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Bubble is a hilarious sci-fi spin on modern hipster culture

There are a ton of podcasts out there, but finding the right one can be difficult. In our new column Pod Hunters, we cover what we’ve been listening to that we can’t stop thinking about.

Imagine life in Brooklyn, Portland, or any other fast-growing, hip metropolis, where people are obsessed with things like brunch, have a side hustle, or want to extoll the merits of Die Hard as a Christmas movie. Now imagine that city under a dome on an alien planet, and the threat from alien monsters.

This is the world of Bubble, a science fiction comedy podcast from podcast studio Maximum Fun.

Bubble just wrapped up its first, eight-episode season, and follows an unlikely group of friends who come together thanks to an Uber-like app for hunting monsters called Huntr. This is a type of story that really rests on the shoulders of its main characters, and Bubble delivers that nicely in the form of one unlikely group of friends. Morgan is a hard-working young woman who grew up outside of the dome in the Brush, while Annie is her absent-minded, messy roommate who makes drugs from the planet’s wildlife and who can’t hold down a relationship.

They eventually run into and team up with mild-mannered Mitch, who’s trying to survive in the gig economy and Van, a dudebro who’s become a viral star by live-streaming his hunts on the Huntr app.

Life in the “Portland-ish town of Fairhaven,” is a self-obsessed hipster utopia of craft beer bars and jogging paths, and is protected from the Brush by a literal Bubble set up by a corporation called Tandem, which has its own ulterior motives. Along the way, the four deal with their personal hangups and contend with some of the nastier plans that Tandem has in store for the world.

You can listen to Bubble on Maximum Fun’s website, as well as Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Overcast, Pocketcasts, RadioPublic, and Stitcher.

Comedian and TV writer Jordan Morris (co-host of Jordan, Jesse, Go!) created Bubble, and told The Verge that he had been “thinking for a while about how difficult it is to live in a cool place, and how many sacrifices people make to live in a Brooklyn, or a Silver Lake, or a Portland … unless you’re a rich person, it’s a special kind of little hell to make ends meet in those kinds of places. We make these excuses for the places we live because we like them and because of how awesome and fun and alive they can be.” With that observation, he imagined that sort of existence in a sci-fi world, where alongside the high rents, roommates, and hipsters, the residents of his world also had to deal with monsters, the threat of mutations, and corporate drones.

He first scripted the idea as a TV pilot, and did a stage reading with some of the people that he met through the comedy world.

The reading was a hit and while there was some interest from the TV world, Morris noted that the general discussion went along the lines of “Hey, we really like it, where’s the story going? Okay cool, well, we’ll never make it, it’s too weird.” He noted that the story and mashup of genres was a weird idea, and that after releasing the stage reading, people began asking for more, which led him to the idea that it would work as a podcast.

This coincided with Maximum Fun’s own interest in branching out into narrative audio storytelling. Morris had worked with the company for a while — he had gone to college with owner Jesse Thorn, and they co-hosted Jordan, Jesse, Go! together.

Morris notes that the jump from the unscripted to scripted market was a “difficult and costly” one, because they were aiming for a product that was more polished than a typical radio show or unscripted podcast. The network brought in additional writers to replicate a TV writer’s room “as closely as possible,” as well as Nick Adams, a producer for Netflix’s Bojack Horseman, to turn the idea into a longer story. The writers scripted individual episodes, and worked with outside comedians to punch up the episodes with new ideas, jokes, and character moments.

After that, they brought in experienced audio book directors and editors to turn the podcast into a polished story. That effort appears to have paid off — the podcast climbed the charts on iTunes shortly after it was released — it’s currently in the top 100.

Morris notes that he feels that there’s a lot more experimentation going on with podcasting as a form of entertainment. “It’s not just two white guys behind two microphones remembering Star Wars to each other,” he says. “I think we’re in a time when people are fine with genre and comedy mashing up against one another, and a lot of people who grew up with Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, and comics from Gail Simone and Brian Michael Bendis, where the genre stuff lives next to the comedy comfy way.”

