Tag Archives: The Last Door

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 2, 2016)

Just a reminder that my Tumblr exists. Okay, that’s that.

23 reviews.

Television

Last Week Tonight: October 2, 2016 — This has the unfortunate distinction of being the first episode of Last Week Tonight that I’ve watched after reading this extremely on-point parody of this show’s writing and John Oliver’s delivery. Obviously, the fact that it’s possible to make a parody of something does not itself make that thing bad; it only means that it’s possible to identify the tropes at play. That could mean that the thing being parodied is hackneyed or cliché (there is a reason there are a lot of buddy cop parodies), but it could equally mean that the subject of the parody simply has a distinctive voice (the reason that Weird Al’s “Dare to be Stupid” is such a good parody is that Devo is a good band, and Al wrote a song that’s worthy of them). But sometimes a parody can make the scales fall from your eyes so you can see a thing as it is. I have always been effusively positive about this show, but the John Oliver parody I linked above points out the fact that many of the jokes on Last Week Tonight aren’t actually jokes: they’re just lists of funny-sounding words, strung together into long sentences, which are then made the object of a comparison with a serious real-world person or thing. For instance, in this episode, Oliver ends a list of places Donald Trump gets his news with “the racist minotaur that talks to him in the one hour that he sleeps every night.” Every part of that phrase except for “racist” is entirely unmotivated by the context. The only reason for the big laugh that follows is that the phrase “racist minotaur” is funny at first… but should it be? Also, the latest in Oliver’s running gag of “alternate names for the 2016 election” is as follows: “what did I do to deserve this I always tried to be a good person is this because I stole candy once in 4th grade PLEASE STOP PUNISHING US 2016,” which, elaborate though it is, is still just finding a new sequence of words to say “the election is bad.” Also, at one point Oliver compares Hillary Clinton to “an over-confident sloth who has just learned that their credit card information has been stolen by a Ukrainian schoolboy,” except actually no, he doesn’t, because that line was from the parody BUT THE VERY FACT THAT FOR A SECOND YOU KIND OF BELIEVED IT SAYS SOMETHING about how formulaic the jokes on this show can get. (See what I did there? Mmmhmm.) Let me be clear: I still like this show. But when Oliver emphasizes (like Jon Stewart before him) that he’s a comedian and not an opinion journalist, it seems a bit pathetic to me, because he’s clearly more valuable for his skills in the latter domain than the former. The most genuinely hilarious moments on this show are in the clips that he chooses. The simple act of recontextualizing patently ridiculous moments on TV news in a comedy show, implicitly giving us permission to laugh at them, is valuable comedy — though Oliver is clearly not the only game in town in that respect. But the next time I hear somebody extol the calibre of the joke writing on Last Week Tonight, I am 85% less likely to nod in agreement.

Doctor Who: “Full Circle” — According to a recent Doctor Who poll, the best story that I haven’t seen is “Warrior’s Gate.” So, I figured I should just check out the whole trilogy that it’s the concluding entry in. Wow, it has been a while since I watched classic Doctor Who, and I had forgotten how much it demands of a modern audience. This is very difficult to take on a number of levels, just in terms of televisual grammar. You don’t get reaction shots where it seems clear that there should be a reaction shot, characters routinely make exclamations that reiterate something that’s just been shown onscreen, and the less said about the rubber monster suits, the better. But it has its appeal. Obviously it does, or else I wouldn’t have spent so many hours of my life watching old Doctor Who serials, most of which suffer these exact same problems. Ultimately, I never get tired of stories that paint a picture of a unique alien civilization at a turning point. And they are always at a turning point, because the Doctor is an agent of change, and his unexpected arrival (along with the TARDIS, his companions, and most importantly a film crew and a TV audience) must by necessity result in the forward motion of the plot. This is no “Ribos Operation,” but it is a perfectly competent iteration of that story. Also, Adric. Ugh.

Movies

Going Clear — This is fascinating, surprising and appalling. Each of the ex-Scientologists interviewed here has a compelling story about how they finally left the church. One can critique the extent to which the former high-ranking Scientologists are allowed to get away with the fairly terrible things they took part in. But the villain of this piece is Scientology itself, and to a lesser extent, its current leader, David Miscavige. L. Ron Hubbard is rightly portrayed as unsympathetic, but he is at least portrayed as sincere, and not merely power hungry like Miscavige. Best of all is the way that the documentary subtly equates the act of leaving the church with the moment of “going clear,” which is Scientology bullshit for having worked through your psychological issues by way of religious practices. A really wonderful documentary that, like Lawrence Wright’s book upon which it is based, seeks first to understand Scientology and its practitioners and only begins its critique once it is clear that something is very wrong.

