Cool Things

In my weekly(ish) emails, I recommend something cool. This page collects them all. Scroll down. There really is some fantastic stuff here.

August 4, 2019

Merriam-Webster Time Traveler

My cool thing this today is the Merriam-Webster Time Traveler.

Quelle surprise that I would find this cool. The Merriam-Webster Time Traveller shows you the first time words were used in print. Choose a year (the link goes to 1960, but you can change the year at the top), and see what was new then. (Words that debuted in 1960 include, among many others, “a-go-go,” “theme park,” and “fraudster.”)

Well worth a click.


July 7, 2019

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

My cool thing this today is the The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

I don’t think I’ve loved a show this much since my all-time favourite show, The West Wing. I think everything about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is perfect — the scripting, the dialog, the humour, the design, the acting, the direction, the period in which it is set, the Jewish elements, the cinematography —  all of it.

The show is from Amy Sherman-Palladino, who created Gilmore Girls. It has a similar kind of snappy interaction, but I think it is much funnier. Billie and I started watching it, then went back to watch it again before we were done so our daughter could join us.

This is so much my cup of tea. I hope you enjoy it as well


May 10, 2019

Lessons From the Screenplay

My cool thing this today is the YouTube channel Lessons from the Screenplay.

This is an absolutely stellar series of videos that look at how screenplays and screenwriters craft their magic on the page, so that it shows up on the screen. If you write at all or are a fan of movies, you’ll dig this.

Some examples:

There are 44 videos in the series, and so, so much to learn and appreciate.


April 28, 2019

David Tennant Does a Podcast With…

My cool thing this today is David Tennant Does a Podcast With… (Web, iTunes)

You’ll know David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor on the hugely popular “Doctor Who” series. (And I’m not alone in thinking he was the best of the modern doctors, although your mileage may vary).

Well, he’s started doing a podcast, and it’s become one of my must-listens. Its format is basically David interviews someone famous (not unlike Marc Maron’s WTF), but he brings a lovely quality to his interviewing, in part because he’s essentially talking to friends and people he’s worked closely with, so there’a a comfort and a camaraderie there.


April 10, 2019

Orconomics by J. Zachary Pike

My cool thing this today is J. Zachary Pike’s Orconomics (Amazon).

This book is a lot of fun. So much humour, and such a great satire of both the fantasy genre and the economic endeavours of people. A great use of tropes, but also a fresh take on things.

I’ll be so bold as to say that if you like my fantasy novels, you’ll enjoy this as well.


March 9, 2019

Hardcore History by Dan Carlin

My cool thing this today is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History (web) podcast (which is here on Apple Podcasts).

Carlin does amazing deep dives into history, and presents them in a compelling way full of citations from historical sources and interesting perspective. You don’t have to be a history geek to dig these. They’re really excellent (and loooong) podcast episodes that take you to a world you may never have even thought about. He doesn’t put them out all that often, but each one is worth the wait.

Check out, for example, the introductory three-hour episode on the start of World War I called Blueprint to Armageddon. Don’t let the length put you off. It’s fascinating.

The most recent hardcore history episodes are free, and if you find them to your taste, you can purchase back episodes on his web site.


February 18, 2019

Interview with Aaron Sorkin

My cool thing this today is an interview with Aaron Sorkin done by Marc Maron on his WTF podcast.

I mentioned above that my favourite author is William Gibson. Well, Aaron Sorkin is my favourite screenwriter. His The West Wing is my fave TV show of all time (one of these days, I’ll make it my cool thing), and I’ve loved just about everything he’s ever done. Billie and I watched his directorial debut Molly’s Game yesterday, and I thought it was great.

So, let’s peek inside Sorkin’s thinking a bit. This link goes to Marc Maron’s web site with the episode (the interview starts roughly 20 minutes in), and this link is a recording of it on YouTube (the link jumps to about minute 19). 

Note: Maron deserves a language warning. Warning: language.


January 21, 2019

Technology Ranked by Matt Novak

My cool thing this today is Technology Ranked by Matt Novak on Gizmodo. 

This is a list of technology, ranked by importance (I’m a bit of a sucker for this kind of article). The thing is, there’s a lot of items and processes that we don’t think of as tech any more, but they absolutely were back in the day. Fire anyone? They whisky still? Corn?

It’s interesting too see the relatively rankings (always subjective), and the description. A few of them:

  • 90. Walkie Talkies
  • 87. CRISPR
  • 53. Mechanical clock
  • 50. Canned food
  • 32. Fork

A fun read.



December 19, 2018

How to Be an Artist by Jerry Saltz

My cool thing this today is How to Be an Artist by Jerry Saltz. 