The show takes a comedic look at life in places that are a bit like Brooklyn or Portland: hip, expensive, and sometimes in a bubble of their own. Morris notes that he wasn’t specifically going after Silicon Valley culture, but that he “kind of wanted it to be an amalgamation of America’s hip, white gentrified, expensive-to-live-in places,” he says. …

It just seems like everybody there has a side hustle or everyone is trying to make ends meet by doing it with an internet or app-based way, [and it’s] just kind of funny to overhear people talking about these things in serious ways, people talking earnestly talking about their personal brand or disrupting — they’re buzzwords that didn’t exist give years ago.”

“You know it’s funny, while we were in the writing sessions, at some point, everyone had a joke that made them go ‘hey…’, in a ‘I do that’ way. Mine came in episode 3, where there’s a line about an office drone guy who thinks that he’s interesting because he’s barrel aging his own whiskey. I remember reading that and going ‘hey!’ because I have recently begun barrel aging my own whiskey.

I hope this is something where people can laugh at themselves a bit.

I want people to see the silliness around them.”

The show’s first, eight-episode season just wrapped up its run, and Morris says the world of Bubble is a huge one, and that he has “a lot of cool ideas” for where the show can go after this first season.

A new app from an Assassin’s Creed dev encourages you to stay in bed

For the duration of #SelfCare — not quite a video game, yet full of gamified tasks — you will stay in bed. Created by Tru Luv, a studio founded by former Assassin’s Creed dev Brie Code and writer Eve Thomas, #SelfCare is a series of breathing or focus exercises. One activity has you piecing together words like “unfollow” or “overslept” by dragging letter blocks; another simply asks that you pet your virtual cat by rubbing the screen.

The goal isn’t to win or achieve a high score, but rather reflect on your own needs and take a beat; #SelfCare is a “digital companion” meant to help you do just that.

Code, speaking to The Verge via email, reflects on her time as an AI programmer and her focus on the connections between characters in games. She recalls convincing a friend to play Skyrim, who later called her crying after accidentally killing a companion character. “[My friend] told me in that conversation that all these years, it wasn’t that she wasn’t interested in video games, it was that she didn’t know what they could be,” Code says. “She didn’t know you could develop a connection, a kinship, with a character in a game.”

This is where the concept of #SelfCare’s “companion” status comes from: someone or something that joins you on your adventures. “Most apps either tell you what to do, or present you with too many options and ask to be told what to do,” says Code. “At TRU LUV we want to create companions who have their own goals and personality but who are along with you as you achieve your own goals. You help each other.”

#SelfCare doesn’t bug you to constantly check in, but rather greets you with encouragement each time you open it.

In this world, you are allowed to stay in bed and ignore your phone. Maybe consider drawing a tarot card from a stack on the floor, or try some breathing exercises instead.

Code and Thomas pursued self care as their subject because “we and our colleagues have developed extensive self-care habits to survive,” says Code. This can be anything from knitting or journaling to setting up spaces that offer comfort. “Women are working long hours, but we are still largely managing our households, too,” says Code.

“And at work, women and other underrepresented people are facing unconscious — and blatantly conscious — bias and hitting glass ceilings.

Our performance evaluations focus on our personalities and not our results, and we’re expected to pick up office housework and do emotional labor for our colleagues and then perhaps we are told we are too emotional. We’re exhausted. And we’re now faced with the prospect of internet harassment if we make it through all this and do become successful.”

The rise of movements focused around self-care is no accident; Code herself points to the anxiety she sometimes feels when dipping into stressful games or apps. “The world feels increasingly uncertain,” says Code. “We’re facing global warming, automation of entire industries, and a growing fascism movement.” One person can’t change the world, she says, but they can impact their little corner of it. “I am fighting for change in my industry and I want to be at my best,” she says. “I want to be calm and clear about my objectives …

Maybe we can help a few people feel a bit stronger and a bit more ready to get out of bed and face their days, too.”

Exploring the Andy Warhol Museum's Tech Treasures

Andy Warhol famously loved anything “new” in the way of gadgets. “If I had a good computer I could catch up with my thoughts over the weekend if I ever got behind myself,” he wrote in his 1975 book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol[1]. Obsessed with audio, Warhol used a Norelco Carry-Corder to record conversations and ambient soundscapes for his films and a Bolex 16mm for his famous “Screen Tests” in the 60s and a Polavision “instant” movie camera in the 70s. All three locations for his gathering place and workshop, The Factory, were wired for audio-visual-powered “happenings,” and Warhol himself appeared in ads for Sony Betamax, TDK, and Pioneer “hi-fi” (high fidelity) sound systems.

