Category Archives: podcast reviews

Not just normal… supernormal

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I’ve been catching up with podcasts recently, and was fascinated by For Good Reason‘s recent interview about supernormal stimuli with Dierdre Barrett.  She explains much about our problems as animals living in an artificial world: why we over-eat, why socialising online or by texting is more compelling than hanging out with our friends, why everything is louder and faster these days.

Essentially, Barrett researches the way that animals (including us) respond better to artificial over-stimulus than we do to natural levels of stimuli. We want saltier, sweeter, fattier food, bigger breasts, poutier lips, louder and more driving bass beats, faster cuts in our movies and more exciting roller coasters.  We want everything up to 11.  Hell, we want everything up to, 12, 13, 130 … faster, deeper, harder, MORE!

Two examples of animal responses to supernormal stimuli she cites are birds who ignore their own eggs in favour of bluer ones with bigger, blacker polkadots (how sweet, how stupid) and butterflies who boff card-board cut-outs and ignore the real lady butterfly flapping her wings enticingly nearby. How stupid. How ridiculous. How much does this explain about the porn industry?

Barrett’s soothing mantra is that we are people with brains and free-will, and are therefore able to overcome our response to the supernormal.  I was disappointed that Grothe didn’t challenge her on this. I like the way he inhabits the role of devil’s advocate to draw out his interviewees, but he ducked this one. There appears to be increasing evidence that free will is either an illusion or operates at trivial levels at best, which is something that Grothe is well aware of.  (A search for ‘free will’ in his previous podcasts at Point of Inquiry yields 117 hits). It is of course much easier for everyone if we act as if we have free will.  If we don’t, then all sorts of things about society will unravel. But that is another blog post for another day.

So while none of this was epiphanic, it deepened my awareness of the issues.  And if you don’t subscribe to Point of Inquiry or For Good Reason, and you like that kind of thing, then let me recommend them.

For your listening pleasure



Weekly podcasts – listen while you cook, drive, clean or run. These are stayers – regularly broadcasting and regularly worth listening to.   These are all made as podcasts and not radio programmes, with just one exception.


The Bugle – Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver riff irreverently off the week’s news and each other. Childish, intelligent, infectious. A weekly must.

Answer me this – My but those Zaltzmen are clever.  And funny. Andy’s sister Helen (barely employed arts graduate), Olly Mann (hopeful weblebrity) and Helen’s partner Martin (long-haired physicist) chat about listeners’ questions, Ollie’s suspect personal hygiene, films, tv shows and books.


The Moth – ‘true stories told live on stage without notes’. There isn’t a dud among these; these are the wierd and funny s**t that happens to people, all superbly told. Breathtaking.

Escape Pod – a good collection of short(ish) science fiction stories – some of them classics of the genre, all of them appropriately read.


Norman Centuries – neat 20 minute episodes of enjoyable narrative history from Lars Brownworth who brought us the really excellent 12 Byzantine Rulers.

The History of Rome – an exceptional podcast covering the 800 year sweep from the wolf to the barbarians; we are currently on episode 70 or so and we’ve recently seen off Nero and are just about to have fun with the Flavians. A joy for the sarcastic asides alone. The man deserves an award.

Critical Thinking

Skeptoid – Brian Dunning is getting sharper and more impatient as the months go by, but these 10 minute deconstructions of popular myths are each of them well worth listening to.

Point of Inquiry – intelligent but agenda-driven conversations on religion, scepticism and society.  Not to everyone’s taste, but heady stuff if you like it.


Stuff you should know and The Things you Missed in History Class – endearing conversations on various subject by How Stuff Works staffers. They are sweetly enthusiastic on the topic de semain, and the girls have a breathy intelligence which is rather hot, while the boys are more laid-back and dudey.

Forum – a world of ideas – This is definitely one that gives the synapses a stretch, but it’s hard to find on the radio, tucked away on the World Service.  If In Our Time aims at graduates, then this aims at post-grads.  Bridget Kendall plays off three or four world-class experts superbly,  usually a scientist and a social scientist and an artist or writer.

Business – since this is supposed to be a business-related blog

Lucy Kellaway – 5 minute doses of acerbic comment on working and corporate life from a regular columnist on the FT. I also enjoy Martin Wolf‘s economics podcast from the FT: his calm authoritative tone sounds soothing, but what he says frequently scares me witless.

Business Week – Behind this Week’s Cover Story – 15 minutes of conversation with the writer of each week’s front page story; an easy way to keep an ear out for current topics in the American Business press.

