Another month, another podcast update and updated OPML file for you: download it at http://www.noformatblog.ca/podcasts_opml.xml.
S-Town. I’m pretty sure most people into podcasts are already aware of S-Town, but if you’re not I definitely recommend it. I don’t want to give away any details, because I feel like it needs to unfold sequentially for you to get the full effect. What I can say about it is that it plays out like a long-form article from a magazine. Almost like someone took a written 7-part article series and recorded an audio version of it.
I don’t know that I would listen to a series like this all of the time. I don’t mind that the shows I listen to aren’t really serialized, and are easy to digest. I feel like that’s one of the more appealing aspects of podcasts. However, once every now and then a series like this could stick on my radar.
I hope to read a lot more follow-up pieces on what kind of effect S-Town has on the podcasting community. I hope that we don’t see too many “copycats” – but I am very interested in seeing what Serial and This American Life do next based on this show.
Tea & Jeopardy. This was a recommendation in one of the Writing Excuses podcasts. The short description: it’s basically an author interview podcast, but occasionally the host and guest encounter “perils” that they need to overcome. It sounded like something I might like, but it’s not entirely up my alley. Giving it another shot when a new episode comes out.
None! I don’t believe I actually dropped any podcast subscriptions this month. Pretty solid month of listening!
I’m not sure if this is a post people are looking forward to, but it’s something I need to do for myself. This is a continuation of my first post back in January about my goals for 2017, which I followed up back in March for lack of better things to write about. At this moment, I’m going to put my foot down and not come back to my goals until the end of the year.
This feels like cheating to keep this on at this point, but I’m going to officially keep it on my list of goals for the year. So far, so good. I’m on page 43 of my Leuchtturm 1917 notebook and have over 200 to fill up. I’m remembering to write things down as necessary. Playing around with different ways of tracking things. Things are going great!
Let me throw a wrinkle into this right now then. I’m going to modify this goal to include details for this blog and my podcast hobby. The blog is pretty well-organized, but the podcast is in shambles by comparison.
Be a positive Example
I’m doing well with this one. I don’t think I’ve posted anything negative online anywhere, and if I have, it’s been constructive criticism.
Learn more about driving social media engagement
I’m learning, slowly. One of the things I’m starting to get a hang of – finally – is the “Yoast SEO” plugin I use for this blog. It helps me optimize my posts on the blog so that it can be found more easily by search engines. I’m including that here in this category.
I give myself a passing grade on this, but just barely. I’m writing consistently for the blog, I’ll grant that; but I don’t really feel like I’m doing anything…worthy. That’s the best way I can think of to describe it. In the back of my head, I keep thinking that I want to write some fiction but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.
This is the one place I’ve noticed a marked improvement. I finally finished a book I was stuck on (The Mechcanical) and moved on to something else. I’m making good progress with the book and hope to move on to a few other things. If you include comic books/graphic novels, I’ve gotten through 7 this year.
To give myself a fair grade, I think C+ encompasses what I’ve done in the first 4 months of the year so far. OK, let’s move on from self-reflection.
On Thursday: my monthly podcast update. I’ve got a brief review of the latest hit show, S Town!
Secret Path is an adult alternative album from Gord Downie (lead singer of The Tragically Hip), released in October 2016. It was released with an accompanying graphic novel, as well as an animated made-for-TV film that aired on CBC in the same month. You can read more about the production background of the album on Wikipedia.
Secret Path tells the story of an Anishnaabe boy named Chanie Wenjack, from Marten Falls First Nation, who died in 1966 while trying to return home. He was escaping from an Indian Residential School. All of the proceeds from this album and book are being donated to the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation project.
* – Note – the above paragraph was paraphrased slightly and partially copied verbatim from the Wikipedia article I linked to.
As a preface to this review, I want to say that I’m not a “strong” music reviewer. When it comes to music, I don’t dive deep. I know what sounds I like, and occasionally lyrics stand out to me. Usually when I listen to an album, I don’t really look into the details about it beforehand.
However going into Secret Path, I was at least peripherally aware of the subject matter. I knew that it dealt with an aboriginal boy who died in the 1960s, but didn’t really explore it much further than that. It was always one of those “Oh I’d like to listen / read that, but maybe later” kind of things.
