Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Huw Parkinson's "Winter is Trumping"

Huw Parkinson creates amusing video mashups combining current politics
with pop culture references. His work can be seen on the ABC (Insiders
and replayed elsewhere). 2016 kicks off with Donald Trump's quest to win
the Game of Thrones, in "Winter is Trumping":

Selected highlights from last year:
* Star Wars : Fixed (with Christopher Pyne)
* Star Wars : Episode II : Return of the Fixer (with Christopher Pyne)
* Indiana Abbott and the Last Crusade
* Seinfeld in Parliament

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Pick of Podcasts Listened to in 2015

I enjoy listening to people talk about interesting stuff. In the old
days, I often had to rely on luck or timing to catch intelligent
discussions on radio or television. Nowadays, there are podcasts:
  "Podcasts are episodes of a program available on the Internet.
Podcasts are usually original audio or video recordings, but can also be
recorded broadcasts of a television or radio program, a lecture, a
performance, or other event. ... For podcast listeners, podcasts are a
way to enjoy great content from around the world for free. For podcast
publishers, podcasts are a great way to reach a wide audience."

Podcasts can be professional, broadcast-quality content like radio
programs, from established sources such as the BBC, the ABC (Aus) and
NPR. At the other end of the spectrum are more informal discussions
produced by amateurs and fans, bringing passion and enthusiasm.

I usually listen to podcasts as a background activity, e.g. when I'm
getting ready in the morning, doing housework, walking and eating.

Most podcasts publish episodes weekly or fortnightly. I use iTunes to
manage subscriptions, and the stock Apple podcast apps to play the
latest episodes on various devices. Podcasts can of course be played on
other platforms, or directly in a browser.

Here are some of my favourite podcasts, grouped by category.

1. Tech News and Analysis

* The Critical Path
"The Critical Path is a talk show contemplating the causality of success
and failure in the evolving story of mobile computing and related
industries. Using Apple as a lens to look at existing and emerging tech
markets, we try to understand what it means to be great."
Horace Dediu obsesses over the details, and always has interesting
analysis, ideas and opinions.

* Exponent
"Exponent is a podcast about tech and society hosted by Ben Thompson and
James Allworth"
Similar approach and subject matter to The Critical Path, sometimes
reaching different conclusions.

* Clockwise
"Clockwise is a rapid-fire discussion of current technology issues
hosted by Jason Snell and Dan Moren and featuring two special guests
each week. Four people, four topics--and because we're always watching
the clock, no episode is longer than 30 minutes."
This effectively replaces a handful of discussion shows, thanks to
having a variety of panelists and its brevity.

* EasyApple
"Non accontentarti di ci=C3=B2 che sai gi=C3=A0 fare con il tuo iPhone,
iPad o Mac: c=E2=80=99=C3=A8 tanto altro da scoprire. Noi siamo qui per
I mostly listen to this because it's in Italian, which helps expand my
vocabulary. The hosts have some fun, and unlike many other tech-related
podcasts, they don't ramble on too much.

2. Popular Culture

* The Incomparable
"A collection of pop culture podcasts full of smart, funny people who
love talking about TV, movies, books, comics, games, and much more."
Started out as a small group of friends talking about geeky topics, has
now grown into a whole network of shows. Too many shows to listen to
them all, so I usually stick to book, movie and TV discussions, as well
as episodes of "The Incomparable Radio Theater", "Game Show", and "Robot
or Not?".

* TV Talk Machine
"Tim Goodman, chief television critic for The Hollywood Reporter, talks
regularly with Jason Snell about what=E2=80=99s going on in television,
what shows to watch, and what shows to skip."
This show has lived up to its description. Goodman also teaches about
the writing and structure of TV shows.

* Good Job, Brain!
"Good Job, Brain! is a free weekly clean* audio podcast that's part quiz
show & part offbeat news. It's the ultimate nutrition for your brain. So
eat up!"
Fun quiz and trivia show, and I don't mind their quirky ad reads.

3. Engineering and Science

* Debug
"Debug is a conversational interview show about developing software and
services, primarily for iPhone, iPad, Mac, and gaming."
This one will appeal mostly to programmers. The guests are almost always
excellent, many providing anecdotes about what it's like working at
Apple and other tech companies.

