Review: "In Our Time" podcast and newsletter

One of my long-term listening pleasures is BBC4’s In Our Time podcast. The show is hosted by Melvyn Bragg, a novelist, cultural reporter, broadcaster, and a member of the House of Lords, in no particular order. The show’s premise is to pick a significant topic from history, culture, science, art, philosophy, etc., bring in three scholarly or scientific experts on the topic, and let Lord Bragg serve as the audience’s guide and interlocutor. Bragg’s job is to absorb lots of detail (written and prepared for him beforehand by the week’s guest experts) and then attempt to lay out the topic from end-to-end for the eager-to-be-informed listener. All in about 43 minutes, which makes it fast-paced with lots of finely argued details and centuries of stories regretfully brushed aside or glossed over in an attempt to get out of the studio on time.

Still, that’s about the right length of time for an introduction to a big topic. It sounds like a frantic idea, to discuss Prime Numbers, the Nicene Creed, Montaigne, Renaissance Magic, or the Battle of Bosworth Field in under an hour, but I have to admit, Bragg delivers more often than not. (Take a look at their archives; the variety of topics is astounding.) He favors a strictly chronological narrative both to establish a context and structure the discussion, and is careful to make sure a decent foundation is laid before the more interesting aspects of the topic are discussed.

As someone who loves to learn new things and who particularly enjoys these kinds of scholarly panel discussions, I enjoy getting a condensed introduction to a topic or idea I know nothing about. I often want a taste, not a full meal. “In Our Time” delivers  that.

And it’s lovely hearing the experts talk. While some of the voices sound like particularly eccentric Monty Python characters, it’s bracing to hear younger voices, women’s voices, and ethnic voices taking their place at the table. These folks know their stuff and the deference they pay to each other is charming.

But you knew there was a “but” coming. For all that Bragg ably herds his cats, he has habits that make me want to scream. For someone whose day job is as a broadcaster, I’m often shocked by his lazy elocution and gabbled, hurried, mumbled words. He has an annoying habit of literalness; under the guise of “getting it clear for the listeners,” he tries to pin down whether Pocahontas actually did save John Williams’ life and did King Arthur and Robin Hood really exist, all while his experts squirm in their seats after having already said five times that there’s no hard evidence one way or the other.

While I’m on a Bragg-bash, I sometimes get annoyed when the topic is literature. As a novelist and a great reader himself, he often inserts his opinions and summaries into the conversation when I believe they don’t add much to the conversation. However, when the topic is well outside his familiarity, he becomes more humble and capably guides the experts through a forest of dense ideas. He’s at his best when he lets his guests talk.

After the show, he and the experts usually repair to a lounge for a cup of tea where the conversation continues, one assumes more free-spiritedly, and they lament all the good bits that had to be left out. He shares choice tidbits from these conversations in his weekly newsletter and a Radio 4 blog.

I enjoy these morsels he shares in his weekly posting; more admirable and humorous qualities of his character peek through. Here are some paragraphs I enjoyed from his post accompanying a show on the gladiator Spartacus:

Mary Beard told me after the programme that Crassus (he who said that no man can count himself rich unless he can afford a private army), the one who finally defeated Spartacus, had taken on the Parthians and himself been defeated. His head was severed and later used as a prop in a performance of The Bacchae at the Parthian court. A story like that is what I think, perhaps many of us think, classical historians are for.

The business of gladiators being killed in the arena and a great flurry of thumbs down going on seems to be ill-founded. Put simply, gladiators were very expensive. They were an investment. Their owners did not like them to be killed and therefore, of course, as privileged, rich and wealthy owners do, they fixed things so that they got what they wanted. So in the end gladiators were as much for show as for dead meat.

There was a discussion about whether Spartacus’s wife could possibly have spent time with him in the gladiatorial school, i.e. lived with him. She certainly seems to have been there when he was bought as a gladiator in the first place.

Curious how we seem to like men fighting each other or lions, bare-topped, shouted on by crowds. But it wasn’t long ago that much the same thing happened around these parts, is it? Crowds at hangings, crowds at bear fights, crowds at executions, women knitting as the guillotine fell. How much would it take for it to come back?

What would the 50-something you say to the 20-something you?