That really influenced my listening to this album. I tried to focus on the lyrics when I listened to the album, but personally I have a hard time doing that. For me, music is more about the overall sound and like I said, I don’t normally pinpoint on what’s being said (with a few exceptions here and there).
Knowing the subject matter, the album gave me a distinct atmospheric feeling. Overall, the album gave me a feeling of being alone. The first couple of tracks start out on a bit of a positive note – Chanie sets out to escape the residential school, and looking forward to going home. But the rest of the album gradually descends into a gloomy tone, as Chanie faces increasing hardships.
Most of the instruments on the album are guitar and piano. I think what really helps create this mental image is Downie’s voice, which is best described on this album as strained at times and haunting. Everything fits together so well to tell this story.
In a way though, I think I should have listened to this album while reading the accompanying graphic novel. I definitely will still pick it up and read it, but I think it would have helped me even more in understanding what was going on in the music.
Still, the album is technically very well done. And I think that it does exactly what it sets out to do: tell the story of Chanie Wenjack and his ill-fated journey home. You’re not going to hear these songs on the radio, and that’s OK. That’s not what this is meant to be. In one sense, it’s a bit of a disappointment that it might not get widespread mainstream attention (though I contend that since its release, it’s received a LOT of mainstream reviews, so it has received attention); but on the other hand, I appreciate that this project wasn’t undertaken with commercial success as the first thought.
I read a Pitchfork review of the album that Downie was approached by Broken Social Scene member Kevin Drew to record an album, and that Downie didn’t have any material – but he was writing about Chanie. I don’t know why, but I get the idea of this tragedy nagging away at Gord Downie until he could get it out to the world.
I definitely recommend listening to the album, and I hope you follow my example by picking up the graphic novel and read that, too.
On Thursday April 6th, 2017 – I couldn’t tell you exactly what time – my wife and I had to make the difficult decision to put down our dog Hank. He was suffering from blastomycosis, a terrible fungal infection that was making it hard for him to breathe in his last days. We were sad to see him go, but in the last few days I’ve been looking at old photos and am happy to remember the good times we had with him.
In Memory of a Great Dog
We rescued Hank back in 2009, when he was about 4 or 5. We didn’t get
complete records with him, and were originally told he was 4. Turns out, he was a 2004 puppy. No one was home when we went to pick him up – not a good sign. His bark was loud when we knocked on the door, and sounded stressed.
We later learned that he had at least one other home before this one, and we think there was a strong possibility he was abused. He was very uncomfortable with anything touching his back end, and was very afraid of brooms and vacuums. I think it’s normal for dogs to be afraid of vacuums, because they make loud, scary noises. But he would always look downright terrified when we were cleaning.
We worked with him a lot. He was a good dog when we got him, but with time he learned better habits and warmed up to us. He turned into a great dog, and we’re really happy we had the chance to have him in our lives for 8 years.
Oh sure, he had some bad habits. It’s hard to say what was worse: chewing underwear, or eating from the garbage can. Considering one ends up being more expensive than the other, I think the scales tip more to the underwear chewing. But he also loved to eat paper, and especially paper from the garbage.
We discovered this early on, and quickly bought a garbage can with a lid. It was one of those lids that swings open, rather than closing tightly. Naturally, we found him one day with his head sticking through the lid with the most innocent look on his face. He was pretty pleased with what he did, if not a little bit confused at our reaction.
We definitely have gone through our fair share of toilet paper with Hank in our home. Not because he learned to use the toilet or anything – but he seemed to love grabbing the toilet paper off the roll and eating it. Not all of it – just some of it. Often I would come home and find a trail of toilet paper – all still connected to the roll – going from the bathroom to the bed. Again, he was always fairly pleased with himself.
Here’s an audio clip from a podcast I recorded with my friend Mike that describes one of these occasions:
Hank loved to play, and his favourite toy by far was a ball. Any ball. If it was round and bounced, he wanted it. He could even entertain himself with it, but
he really loved chasing after it in the field and running. The funny thing about when he played fetch was that he would take the same path running back to us each time. He was terrible at tracking anything but a ball, but somehow, he knew which way he ran back each time.
Ropes and bottles were among his favourites too. While really not great for his teeth, one of his favourite things to do with bottles was to chew them to bits. The first step was always to pop the lid off, and then he would methodically chew at it until it was flat. This was sometimes very helpful if we had a lot of recycling to go through.