The full title of this article on Vulture is “How to Be an Artist: 33 rules to take you from clueless amateur to generational talent (or at least help you live a little more creatively).”

What’s in it is what’s on the label: a bunch of “rules” for living more creatively. Here’s a sample:

  • Lesson 1: Don’t Be Embarrassed
  • Lesson 7: Develop Forms of Practice
  • Lesson 11: Listen to the Crazy Voices in Your Head
  • Lesson 13: Scavenge

There’s a lot here to like. Give it a read.


Photo credit: Jerry Saltz, New York’s art critic, as Salvador Dalí, based on a photograph by Philippe Halsman. Photo: Photo by Marvin Orellana. Photo Illustration by Joe Darrow

December 1, 2018

ThiN Air by Richard Morgan

My cool thing this today is Thin Air by Richard Morgan. 

Did you see Altered Carbon on Netflix? Richard Morgan is the guy who wrote the Takeshi Kovacs booksthat became that series, which I really enjoyed (both the series and the books).

This is Morgan’s first SF book in almost a decade, and if you like space-based, muscly, noir-ish stories, this is one for you. Set on Mars, the main character is a kind of former enforcer who’s forced to act as a bodyguard for an auditor. That might not sound like an exciting set-up, but trust me, the book rocks along.


November 18, 2018

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

My cool thing today is Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. 

This is a great meditation on the creative life, and what it’s like to be a creator and have (and honour) the creative impulse. It reminded me a little of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, but is gentler. I listened to the audio book, which Gilbert wrote, and liked it so much that when I finished it, I turned around and listened to it a second time straight away.

You’ve heard of Eat Pray Love? Liz Gilbert wrote that one, too. So she has some experience to share with regards to creative living.


November 2, 2018

The Allusionist

My cool thing today is The Allusionist (web site). 

If you’re reading this, the odds are good you’re a person who likes words. Well, have I got something for you.

The Allusionist is a podcast about language and words by Helen Zaltzman. It is short (so easily listenable), funny, informative, and thought-provoking. Whether she’s doing an episode on the weird names people have(and how it affects them), the clinical psychologist who sometimes prescribes novel readingto her clients, queer language, or why US and UK English are different, each episode is well worth a listen. This is definitely on my Faves podcast list.


October 5, 2018

Sarah Pinsker

My cool thing of the week is Sarah Pinsker (web site, Twitter).

I love it when there’s an author or artist I’ve never heard of that someone I respect recommends, and suddenly, I’m like, “Whoa!” This week, for me, that’s Sarah Pinsker.

Jason Snell mentioned her on a back episode of The Incomparable podcast (if you’re a bit nerdy and like culture, this is a podcast for you), almost as a toss-off. Her story And Then There Were (N-One). which appeared on Uncanny, was nominated for Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Sturgeon Awards in the Best Novella category, as well as the Eugie Foster Award. Another story, Wind Will Rove, was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards in the Best Novelette.

Like I said, “Whoa!”

And Then There Were (N-One) is a parallel universe murder mystery set at a convention where everyone is some version of a character named Sarah Pinsker. One version is an insurance inspector who gets drafted to act as the detective. As they say, wackiness ensues.

Wind Will Rove is about fiddlers in space and how histories are affected by those who tell them.

They are both free and legal for you to read at the links above.

Enjoy. And with any luck, you’ll go “Whoa!” as well.

September 16, 2018

Hit Parade

My cool thing of the week is the podcast Hit Parade (Slate, iTunes).

I’m old enough that used to listen to American Top 40 with Casey Kasem on the radio, and following along as the hits got counted down. For example, I have a clear memory of Kasem explaining what Vegemite was, because it was mentioned in Men At Work’s “Down Under.”

If hit music pings a part of your brain, then you’re going to love Hit Parade. This monthly podcast from Slate’s Chris Molanphy (pop-chart analyst and author of Slate’s “Why Is This Song No. 1?” series) tells tales from a half-century of chart history. There’s the episode where he describes the amazing feat of The Beatles having the top five slotsall at the same time, and how they did it despite their label’s screw-ups. Or the parallel (and rival) careers of George Michael and Elton John. There’s an ep on charity megasingles (like “Do They Know It’s Christmas”), how the labels declared war on the single, B-sides that were bigger than the A-sides, and on and on.

And because it’s audio, he slips in lots of clips, so that if a song title doesn’t ring a bell, you might recognise the clip.