Games

The Last Door: Season Two (Collector’s Edition) — There are fewer truly horrifying moments in this than there were in the first season (mind you, even the latter three episodes of that struggled to match the roomful of crows moment in the game’s pilot episode), but all in all this is a stronger game than its predecessor. The biggest and most profitable change is the introduction of an overworld map to each episode, which makes the whole thing feel bigger, more open and more exploratory. The pleasure of traipsing about a larger area is a benefit in itself, but the real payoff of this approach is that the game’s horror mythos can expand outwards beyond our central cast of characters. Superstitious seamen are aware of strange things lurking out in the fog. Secluded islanders know how the human mind can bring forth very real monsters. On that note, the story’s influences expand from Poe and Lovecraft to also include The Wicker Man, which the third episode is an extremely straightforward homage to (but without the awkward musical numbers and tonal inconsistencies). And the final episode features a satisfying set of near-callbacks to the first season, which must have been especially thrilling to people who played it more than… three days prior. In a sense, The Last Door works as a dark mirror image of one of my all-time favourite games: Meg Jayanth’s 80 Days. Both are tributes to fantastical 19th-century literature (I still stand by my assertion that there’s more Poe in this than Lovecraft, though this season certainly amps up the Cthulhu factor), both examine the world at a time when scientific and medical advances were butting heads with superstition and religiosity, and of course both of them tell their stories through a simple graphical interface with good writing (though it must be said that The Last Door could have used another round of copy editing). I dunno what it is about 19th century pastiches that makes for good games, but keep them coming.

The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain — Every so often, I revisit a game from my youth for sheer nostalgia purposes — and not because I think it may have stood the test of time. My childhood was full of edutainment titles, and hoo boy is this ever a game that an overly conscientious parent gets for their kid. It has effectively no story, just a premise: Dr. Brain accidently transferred his brain into a rat and you have to get it back by solving logic puzzles. The rat does silly voices while you solve the logic puzzles. What’s astonishing is that there’s also a character who talks to you directly about the various intelligences you’re developing in solving the puzzles. There’s no attempt to mask the game’s educational objectives. Frankly, this seems like exactly the sort of thing that I would have loved at age six. What that says about the adult I grew into, I’m not sure.

Music

Rush: Hemispheres — Don’t you love that album in a great band’s discography that’s clearly awesome but you haven’t fully gotten to know it yet? This is certainly in my top three Rush albums, but I came to it late, so I haven’t played it nearly as many times as Permanent Waves or Moving Pictures. It is very much a sunset album: it’s the logical conclusion of what they started with 2112 and A Farewell to Kings, and they would soon head in a different direction. The switch they made on Permanent Waves, seemingly made as much out of exhaustion as artistic conviction, led to the best music of their career. But that fact does not negate the excellence of their final masterpiece in their previous idiom. Hemispheres is a prog album in the 1972 mould, and deserves a place just a few rungs below Close to the Edge in that genre’s pantheon. Specifics: “La Villa Strangiato” is particularly strong, of course, and contains career-best playing from Alex Lifeson, the group’s most undersung member. The mythos that underpins the title track is both fascinating and a little bit bogus, but it wouldn’t be Rush without that quality. And let’s not talk about the politics of “The Trees.” Mostly, let’s not talk about it because I’m still having trouble figuring out if there’s irony involved. Irony has never been Neil Peart’s first priority, and I’m not sure I trust him to deploy it expertly. There’s lots to chew over in this, but it is all accompanied by brilliantly thought-out music and incredible playing. It’s definitely worth a listen for anybody who knows Rush mostly through the singles.

Literature, etc.

Annie Correal: “Want to Work in 18 Miles of Books? First, the Quiz” — I love the idea of a book quiz being part of a hiring process at a bookstore. I love the idea of a bookstore with snooty curmudgeons stalking the aisles. I love the idea of short-term employment at a bookstore bequeathing “instant New Yorker” status on a newcomer. I suppose if I’m ever in NYC again, I should stop by the Strand.