* Pragmatic
"Pragmatic is a discussion show contemplating the practical application
of technology. Exploring the real world trade offs we look at how great
ideas are transformed into products and services that can change our
lives. Nothing is as simple as it seems."
An Aussie engineer talks with guests about tech-related topics.
Thoroughly researched and very informative.

* Dr Karl on triplej
"Dr Karl's famous triplej mission is to bring science to the peeps! Join
host Zan Rowe, her guests, and a bunch of curious triplej listeners for
a weekly injection of science, myth-bashing and answers!"
I used to listen to Dr Karl's show on the radio in the 90s, but had to
give it up when I started working in an office. Recently I got back into
it thanks to episodes being available on demand.

* Radiolab
"Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and
the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience."
Long-running and popular show covering a wide range of topics.

4. Psychology

* You Are Not So Smart
"You Are Not So Smart is a celebration of self delusion that explores
topics related to cognitive biases, heuristics, and logical fallacies.
David McRaney interviews scientists about their research into how the
mind works, and then he eats a cookie."
The host is the author of a couple of good intro books on thinking. The
show features some interesting guests.

* Invisibilia
"Invisibilia (Latin for all the invisible things) is about the invisible
forces that control human behavior =E2=80=93 ideas, beliefs, assumptions
and emotions. Co-hosted by Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel, Invisibilia
interweaves narrative storytelling with scientific research that will
ultimately make you see your own life differently."
Had a short initial run, but I enjoyed each episode.

5. Economics

* Freakonomics Radio
"Freakonomics Radio is a top-rated weekly podcast with more than 7
million monthly downloads and a public radio program that airs
nationally. Each week host Stephen Dubner has surprising conversations
that explore the riddles of everyday life and the weird wrinkles of
human nature=E2=80=94from cheating and crime to parenting and sports.
Dubner talks with Nobel laureates and provocateurs, social scientists
and entrepreneurs =E2=80=94 and his Freakonomics co-author Steve
I liked the books, and the podcast covers some interesting issues as

* Planet Money
"Money makes the world go around, faster and faster every day. On NPR's
Planet Money, you'll meet high rollers, brainy economists and regular
folks =E2=80=94 all trying to make sense of our rapidly changing global
Short and informative episodes about current topics in the world of
business and finance.

6. Humour

* Welcome to Night Vale
"Welcome to Night Vale is a twice-monthly podcast in the style of
community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale, featuring
local weather, news, announcements from the Sheriff's Secret Police,
mysterious lights in the night sky, dark hooded figures with unknowable
powers, and cultural events."
This is an amusing radio serial chronicling a fictitious community. I'm
keen to check out the recent novelisation.

* Judge John Hodgman
"Have your pressing issues decided by Famous Minor Television
Personality John Hodgman, Certified Judge."
Not an actual judge, but in fact a wry comedian. Amusing "cases" and
"rulings" get me in a good mood.

* The Flop House
"Elliott Kalan, Dan McCoy, and Stuart Wellington are friends who=E2=80=99v=
e decided to express that friendship not by doing productive or
enjoyable things, but instead by watching critical or commercial flops,
and then discussing those terrible movies for you to enjoy in your
ear-holes. Although, honestly, most of the time they just talk about
random bull$!t."
The hosts are professional comedy writers, and they apply the blowtorch
to mostly bad movies they've watched. Only caveat is that sometimes they
talk a little blue.

That's a lot of podcasts. I haven't even included those that I only
listen to occasionally, depending on the topic. But many of these
podcasts' episodes are around 30 to 45 minutes long. Over the past year
I've actually increased the diversity of subjects by abandoning some
shows I used to like. Common problems with these podcasts:
* Too long - e.g. "The Talk Show with John Gruber" may have a
semi-famous host and impressive guests, but 2+ hours per episode!?
* Straying too far off-topic - I'm not interested in what comic book the
hosts are reading.
* Too much speculation - I don't want to hear people ramble on about
* Tedious testimonial-style ad reads, often for things not even
available outside the US.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Pick of Television Shows Watched in 2015

I have a confession. I watch a fair bit of TV, two to three hours per
night. In my defence, most of this is planned viewing, not just whatever
happens to be on. I also avoid ads, thanks to DVDs, streaming services
and a PVR.