September 2, 2018

Little Brother by Corey Doctorow

My cool thing for this week: “Little Brother” by Corey Doctorow (Free download via Doctorow’s web site)

I read Cory Doctorow’s YA thriller “Little Brother” when it first came out a decade or so ago. I liked it then, and I liked it again when I listened to it recently as an audio book through the Libby library app (which you should totally download, and worth its own Cool Thing recommendation).

The book centres on 17-year-old Marcus, who gets caught up in a Homeland Security snatch and grab after a terrorist event in San Francisco. The book is part dystopian nightmare, part revolutionary how-to, and part coming of age sci-fi, near future drama. Especially if you’re technically minded, I think you’ll like this one.


August 21, 2018

Hardcore History by Dan Carlin

My cool thing for this week: Hardcore History by Dan Carlin (Podcast web site)

This is one of the great podcast series. Each episode of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History does a deep dive into some aspect of the world gone by, and brings it to life. Want to know what it was like to live through World War I? Car to explore what the deep roots of Japan’s involvement in World War II were? From Genghis Khan to the fall of the Roman Empire, he’s covered it all. These are not 30 minute yakfests. Some of the episodes are five hours long, and some of the series span several episodes. But Carlin brings history to life, gives an interesting amateur historian’s perspective, and cites lots and lots of original sources to bring reality to it all.

If you have any interest in history at all, add this one to your podcatcher. (Note, the most recent episodes are always free, and you can purchase the back catalogue if there’s a topic of interest.)


July 21, 2018

Nanette by Hannah Gadsby

My cool thing for this week: Nanette by Hannah Gadsby (Netflix)

This is a spectacular performance, and her command of her material is masterful. In a time when more understanding of diversity is something we all need, when so much of what is on offer in our media world is divisive, this stand-up special (really, it is more a one-woman show with stand-up elements) from an Australian comic I’d never heard of before is a bolt of awesome. Funny, poignant, thought-provoking. Watch it.


July 1, 2018

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

My cool thing for this week: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss (Amazon)

This was such an interesting read (or, in my case, listen). Like Spoonbenders last time, this is a Nebula award nominee this year. It’s the first book in a series called The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, and brings together the daughters of characters you’ll know (Frankenstein, Jekyll, Hyde, Moreau), plus Holmes and Watson. It’s a book with strong female characters set in a world where female empowerment isn’t a thing. Plus, the author lets the characters comment on the writing of the story as it goes. An excellent read.


June 24, 2018

Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

My cool thing for this week: Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory (Amazon)

I really enjoyed this book, which was a Nebula award nominee this year. It’s about the Amazing Telemachus Family, who got famous for their magic and mind reading act, and then it all went south. The thing is, they really do have powers. One’s the world’s most powerful psychic. One’s a con man. Their kids fall in between. It is interestingly told from all their points of view. One of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a while.


May 13, 2018

The Big Sick

My cool thing for this week: The Big Sick (Amazon)

This week it is a fun, enjoyable movie that deals with cultural differences. It’s based on the real-life relationship  between comedian Kumail Nanjiani (who stars) and his future wife. When she contracts a mysterious illness, he has to face her parents, while managing his family’s expectations, and (as they say in the romances) follow his heart.

We liked it.


May 6, 2018

After On by Rob Reid

My cool thing for this week: After On by Rob Reid (Amazon)

This is a heck of a book.

I recently listened to the audio book version of this near-future sci-fi novel (does that make is speculative fiction?), which include names you might recognise performing it, including John Hodgman, Felecia Day, and Leo Laporte. It centres on Silicon Valley and a more-Facebook-than-Facebook, intrusively all-knowing social network called Phlutter, and dives into general intelligence AI, privacy issues, terrorism, authoritarian government control, and what I found to be highly-plausible and scary near-term projections about where we might be headed. If you like your sci-fi Gibson-esque (and I do), you’ll dig this one.


April 8, 2018

Miniature Origami from white_onrice

My cool thing for this week: Miniature Origami (Instagram) from white_onrice (web)

(Is it too ironic for me to recommend an Instagrammer in a week I echo concerns about Facebook, given that FB owns Insta?)

Since 2014, photographer Ross Symons has posted a fun photo of miniature origami to his Instagram feed. There are now over 1,000 posts, and They’re So Cute! Really, check them out. (Found on Boing Boing, who have sample of five good ones.)


April 2, 2018

Welcome to Night Vale

My cool thing for this week: Welcome to Night Vale (podcast)

I’ve listened to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast for several years now, and my daughter Tamsin and I have seen them live twice. Want to know how much I like this show? I listen to the episodes at about 1X speed (as opposed to close to 2X for most of my podcasts). For me, that’s saying something.

Their web site calls it “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.

“Turn on your radio and hide.”