But while Warhol might be synonymous with New York City, he’s a Pittsburgh native, which is home to The Andy Warhol Museum[2]. Opened in 1994, it’s a collaborative project between the Carnegie Institute, Dia Art Foundation, and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and gives visitors a comprehensive examination of his life and work. Housed in an 88,000-square-foot former industrial warehouse, it contains 17 galleries; The Factory education studio; a conservation lab; an archive of more than 350 of his preserved (8mm, 16mm) films; 4,000 videotapes; and 610 of his Time Capsules–ephemera he boxed up for posterity, some of which are on display.

Dezi Gonzalez, the museum’s Manager of Digital Engagement, did her masters at MIT and worked at MoMA and the Whitney Museum of American Art before moving to Pittsburgh in 2015. “In my graduate work at MIT, I examined the possibilities, afforded by new and emerging technologies, which give people an immersive experience and a new way to connect with art,” said Gonzalez. “So here, at the museum, we use technology so visitors–either on-site at the museum, or around the world via the web–can experience Warhol in a way that’s mediated through curation, or unmediated and self-directed, for a richer experience.”

Warhol Museum: The Geek Tour

In partnership with Carnegie Mellon, the museum installed Bluetooth low-energy beacons throughout the galleries. Download the Out Loud[3] audio guide app, and the location-aware beacons know exactly where you are in the gallery space to tell you about the artwork there.

Geeks should start with the Amiga gallery[4], which houses Warhol’s Amiga Commodore 1000. It originally cost £1,295, though Warhol’s was gifted to the artist by the manufacturer, and came with just 256KB RAM and a pre-Windows style graphical user interface.

You can’t touch Warhol’s machine, of course, but the museum has an Amiga 1000 interactive exhibit, which emulates the Amiga’s interface and processing speed so visitors can interact with Warhol’s digital art in the way people would have viewed it back in 1984. Also under plexiglass are the original floppy disks used to install the Pro Paint program (just 4,096 colors; today’s 24-bit LCD displays have 16.7 million) as well as Warhol’s “digital experiments,” which were lost until recently. As they were trapped in an obsolete digital format, it took three years for the museum to research, unlock, and restore them for public viewing.

In a nice touch, at the hands-on demo, the museum has even slowed down the digital rendering to circa 1986 processing speeds so you can get grateful about today’s superfast CPUs. In a bid to open up Warhol’s work to those with low, or no, sight, the museum partnered with J. David Whitewolf of Tactile Reproductions LLC, to offer art you can touch.

That includes over a dozen reproductions of classic Warhol Pop Art pieces, so spend a few moments tracing your fingers over the Coca-Cola bottle to see how he reimagined and transformed the object into art. Created using a CNC (computer numerical controlled) mill, each piece took up to 80 hours of machine time to deliver a faithful rendition of the art.

Are You Ready for Your Close-up?

The Screen Test gallery[5] is a clever mash-up of celluloid history with digital make-believe. Inside a darkened anteroom, conceptually designed as part of The Factory, you can sit on a chair, be starkly lit by a single lamp, and face the camera.

On the outside, the camera is a classic Bolex, but it’s been gutted and re-fashioned inside, and now contains a digital camera. It’s a popular stop for museum visitors; 11 percent make a screen test, Gonzalez said. Between 1964 and 1966, Warhol used a similar, stationary, 16mm Bolex movie camera, always on silent, to capture black-and-white “screen tests” of famous people (Susan Sontag, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, beat poet Allen Ginsberg) as well as Factory regulars (Edie Sedgwick and Nico).

They were all archived on 100-foot rolls of film but projected in slow motion to stretch from 2.75 minutes to 4 minutes or more. There are 500 screen tests in the archive (if you do a screen test it won’t end up there, though, just so you know).

However, while you wait for the digital output from your 15 minutes of fame, lounge in the main gallery and watch the originals blown up on a massive screen. You never know, the museum might take a shine to yours and put it on the website[6]. “One of the responses I hear a lot, is a sigh of relief when it’s over,” said Gonzalez. “People tell me: ‘Wow, that 3 minutes felt like a really long time!’ Because that level of concentration and intimacy with a camera is really compelling.”