You’re going to need reserves of determination, and persistence, now, during the high points and right up to the moment you retire, if that ever happens. So, don’t be put off easily. You’re never too young, too inexperienced, too familiar, too old, too traditional, too radical, too uncool, too black, too female, too weird, too conventional, too deaf, too Portuguese, or too anything for anyone to stop you making the comedy you feel driven to make. And if you don’t feel that, then you shouldn’t be doing it.

And then I realize: The way for me to be better than my parents isn’t to do my taxes on time. That would be nice. But really I need to not give myself choices about how I spend my time. The more choices I have throughout the day, the more decisions I make, the more willpower I need, the more I get distracted from paying attention to the building blocks of a fulfilling life: gratitude, meaning, and ritual.

Being productive means simplifying how you use your time. Which in turn, simplifies your life.

Review: Elf, a reminder service to avoid overdue library fees

The Durham Country Library – which is a great organization I support with patronage and donations of both books and money –  does not notify me when books are either coming due or are overdue. This can be inconvenient when life gets hectic or I forget that the checkout period for DVDs is different from that for books. If you don’t have a system set up to remind you about such things, then it’s all to easy to forget when they’re due. library card found in pittsburgh pennsylvania

Enter Elf (from its About page):

Elf is a web-based and email tool for library users to keep track of their library borrowings. Elf is like a personal assistant, whose task is to help with keeping track of what one has on loan from the library.

Designed with the busy or avid library user in mind, Elf is ideal for families with multiple library cards or for individuals (writers, researchers, students, readers, etc.) who have cards from different libraries.

Elf makes it easier to keep track of what’s due, overdue or ready for pickup from one or more library accounts. Users have the option to consolidate their library accounts into one account if they wish. This account is checked everyday and email notices are sent when items are coming due, overdue or when holds are ready for pickup. As well, get up-to-date realtime information by browser.

How many people knew about Elf before I did? Probably everybody, I bet. And not a word from any of you! I only discovered it by happenstance, through the weekly Back to Work newsletter. 

Durham happened to be in its list of libraries, and I eagerly signed up. I set the level of advance notice I want to receive (3 days) and provided my cell number so I could be texted also. Elf also offers RSS and iCal feeds if you prefer to be notified that-a-way.

It’s a terrific service, it’s free, and it’s simple to figure out. If you use your library card a lot, you should check out (heh) Elf.

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The Conet Project

http://www.irdial.com/dorchester_antenna_closeup.jpg I must have heard about the shortwave numbers stations years ago on this Lost and Found Sound recording for NPR’s All Things Considered (original page, YouTube version).

The story was strange, the recorded sounds spooky, and the low-fidelity of the shortwave signal making them sound even spookier, as if other sounds and voices are edging their way into the transmissions. (I guess in this context, “spooky” has more than one meaning.)

It seemed – and still seems – so weird that in this day and age, when so much of the world is gridded and mapped and monitored that there are still spy organizations (for lack of a more correct term) out there doing this: playing a tune or song to alert whoever is receiving the transmission and then reciting a series of numbers, letters, or words. We don’t know who is sending the transmission, who is receiving it, or what the numbers mean.

And this is happening everywhere, it seems, not just the old Cold War countries. When I listen to the recordings of these stations, I feel an eerie tingle creeping up the back of my neck. There is still mystery in the world, still things that do not want to be known. I read somewhere that the best way to listen to these recordings is late at night, with the lights off. That sounds right.

The Conect Project has 5 CDs worth of these recordings collected from all over the world and over a long period of time. The first four CDs worth of recordings – collected over 20 years through 1997 – can be heard and downloaded for free via archive.org. Also free is the 80-page CD booklet in PDF, describing the project, the shortwave stations, and every track. You can also download the free sound files and PDF or order the CDs from Conet’s official site (which offers links to other sites on the numbers mystery).

The first four CDs are available as a digital file from Audible.com (for the exceedingly odd price of $2.09) or from Audible’s parent company Amazon for only 95 cents! Inexplicable.

Other resources: Wikipedia links to The Conet Project and Numbers stations, and the results of a Google search on “the shortwave numbers mystery.”

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Domestic Comedy

Exchange between me and Liz as we drove past Ravenscroft school. ME. That's where Matthew did his play.

LIZ. Yeah, that musical about Noah's ark. He was Ham.

ME. (Pause. ) (Seriously.) He was doing his best.

LIZ. (Pause.) No! His character! His character's name was Ham! He was the son of Noah!