I’ll do this again soon and blog about new additions to my iPod: I’ve just discovered iTunes-U and a whole load of new podcasts from newbie podcasters including Richard Wiseman…

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To boldly split infinitives

Have you ever noticed that Stephen Fry will never split an infinitive?

In the 1920s Fowler commented in ‘Modern English Usage‘ that there were four groups of people when it came to the vexed question of whether or not it was acceptable to split and infinitive: those who knew what an infinitive was and avoided splitting them, those who knew and discriminated, those who neither knew nor cared and those who didn’t know what an infinitive was and cared deeply.  It was a fair comment in those days of fearful snobbery based on arcane rules.  These days no-one apart from Stephen Fry cares, though some of us do know.

Star Trek provided us with the classic split infinitive ‘to boldly go …‘   This is a useful example because it shows us the different nuances suggested by where you place the adverb:  ‘… boldly to go …’ suggests that it was bold of them to do it even if they were actually shivering in their boots at the time.  On the other hand ‘… to go boldly …’ implies puffed out chests and strutting strides.  The split version blurs both meanings together.  Thus we have a choice of three different nuanced meanings, and most of the time I find my meaning is served best by splitting the infinitive.  After all, there is no rule to say that ‘they boldly go‘ is wrong.  Stephen Fry seems to put the adverb before the infinitive, but if I have to avoid splitting an infinitive for some reason I find I usually prefer to put the adverb after the verb.

However I think the whole thing is an irrelevance.   The idea of not splitting an infinitive came about when the rules of Latin were applied to English by the classics-obsessed grammarians of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.  But English is the bastard love-child of Germanic and Romance languages and all the more vigorous for that.  Latin grammar is irrelevant to English.  The key feature of Latin is that words were modified by changing their endings, so it was physically impossible to split an infinitive in Latin because it was just one word.   We do still do this to some extent in English:  he / his / him, me / my / mine, change / changes / changing / changed, and so on.  But the real work of modifying meaning is achieved by word placement and by tacking words together with those very hard-working but almost invisible two or three letter words which help us out so much in Scrabble.

So though I delight in the way that Stephen Fry writes and reads English, and am impressed by the deftness with which he avoids splitting his infinitives, I personally fall into Fowler’s category of those who know but discriminate.  These days, thankfully, just about everyone else falls intot the group of those who neither know nor care.

Podcast Reviews – 3 – History podcasts for your delight

More Podcast recommendations for those who like podding while you do other things.  Me, I listen to podcasts when I drive, when I cook, when I clean, when I draw diagrams and, as of this weekend, when I’m painting the house.

I’m ambling slowly through the History of Rome in the company of Mike Duncan.  (Website including earlier episodes / the later ones are on on iTunes). This is a polite and courteous podcast, with the occasional flash of sly humour.  Duncan’s telling the entire story from the She-wolf to the Goths (there’s got to be some sort of Death Metal reference there, surely?).  He’s got as far as the late Republic.  I get rapidly bored by most narrative history and prefer analysis and commentary and there’s just enough of both to keep me interested.  In fact, I think I’ll re-run the lot when I’m painting the house, because I listened to a lot of these while mildly distracted, and they and I deserve better than that.

12 Byzantine Rulers.  (Website / iTunes). Another ancient history podcast.  The downside of this one is that it’s not a complete history of Byzantium and it’s a little hard to keep track.  The upside is that it’s Extreme History, and it’s rather fun.  Full of beautiful heterai who become empresses, fathers hurling their sons from city walls and emperors as satisfyingly mad as any you’d find in third rate science fiction.  It’s not science fiction though, it’s history and it’s true.  Lars Brownworth tells these sensational stories without too much sensationalism.  I could have done with more about Byzantine culture and I’d have preferred fewer gaps in the record, but that’s a compliment really.

Binge-Thinking History.  (Website / iTunes) Tony Cocks starts with the premise that the American Constitution didn’t spring out of thin air and looks for its intellectual antecedents in medieval and renaissance England.  I like his gentle and discursive style and I enjoyed his take on the history of the king, power and the people.  Enough analysis to keep the attention and enough information to tell me stuff I didn’t know already.  He then goes rather geekily on to the Battle of Britain, which I didn’t enjoy quite as much, but I’ll happily listen to whatever he does next.

Shakespeare-upon-ipod.  (Website / iTunes) A conspiracy theory in doublet and hose.  Please don’t assume that this podcast successfully puts the case that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays of Shakespeare.  Mark Anderson doesn’t put up any of the arguments against, which are considerable, and the case is most definitely ‘not proven’. However, I found these podcasts dirtily compelling, like pot-noodles, and they certainly contributed to my understanding of the 16th and 17th C context of the plays.  But I like my arguments balanced not biased.

