Cool Things


In my weekly email, I put in something that I think is cool or worth your attention. This is an on-going list of them.


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.


10.Nov.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.


29.Oct.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.


Coolness Follow-Up (or perhaps Supplemental Coolness)

My cool thing for last week was Patient Zero by Aimee Mann. You’ll remember that I heard about it on Song Exploder, and that the official video stars Bradley Whitford, who was Josh on The West Wing.

Well, there’s more! Aimee Mann appeared in a West Wing episode (season 4, episode 3 “College Kids”), which I’d forgotten about. She sings James Taylor’s “Shed a Little Light on Me”. Here’s the clip, with Josh and Amy in the foreground, and Aimee (briefly) and the music in the background.

And how did I find out about it? The guy who does Song Exploder does another podcast called The West Wing Weekly (spoiler: another future cool thing recommendation), and in this week’s episode about “College Kids,” they interviewed Aimee Mann about her experience of being on the show.

And so goes the circle of life.

Again, enjoy.

20.Oct.2017—Patient Zero

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). (Videos all embedded below.) 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 episode about 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.

13.Oct.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 embedded below).


6.Oct.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.


29.Sep.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.


22.Sep.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.

15.Sep.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.