 

Software: Audiobook Builder

Audiobook Collection Back in the days of iron men and wooden computers, I listened to audiobooks on cassette.

In 2001, I joined Audible.com and listened to digitized audiobooks using my trusty yet problematic Digisette Duo-Aria; for years, my secondhand cars only had cassette players so the Digisette served me well. I preferred listening to audiobooks over music whilst commuting, traveling, or just motoring about. The other great thing about digital audiobooks was that I could listen to them anywhere, while raking the leaves or working out. Carrying my books everywhere was as important to me as carrying music everywhere was to other people. I also subscribed to Audible’s various monthly or weekly audio programs, like NPR’s Science Friday, in those dark days before podcasts.

After my second Digisette bit the dust and I entered a fraught period of unemployment, I stopped subscribing to Audible. My cars now had CD drives so I recorded BBC radio programs, burned them to CD, and listened to them in the car.

In 2009 or so, I bought an orange iPod nano as a birthday present for myself. I then began delving into the bizarre world of iTunes, how it manages music files, how it loads and plays podcasts on my iPod, etc. Audible-encoded files play very well in iTunes and with iPods of all kinds, so with my podcasts and Audible books now playable anywhere, and with a more dependable gadget, I was even happier.

Now, when I download an Audible file, it comes usually as one or up to three large files. But when I bought a few of the Doctor Who Big Finish productions via digital download, each track arrived as a separate file. Since they were originally published on CDs, and some of the productions are 2-CD sets, there could be upwards of 40-odd separate audio files to be managed. I can categorize the files as Media Kind “Audiobook” and they’ll show up with my other audiobooks. They would transfer to the iPod just fine, but the order-out-of-chaos maniac in me hated that they existed as individual files — I really wanted them to be in one or two big files, as the Audible books are.

Over the years, I had also collected many other MP3 files: stray podcasts or interviews not available from iTunes, audio programs I had bought, or coaching programs where the instruction arrived as lots of MP3 files. I had also recorded things off the web, such as this BBC2 radio documentary on the history of British comedy — four hour-long programs. It offended my sense of order to have all these files scattered in separate directories and not snugly nestled in iTunes where I could control them a little better. The iTunes interface really doesn’t handle these kinds of rogue files very well, in my experience, and I thought the whole operation could be made much easier.

To consolidate these separate files into a few merged files, I had been using the Join Together script from the amazing Doug’s AppleScripts for iTunes site. It combined individual files into audiobook files and worked fine, but I wanted more of a standalone app.

After poking around, I tried out and bought Audiobook Builder from the App Store (link). It’s a great little app that takes all those separate audio files, merges them into iTunes audiobook files (.aab files), and deposits them into iTunes’ Books area, where they belong — NOT with the music! This makes the files much easier to manage.

One of the things I like about the app is that I can throw a ginormous amount of files at it — such as a directory of 36 MP3 files totaling 1.1 GB — and it will not crash or fall over. In this example, it will process all those files to produce three large audiobook files, each suffixed with “Part 1, Part 2,” and so on. The largest files will run about 11 hours each. Now, the process is slow on my 2007-era MacBook, I’ll grant you. It can take up to 45 minutes for it to chew through a gigabyte of audio files. That’s OK for me if I get the files I want.

I can then delete or archive or offload those original files to other media so they don’t take up room on my hard drive. Order! Contained chaos!

If you have have audiobook CDs, it’s simplicity itself to have Audiobook Builder compile them into proper iTunes audiobook files. The help file is good and, after experimenting with some small jobs — particularly when it comes to creating and naming chapters (if you want to do that) — its mysteries are soon revealed.

One tip: I like having an image of the book or speaker or interview subject as part of the file. The simplest way to get that image applied to your new audiobook is to do this:

  1. Go to Google Images and enter the name of the book or person.
  2. Select and copy the image from your browser.
  3. In Audiobook Builder, after you’ve created the project file, left-click in the box that says “Drag Cover Artwork Here.”
  4. Press Command-V to paste the image from the clipboard.

You can also use this method to copy images from your existing audiobooks to new ones you create. Easy-peasy.

Update: I should have added another important reason why I prefer the audiobook format over separate files: you can stop anywhere in the file and pick up later where you left off. With audiobooks, I can interrupt the recording, listen to other stuff while I work, go back to the audiobook when it’s time to commute home, select “Resume”, and I carry on listening from the previous stopping point. To do that with individual tracks categorized as Music, you have to manually select the files and activate the bookmarking capability.

