, after Night in the Woods and Virginia) and you have to meticulously zoom and focus in on it. This is needless. Also, at a few points you are made to turn a dial until a display shows the correct number. In some cases, the only way (obvious to me) to manipulate this dial is to click and drag for minutes at a time until you hit the correct number. A simple numerical entry would suffice, thanks. No need to make it feel that analogue. Finally, in the first episode, the game insists on teletyping large amounts of text one character at a time. This is valuable for suspense in many cases, but sometimes you have to revisit text you’ve seen before, and surely there’s no suspense in teletyping that. These details make the game actively annoying to play. It’s almost too bad that “The House Abandon” is so brilliant. Because that’s the only thing that could make me waver while advising my fellow horror game enthusiasts to pass this one by.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Zuck Everlasting,” “It’s Regulation Time,” “Tax Cut Conundrum” & “I Never Said That” — Mark Zuckerberg is appearing before congress. That’ll be fun. This chat between Mike Pesca and April Glaser is a good primer on what to expect. If you’re reading/listening after the fact, one expects this will be less relevant for you. Greetings, readers, it’s me: Matthew from a day later than the previous sentence. It has now become clear that Mike Pesca is doing a “Zuck trilogy” this week, the second part of which is an interview with Brooke Gladstone about the history of us blaming media for things. All the same, she’s under no illusions about the fact that social media works differently. It’s good and it’s less time-hooked than the previous instalment. Greetings once again, from yet a third point in time. In the third and presumably final instalment of Pesca’s Zuckerberg hearings coverage, he strings together a bunch of dumb questions from senators. Fun. OH SHIT, here’s number four, because we’ve got to have the coverage of the COVERAGE of the Zuckerberg hearings. Anyway, this has been good. The Gist doesn’t get enough credit for presaging the emergence of daily news podcasts. That’s not what it is, but it’s closer than any other show of its vintage.

The Daily: “Wednesday, Apr. 11, 2018” “Thursday, Apr. 12, 2018” — Here’s what you listen to if you want to know what happened at the Zuckerberg hearings. Michael Barbaro breaks it down with tech reporter Kevin Roose, one day at a time. Key takeaways: I know more about how Facebook works than most senators, and the House smarter than the Senate.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Zuckerberg Faces Congress And FBI Raids Properties of Trump Lawyer” & “More On Mueller, Zuckerberg And Landscape for 2018 Elections” — I came for Zuckerberg, but they couldn’t compete with The Daily on that count. The breakdown of the Mueller investigation developments is great, though. I should listen to this more. This always makes me feel like I know what’s going on. Something about listening to people talk about current events conversationally gives that effect more than a news reporting tone does.

On the Media: “Who’s In Charge Here?” — It’s a decent week for a Bob Garfield solo episode. Lots going on. The Zuckerberg-centric segment goes in a different direction from other more straightforward news and current events shows, focussing on anti-trust legislation and how that may or may not factor into regulation of Facebook. But the best segment is about how corporations have been gaining civil rights since long before Citizens United. Good stuff.

The Media Show: “The Age of Zuckerberg” — And now for some Brits. I haven’t listened to The Media Show enough to have a handle on the format, but this is less a discussion of Mark Zuckerberg as it is a discussion of the various projects that the guest panelists have on the go. I was interested to hear from the new editor of Cosmopolitan about her new strategy, though that’s not necessarily what I came for. I should listen to this more.

The West Wing Weekly: “Hamilton Special (with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail)” — My white-hot Hamilton obsession is long since past, but listening to Miranda and Kail talk about The West Wing brought a fraction of it back. This is a great chat, and it’s fun to hear about what a foundational text The West Wing was for Hamilton’s creators. It’s also fun to hear about their actual encounters with West Wingers both real and fictional. Kail’s story of the original cast’s performance at the White House is worth the listen in itself.

Constellations: “bonnie jones – and if i live a thousand lives i hope to remember one” — Last week’s commentary on this show’s preciousness stands. But Jones’ piece is far more intuitively likeable than some of the other sound art on the show — it’s musical. It’s fun. You should check it out.

This American Life: “The Impossible Dream” — I listened to this as soon as it hit my feed. I knew it was coming, thanks to Zoe Chace’s interview on Longform, but it evidently had a troubled gestation. The episode begins with Chace and Ira Glass talking about why it almost stopped being a story: namely that its protagonist, senator Jeff Flake, resigned before the story reached its logical conclusion. And it’s true that this doesn’t have a conventionally satisfying ending, but that didn’t stop me from listening past the caveat-laden intro, nor did it stop me from enjoying the hell out of this. I realized at some point during this episode that The Story Of Jeff Flake was not actually what I wanted from this, nor was the broader story of Why Congress Is So Ineffective. What I wanted was the Zoe Chace Capitol Hill Story. We’ve heard her on the campaign trail and it was brilliant. It was different from everybody else’s reporting on the Trump campaign. This is the logical next thing. And it is accordingly different from everybody else’s palace intrigue stories about the madness that has taken hold of Congress during the Trump administration. It is well worth hearing.