I’d say that pretty well covers it. It’s creepy, it’s superbly done, and what’s fascinating is that the core of the idea was there from the very first episode.

If you’ve had enough of white guys talking tech or annoyed political analysts in your podcast feed, then try Night Vale. But please listen from episode one, because it builds on itself and makes the most sense that way. (Also, if you don’t like the “Weather” segments, just skip ahead (that’s what I do).)


March 19, 2018

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

My cool thing for this week: Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan (Amazon)

I came across this book on the Overdrive library app as a sci-fi audio book that was available to borrow. I’d never heard of it. It’s nice when you go into something with no expectations, and are surprised by it (pleasantly so). I’ve listened to the book twice, and now it’s a Netflix series that I’ve watched, so I’m on board.

To be clear, this is very much a “guy” kind of book (if you’ll allow the gross characterisation)—there’s future stuff, violence, sex, etc. It’s not a fairies and unicorns book (which I’m also OK with). It’s essentially a mystery thriller in a sci-fi setting. I think there are some very interesting explorations in there on what it means to be a person, especially if you can relocate from body to body through technology and that way, live for centuries (with enough money). If this is your kind of thing, you’ll like it.

It’s the first book in a trilogy, and all three are quite different. If you like the first one, you might well like the others. I did.

The other thing I found interesting was to consider the book and the Netflix series from the perspective of adaptation. The series has the same underlying concepts and a lot of the same story points, but takes certain things in very different directions. Which made me think about  why they make the choices they did. A small example: the hotel is a sentient AI in both. But in the book, it’s the Hendrix (as in, named for Jimi), whereas the series has it named after Edgar Allan Poe. A rights issue, maybe?


March 12, 2018

You Must Remember This

My cool thing for this week: You Must Remember This podcast

If you like Hollywood stories, you will love this podcast. Written and narrated by Karina Longworth, You Must Remember This dives into the “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.”

Longworth has been doing the podcast since 2014, and while the first episodes are not related to each other, more recently, her approach has been to tell a series of related stories based around a theme, like MGM stories, stories about the parallel careers of Jane Fonda and Jean Seberg, how Hollywood handled World War II, or the relative rise and fall of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Each episode is meticulously researched and beautifully produced, and sometimes she brings in guests to voice the first-person words of the people involved.

Part of what is fun is to hear how all these names you’ve heard of all your life (Bergman, Bogart, Sinatra, Hughes, etc. etc.) intersect and interact with each other.

A delightful, fun listen for Hollywood buffs.


February 20, 2018

Slow Burn

My cool thing for this week: Slow Burn (Apple Podcasts)

I’m old enough to have lived through the Watergate scandal. I can remember seeing Nixon resign on TV. The names of the main players–Mitchell, Ehrlichman, Dean, Liddy, et al–still ring in my head. As the current dumpster fire unfolds in Washington, there are a lot of folks drawing comparisons to Watergate. I keep seeing that quote, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” attributed to Mark Twain, but wasn’t his.

Slow Burn is an eight-part podcast series from Slate that, by focussing on some of the smaller stories as well as the bigger ones, tries to capture the feeling of what it was like to be there as it all unfolded. As the series host, Leon Neyfakh, says about it:

“Why are we revisiting Watergate now? The connections between the Nixon era and today are obvious enough. But to me, the similarity that’s most striking is not between Donald Trump and Richard Nixon (although they’re both paranoid, vengeful, and preoccupied with “loyalty”), or their alleged crimes (although they both involved cheating to win an election), or the legal issues in the two cases (although they both center on obstruction of justice).

“Rather, it’s that people who lived through Watergate had no idea what was going to happen from one day to the next, or how it was all going to end. I recognize that feeling. The Trump administration has made many of us feel like the country is in an unfamiliar, precarious situation. Some days it seems like our democratic institutions won’t survive, or that permanent damage has already been done. Pretty much every day, we are buffeted by news stories that sound like they’ve been ripped out of highly stressful and very unrealistic novels.

“The point of Slow Burn is to look back on the most recent time Americans went through this en masse, and to put ourselves in their shoes.”

I’ve listened to the whole thing. It is very well done.

Related: see also this great live interview of John Dean by Alec Baldwin on his podcast Here’s the Thing.


February 4, 2018

Choir! Choir! Choir!

My cool thing for this week: Choir! Choir! Choir! (YouTube)

Choir! Choir! Choir! (web) is a twice-weekly drop-in choir experience in Toronto. A ton of people show up, get a lyric sheet at the door, learn a vocal arrangement, and then sing it on video. It looks like So Much Fun!

Check out:

It may not be the most professional music you’ll ever hear, but there’s a real soulfulness and fun to it. And it so made me want to go find a large amateur choir and join in.

