Oct. 9 2013 11:47 AM

Bombard your brain with these bits of brilliance

Illustration by Lindsey Voltoline

Our buildings and us

Roman Mars is a podcaster's podcaster. He's not as well known as Ira Glass of This American Life or Jad Abumrad of Radiolab. But in those guys' view, Mars' show, 99% Invisible, is on the cutting edge of nonfiction audio storytelling. Glass calls it "beautifully produced." Abumrad says Mars is "inspiring." So, what's the show about? Design and architecture. While that might sound dull, many of us underestimate the role that the built environment plays in our psychology. The short-form show uses its organizing theme to ask big questions about how we design not only the world around us but ourselves as members of society. At the same time, Mars is fast establishing himself as a preeminent craftsman in the world of narrative audio production. The show bobs and weaves through topics with a musicality we've come to expect from masterfully produced shows. Now in its third year, 99% Invisible has had more than 12 million downloads and is fast establishing a global presence.

—Joshua Emerson Smith


George Orwell's 1984 was the first book I read twice. It blew my mind that a novel so bleak, dystopian and paranoid could be considered a classic, and I found the implications of Big Brother terrifying. Always the horror fan, I was hooked. Blackbar is a text-based game for iOS developed by Neven Mrgan that imagines a scenario similar to 1984. Players read correspondences between Vi and Kenty, who works for the Department of Surveillance in the vaguely omniscient Neighborhood. However, certain words have been redacted by the Neighborhood, and it's the player's role to guess the blacked-out words. As the puzzles get harder, the story becomes more sinister, ultimately revealing the true nature of the Neighborhood while brilliantly propelling both form and function. The game also has a clean, simple design that mirrors the starkness of the story. Even if you're not fazed by the heightened surveillance that we increasingly accept in our lives, you would be remiss if you didn't find Blackbar's ending chilling.

—Ryan Bradford

View a master 

Since its 1986 debut, PBS's American Masters series has been airing biographies on the major cultural figures who have shaped American history. The episodes I've seen usually produce Steel Magnolias levels of goose bumps and tears—the latest highlighting the life of tennis player, feminist icon and civil-rights activist Billie Jean King. Seriously, I was a weepy hot mess 20 seconds into the program as a voiceover said, "Billie Jean King has the heart of a champion, the heart of a lion," while Aretha Franklin's "Think" played in the background. Way to kick me right in the feelings-crotch, American Masters. Luminaries like Hillary Clinton, Elton John, Gloria Steinem and Venus and Serena Williams go through King's life, starting with her childhood and making pit stops at her rise and dominance in tennis, her involvement in the women's-liberation movement, her famous "Battle of the Sexes" match against Bobby Riggs, her coming out and her legacy on and off the court. Check it out online at pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters. BYO tissues.

—Alex Zaragoza

The outsiders 

It's not news to anyone who's attended a punk, hardcore or metal show that audiences tend to be made up primarily of white males. The irony, of course, is that all of these genres were born out of American black music, specifically blues, which puts people of color in the awkward position of feeling like outsiders when listening to music that stems from their own cultural heritage. In What Are You Doing Here?, Canadian music journalist Laina Dawes delivers part critical examination of race as it pertains to rock music and part personal memoir of growing up as a young, black metalhead. She talks with other black women in the punk and metal scenes and includes several personal anecdotes from the pit, which have more than a few times involved being on the business end of some shockingly blunt racist language. What Are You Doing Here? is fascinating and frustrating, not for how it's written, but because of what it reflects. If there's anything that the punk and metal communities should know, it's that we're all supposed to be outsiders together.

—Jeff Terich

Web series 
Baby talk 

Good clean humor has never seemed so dirty. Convos with My 2 Year Old is a viral web series in which Matthew Clarke, looking like a young Conan O'Brien, reenacts conversations with his 2-year-old daughter, Coco. The twist: Coco is played by a hairy, full-grown man (David Milchard), who executes her non-sequiturs and tantrums with a creepy, deadpan, threatening innocence. Coco blocks Clarke from talking to his wife, demands he repeat her / his words and rebels against basic parental requests. There's nothing weirder than one grown man checking another grown man's diaper for poo. Season 2 of the series started on Sept. 25, with Coco now 3 years old and a little more articulate but no less hilarious. The episodes are magic in how they re-imagine and reinvigorate the kids-say-the-darnedest-things formula and demonstrate the nature of fatherly love. The major networks would have to be crazy not to pick it up—and that's why you have to watch it now before some cable corporation screws it all up.

—Dave Maass

Bullet to the buck

Here's the quandary: What do you do when you find first-person shooting games too stressful but you're still attracted to the prospect of virtually pulling the trigger? The solution: virtual hunting games. Almost a decade ago, I found myself wasting hours gunning down pixelated beasts with Deer Hunter II on my pre-smart flip phone. In September, Glu Mobile released Deer Hunter 2014, a trophy-hunting experience with astonishingly detailed landscapes for iOS and Android phones. I'd never hurt an animal for recreation in real life, but I've got no qualms about using infrared scopes to shoot a mule buck in the lungs or an assault rifle to massacre a family of wolverines. Admittedly, there must be some phallic, power-trippy element to hunting, but I find it—relaxing. The game is free, sort of—you can play for a while, but then you either need to pony up some loot or wait for your "energy" to recharge.

—Dave Maass


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