Robert Sullivan: “The Hamilton Cult” — A truly wonderful and provocative essay in Harper’s that stops far short of “debunking” Hamilton, but uses historiography to contextualize it as an example of “Great Man” history. Sullivan argues that the historical Alexander Hamilton was a drastically different beast from the theatrical creation first portrayed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. That isn’t surprising in itself, of course. What is notable is the extent to which certain (non-Chernow) Hamilton biographers feel that what’s celebrated about Hamilton in Hamilton is a long way from what Hamilton himself would have considered his legacy. I think that this historically-minded bit of history (which, once again, does not suggest that Hamilton isn’t a great piece of theatre) combined with Aja Romano’s Vox feature that casts Hamilton as fanfic (thus putting a finer point on why the issues Sullivan raises are not actually problems) would make for the most compelling mini-bibliography of Hamilton criticism you could want.

Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, vol. 4 “Rising Action” — The best volume of this extraordinary comic so far. Not sure it tops Phonogram volume 3 for the Gillen/McKelvie 2016 sweepstakes, but it brilliantly lives up to its title. It’s true that this has a proliferation of fight scenes that isn’t generally this comic’s speed, or mine, but it manages to pack in a tremendous density of plot, regardless. One particular staggering turning point near the end of this arc leaves me with absolutely no clue what’s going to happen next. But in spite of that development, I’m still wondering if WicDiv is gearing up to be a modern day Ring cycle, in which the era of gods comes to an end. If that is the case, we are clearly approaching Götterdämmerung with great speed. What that means for pop music and modern culture is anybody’s guess. Pick of the week. 

William Blake: Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion — Oh good god what is even happening who are these people is this guy just that guy by another name what is an emanation and why are all the people also places… Basically, I started reading a prophesy by a madman this week, and it is proving to be hard going. Will report back.

Podcasts

On the Media: “The Poverty Tour” — It takes more than facts and figures to properly debunk a myth that has become a mainstream narrative. It takes a rigorous interrogation of the means by which the myth was propagated in the first place. Enter Brooke Gladstone. This first instalment of a series on poverty myths focusses on a welfare advocate who has been fighting a losing battle with the media for decades. It feels like a framing device, which leads me to wonder how Gladstone will integrate and undermine media representation in the stories she tells about the impoverished in the coming weeks. I am very much looking forward to this. If it sticks the landing to the extent that I’m hoping it will, it will pair up with Bob Garfield’s various features on Trump to make On the Media the most clarifying current affairs program of this confounding year.

The Gist: “Who Called Off the Pretension Police?” — Funny, as always, but the main conversation is a bit disappointing. You may listen to this thinking that you’ll hear a thoughtful discussion of how pretension came to be socially accepted and, well, not pretentious. And it is a thoughtful discussion, but they never quite make it there, and I was left wondering how and why Pesca perceived a change at all. Skippable.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Magnificent Seven and Fleabag” — Oh man, I guess I need to watch Fleabag. When Glen Weldon recommends something this heartily, I know it will be worth a look. Aside from that, I’m already starting to miss Linda Holmes. I feel like maybe she wouldn’t have presided over a segment on The Magnificent Seven, about which there is comically little to say.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist” Parts 6-8, plus Chaplin rerun — This continues to be outstanding, and Longworth did in fact outdo the excellent Dorothy Parker episode with her (functional) two-parter on Charlie Chaplin during wartime, and subsequently the blacklist era. I’d urge anybody who is on the fence about committing to this extremely long series to listen to the Chaplin episodes first. They don’t require a huge amount of background knowledge, and they’re a more fascinating way in than the first two episodes of this, which are a bit slow by comparison to what comes next. But, you’ve got to take time setting up the pieces in a game this complex. The Reagan episode is fascinating too, and portrays him as essentially two-faced during this period, maintaining a public face of political balance while naming names to the FBI behind closed doors. Marvellous.

The West Wing Weekly: “In Excelsis Deo (with Richard Schiff)” & “Memorial Day Special (with Melissa Fitzgerald)” — Okay, I see the point of this now. It is still definitely for fans of The West Wing, but it’s also about acting in general, and about public service. Richard Schiff’s episode is one of the best conversations I’ve heard on a podcast in a long time. He gets choked up a couple of times when the emotions from the run of the show come flooding back. You realize that he’s immensely committed as an actor — not in the bullshit methody way, but in the sense that he really takes the job seriously, so much that he always wants to be actively involved in finessing the scripts and the finished product. It made me want to go back and watch “In Excelsis Deo” again. I might just. And the episode with Melissa Fitzgerald is a nice tag. The fact that she went from being on The West Wing to being in public service herself gives her a unique perspective on this episode. This is really great stuff and I will certainly listen to more.

