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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.

This comic explores Dungeons & Dragons’ classroom potential

The mainstreaming of the popular roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons has significantly changed how people address and understand the game. It’s become a spectator sport and a way for some gamers to earn their living. D&D gameplay and its symbolism have become a significant plot point in geek-oriented TV shows like Stranger Things and The Big Bang Theory. It’s the subject of copious scientific studies and papers, and hundreds of long-running live-play podcasts.

It’s a steadily growing business, and an effective promotional gimmick for businesses. And it’s also increasingly an educational tool. More and more teachers are publishing guides on how to use D&D both in the classroom, and as an after-school activity that promotes social growth, problem-solving, and communication.

In a recent comic at the cartoonist outlet The Nib, illustrator and author Phil McAndrew dives into D&D‘s educational aspects by interviewing teachers who are running the game for their students. Dungeons & Dragons‘ usefulness as a social activity has been covered before, but McAndrew’s comic delves into some particularly telling revelations about how specific teachers are using it — to let kids try out adult decision-making with community consequences, to promote interest in reading and writing, to explore personal and political problems in a safe fantasy space.

The entire comic is well worth reading, but I also spoke to McAndrew about how he researched it and what went into planning and assembling these interviews, and the resulting comic.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What got you started on this comic?

In the very beginning of the comic, I mention briefly that I was hanging out with a friend a few years ago, and he said he was helping a teacher friend of his run a D&D campaign after school, with his students.

I thought that was really cool, and I kept it in my head for a while. Over the last three or four years, I kept hearing about teachers who were also doing this, encountering the idea in a few places. And I had it in my mind that I should maybe do a comic about it.

When I started doing some non-fiction stuff last year for The Nib, after mostly focusing on humor throughout my cartooning career, it just seemed like a good idea, having a good outlet for it.

Did you talk to any of the kids involved, or observe any D&D sessions in schools?

I really wanted to, and planned to, but the timing stunk, because I was writing it just as the school year was ending. I have a friend who lives in the same city as me, who is one of these teachers I talked to for the comic, and he said, “Yeah, come sit in.” And then on the day I was going to hang out during their afterschool D&D club, he texted me and said, “I guess they’re not doing it today, and this was going to be the last one for the year.” So I just missed out, which was too bad.

I’ve role-played with kids, and run games for kids, and attention span is often a problem with younger players. Did any of your interviewees address how they deal with Dungeons & Dragons being such a rules-intensive game?

Two of the teachers I talked to are mostly dealing with high-school kids, so for them, it may be a little easier.

But Rich, the first teacher I encountered who was doing this, was running games for middle-school or maybe even younger kids. I imagine their sessions don’t run super-long. I think they probably top out at about an hour.

Are you aware of what kind of institutional support they’re getting?

Has there been any pushback, any of the old-school attitude that Dungeons & Dragons is unhealthy, or some kind of cult gateway?

That was something I was really curious about, too! All of the teachers I talked to, I asked about that. They all said they hadn’t really run into any resistance at all.

In fact, some of them said the administrators of their schools were pretty excited about it, and thought it was really cool. Dor some, it was also an unofficial thing, an afterschool club, or during lunchtime. So it didn’t sound like there were any major hurdles.

One or two of them were getting active support from the school, but for the most part, it was just something the schools are allowing to happen.

You talk to all your teacher interviewees about their own D&D characters, and they all have these elaborate personal fantasies around them. Why was that an important part of the story for you?

That started just for my own curiosity, as a good way to maybe start an interview. I’d ask, “Can you tell me a little about your own experiences with D&D?” And they all wanted to talk about their characters that they’d played.

It just seemed like a fun detail. Some of what they described was so interesting and funny that I was just like, “I’ve got to keep this in the comic, even though it’s not hugely important.” I think it did add some flavor to the comic.

As you said, non-fiction comics are a new step for you. How are you approaching stories like this?

This was just something I was curious about, and that I thought was really cool, hearing about this happening in schools.

I just approached it with curiosity.

I just go and try to talk to people, and let them do as much of the talking as I can.

I thought it was interesting, so I wanted to spread it around, and get people thinking about it — especially teachers and parents.

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)

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