Why do I prefer TV shows over movies these days? A quality TV series has
pacing and complexity similar to a good novel. And just like reading a
novel, watching a series over days or weeks provides the opportunity to
reflect and develop some perspective. Movies, which are really like
short stories in visual form, can be unduly influenced by the viewer's
mood or state of mind for a specific block of time. The declining
quality of Hollywood movies doesn't help.

The recent trend of TV shows having self-contained, season-long arcs has
helped give viewers confidence to invest time. This is an improvement
over the old practice of open-ended shows spanning multiple seasons,
running the risk of cancellation before reaching any satisfactory
conclusion. The reduced importance of ratings and the emergence of
on-demand services have helped usher in a "platinum age of television":

1. Current 2015 Shows

Here are some shows which had strong seasons last year.

* Fargo
"Various chronicles of deception, intrigue and murder in and around
frozen Minnesota."
Fans of the original movie from 1996 will probably enjoy this TV series.
Quirkiness and dark humour help take the edge off the crime-based
storylines. The characters are compelling, and the scenery is bleak.
Like many people, I was a bit hesitant when I first heard about the
show, but season one was consistently good, and season two was arguably
even better. Each season is self-contained with a mostly new cast, which
keeps things fresh.

* Mr. Robot
"Follows a young computer programmer who suffers from social anxiety
disorder and forms connections through hacking. He's recruited by a
mysterious anarchist, who calls himself Mr. Robot."
I'm clearly in the target market for this show. Technology and hacking
are portrayed plausibly, and the show works both at the personal and
society level. I'm looking forward to see where the show goes in its
second season.

* Mad Men
"A drama about one of New York's most prestigious ad agencies at the
beginning of the 1960s, focusing on one of the firm's most mysterious
but extremely talented ad executives, Donald Draper."
The seventh and final season brings to a satisfactory close this
decade-long examination of the golden era of advertising. The show
captured many of the key moments and trends of the 1960s, highlighting
the excesses, preoccupations and inequality of the times. Complex and
relatable characters face difficult choices in their professional
careers and personal lives.

* Better Call Saul
"The trials and tribulations of criminal lawyer, Saul Goodman, in the
time leading up to establishing his strip-mall law office in
Albuquerque, New Mexico."
A prequel to the critically-acclaimed "Breaking Bad", this show examines
the gradual transformation of Jimmy McGill, the wild but reformed kid
brother of a respected lawyer, into Saul Goodman, counsel for petty and
mid-level criminals. Another show I had misplaced hesitation about. The
main and supporting characters were interesting, and the storyline was
solid. My only complaint is that the pace was a little slow.

* Humans
"In a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for any busy
family is a 'Synth' - a highly-developed robotic servant that's so
similar to a real human it's transforming the way we live."
This show examines how we might interact with humanoid robots which were
initially meant to be servants. What happens if they become self-aware?
Would we treat them like equals or as slaves? Should they have "human"
rights? Or will we feel threatened by them?

* Broadchurch
"The murder of a young boy in a small coastal town brings a media
frenzy, which threatens to tear the community apart."
Realistic characters, with solid acting and great scenery. There's the
standard misdirection and plot twists until the case is solved. Season
one focusses on the investigation, and worked better than season two,
which covers the trial and its consequences.

* Rectify
"Daniel Holden must put his life back together after serving 19 years on
Georgia's Death Row before DNA evidence calls his conviction into
Simple but enjoyable drama, set in a small community rife with suspicion
and ulterior motives. Authorities seemingly more concerned with
protecting their pride or advancing their careers than finding out what
really happened all those years ago.

* Doctor Who
"The further adventures of the time traveling alien adventurer and his
This rebooted show hit a higher gear in 2015. I watched several episodes
twice to catch all the little details. Peter Capaldi again proves his
great range as an actor. The penultimate episode, "Heaven Sent", was a

* Justified
"Old-school U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens is reassigned from Miami to his
childhood home in the poor, rural coal-mining towns in Eastern
The opening scene of the pilot made it clear how close to the line the
main character will go to in the name of justice. He seems obsessed with
getting out of the dark shadow of his father, a small-time criminal. His
old friend, Boyd Crowder, has become a white supremacist and wannabe
criminal kingpin. When the Dixie Mafia wants to exact revenge on Raylan
for what he did in Miami, the frenemies Raylan and Boyd have to
sometimes swallow their pride and work together.