Reply All: “Very Quickly to the Drill” — One of the best episodes of this show, maybe ever. The depth of Google AdWords scamming is both unsurprising and totally fascinating. The highlights of this episode are the two more detailed stories near the end, which mirror each other in terms of intentions. On the dark, awful side of the mirror, there are locksmiths. Shady, horrible scamming locksmiths whose scheme has become so prevalent that it has essentially split into cartels. On the other side, there is an international organization that claims it can find your lost wedding ring, and while it has every red flag associated with a horrible scam, it isn’t one. This is great.

StartUp: “Introducing Season 4” — I am very excited for the next Gimlet-focussed episode of this show. I’m surprised to hear that tape off the top of this trailer that says that listeners have plateaued in recent months. I think Gimlet’s shows have been great lately. Science Vs and Heavyweight are both great additions. And StartUp itself looks like it might be back to the standards of its first two seasons (yeah, I liked the Dating Ring season a lot) pretty soon. Relax, Gimlet! You are fine.

In the Dark: Episodes 1-4 — I am a sucker for that moment in serialized documentary storytelling where a huge development in a seemingly cold story changes everything, right in the middle of the reporting process. (Think of the final episode of The Jinx.) In this show, it happens between the trailer and episode one. Providence got us off to a good start. Knowing from the outset who the guilty party is allows host Madeleine Baran to focus specifically on how law enforcement got the case of Jacob Wetterling’s abduction so completely wrong. On the other hand, I kind of wish we got to hear the show that she’d been intending to make before the big revelation happened. I wonder how much would have changed. Still, it’s probably only me who obsesses that much over how the telling of a story affects the story itself (I’ve been listening to Hamilton too much, and also watching Doctor Who). This is compelling true crime, very much in the vein of Serial season one, but without its obsessive attention to tiny details (again, mitigated by the fact that the case is closed) and presumably with a proper ending. I’ve got to say, serialized true crime isn’t really where my head’s at right now, so this hasn’t been the thing I look forward to most in my feed. But it’s quality reporting on a story that seems to have had a huge impact on how abductions are handled. When Baran gets to the part about the national consequences, I expect my attention to be more thoroughly peaked.

Science Vs: “Zika” — This taught me some stuff I didn’t know, but I definitely like this show better when it chooses topics where the science is relatively definitive. A substantial part of the value of this show is its ability to take a simple statement and say TRUE or FALSE. Since the science is still very much in progress regarding the spread of Zika, this is less compelling than the episodes about guns or organic food.

Love and Radio: “A Girl of Ivory” — One of the things I like best about this extraordinary show is the extent to which it is more interested in understanding people than critiquing them. I have written before about how the structure of Love and Radio implicitly empowers its subjects by letting virtually the whole story be governed by their perspective. This episode employs a truly clever little bait and switch that benefits greatly from familiarity with that structure. You hear three people talking, and you know that the story is building up to something because for the first several minutes of the podcast, there’s no conflict. But, you can’t know what the twist is going to be, because there’s no narrator to ramp up the tension, as would be normal in most similar narratives. The moment when the penny drops is quite staggering and left me wearing a wide-eyed expression of shock for about half of my morning run. Also, regarding the title: it appears to be a reference to the old myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which a sculptor creates a woman out of stone and falls in love with her. Bearing that myth in mind while listening to this will lift several of its subtler themes into starter relief. Brilliant. A corker of a start to the season. Pick of the week. 

The Memory Palace “Canali” — Nate DiMeo returns to space! This is a nice one, not a great one. But the story that DiMeo tells here is compelling in itself. For a substantial chunk of time, the world thought there were canals on Mars. DiMeo puts a face on that conviction by focussing his story on the man who was most responsible for researching those canals, which don’t exist.

Code Switch: “Who is a Good Immigrant, Anyway?” — A nuanced trio of pieces on the movement to change the face of the pro-immigration movement. It makes a compelling case that even America’s centre-left politicians have got this one wrong: not all felons deserve to be barred from the country for good.