There are dozens of clips on their YouTube page.


January 27, 2018

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

My cool thing for this week: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Amazon)

I don’t know about you, but when it comes time to choose a movie where cancer is a strong element in it, it’s a tricky choice. There have been some good, even great, ones (The Broken Circle Breakdown, The Fault in Our Stars, 50/50 come to mind). But it’s a bit like Schindler’s List. You sometimes think I ought to watch it, but I don’t know if I want to watch it.

That brings us to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which you know from the title (spoiler alert:) involves a dying girl. Billie and I watched it last night, and I think it was close to a perfect movie. Beautifully written, beautifully acted, beautifully directed. A lot of humour, and plenty of emotions. When it started, I realised I had read the script (pdf) when it was up for award consideration a couple of years ago. Even so, it still held me all the way through.

I think you might like it.


January 21, 2018

Stay Tune with Preet

My cool thing for this week: Stay Tuned with Preet (Podcast)

What do you do when you get fired because you won’t resign at the order of a dumpster fire and the Attorney General? Along with whatever else, you start one of the world’s smartest podcasts.

Preet Bharara, according to Wikipedia, “…served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 2009 to 2017. As U.S. Attorney, Bharara earned a reputation of a “crusader” prosecutor. According to the New York Times, during his tenure he was one of “the nation’s most aggressive and outspoken prosecutors of public corruption and Wall Street crime.” Under Bharara, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York prosecuted nearly 100 Wall Street executives for insider trading and other offenses. He reached historic settlements and fines with the four largest banks in the United States, and closed multibillion-dollar hedge funds for activities including insider trading.”


”On March 11, 2017, during increased national debate about the appointment of a special prosecutor to manage an investigation of links between the Trump 2016 campaign and Russia, Bharara was fired after he refused to follow Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ request for all remaining 46 US Attorneys appointed during President Obama’s administration to resign.”

“Stay Tuned with Preet” is the newest subscription in my podcast list. Less than half a year old, this podcast with the unassuming name has quickly moved onto my must-listen list. Bharara has been, as they say in “Hamilton,” in the room where it’s happened. He is thoughtful, articulate, and not afraid of a difficult question. His insights into what’s going on in Washington are informed, carefully expressed, and always worth considering. The show has some standard segments, like answering submitted questions, interviewing someone, and speaking about something on his mind. Recent guests have included NYT White House Correspondent Maggie Haberman, the former Attrorney General of New Jersey, Anne Milgram talking about the Mueller investigation, and former chess champion and Russia critic Garry Kasparov. These are great listens, all.

Check it out.


January 21, 2018

A New Prime Number

My cool thing for this week: a new prime number (a freaking huge one).

When you were a kid, you’d have learned about prime numbers. Those are numbers greater than 1, which are divisible only by itself and 1. So, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, etc.

You might not have know that there are different kinds of primes. One of these types are Mersenne primes, which are prime numbers that are one less than a power of two.

A couple of weeks ago, the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS) organisation announced it had found the 50th known Mersenne prime, 2 raised to 77,232,917 – 1. That’s 77,232,917 twos multiplied together, minus one. The resulting prime has 23,249,425 digits. That’s a million digits longer than the previous largest prime known.

That last link downloads a zip file that expands to a text file with the number written out. To give you a sense of how big the number is, the text file is almost 24 MB, which is huge for text file.

I don’t know about you, but it tickles some part of my brain that there’s a prime number out there that’s 23 million-plus digits long. Mind boggled.


January 7, 2018

Andy Weir

My cool thing for this week: Andy Weir (Amazon link).

Andy Weir rocketed to fame not that long ago as the indie author who made it very, very big with The Martian (book, film), which I very much enjoyed. Last November, he put out Artemis, which is now the first book I’ve read in 2018. Weir has a real gift for a hard science story. The Martian was all kinds of technical, which I like, and the movie has that great line said by Matt Damon, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”

Artemis is just as tech-y, takes place on a well-established moon colony, and combines everything from Brazilian mobsters to lots of lunar welding. Plus, the main character is a strong, female protagonist, which is always welcome.

So, if you liked The Martian, you’ll enjoy Artemis. And if you like a good hard sci-fi story but haven’t read any Weir yet, I commend him to your reading list.


December 30, 2017

Sky Guide

My cool thing for this week: Sky Guide (App Store Link for iOS)

We live rurally, which means we can get some pretty awesome night skies. I love looking up and just contemplating the stars (and, you know, how we’re tiny little specks of nothingness among all the vastness). But, in addition to engaging in existential crises, it’s fun to know what’s up there. Sky Guide is your (iOS) guide to that. Want to know what a particular constellation is? Want to get notifications when the International Space Station is flying over (a very cool thing to look at)? Want to know where a planet is at the moment? Load up Sky Guide, point your iPhone upward, and off you go.