He also really loved his walks. He knew too, when I grabbed my headphones, it usually meant walk time. This was a matter of disappointment for him whenever I was grabbing my headphones for a different reason. Still, he would wag his tail at the sight of them, and go absolutely crazy at the sight of his leash.
I think one of the more comforting things about Hank was actually when he would settle down after a long day of play. He had this way of curling up into a ball, or snuggling up next to you to make sure he was as comfortable as possible. He was warm, he was soft, and he was safe.
He loved sitting on my lap, too. If there’s one thing I’m sad that I missed out on in his last few days, it’s that he didn’t get to curl himself into my lap. He was just too tired and physically unable to do it. But I know that he would have felt a lot better if he could have.
In Memory of a Great Dog
To be totally honest, doing this post has probably been one of the more helpful things I’ve done since Thursday. We still haven’t cleaned up the house – his hair is everywhere, and we are slowly moving his toys and things into one spot.
But we can clearly see how much he ran this home, and how much of it was his.
Another thing that helped me out was an article a friend sent me yesterday from Psychology Today. “Getting Over Rover: Why the Loss of a Dog Can Be Devastating” made a lot of sense to me, and meshed with pretty much all of the reasons why we had such a tough time dealing with it in the first few days (and we’re still dealing with it).
I still hear his bark when we walk in the door. I can hear him grumble and sigh as he tries to get comfortable at bed time. But more importantly I can see his big smile and wiggly tail. We’ll get over his loss, and more than likely welcome a new dog into our house. But for now, we have 8 years of memories of a great dog.
Other Space stars Karan Soni, Bess Rous, Eugene Cordero, Milana Vayntrub, Neil Casey, Joel Hodgson, Conor Leslie, and Trace Beaulieu. The show also features guest appearances from Dave Franco, Sarah Baker, and Bjorn Gustafsson.
Apparently, Other Space was conceived by Paul Feig in the early 2000’s but wasn’t picked up for development until he was working on The Heat. The show is set in the year 2105, and has been described as “Red Dwarf, USA, take two” by Rob Bricken in an early review.
I watched the first four episodes in preparation for this review – so how does it hold up?
The setting is fairly standard for most science fiction properties – a space ship. In Other Space, the ship is the UMP Cruiser, which is sent on what boils down to a public relations mission to increase support for the UMP organization. Not even minutes into the mission, the Cruiser is transported into another realm of space, known as “other space”.
Not much is really put into the background – what’s really important is the jokes between the characters and their setting. I think I agree with Bricken’s “Red Dwarf” comparison, because that show was essentially the same concept.
The set itself looks great – Feig described it as a very low budget show, and you can sort of tell, but they did a good job of making it look good. The Cruiser looks like a good parody of the rebooted Star Trek Enterprise sets.
Karan Soni shines as the captain and is the best character by far. He’s basically not at all qualified to be the captain of a ship, but he’s promoted because of his charisma (my interpretation). His sister is made first officer, and is inherently more qualified, but lacks any people-skills of any kind.
The characters all have some sort of back story that gets fleshed out in the first few episodes, which is pretty cool for a 26-minute show.
Joel Hodgson is my next favourite, who portrays a spaced out engineer. He’s kind of like Tony Shalhoub’s Fred in Galaxy Quest, but a lot more laid back.
The chemistry between the crew is really great, and the casting director did a great job pulling them together.
I’ve only watched the first four episodes, but I really liked it. Episode 3 wasn’t as good as the other 3, but was still mostly great. I’m looking forward to the other 4 episodes (there are only 8 in total).
Other Space gets a 4/5 rating from me. Check it out at www.shareotherspace.com!
I recently (more like finally) finished The Mechanical, an alternate history novel written by Ian Tregillis.
The Mechanical is the first of three books in a series known as The Alchemy Wars. In this novel’s universe, the Dutch are the world’s super-power, having mastered alchemy and keeping order with various models of mechanical men, known as “clakkers”. France is the only nation to really oppose the Dutch, and do so with chemicals.
Most of the story takes place in New Amsterdam (North America), with smaller parts taking place in Europe.