Silver Clouds: a Bell Labs Collaboration

In a side gallery, you’ll find “Silver Clouds,” the 1966 collaboration Warhol did with Bell Labs engineer Billy Kluver.

As we gazed at the partially helium-filled space race-style textile pillows float around the room, buoyed by fans, Gonzalez gave us the backstory: “Bell Labs was very interested in bringing technologists together with contemporary artists to create something new, with the latest materials. Billy showed him Scotchpak, from 3M, and ultimately they landed on these pillow-shaped clouds which–filled with less than a fourth helium, the rest air–float, using the heat gradient in the room and circular fans.”

It’s utterly hypnotic and beautifully staged, with the fans delivering a bouncing dreamy motion. “Scotchpak went on to be used, in a more prosaic manner, as the wrapping for boil-in-the-bag food,” Gonzalez explained. “So there’s something perfectly mundane, yet artistic, about this piece, which reminds us of Warhol’s obsession with Campbell’s Soup and other everyday products in his art.”

Photo-Me

Before you leave the museum, head to the basement. There’s a black-and-white photo booth, the sort that, if you’re not too young to know this rite of passage, was where teenagers in railway stations and shopping malls documented their changing “looks.” Yes, there was life before Instagram selfies.

Here’s how it works: Sit inside, close the curtain, adjust the swivel seat so you’re at eye-level to the camera behind the screen ahead. Insert three singles and wait for the flash. Each session has four separate shots, so you’ll see four flashes.

Modify your pose accordingly. Finished? You’ll hear a massive creaking inside the machinery, which is your film being processed (for real).

Wait outside (it takes four minutes) until you hear one last groan from the booth. Then lean over, and carefully remove your photo strip from the dispensing slot behind the small grille. If you happen to smush your pictures up against a music magazine in your messenger bag (it happens), run the strip carefully under warm water and it’s as good as new, ready to stick it on your retro corkboard with a push-pin, should you so desire.

What’s Next for Warhol (Digitally)?

What of the future?

Is the museum ready for XR? Gonzalez, having studied at MIT, is realistic about what technology can actually deliver, and doesn’t go for hype. “I always try to keep my eye on what’s big, or what’s happening right now in terms of new technologies,” she said, “With a view to whether it’s a good fit for us.”

Gonzalez sits on the board of the Museum Computer Network[7] (MCN) and was invited to be a keynote speaker at We Are Museums[8], a European symposium last year. “I also attend tech events regularly, like the Eyeo Festival, where artists are thinking critically about digital in a transformative way, often using technologies and strategies like machine learning, virtual reality, physical computing, and creative coding,” she explained. How about A.I.?

In partnership with the three other Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh here in the city, the Warhol museum just launched a chatbot, which allows museum members on- and off-site to have a conversational-type experience with “staff.” CarnegieBot[9] guides visitors through the Summer Adventure, a series of programming in which members visit the museums and attend special events to earn stamps and win a prize. The chatbot answers visitors’ questions, delivers activities like trivia and polls, and allows members to check into the museums and collect stamps. It’s a pity Warhol pre-dated hologram capture (as we saw at USC Shoah[10]) and natural language processing so we could have a conversation (although he was notoriously monosyllabic).

And there’s probably not enough high-quality imagery to stitch him into a responsive 3D volumetric experience (as we saw at 8i[11] in Hollywood).

It would be fab to sprawl on one of the reproduction sofas, pushed back against The Factory-style silver bricks in the museum’s lobby and hang with Warhol awhile.

But there’s plenty of Warhol geek moments to enjoy if you find yourself in Pittsburgh as the museum gears up to celebrate his 90th birthday this month.

References

  1. ^ The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (r.zdbb.net)
  2. ^ The Andy Warhol Museum (www.warhol.org)
  3. ^ Out Loud (itunes.apple.com)
  4. ^ the Amiga gallery (www.warhol.org)
  5. ^ Screen Test gallery (warholscreentest.com)
  6. ^ put it on the website (warholscreentest.com)
  7. ^ Museum Computer Network (mcn.edu)
  8. ^ We Are Museums (www.wearemuseums.com)
  9. ^ CarnegieBot (carnegiebot.org)
  10. ^ as we saw at USC Shoah (www.pcmag.com)
  11. ^ as we saw at 8i (uk.pcmag.com)