Particularly cool in the newest version is an augmented reality (AR) mode, which shows you your immediate location and overlays the stars on it (previous versions had a generic horizon, which was not nearly as neat).

So, grab the app and take a look at the stars.


December 23, 2017

Automatic for the people by r.e.m.

My cool thing for this week: Automatic for the People by R.E.M. (Apple Music link)

I can’t believe it’s been 25 years since R.E.M. released “Automatic for the People.” I’ve been listening to this thing for a quarter of a century. So many great songs, from “Drive” to “Monty Got a Raw Deal” (both YouTube).

Now, you might well question just how cool it is to be recommending an album this old. Well, first, it holds up. Second, because it has been 25 years, there have been some great insights coming out, as Michael Stipe and Mike Mills do publicity for the 25th anniversary re-release (Apple Music), which includes live versions and demos.

If you’re not an R.E.M. fan, you might have a listen to Try Not To Breath (YouTube), which is the subject of this exquisite episode of Song Exploder, where the band members reveal how the song was created from demo to final vocals. Interesting (to me, anyway) was that the band always did the music first for their songs, and then Stipe would write a lyrics for them. To hear him talking about the inspiration for the lyric to that song being the passing of his grandmother was touching, and provided meaning to the song I’d only guessed at before.

And if you are a fan like me, you’ll enjoy the 24-minute documentary about the album, R.E.M. – Automatic Unearthed, as well as this this breakdown of Man on the Moon for Mix Map, and this Rolling Stone interview with Stipe and Mills (all YouTube).


December 17, 2017

Radiolab and Radiolab Presents: More Perfect

My cool thing for this week: Radiolab and Radiolab Presents: More Perfect.

A double-barrelled coolness for you this week, two podcasts that should be on your must-listen list.

Radiolab is up there with This American Life as some of the world’s best English-language listening. It has a strong leaning toward science, and every episode is sonic banquet, with beautiful production to go along with the thought-provoking storytelling. On their web site, Radiolab says it “is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.” They’ve been at it for years and years, and have produced some amazing episodes. Check out: Parasites, Stochasticity, and Space to get a taste of it.

Then, there’s More Perfect, Radiolab’s first spin-off program. A few weeks ago, I recommended What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law. If you liked that, this will be right up your alley as it is beautifully produced stories centring on the the Supreme Court. Check out Sex Appeal, the story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg used beer to win the argument for gender equality, along with American Pendulum I and American Pendulum II, which look at what happens when the Supreme Court gets it very, very wrong—the former being about the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII, and the latter about Dred Scott (we get to meet the descendants of the families involved). Fascinating listening and worth every minute of your time.


December 9, 2017

So, Anyway …. by John Cleese

My cool thing for this week: So, Anyway …. by John Cleese (Amazon)

You might have heard that John Cleese is a funny man. There is evidence to this fact that spans more than half a century. I’ve certainly had Monty Python rattling around in my head since I was a teen. (Niii!!!)

So, it is unsurprising that his autobiography is a fun read. However, don’t read it. Listen to it. Pick up the audiobook, which he reads, to get the full Cleese-ian experience. It goes, (as biographies do) from him as an awkward kid to finding the word “plummet” and how that shapes the first every sketch shown on a Python episode. I enjoyed hearing how one experience as a child provided inspiration for the “towers” part of Fawlty Towers, and how a particular teacher inspired the Latin grammar scene in The Life of Brian. We meet all kinds of funny people along the way, and get his first-hand look at comedy history.

Part of what is fun about the audio book is Cleese’s obvious delight in the stories he tells. There’s clearly genuine laughter in parts of his retelling. The audio book also includes actual clips from sketches and recordings, which you don’t get on the printed page.

If you’re a fan, this is a must.


November 24, 2017


My cool thing for this week: Overcast (Apple App Store)

I’ve recommended a few podcasts recently, so thought I’d also recommend my podcast player (podcatcher) of choice: Overcast by Marco Arment (web, Twitter).

This is a serious podcatcher for serious listeners. The free version works fine, and if you’re just dabbling, will do you. It does things like allow you to set the speed both overall and for specific podcasts (I listen to a lot of things at just under 2x speed, and almost nothing as slow as 1x).