We are introduced early on to three characters: Jax, a clakker (mechanical servitor); Berenice, a French spymaster; and Visser, a Catholic priest working for Berenice undercover in Dutch territory. As the book winds along, it’s clear that the main characters in the story are Berenice and Jax, with Visser serving a secondary yet important purpose.
As characters go, both Berenice and Jax have a well-defined character arc, each of them complete within the novel with a beginning, middle, and end. Visser’s story doesn’t really reach a conclusion in this novel, which leads me to believe that he’ll have a more significant role in the next novel in the series (The Rising, also published in 2015).
I found that I didn’t really like Visser, though. He was somewhat cowardly and really thought highly of himself and his role. I imagine I felt about him the way I was supposed to – he was definitely very self-aggrandizing, to the point where he wasn’t very good at his job as a spy.
Beyond those three characters though, there wasn’t a lot of depth. I give The Mechanical a grade of B- for characters.
Story & Writing
I mentioned at the top that I “finally” finished reading The Mechanical last week…this is because I started reading it over a year ago. The story builds up very slowly at the beginning. This is a 400+ page book, but I think it could benefit from some culling.
Part of the problem is that Tregillis has to do a lot of world building to start the novel, because you need to be able to see how everything works AND understand how the Dutch took and remain in power. But the downside to this is that it progresses very slowly in the first half.
Once we get into the second half, and especially in the last third, the pace really picks up. I think this part of the book is a better demonstration of Tregillis’ skill as a writer, because his pages aren’t being spent giving us long scenes of exposition.
Overall I like the aesthetics presented in the book. It’s always neat to get a peak at alternative histories, and this one is very well thought out. I do appreciate that things weren’t spelled out, but I could still understand the background. The writing was a bit to “gratuitous” at times but generally, it’s good. I give The Mechanical a B- for Story and Writing.
While I really enjoyed the last third of the book, the first two thirds really didn’t do it for me. Normally, a “long” book for me takes a few months to slog through. This one took a year, and I stopped to read other things in between. I can’t in good conscience give The Mechanical a strong rating.
On GoodReads, I gave it 3/5 stars. Keeping with the letter grades I’ve been giving in this blog post, The Mechanical deserves a C+; a good read for parts of it, with strong main characters, but it really drags and feels like a chore to read in many other parts.
Coming up this week on the blog: a look at Paul Feig’s online TV show, Other Space.
For the longest time, I avoided using Waze. I tried it – a large amount of people online suggest this app for their daily commute. But I didn’t like the user interface – it seemed childish and unrefined. I much preferred the look and feel of Google Maps. After all, Waze gets its map data from Google Maps, so why would I use an inferior product?
I decided I’d give it another chance a few weeks ago, when there was a serious accident on the major highway that I use to get home every night. I had heard that the biggest plus to Waze was that it was smart about suggesting alternate, faster routes; basically, I needed it to give me a detour. Unfortunately it wasn’t too helpful in that regard (it wasn’t aware of the accident that closed the highway). BUT this is not where the story ends.
More User Data Improves the Experience
I opted to try it out a little more when I was working in a different city on business last week. I could see a world of difference. Obviously, Waze works much better when there are more users on the road. It didn’t really give me any crazy alternate routes, but one feature I found neat was that it gave me a pretty good approximation of how long I’d be stuck in a current traffic jam.
You can see more details at this link: “Waze knows how long you’ll be stuck in traffic”, complete with a relevant screenshot. Basically, it gives you a little bar, reminiscent of a health bar in a video game, that tells you how long you can expect to be stuck in the current traffic jam. It really helps to put your time spent on the road in perspective. What maybe feels like forever, because you’re barely moving, might only be two minutes. Relax.
The ETA Is Very Accurate
What was most helpful for me – because the routes I take are generally straightforward and don’t benefit from alternate routes – was the ETA. Generally speaking, the ETA that Waze gave me was incredibly accurate. The accuracy comes from a combination of user data and your GPS positioning.
For example, when you plug in your route it will calculate your estimated time of arrival based on current road conditions and road speed limits. But it keeps updating this based on your GPS position & speed – giving you a surprisingly accurate ETA. I assume that it also takes into consideration your previous driving habits, but I’m not too sure about that.
I find the ETA that Waze provides to be a lot more useful than the estimated duration that Google Maps gives you.