History Center.  (Website / iTunes) These seem to have stopped, which is a shame.  These deliberately set out to compare the present and the past, and discuss topics like Iran, war journalism and spying as well as more anodyne stuff like food or Abraham Lincoln.  They caught my attention, even the ones which were clearly the soundtrack for tv shows about photographs.  They are insightful, analytical and subversive and, to my delight, they come as close to criticising the Bush regime and the war in Iraq as, I suspect, public broadcasting ever does in the USA.  Unexpected and informative.  Highly recommended.

The BBC History Magazine Podcast. (Website / iTunes) I rather like this.  It is designed to up the circulation of the printed copy of the BBC History Magazine, but the subjects are varied, the interviewees are grown-up academics, the interviewees are intelligent, and the thing holds together well.  It’s the only multi-topic podcast I listen to, because most of the others irritate me but this one I enjoy.

The National Archives Podcast.  (Website / iTunes) I’ve mentioned these before.  There are three main categories here, ones about how to track down records in the archives, ones about the archival records for specific people, and ones about particular historical documents.  The latter two groups in particular are fascinating.  Eclectic is the only possible word, you are never entirely sure what you’re going to get or who the speaker will be.  The one on Orton and the one on Jermyn stand out, but the standard’s high throughout.  I do recommend them.

Hard Core History.  (Website / iTunes) The marmite of history podcasting: you either love Dan Carlin or hate him.  His approach is almost entirely analytical with just enough narrative to hold things together.  I can appreciate that not everyone would like Carlin’s opinionated and partial view of the historical world, but I love his energy and passion.

The infinit’th monkey

Shakespeare using Mr PicassoheadWhy do people get so aeriated about the question of who wrote Shakespeare? I’ve been listening to the Shakespeare-on-ipod podcasts (website / iTunes) and finding them increasingly unsettling.  Which is, surely, rather odd?  What does it matter who wrote the plays?  What matters is the plays themselves.  You’d think.

It does matter, though.  The traditional version is that a relatively uneducated midlander walked to London some time towards the end of the 16th century and, once there, he fell in with a rag-tail bunch of players and hustlers and wrote poetry of such startling humanity and expressiveness that it tops anything anyone else has ever written, anywhere.  Ever.  (Personally I find the plays bloody hard work, and only manageable on stage performed by really good players, but there you go).

The traditional version is demotic.  The Bard was of the people.  He was one of us.  The infinit’th monkey.  So the argument which says that whoever wrote the plays and sonnets must have been better educated, more aristocratic, had more political access and been better travelled than Shakespeare, is an argument which means that Shakespeare is no longer Everyman.  He’s no longer one of Us.  He’s one of Them.

I think the fact that it’s a conspiracy theory in doublet and hose is a side issue even though conspiracy theories are designed to be unsettling.  We like certainties, us monkeys.  If we didn’t, then we’d accept the answer “nobody knows” and conspiracy theories wouldn’t gain any credence.

You see, the dispute over who wrote the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare is about History, and evidence, and whether or not there’s enough of it to know for sure that a thing happened or didn’t happen. Its not just about the 16th and 17th centuries, it’s about History as a whole.  There’s the unsettling implication that most historical “facts” are merely hypotheses and ones which cannot be tested at that.

What history and science have in common is their reliance on evidence; but there’s no direct evidence to tell us who wrote the plays and sonnets and no possible experimental test.   What’s important isn’t who wrote the plays and sonnets, it’s that there isn’t enough evidence to answer the question.  This suggests that just about anything you learned in a history lesson could have been made up.  Now that’s subversive.  It’s also probably true, which makes it spectacularly unsettling.

If you want to know more, then Wikipedia has an accessible and well written entry on the dispute, and several on William Shakespeare himself.  By contrast, the Shakespeare-on-ipod podcasts focus on the pros of de Vere and the cons of “Shaksper”: unfortunately Mark Anderson argues from incredulity – he cannot believe that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, he fails to mention anything that counters his argument and doesn’t admit that he’s speculating.  By contrast, the Shakespeare Authorship site is more credible because it’s much clearer about the limitations of the evidence.  What recently re-ignited my curiosity about the subject was the (reduced) summary of the authorship question by the Reduced Shakespare Company.

Podcast Reviews – 2 – Podcasting Fun

TigerMy week has some aural hot-spots that I thought I’d share with you, here in order of joy are some silly but articulate podcasts.

Answer me This by Helen and Olly – (websiteiTunes) – fresh, funny, witty, teasy, fun. They’re not afraid of swearing (hence the “explicit” tag) but, swearing aside, their content is pretty innocent. Helen Zaltzman and Ollie Mann riff off questions that listeners send in, with occasional interjections from Martin the Soundman, and I find them articulate and entertaining.