To unlock it’s full potential, you’ll want to subscribe to the app. This opens up the ability to do voice boost (which brings out the voices from the overall sound), and perhaps my favourite feature, Smart Speed. Smart Speed removes a lot of the pauses and silences that occur in conversations, which means removes a lot of waiting and dawdling. The app tells me that, as I write, Smart Speed has saved me an extra 462 hours beyond speed adjustments alone. For a heavy podcast consumer like me, this is perfect.

Note, Overcast is iOS only (so iPhone and iPad). Sorry, Android folks, I don’t know much about your world, except to recommend Pocketcasts by Aussie firm Shifty Jelly, although that is not a first-hand experience recommendation.


November 19, 2017


My cool thing for this week: Lorde (official web site)

Last week, I recommended an Aussie. This week, it is a Kiwi.

You probably don’t need me to recommend Lorde to you. It was almost impossible to escape the superb Royals (YouTube) a few years ago. She was an incredibly mature musician as a teen when she broke out with her first album Pure Heroine (Apple Music), and this year’s follow up, Melodrama (Apple Music) is different and more mature, but still very much Lorde.

Like most people, my musical tastes solidified when I was relatively young. You’ll find a lot of The Who, Cat Stevens, Elton John, James Taylor, Van Morrison, and Bruce Springsteen in my library. That’s why it is such a pleasure to find a current musician whose music I like so very much. Check out Lorde’s Tennis Court (I particularly like the video for this one–so simple, so interesting), Green Light, Liability, and this choir-backed acoustic version of Supercut (all YouTube).

Especially if you’re a fan, you should listen to her Song Exploder episode, where she goes deep on the song “Sober”. Also, she did a great interview with Marc Maron on his WTF podcast.

Fun fact: Lorde’s name is actually Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor. Unlike some musicians, she’s not precious about her stage name.

Fun fact: Lorde has synesthesia, and it strongly influences how she creates her music. She goes into that with Maron.

Tamsin and I get to see her this week (that might have something to do with why she’s this week’s coolness).  I can’t wait.


November 10, 2017

Max Barry

My cool thing for this week: Max Barry (official web site)

This week, I get to recommend something Australian, which is a nice change. Max Barry is an Aussie author with five books out. I recently read (well, listened to) two of them: Lexicon and Jennifer Government (Amazon links). They were super, and super interesting. Lexicon is a thriller about a world where certain words used by certain people exert so much power that the words compel listeners to do what they’re told.The people who can do this are “poets”. Clever. “Jennifer Government” is set in a massively corporatised world, where everything, including the people, are branded (in the sense of corporate branding, not the other sense). I really liked them both, and hope you do too.


October 29, 2017

What TrumP Can Teach Us About Con Law

My cool thing for this week: What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law is a podcast from Roman Mars (who does the incredible 99% Invisible podcast about design, which could be its own coolness recommendation) and Elizabeth Joh, an Intro to Constitutional Law professor. Usually, Intro to Con Law is a pretty straight forward matter. But as they say on their web site, “With Trump in office, everything has changed… This show is a weekly, fun, casual Con Law 101 class that uses the tumultuous and erratic activities of the executive branch under Trump to teach us all about the US Constitution.”

It is super interesting and super listenable. They take on issues from whether Trump could pardon someone by tweet to what emoluments are to the power of executive appointments.


October 20, 2017

Patient Zero by Aimee Mann

My cool thing for this week: Patient Zero by Aimee Mann (Apple Music link).

This is a slightly complicated cool thing, combining several things from different angles.

I can’t say I’m the world’s biggest Aimee Mann fan (you might remember her very ’80s early hit Voices Carry as part of the group ‘Til Tuesday). I don’t mean to damn with faint praise. I know people who love every note of her work, I just don’t happen to be one of them.

I do, however, love this particular song a lot, and my inner DJ has had it on heavy rotation in my head recently.

I came across Patient Zero on Song Exploder, an award-winning podcast that, each episode, takes a song and lets the musician pull it apart to talk about the pieces and how it came into being. Song Exploder could be a cool thing recommendation on its own (and maybe it will be one day). Here’s the episodeabout Patient Zero, a live recording with Aimee Mann and co-writer Jonathan Coulton, who I like a lot in a nerdy way. (If you’re a particular kind of nerd, you might know his song Re. Your Brains, about zombies in a corporate environment.)

I found the Song Exploder’s deep dive into Patient Zero really interesting, and encourage you to listen to it. She talks about how Andrew Garfield, the actor, was part of the song’s inspiration, as he showed up fresh faced, a bit overwhelmed, and about to get into the Hollywood star machine as Spider-Man.

Here’s a version of Patient Zero recorded live on A Prairie Home Companion. It’s a good recording, and of course, A Prairie Home Companion would also be a worthy cool thing recommendation.