In Our Time: “Euclid’s Elements” & “Four Quartets” — I recently purchased a rather handsome volume of Oliver Byrne’s 19th-century illustrated edition of Euclid’s Elements. It isn’t normally the sort of thing I would read, but I found myself captivated by it in the bookstore and I’ve been looking through its various, completely understandable proofs before bed at night. In this day and age, it can be therapeutic to sit down with a book that tells you “here are some things that are definitely true and here is why.” Immediately after buying it I realized that this was a thing there was probably an In Our Time episode about, and I wasn’t wrong. The episode is outright fantastic, with all members of the panel expositing enthusiastically on not only the relevance but the joy of reading Euclid. Having heard it will make my reading experience better, and that is all you can ask of a show like this. T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is a thing I have not read in its entirety, though I’ve read the bit of “The Dry Salvages” that talks about “music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all/but you are the music while the music lasts” more times than I can count. (It’s a beautiful line, albeit one that he undercuts immediately. That doesn’t make it less beautiful or perceptive, though.) The conversation on it is good, but there’s a pervading sense throughout that Melvyn Bragg’s enthusiasm for the poems is such that he barely needs his panel of experts. Fortunately for all of us, he doesn’t bother resisting the urge to speak his mind.

StartUp: Re-runs for Alex, Inc. — I contend that Alex, Inc.’s promotional materials are so awful that I cannot be blamed for assuming it is terrible without watching it. Still, it’s a big moment for Gimlet and for Alex Blumberg, and it makes sense that they’re taking advantage of the potential audience crossover from the terrible sitcom they accidentally begat. For the rest of us, this is an opportunity to revisit the early days of StartUp: a groundbreaking podcast that felt at the time like lightning in a bottle, and that now feels a bit quaint in light of the (relative) behemoth that Gimlet has become. I remember listening to StartUp when it first come out. I remember waiting on bated breath for new episodes in a way I’d never done for a podcast — or any non-fiction narrative — before. That was in 2014: podcasting’s watershed year — the year that also brought us season one of Serial, which I loved, but not as much as StartUp. (I joked in my first-ever year-end wrap that Serial “wasn’t even my favourite serialized podcast, created by a This American Life producer, that starts with the letter ‘S.’”) Since that time, podcasting and my taste in podcasts have both become enormously more diverse. And the early StartUp episodes that hit the feed once again this week seem accordingly less gutsy and revolutionary than they once did. But it’s still incredible to look back to four short years ago and see a version of Gimlet where Matt Lieber expressed transparent disappointment in the equity he was offered, whereas now he’s a beloved trope in Reply All’s end credits and a figure who Jonathan Goldstein is openly scared of. It’s fun to look back at a Gimlet where four stressed out producers were gathered around a computer trying to figure out how to upload the first Reply All episode to what was then still called the iTunes store, whereas now that show is an institution that justifies two full episodes of the Longform podcast being dedicated to it. It’s edifying to think back to the fact that when I first encountered StartUp there was no such thing as Gimlet Media, whereas now I associate the word Gimlet with podcasts far more than I do with alcoholic beverages. Crap sitcom or not, the story of Gimlet is the story of the rise of a medium. And it’s all on tape.

The World According to Sound: “Sound Audio: Year in Food” — Here we have a man listing everything he ate in a year, in alphabetical order, sped up. “Beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich. Beetroot salad, beetroot salad, beetroot salad… *deep breath* Bun! Bun! Bun! Bun! Bun! …” This is something else.  

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Barry” & “Antiques Roadshow and What’s Making Us Happy” — Barry is an aspirational watch, should I ever find the time. Antiques Roadshow is an ambient pleasure at best — however, the PCHH episode on that topic is a minor classic of the catalogue, due to the contributions of the very antique proprietor of the Maximum Fun network, Jesse Thorn. He is funny and insightful here, just like everywhere else.

Out of the Blocks: “200 W Read St, part 1: The Greenwich Village of Baltimore” — This is the best new podcast I’ve listened to in I don’t know how long. It’s made by an NPR affiliate station in Baltimore, and it’s based on a delightfully simple premise: each episode is devoted to a single city block in Baltimore. The host visits people who live and work on that block, and hears their stories of the past and present of the neighbourhood where they live. It’s all set to a marvellous original score, and it feels warm like you wouldn’t believe. Most of my favourite podcasts these days are rather thinky affairs: stuff about big ideas and abstract notions. But this is straightforward, out-in-the-world radio in the tradition of the Kitchen Sisters and Studs Terkel, and it’s absolutely marvellous. This episode on “the Greenwich Village of Baltimore” was a good starting point for me, so it likely will be for you too. Two more episodes to go on this block, apparently, and I can’t wait. Pick of the week. 

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Ólafur Arnalds, Khruangbin, Whyte Horses, Ari Roar, More” & “New Music Friday: April 13” — Nothing much appeals in this week’s New Music Friday, alas. But I really love that Ólafur Arnalds track in the main episode. I’m still waiting for this year’s Let’s Eat Grandma moment on this show. Nothing has bowled me over. I guess there’s a new Let’s Eat Grandma album on the way, though. There’s always that.

Arts and Ideas: “British New Wave Films of the ‘60s” — A fun discussion of British kitchen sink dramas, i.e. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, both of which I saw in a film studies class and never thought about again. Frankly it’s not my speed. But I recognize its importance as a movement. Also, we get a wonderful segment on the bizarre, bad literary contributions of infamous dictators. God save the BBC.

99% Invisible: “Lessons from Las Vegas” — A good, old-fashioned Avery Trufelman architecture episode. This show is on a hot streak right now, and I’m inclined to think it’s because of a return to first principles. This story is primarily about a well-known architecture textbook and the relationship that begat it. It takes twists and turns you wouldn’t expect, and it explicates some big ideas you may not ever have had to consider before. Lovely stuff.

Song by Song: “Straight to the Top (Rhumba)” — A brief and perfunctory episode on a song I like a lot more than this show’s hosts, who have been guestless for two episodes. Wonder what guests they’ve got lined up. I feel like guests would be nice.

Code Switch: “Location! Location! Location!” — Code Switch tackles housing segregation, and it’s as complicated as you would think. If you do not listen to this regularly, begin.

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