Friday Night Comedy – (iTunes) – Either The News Quiz or the Now Show – either way, top class topical comedy from the BBC. If your week doesn’t include this already, then you are several endorphin rushes short of a giggle.

The Bugle by John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman – (websiteiTunes) – More riffing from the Zaltzman family, this time it’s brother Andy who discusses this week’s news with comedian John Oliver courtesy of Times Online. You’ve got to admire anyone with two Z’s in their surname. What I want to know is how you can make something this well prepared sound this unrehearsed? It’s impressive. Oh, and funny.

Skeptoid – (websiteiTunes) – not comedy as such, but a cheerful debunking of the frankly ridiculous, and there is something about Brian Dunning’s approach which is refreshingly un-dogmatic. As far from Dawkins as you can get and still be on the side of the angles.

Alt.text from Wired.Com – (websiteiTunes) – five minutes or so of Lore Sjöberg taking a perverse, diverse, subverse and occasionally obverse look at modern pop culture. Ach, let’s not be clever: it’s a bloke taking the piss out of things. Witty though. And don’t be put off by his photo.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast – (websiteiTunes) – the boys have been feeling the strain recently, but they’ve been podcasting weekly for over a year. However, their insights into the lows and lows of being a working troupe of actors are still better value than Wogan on the way into work in the morning.

Podcast Reviews – 1

iCatA lot of literary ladies here review books. Well I am going to review podcasts and I may continue to do so intermittently.

Let me declare here and now that the podcasts I like fall into four categories: History, IT, Management and occasionally Science. I’m a geekette, and proud of it.

Aphra’s favouritest podcast series ever is Hardcore History from Dan Carlin.

Carlin describes these as “conversations around the water-cooler”; he picks up an historical event or theme, peers at it from all sides, pokes it a bit to see what gives and puts it back so we can re-consider it from a distance. There are some very pedestrian history podcasts out there at least one of which must owe serious royalties to Wikipedia, but Carlin shows everyone else how it should be done. Very strongly recommended if you like to have thoughts provoked, connections made and paradigms subverted. Carlin’s not made that many of them, so I have started listening to his riffs off American politics and finding them almost as compelling.

Another must-listen podcast in Aphra’s car is The Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast

A bunch of likable actors from the West Coast of the US shoot a themed breeze each week on some subject relating to their present and past touring shows. A particular favourite was Let it Snow. Gentle and amusing fun. I’m growing rather fond of them, and will of course go and see them next time they are in the Literary Festival in Little-Wittering-on-the-Wold.

I also enjoy the Business Week Cover Story

These are cheerful interviews between one of the editors of Business Week and whoever wrote the cover story that week. They’ve not made me go out and buy the magazine, but they are interesting, informative and sometimes illuminating.

Alt.text from Wired Magazine is good for a quickie

Running to 5 or 8 minutes or so, one of Wired’s columnists casts a flippant and frequently surreal eye over whatever catches his attention that week. Geeky. Silly. Witty. Worth 8 minutes of anyone’s week.

The National Archives Podcasts

Informative and interesting British history from real live academic historians. The lecturers are specialists and really know their stuff, working from primary sources. The slides they refer to, which one cannot of course see, show original documents. No wikipedia here. So understated it’s cool.

Old English in Context

These are undergraduate lectures from Oxford University which provide background information on the Dark Ages for students studying English Literature. They are detailed, funny and fascinating, and – woo hoo – you and I can listen to them and know we don’t have to write an essay or sit an exam. How bloody jammy is that?

There are several podcasters I am trying out to get a feel for:

Dan Klaas does laid-back essays about whatever strikes his fancy. They are classed as comedy, but I find them thought provoking.

The Cranky Middle Manager seem to have quality interviews on business-related subjects without pretending its aimed at the directors of plcs.

Occasionally the HBR Ideacast has interesting interviews with the authors of academic papers or books, but I overdosed on them early on and now I shake nervously when I hear their theme music.

There was one outstanding podcast from The University of Bath Public Lectures by world-class academics and politicians. These are frustrating because the original lectures were illustrated and the podcasts are audio only. Even so “Dead Sexy – the corpse is the new porn star of popular culture” is an exceptional lecture in an exceptional series.

It’s gotta beat Terry Wogan on the way into work, eh?

I download all my podcasts from i-Tunes. However, it has not escaped my notice that you are going to be looking at this at a PC so the links go to web pages and you can download the podcasts directly and listen to them on your PC. Isn’t that helpful of me?