The Heart: “My Everything, My Bear” — The Diaries season has been less hard-hitting than much of what The Heart has done, but this is one to go out on. It’s a story of two genderqueer people and how the dramatically different way that the world looks at them affects their relationship. It’s the kind of story that The Heart does really well, and that no other show in mainstream podcasting would ever do. It’s why The Heart is essential.

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Omnireviewer (week of Sept. 25, 2016)

If you’re interested in being frustrated by me more frequently and for shorter periods at a time, I’m now doing this on Tumblr as well. I post the reviews as I write them. I’ve got three followers already! Two of whom I don’t even know IRL!

17 reviews.

Literature, etc.

The Book of Tobit — I read the version of this that can be found in the “Shorter Books of the Apocrypha” volume of the New English Bible, along with the commentary provided therein. I know nothing about whether or not this is a good way to read Tobit. It’s just what my library had most conveniently at hand. It’s the first Biblical reading I’ve ever done, aside from a brief teenage tear through Revelation. Odd choices, I’m sure. An apocryphal text and a fever dream. But I’m now the proud owner of a copy of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, and I understand that the demon from this Biblical story makes a substantial appearance there. Might as well do my homework. So, how was it? Well, I learned that the Grateful Dead got their name from one of the folktales sourced in Tobit. Also near the start, Tobit is blinded when a sparrow poops in his eyes. Also there’s a bit where the archangel Raphael appears in disguise, and talks about his friend “Gabael.” Seriously, Raphael? You might as well have said “Schmabriel.” You are bad at subterfuge, and I bet your disguise is just Groucho Marx glasses. Also a huge fish tries to swallow a man’s foot, but the book never says whether it tried to bite it off first. Odd phrasing. Very hard to swallow a foot when it is still attached to a leg. So basically, laffs o’plenty.

Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale: Batman: The Long Halloween — Superhero comics aren’t really my speed, these days. But a friend leant this to me and I LOVED it. It’s less of a conventional superhero story than it is a crime drama, and its clearest reference points outside of the Batman canon come from The Godfather and The Silence of the Lambs. Tim Sale’s art is both stylishly noirish and practical in its storytelling — many things are illustrated that did not actually happen, but it is always clear what they are. There are a lot of bad guys in this story, and while shoehorning in multiple antagonists has hurt movies like Spider-Man 3 and The Dark Knight Rises, Loeb finds a way to make each iconic villain’s appearance serve the main thrust of the narrative. Indeed, the structural device of “iconography of a major holiday + recognizable villain + grisly murder by an unknown hand” in each issue makes for nearly perfect serialized storytelling — especially when the structure begins to break down in the Riddler chapter. I laid down on the couch to start reading this early on a Sunday afternoon, and did not get up until I was finished. That’s the mark of a good suspense story. Pick of the week.

Tanya Gold: “A Goose in a Dress” — This Harper’s feature from last year addresses the shitty side of the culture war by way of lacerating, hilarious food criticism. A selection of top-tier New York restaurants is made to exemplify what is wrong with America’s cultural elites, and products made for ostensibly refined tastes are exposed as a consequence of intense anti-intellectualism. This can apply to so many elements of “high culture.” Intellectual laziness is easily bred in environments where an artistic idiom’s value is held up as unquestionable (see also: classical music, Shakespeare). This is why you cannot learn anything worthwhile about the world from reading Gramophone magazine, but you can learn plenty from reading reviews of Kendrick Lamar records. Gold’s piece is the necessary (and hugely satisfying) negative side of poptimism applied to food. For the positive spin, look no further than the Sporkful podcast: a labour of love on behalf of the full spectrum of culinary experience. This feature is incredible. Read it. There’s a line about Charles Foster Kane that is so brilliant you’ll eat your computer.

Adrian Tomine: Shortcomings — I don’t quite know how to respond to this. I was totally involved in the story and completely believed the characters, but I came out of it without a clear sense of what I was meant to take from it. I’ve never been one of those people who writes off a story because of unsympathetic characters. Which, you just can’t be if you’re going to get anything out of this. The protagonist is an unrepentant jerk with zero self-awareness. But I feel like it’s going to stick with me. And I like that feeling — when there are just thoughts swirling around, and eventually they may coalesce into a broth. And that’s basically what this blog is: just a record of that process in something close to real-time. But where this comic is concerned, it isn’t happening fast enough for me to have anything much to say. I do think it’s probably very good. It’s definitely engrossing, in a soapy kind of way.