The major issue I have with Waze is that it largely requires user input to report accidents, speed traps, and so forth. In my home province, it is illegal to interact with devices (other than one or two buttons to answer a call), so being encouraged by the app to use the app while driving doesn’t sit right with me.
And like I said before, the main use of the app comes from having other “Wazers” on the road. If you’re in an area that doesn’t have a dense population, or doesn’t have a lot of people using Waze, it might not be much more useful than just using Google Maps.
I much prefer the look and “feel” of Google Maps, and it already gives you traffic data. So living where I do, which falls under the category of “not densely populated without a lot of Wazers”, Waze isn’t going to get a lot of use from me.
Overall – A Good App
I hesitate to call this a great app, but it is definitely a good app and useful. I can get past the cartoon-y UI (which I feel has actually improved a bit since the last time I used it), accepting the fact that it’s partly because it’s optimized for a driving experience. If you’re interested in shaving a few minutes off of your drive, or staying updated on what’s going on along your regular route, Waze is definitely going to help you.
Next week on the blog: not so much tech! Some book and TV reviews next week.
I’ve had Nougat for a week by the time this post will publish, but I’ve got some first impressions based on my first few days of use. For reference, I use a Samsung Galaxy S7 edge, and it was upgraded from Marshmallow to 7.0. Other relevant info – I’m using Evie Launcher*.
And yes, I realize that I’m a year late and Android O is already in the works, to release sometime this year. Blame Samsung.
I really, really like the way this looks. Everything looks sleek and well-designed. If this makes any sense to you, it looks less “cartoon-y”, something which Samsung has been gradually moving away from since I started with the Galaxy S3. Starting with Lollipop, they’ve been moving toward a more “stock” look with their notification / quick launch drawer. I like it.
Past the visual elements, my phone somehow feels snappier. I don’t really think it actually is any faster, but it feels like it is, which is important. I feel like there’s something operating behind the scenes (maybe faster animation speeds?) that is making the difference. I’m not speaking from a technological angle here – I don’t think they’ve done anything on the software side to affect RAM for example – but the software seems…optimized. That’s the best term I can think of for it.
Battery life seems to be improved. It’s hard for me to tell for sure, because I’m not using my phone the way I normally do right now. Sometimes I’m actually using it less than I normally do. The first day, I used it a LOT because I was playing around with it, and the battery life suffered accordingly. Last Thursday though, I noticed that my battery life was only at 64% or so near the end of my work day, so that’s impressive. I think some of the battery saving measures behind the scenes have been improved for Nougat.
Some other cool things have opened up for me, now that I have Nougat. Previously, only Samsung’s Messages app allowed you to type out replies from the notification window. Nougat adds this ability, so now I can do that with an app like Allo. It’s pretty handy if you don’t want to leave whatever screen you’re on. The other neat thing that Samsung added was some more utility to their Always On Display function on the S7 edge.
If they stopped at just adding more icon notifications I would have been happy; but you can also double-tap the app icon and it will unlock the screen and open the app with the notification. That’s really cool and very useful! To give you a quick comparison, on Marshmallow, only Samsung’s messages app and phone icons would show on Always On Display, and you couldn’t open the apps from there.
This is definitely a very cool step forward for Android. I don’t think that this update is revolutionary, but it’s the kind of update that would breathe new life into a phone (for example, if I added this to my S6 edge if it still worked – that would be amazing). I don’t know how many phones will actually be getting it, as manufacturers tend to drop older phones from support even though they are capable of taking new operating system upgrades.
If you were on the fence of upgrading (or have the option of flashing a custom ROM with Nougat on it), you should definitely do it. There aren’t any noticeable bugs that I can see and it runs really well. It can only get better. Can’t wait until I get Android O in 2018!
* I’ve actually switched back to Nova Launcher, because they added “Dynamic” notification badges, which are really cool and you should look into.
Coming up on Thursday: more Android talk focusing on Waze.
You can see the original post back in February – but the updated list is available to download in XML format at http://www.noformatblog.ca/podcasts_opml.xml.
Since my last post, I decided to cull some podcasts from my subscription list. I will come back to those in a bit. I wanted first to talk about the new shows that I added.