Then there’s the official Patient Zero video, which stars Bradley Whitford, who played Josh in future cool thing recommendation, the West Wing. (I guess that’s a cool thing spoiler.) I encourage you to watch the video, but not first. Get to know the song and lyric on their own, as they paint a beautiful, haunting picture, and then see how they applied it to the music video, giving a very different take.

So, lots for you to listen to. Let me know what you think.

And enjoy.

October 13, 2017

The Arrogant Worms

My cool thing for this week: The Arrogant Worms (official web site).

I’m a big fan of comedy that is sung. I love Tom Lehrer (Amazon, Apple Music) and Weird Al Yankovic (Amazon, Apple Music), and my dad will tell you that I used to sing the Lumberjack Song (Youtube) at the dinner table.

The Arrogant Worms are an excellent addition to that collection. They’re a Canadian trio who do very Canadian humour. I think a lot of what they do is a hoot (not all of it, mind), and if you don’t mind your humour irreverent, you might like it too. Check out The Last Saskatchewan Pirate, The Mountie Song, Jesus’ Brother Bob, Malcolm Solves His Problems with a Chainsaw, or Happy Birthday (all YouTube).

And if you have a favourite Arrogant Worms song, let me know what it is.


October 6, 2017

Last Tango in Halifax

My cool thing for this week: the BBC TV series Last Tango in Halifax (which we’re watching on Netflix).

There is so much to love about this show. It’s about an elderly couple who did not get together when they were young, but five decades later, find their way to each other. The show explores their relationship, and the impact it has on their very different families. There are four seasons, and we just finished Season 1.

The acting? Stellar. If you like British TV (or even just Doctor Who), you’ll recognise at least some of Anne Reid, Derek Jacobi, Sarah Lancashire, and Nicola Walker. The writing? Hats off to Sally Wainwright for beautiful, thoughtful scripts. She’s responsible for a crud tonne of great TV, including “At Home with the Braithwaites”. The scenery, the direction, the everything—superb. In an era where most TV features the impossibly young and the impossibly good looking, it is lovely  to see a show built around older actors and mature themes.


September 29, 2017

Chop Bard

My cool thing for this week: the Chop Bard podcast.

Chop Bard is an absolutely glorious podcast about the works of Shakespeare. If you’re going to go see one of the Bard’s plays, I strongly encourage you to have a listen to the Chop Bard series of episodes on that play (which is what we did when we were homeschooling Tamsin). If you go to the link above, you’ll find episodes organised by title.

What’s lovely about Chop Bard is the detail. Each episode is just a scene or two, diving in to the language and plot and context and nuance. You end up understanding the play very, very deeply, which means that when you’re finally sitting in the theatre, you can grok what’s going on instead of struggling. And you can notice what choices the directors and actors make (Did they leave out a scene? Did they seem to misunderstand the purpose of a line? How does that change the shape of the presentation?).

So, pop Chop Bard into your podcatcher. My suggestion is you don’t just start with whatever the most recent episode is. Rather, go to the link above or look at the episode list, find the play you’d like to learn about, and listen to that set of episodes. Or, start from the beginning and work your way forward.


September 22, 2017

William Gibson

My cool thing for this week: William Gibson (Amazon link).

William Gibson is my favourite sci-fi author, and if I’m honest, my favourite author of all. His book Neuromancer coined the term “cyberspace,” and is *the* classic cyberpunk book. Plus, it was the book I was reading when I met Billie in 1986, so will always have a place in my heart for that association alone.

Gibson is an active author (and Twitterer, where he is @GreatDismal), and I eagerly await everything he releases. His most recent book is The Peripheral, which weaves together two entwined futures. You can read an excerpt of The Peripheral here. I listened to the audio book (twice, now)

Highly recommended, if you like sci-fi.

September 15, 2017

Getting Siri To Read To You

Here’s my cool thing for this week: getting Siri to read to you.

I listen to a lot of audio books (I’ll recommend some in future emails, and I keep a reading list over at GoodReads), but recently I came across the fact that you can get Siri to read your screen to you. That means she can read you an ebook, flipping the pages as you go. If you don’t mind her somewhat mechanical voice (which is less mechanical in iOS 11, to be released on Tuesday), then it is a great way to get through an ebook when you are doing something else, like driving or feeding hay to rescued cows and sheep. You can adjust the reading speed to suit you (I listen at 1.5x or so), Here’s an article that talks about how to set it up. I’ve heard to a bunch of books this way recently (right now I’m listening to Write. Publish. Repeat. (Amazon)). For those who like audio, this is a super cool way to get through more content.