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Current reading

The Relationship Handbook -- George Pransky.  The focus is primarily spousal relationships, though there are a few chapters dealing with parents and children. The core message is that our insecure thinking lowers our moods, which causes us to act defensively against our partner and they against us. The chief remedies include simply calming down until our thoughts look less real and choosing to talk about sensitive issues only when both partners are in their best state, when each partner's statements are understood and not simply reacted to. More important than "solving problems" is enjoying your partner's company and basking in a warm relationship. Simple language, readable, and applicable to fostering a better relationship with oneself as well. Pransky is of the first generation of Three Principles practitioners who worked with Sydney Banks. As with other popularizations of the Principles, it focuses more on revved-up thinking than with the other principles.

In These Times the Home is a Tired Place  -- Jessica Hollander. Before I started my grad school adventure in 2006, I was in a writing group that counted as its members two people who would go on to publish their fiction. One was David Halperin, who published Journal of a UFO Investigator in 2011. The other is Jessica, who went on to an MFA at the University of Alabama and last year published this book of short stories, which won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (publisher description). They're odd, off-kilter, ethereal stories (or maybe prose poems) that take place in the characters' mundane world of cheap duplexes, loud neighbors, families under pressure, and someone who keeps moving the Welcome mat to other apartments in the building. You know the saying that every line of a poem creates a universe? Every sentence in a Jessica Hollander story does the same thing. The stories all have a voice that is uniquely Jessica's -- a quality her stories had even back in the day. I would kill to write dialogue that oblique and funny, with such a light touch.

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer -- Sarah Bakewell. Bakewell attacks the life of Montaigne and the life of his Essays by taking the writer's chief question -- How should one live? -- and then drawing from the essays 20 different, sometimes contradictory, answers. Along the way, she paints pictures of the historical, intellectual, and cultural currents of his time (I did not know the horrific conditions in France caused by the Catholic-Protestant conflicts) and how Montaigne's message of Stoicism, skepticism, and delighted self-discovery has been viewed by other thinkers, writers, and readers through the centuries.

Serious reading, after all, should be active, focused, engaged—and Cooper suggested some ways to make it so.

First, read aloud—at least some of the time. “Every line of Shakespeare, every line of Milton, is meant to be pronounced, cannot be duly appreciated until it is pronounced.”

Second, read slowly. “Take ample time. Pause where the punctuation bids one pause; note each and every comma; wait a moment between a period and the next capital letter. And pause when common sense bids you pause, that is, when you have not understood.”

This led to the third dictum: “Read suspiciously. Reread. What a busy man has time to read at all, he has time to read more than once.”

Elsewhere, he added another piece of advice: Learn by heart at least a few poems and passages of prose.

A word fraught with meaning

The Night is Fraught With Peril I like embroidering my plainspoken, earthy, everyday, quotidian speech with particularly Victorianesque embellishments and verbally diabolic adornments that I dredge up from profligate readings of literature, ephemera, and old Monty Python sketches. Or maybe I just like words with lots of syllables.

To that end, I sometimes clot my electro-mails and casual conversation with antique or rarely heard (among my peers, anyway) vocabulary.

One that I use when I want to exaggerate my concern is fraught. It’s a word that I will see or hear often in the news yet hardly anywhere else. In the news, as with this story, it’s one of those received words, like “firestorm,” that is trotted out as verbal shorthand by newscasters for “a terrible situation” yet that I hardly ever hear in regular conversation. Fraught is a great word to use in headlines, like this one from the New York Times, because it’s only six letters. It packs maximum anxiety into minimal space.

My MacBook’s handy New Oxford American Dictionary defines fraught in its predicate adjective form (fraught with) as “filled with or destined to result in (something undesirable)”: marketing any new product is fraught with danger. The second definition is “causing or affected by great anxiety or stress,” as in she sounded a bit fraught.

Here’s the fun part:

ORIGIN late Middle English, ‘laden, provided, equipped,’ past participle of obsolete fraught [load with cargo,] from Middle Dutch vrachtenfrom vracht ‘ship’s cargo.’ Compare with freight.

So fraught is a cousin to the word freight! And freight is descended from a variant of vrachten. Fascinating. Freight itself is a neutral word — cargo, transport — though freighted with can be a figure of speech for “be laden or burdened with.”