Television

Last Week Tonight: September 25, 2016 — One joke format that I love when it is delivered well is the “ruthless overkill” joke. John Oliver saying “fuck you” to an eight-year-old Ron Howard is exactly what I mean by that. Also, this show’s occasional compilations of ads for WCBS News features are always hysterical and remind me why I mostly hate television. The main course was especially relevant since I watched this immediately after subjecting myself to the first presidential debate. More than any specific factual misrepresentation or shameless dogwhistle, I found myself enraged at the general tenor of the debate, which was light on policy and heavy on accusations of scandal. This helps put a lot of that in perspective, but it is still absolutely not what I want to hear the candidates talk about. And I think we can expect more from exactly one of the two.  

Games

The Last Door: Season 1 (Collector’s Edition) — This game offers proof of concept remarkably quickly. In its opening scene, it shows you something extremely disquieting, rendered in its self-described “lo-fi” 8-bit aesthetic, and the juxtaposition of that terror with the lack of detail in its illustration is intensely effective. It’s like what Scott McCloud writes about the power of cartoons: you can impose yourself onto a figure without much detail. It’s a tremendously effective technique to draw on in a horror game, because it makes the terror that much more visceral. The key reference point in most reviews seems to be H.P. Lovecraft, but as ever, his influence is overestimated compared to that of Poe. Sub out crows for ravens and you’re halfway there. Lovecraft rears his head in the form of a Thing That Lies Just Beyond Our Senses That Is Incomprehensible And Ruthless, but the aesthetic of this is firmly in Poe’s Romantic idiom. It is so unsettling. I’ll play through the second season as soon as I get the chance.

Music

Margo Price: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter — You know, it scratches an itch. Country music is a sometimes food, but Margo Price is the real deal: a hard living, mistake making modern human with a killer band and a capacity to express hard personal truths with directness. I’m not sure I love this as much as some of Price’s biggest fans, but — and I never thought I’d say this — it’s possible that I’ve listened to more country music than some of this record’s cheerleaders. So it isn’t revelatory, so much as merely excellent. I love “Hands of Time.” This has no weak tracks, but that one is an instant classic.

Miles Davis: On The Corner — Jeez, let me tell you, listening to this in the grocery store makes for some odd juxtapositions. Hearing John McLaughlin soloing over tablas and Miles’ wah-wah treated trumpet while you sort through the onions for a firm one just feels wrong. In spite of its prosaic title, this album isn’t the sort of thing that pairs well with real life. The music of On the Corner sounds like it couldn’t have happened in a place, no matter how hard that title tries to wrangle it down to earth. It is artificial music — fictional music. No doubt that’s the result of Miles, a person who came up in a musical idiom where whatever happens in front of the microphones is what goes on the record, actively swerving as far as he could to the other end of the spectrum. Bitches Brew may be more adventurous; Jack Johnson may be more rock and roll. But On the Corner marks the farthest point out on Miles’ electric peninsula. I love it. It might be my favourite Miles Davis record.

Podcasts

Radiolab: “The Primitive Streak” — Jad is clearly not taking his vacation seriously. Still. This is one of the best Radiolab stories in recent memory, maybe partially because it strongly resembles the Radiolab from two or three years ago that I remember so fondly. No media outlet does the “science deals with a difficult ethical question” story as well as Radiolab does. And good luck finding one with such glorious eerie synth music.

The Gist: “Rapid Response: The First Presidential Debate” — It’s as good as it can be. Of course I’m going to listen to recaps like these, but I’m just tired. What’s there to say anymore?

NPR Politics Podcast: “The First Presidential Debate” — This podcast is incredibly useful, in that it features people who I can stand to listen to talking about people I can’t stand to listen to.