* Orange is the New Black
"The story of Piper Chapman, a woman in her thirties who is sentenced to
fifteen months in prison after being convicted of a decade-old crime of
transporting money to her drug-dealing girlfriend."
Set in a womens' prison, this show manages to get you to empathise with
the characters, notwithstanding their past crimes and misbehaviour.
Interestingly, little attempt is made to glorify the central character.

* Brooklyn Nine-Nine
"Jake Peralta, an immature but talented NYPD detective in Brooklyn's
99th Precinct, comes into immediate conflict with his new commanding
officer, the serious and stern Captain Ray Holt."
Surprisingly amusing comedy with a great ensemble cast.

Honourable mentions:
* Orphan Black: Latest season was ok, but needs to start resolving
* New Girl: Fun time-filler.
* unREAL: What producing reality TV is really like?

Current shows not caught up on yet:
* The Americans (season 3)
* Silicon Valley (season 2)
* True Detective (season 2)
* Parks and Recreation (final season)

* House of Cards (US): The UK version was better and more focussed. West
Wing covered US politics more realistically. Veep is more fun.
* Game of Thrones: Feels like a brutal soap opera/reality elimination
contest at times. I recently started watching Vikings, which is more
respectful of its viewers and is at least based on historical events.

2. Classic Shows from Past Years

Limited time and availability mean I sometimes don't get to complete
watching shows until years after they end. Here are some classic shows
that I caught up with last year.

* Breaking Bad
"A chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal lung cancer teams up with
his former student to cook and sell crystal meth."
Anti-heroes are all the rage nowadays, and this show really tested my
ability to keep watching as I grew to despise Walter White. I almost
gave up at the end of season two, but I'm glad I stuck with it.

* The Wire
"Baltimore drug scene, seen through the eyes of drug dealers and law
Not what I'm usually interested in, but it's critically acclaimed, so I
gave it a go. I found the warts and all, quasi-documentary depiction of
the lesser-seen America very compelling and informative.

* Deadwood
"A show set in the late 1800s, revolving around the characters of
Deadwood, South Dakota; a town of deep corruption and crime."
The colourful language always makes me smile. It's loosely based on
historical events, so there's that.

* Luther
"A crime drama series starring Idris Elba as a near-genius murder
detective whose brilliant mind can't always save him from the dangerous
violence of his passions."
Flawed cop who gets results. A bit like Sherlock from the wrong side of
the tracks.

* Boardwalk Empire
"An Atlantic City politician plays both sides of the law, conspiring
with gangsters during the Prohibition era."
I initially gave up on this series after the first season due to the
violence, but returned to it. Overall, pretty solid.

* Derek
"Derek is a loyal nursing home care assistant who sees only the good in
his quirky co-workers as they struggle against prejudice and shrinking
budgets to care for their elderly residents."
Ricky Gervais is not everyone's cup of tea, but this shows is both
touching and amusing. Features music by Ludovico Einaudi, which is a

* Freaks and Geeks
"A high school mathlete starts hanging out with a group of burnouts
while her younger brother navigates his freshman year."
Great comedy series that only ran one season. Launched the careers of
several name actors.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Pick of Games Played in 2015

Playing games is still considered a guilty pleasure. This is a shame,
because research seems to show some games are actually good for our
mental health and general well-being:
* "7 health benefits of playing video games"
* "Your brain on video games"

1. Games Played in 2015

I didn't have much time for games last year, but I did enjoy playing a
handful of "casual" games.

* Alto's Adventure
"Above the placid ivory snow lies a sleepy mountain village, brimming
with the promise of adventure."
An endless runner (in this case, you play a snowboarder), which is not
the type of game I usually like. It won me over with its simple yet
well-done graphics, and the ability to do backflips, grinds and other
thrilling tricks and combos.