Interesting how word meanings diverge. The world of commerce needed a word for cargo and baggage, the inner world needed another.

I wonder if the vowel sound in fraught, with its similarity to awful, may somehow help to twin those words in our minds.  Awful is more immediate and personal, whereas fraught sounds a bit distant, higher up the hill from the fray. Awful grabs the guts, fraught keeps the mess at arm’s length while acknowledging the high emotions.

I hope this disquisition on fraught has not been for naught nor has made you overwrought. (What rot.)

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Clifton StrengthsFinder

Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, al... In December, following up on an offer by coach Dave Kaiser, I took the Clifton StrengthsFinder online test. Dave recommended the $9.99 version that gives you your top 5 strengths out of a menu of 34.

The StrengthsFinder is a 100+ item test that purportedly feeds back those parts of your personality that most dominate your outlook and behavior.

The test items are not questions, really; they’re  choices along a spectrum. So, for example, a pair of statements for an item might be “I have a commitment to growth” and “I have a commitment to values.” You then select whether either statement Strongly or Somewhat describes you, with Neutral there in the middle.

(For the record, I already know what my values are and I believe I live my life according to them. So I’m not worried about my values. I am more worried about stagnating and not growing. So I strongly identify with a commitment to Growth.)

Knowing one’s strengths, one can then theoretically leverage them more consciously and not fight against oneself. Knowing that my strength is Achiever rather than Deliberative, for example, means I can stop beating myself up for not thinking things through and instead take pleasure in action, which probably comes more naturally to me. This echoes an idea from business success literature I was reading 10-15 years ago, to make your strengths stronger rather than spend precious time and energy to shore up your weaknesses. You’re better off finding a partner or delegating to someone else those activities that do not play to your strengths.

There are, as there should be, skeptics of this test with well-founded criticisms. These strengths do seem skewed to the business world and isn’t there some value in finding, for example, that Empathy may be a weakness? Isn’t a sense of humor a strength? But, as the saying goes, “all models are wrong, some models are useful (some of the time)”. I chose to look at the test as perhaps providing a perspective on me that I might find useful.

My top 5 (oddly worded) strengths:

  1. Restorative: I like to fix things, solve problems, and create order out of chaos. This is pretty true, as far as it goes. I could not fix the big communications problems that hit a board I served on, but I could set up a network of volunteers who could efficiently deliver flyers to most houses in the neighborhood. This is probably the most action-oriented, outward-pointing strength I have.
  2. Intellection: Intellectually active and introspective. Very true.
  3. Empathy: Sense other people’s feelings. Also true, to the point, however, of stifling my own opinion so I don’t upset others.
  4. Input: “Have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.” Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.
  5. Learner: Desire to learn and continuously improve (yes). Here’s the interesting quote: “The process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.” This actually helped explain to me why I continue taking banjo lessons even though I have no real desire to perform. I do find the learning process itself fascinating.

So, having received this wonderful information collected before me, what learnings and ideas can I draw from it to solve my life’s little problems? (See what I did there, didja, huh, didja?)

Dave gave me some good advice on how to use this information in my goal of starting a side business. Look at past jobs I’ve had, for example, and make lists of what I liked and didn’t like, then map those to the strengths. Chances are that the tasks I most enjoyed relate back to my strengths. Can I use that information to create a business that therefore plays to my strengths?

Or, similarly, pick any thing that I might want to do, and then look at solving the challenges through the lens of my strengths. I would not be a good car salesman, for example. But I would be good at researching, being a subject-matter expert, and perhaps sharing with others who need to know what I’ve learned.

Good, tidy stuff. But of course, I can’t stop ideating and intellecting all over the place. When does a strength become a weakness? As Dave said, when it’s misused. My strengths would not help me at cold-calling, for instance.

The strengths would not help me if I’m in the wrong environment. My Learner strength was strongly opposed to the PhD environment I put myself in because I’m a student, not a scholar.

I see a dark side to too much thinking and ruminating, not enough action; too much input, not enough reflection; too much emotion, not enough detachment; too much problem-solving, not enough problem-understanding. (Too much blog writing, not enough money-making? But I digress, which is another of my hidden strengths…)

I’d say the StrengthsFinder did highlight what I indeed feel are the dominant aspects of my personality. What I do, or don’t do, with my strengths, is up to me. However, as I daydream about what I might want to start doing later this year, I will be keeping these strengths in mind.

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