In Our Time: “Zeno’s Paradoxes” — This is marvellous, easily the best episode of In Our Time that I’ve heard. It is propelled forward by Melvyn Bragg’s total fascination with the hysterical, raving absurdities of paradoxes like Achilles and the tortoise, and Zeno’s arrow. His guests are articulate enough to make you genuinely think twice about the notion that a line could possibly be made of discrete points. This sort of abstraction is totally fascinating to me. References to the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who are just a bonus. Okay, that’s the end of the review, but this made me remember a story I feel compelled to relate. Once, way back in grade 11 chemistry, our teacher Ms. Agnew was trying to demonstrate pipetting. The chemical reaction she was undertaking required a super specific amount of a solute to be added to a beaker of some solvent or another. She asked for a volunteer to attempt the feat, and when only the usual suspects raised their hands (yours truly, and a few of my friends), she forced the stoner in the back row to step up. I can’t remember his name. Let’s call him Jordan. Just a listless troglodyte of a teenager. He dragged his knuckles up to the front of the room and started going through the motions of the demonstration, as Ms. Agnew instructed. When he had just about added enough of the solute and the solvent had still failed to change colour, like it would with the proper amount, Ms. Agnew told him “just add half a drop.” Jordan froze. He turned his head slowly, and uttered more words than any of us had ever heard him say before: “you can’t have half a drop.” Agnew brushed him off and told him to just try and add the tiniest bit more to the solution, but he wouldn’t be dissuaded from this question that now occupied him. “No, wait — it’s not possible to have ‘half a drop.’” Agnew asked what he meant. Thus began the pantomime. Jordan put his right hand to his forehead and raised his left index finger, eyes clamped shut as if in mental agony. “A ‘drop’ is however much water falls out of that thing. If I try for ‘half a drop,’ that’s still just a drop. A smaller drop.” Ms. Agnew was running out of class time, but this was a train she couldn’t help chasing. “No, the pipette can dispense sort of average-sized drops, and if you’re really careful, it can do half-drops.” Jordan would not relent. The rest of our class was spent watching this debate, which was not unlike the conversation on this episode of In Our Time. After 15 years of semi-sentience, this ontological impossibility had hit Jordan in the brain so hard that it roused him from catatonia. It was a thing to behold. Pick of the week. 

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist Part 5: The Strange Love of Barbara Stanwyck: Robert Taylor” — When this podcast promises “secret and/or forgotten” stories from Hollywood (god, how I wish she’d quit with the and/or thing) it certainly delivers. This episode reveals not just how a now forgotten actor typifies the attitudes of blacklist-era Hollywood conservatives — it reveals how the HUAC hearings may have been the direct result of his participation. This is consistently outstanding stuff.

The West Wing Weekly: “Special Interim Session (with Aaron Sorkin)” — I don’t really understand why this is now a member of Radiotopia, aside from it being Hrishikesh Hirway’s other show. It’s not story driven or audio rich: it’s really just a discussion show, and a niche one at that. Which isn’t to say it isn’t good. As a huge West Wing fan, I really enjoyed this discussion of the gap between the first and second seasons with Sorkin himself. I’ll probably listen again when they discuss my particular favourite episodes. (“Two Cathedrals” is coming up pretty soon.) So, all well and good. Just, it’s going to be Radiotopia’s strange fish from here on out.

Code Switch: “The Code Switch Guide To Handling Casual Racism” — Code Switch inherits a proven formula from On the Media. The panel gives several examples of times when they either have or have not called out casual racism when it occurs, and use that as a starting point to figure out when it’s best to say something, versus just leaving it alone. News you can use. Code Switch is awesome.

All Songs Considered: “Brian Eno Sings, New Dirty Projectors, Leonard Cohen, More” — I didn’t love the track by the Gift that features Brian Eno the first time I heard it. I found the first two minutes generic, and it only picked up when Eno took the lead vocals. I’ve since listened to it a few more times and seen the video, which is amazing, and I’ve warmed to it enough that I might check out the album. The Gift has a female lead singer who sings in a baritone register. It’s an amazing sound. And that moment when Eno comes in hits me right in the Here Come the Warm Jets centre of my brain. Dirty Projectors’ new song is a four-minute abyss gaze. I loved it. And oh boy, am I ever excited for the new Leonard Cohen record. I’ve skipped a couple, but the title track from You Want it Darker is brilliant.

Desert Island Discs: “Joyce DiDonato” — Considering what my job is these days, I don’t know why I decided I wanted to listen to an interview with an opera singer in my spare time. (These days my job is producing a podcast/radio show of opera-related interviews.) But Joyce is special. Before I heard her recital disc of music from Naples, I’d never really been wowed by an opera singer before. Operas, yes, but never a specific musician. She is probably my favourite classical singer working right now, and it is so wonderful to hear about how her total virtuosity was built on a foundation of hard graft as much or more than natural ability. She’s coming to Vancouver soon, and I have only been this excited to see a classical recital maybe twice before in my life.