* The Bridge
"The Bridge is a 2D logic puzzle game that forces the player to
reevaluate their preconceptions of physics and perspective."
This game should appeal to fans of Escher-like impossible architecture.

* Prune
"With a swipe of a finger, grow and shape your tree into the sunlight
while avoiding the dangers of a hostile world. Bring life to a forgotten
landscape, and uncover a story hidden deep beneath the soil."
Simple and almost meditative casual game.

* Bonza
Developed by an Australian company, this is a pleasing little word
puzzle game. The free daily puzzles are great for filling five minutes
or so of idle time. Puzzle packs can be earned or bought in-game.

2. Playing Soon

Here are some recent releases I'm hoping to tackle this year.

* StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void
"StarCraft II continues the epic saga of the Protoss, Terran, and Zerg.
These three distinct and powerful races clash once again in the
fast-paced real-time strategy sequel to the legendary original,

* The Stanley Parable
"It is a first person exploration game. You will play as Stanley, and
you will not play as Stanley. You will follow a story, you will not
follow a story. You will have a choice, you will have no choice. The
game will end, the game will never end."

* The Room Three
"Welcome to The Room Three, a physical puzzle game within a beautifully
tactile world."

3. Other Recommendations

Here are some of my favourite games played in prior years.

* Monument Valley
"In Monument Valley you will manipulate impossible architecture and
guide a silent princess through a beautiful world. Monument Valley is a
surreal exploration through fantastical architecture and impossible
geometry. Guide the silent princess Ida through mysterious monuments,
uncovering hidden paths, unfolding optical illusions and outsmarting the
enigmatic Crow People."

* Fez
"In Fez, you play as Gomez, a 2D creature living in what he believes is
a 2D world. Until a strange and powerful artifact reveals to him the
existence of a mysterious third dimension!"

* The Room and The Room Two

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Pick of Music Listened to in 2015

Music is arguably the greatest human achievement. Even animals can
appreciate our music, unlike most other things we make. Every day I
listen to music from my ever-growing collection, and sample new stuff
via streaming services and the radio. Vocals can be distracting when I'm
working on something tricky, learning new stuff or reading, so in recent
years I've been getting more into instrumental music: classical,
post-rock, soundtrack, contemporary and light jazz. My selections
reflect this trend.

1. New Releases in 2015

Here are my favourite new releases from last year, roughly ranked
starting with what I've enjoyed the most.

* "Elements" by Ludovico Einaudi
Another masterpiece of contemporary classical music. Still too early to
say where it fits into his canon, but an instant buy.

* "The Chopin Project" by Ólafur Arnalds & Alice Sara Ott
Some of Chopin's best known pieces rearranged by this contemporary
Icelandic composer, and performed along with a renowned German-Japanese
classical pianist.

* "Currents" by Tame Impala
Latest album of psych grooves by this West Australian band. One of the
rare cases where my current tastes intersect with Triple J listeners.

* "Taranta Project" by Ludovico Einaudi
This folk/classical crossover collaboration grew out of Einaudi's recent
curation of the annual Italian folk music festival called "La Notte
della Taranta". World music with a Southern Italian accent. Einaudi has
had a busy year.

* "Courting the Squall" by Guy Garvey
Debut solo album from the frontman on UK alternative rock stalwarts,
Elbow. A bit more intimate than his main band's usual work.

* "The 12th Room" by Ezio Bosso
Reworkings and new pieces from this minimalist classical and soundtrack

* "Risveglio" by Alessandro Cortini
Pleasing industrial/electronic sounds from this Nine Inch Nails

* "What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World" by The Decemberists
Another collection of folky pop songs from this seasoned US band.

* "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful" by Florence + the Machine
Third album from Florence Welch and band. I really liked their debut,
"Lung" from 2009, so subsequent releases have come with high
expectations to meet. May need a few more listens.

2. Back Cataloguing (Pre-2015 Releases)

Here's a selection of other artists whose back catalogue I've listened
to and enjoyed in 2015.

* Ólafur Arnalds
* Max Richter
* Nils Frahm
* Brian Eno
* Harold Budd

I'm always keen to listen to new sounds, so let me know if there's
anything else I should check out.