Side Hustle School: I added this show because I’m interested in the concept of the “side hustle”, colloquially known as beermoney in some online circles. But I was skeptical of this, thinking that it might be a mass-produced, spammy podcast that I wouldn’t end up liking. I definitely recommend this show, because it’s short (most episodes are 10 minutes or less) and gives a brief overview of what some people are doing to earn income on the side of their regular job. I might prefer more information in a weekly format, but in its daily form, it’s not bad. The great thing about this show is that the stories presented are all pretty interesting and often unique. One thing I like about short podcasts is that I can throw one of these in between longer shows.
Twenty Thousand Hertz: I was impressed with this show. I listened to the “Cars” episode – in the car, fittingly. I learned some new things about the sound design of cars, and I thought it was really well-produced. I’ve only heard one more episode (it was about talking dolls) – looks like it is possibly a bi-weekly show. I may need to download back episodes to get a better feel.
The Pitch: Pretty much what I thought it would be – Shark Tank in audio form. What I liked about the most recent episode I heard was that the show interviewed the people making their pitch after the fact. I like it, but it definitely doesn’t update often. Still waiting for a new episode. This may fall off the list.
Steele Wars: If you get a chance, listen to the episode where Steele convinces a friend who’s never seen a single Star Wars movie to watch Rogue One. It’s a good example of what I like so far of this podcast. One problem: Steele releases a lot of episodes, and they’re all lengthy. I’m not 100% sure I’m going to stay subscribed, mainly for a ‘no time in the day’ reason.
The Adam Sandcast: I think what Tyler (of Cynical Cartoons) is doing is a unique angle. If you’re not familiar, the Adam Sandcast used to cover only Adam Sandler movies. Now he’s doing standalone episodes of “fake” podcasts, if that makes sense; last week it was Kevin James (“Kevin Can Pod”) and this week it’s Jim Carrey (“Jim PodCarrey”). He’s trying something different and it’s worth a listen if you like Cynical Cartoons.
Storm of Spoilers. I just found these episodes to be too long, and I was skipping too many of them. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not due to poor quality. I just found that I wasn’t keeping up with them. And with Game of Thrones coming back soon, and not being able to watch the episodes right away, I only really want one GoT podcast piling up for me – that would be A Cast of Kings.
That’s it! No other dropped shows this month. Will that change? Stay tuned at the end of April…
Coming up next week on the blog: my first look and Android 7 – Nougat.
I remember when I was younger I was introduced to two franchises with zero prior knowledge: Harry Potter, and The X-Files. Back in 2001 when The Philosopher’s Stone was released in theatres, I had zero knowledge of the franchise – I simply never grew up reading those books. I guess it just wasn’t on my radar.
Same thing with the X-Files – my friends in high school got me watching it in order to start a website – and we started with 8th season, ostensibly the worst of the series, the One Without Mulder. I went into it without any knowledge of it beyond remembering being scared of an earlier episode that may or may not have something to do with cockroaches – I’m really not sure at this point, because I don’t think I’ve watched it since.
The point I’m trying to get to is that the experience of going into these franchises blind was pretty great. Since then I’ve read all of the HP books, seen the films, and watched quite a few X-Files episodes. But my first experiences with these franchises were without any previous info and my friends got to laugh at me at some of my questions and observations. It was fun!
I miss that feeling. It’s hard to re-create too, especially since there are references to just about every major franchise (literary or visual) online every day. And I listen to a lot of pop culture podcasts, so somehow, somewhere, little nuggets find their way into my head and just sit in the back of my mind.
I almost had that feeling with Game of Thrones, but it’s not a show I’ve watched with other people. I share the ‘new’ experience with David Chen on the podcast A Cast of Kings, but that’s the closest I’ve come. But the feeling of experiencing a new series of books or TV or film isn’t the same thing I’m referring to; it’s hard to describe.
I’ll try to give an example: I really want to read the James A. Corey novels starting with Leviathan Wakes; there’s a TV series that started last year called The Expanse that I’d watch after as well. But I don’t have anyone in my circle of friends to watch with or have them watch my mind explode at whatever plot twists may turn up. Luckily, I still know nothing about the series, so there’s still a chance I could share that experience through this blog.
What series or franchise did you discover blind that you ended up enjoying? What about one that you absolutely hated despite hearing it being talked up a lot?