Cool Things 2017


In my weekly email, I always put in something that I think is cool or worth your attention. This is a list of them from 2017. The current list is here.

30.Dec.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.


23.Dec.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).


17.Dec.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.

9.Dec.2017—So, Anyway…

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.


Warning: there are a couple of parts of the book that I advise you might like to skip, specifically, stories that involve animals (there’s one with a rabbit and one with a bull). Cleese is very much not a vegan. (Billie and I encountered this first hand when we saw him and Eric Idle perform live last year, and Idle, who’s not a meat eater, had jokes about that made at his expense.) For those with empathy toward animals (I put myself very much in that category), these are parts of his book to jump past. I debated whether or not to recommend the book at all because of this, but I found the rest of it so enjoyable, that I present it to you here with this clear caveat.


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 it 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.



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.