A Kirkus Star for The Dangerous Animals Club

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The venerable Kirkus Reviews has reviewed Stephen's upcoming book, The Dangerous Animals Club, which is an adaptation of the podcast that I produce with him, The Tobolowsky Files. They've also given it their prestigious Kirkus Star, which is awarded only to books of "remarkable merit." Here's an excerpt from their review [Subscription only]:

Tobolowsky contributes intriguing insights into the absurdities of TV and film production (his description of acting against a green screen is particularly amusing), the politics of graduate school life and the perils of pet ownership, endowing both the most mundane and rarified endeavors with equally close attention and appreciation. His reminiscences of the early days of the AIDS crisis and the decline and death of his mother provide the collection with profound emotional ballast, but even in the heavier sections Tobolowsky’s light touch and effortless empathy delight and sustain readers’ engagement.

A copiously examined life rendered with humor and heart.

May it be the first of many.

Is Dave Chen Still Alive?

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There are many logistical challenges to moving across the country. One of them is the inability to bring your social network with you. I am blessed to have many friends in the Seattle area, but I am still new here and in the process of trying to integrate myself into the lives of those around me.

I occasionally worry about "worst case scenarios." Like, what would happen if something terrible were to befall me? What if, God forbid, I died all of a sudden? How would it play out?

As a single guy living in a one-bedroom apartment, it would probably be days before anybody realized anything was wrong. To me, that's an unacceptably long time for my corpse to lay in my apartment, unattended. "There has to be a better way!" I thought.

Thus, I bring to you IsDaveChenStillAlive.com.

The purpose of this website is to answer a very simple question: Is Dave Chen (me) still alive? The answer will either be yes or no, and is promptly displayed when you visit the website. How is this determined?

I discussed this project with my brother, Mike (a web developer) for quite some time. The way I figured it, I would log in to the website once per day and check some kind of box, confirming that i'm still alive. Mike did not think this was a good system. Here's my reconstruction of our conversation:

Mike: Dave, you're going to have to check this box every day for the rest of your life. Are you really ready to add this to your routine? Forever?
Dave: I've considered this, and the answer is yes.
Mike: This sounds like a terrible idea for many reasons.
Dave: Why?
Mike: Well, here's one reason, and I'm just going off the top of my head here: what if you accidentally forget to check the box one day? Then people freak out because they think you're dead. And then you need to re-assure them that you're NOT dead. But then in the event that you ARE dead next time, people won't actually believe it's the case, thus invalidating the whole purpose of the site.
Dave: Well then, I'll just have to work very hard not to forget.
Mike: That's madness. I can easily come up with a better solution.

And he did! So now, every day, I receive an e-mail asking me if I'm still alive. If I click on the "yes" link, then the status quo is maintained. So really, if the site says "No," then either Dave Chen is dead, or for some reason he did not have access to his e-mail.

So, IsDaveChenStillAlive.com! Bookmark it and you'll always know the answer to one of my most pressing questions.

[Related: For those of you reading this also contemplate the journey to the undiscovered country, there's a service called DeadSocial that will store messages to be delivered to your social networks until you die. Seems like a pretty cool idea, but I can't say I trust any service with my deepest darkest secret messages, let alone one that will only deploy them when I'm dead. What if there's a false negative, or more likely, an incident that causes an accidental message deployment? If you're not dead yet, it could drive you to be!]

A Game of Podcasts

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About 10 weeks ago, I started a Game of Thrones podcast with Joanna Robinson from Pajiba. Joanna has read all the books in George R. R. Martin's series, while I have not. It took us a few episodes to really get down the format and get into the groove of interacting with each other in an entertaining fashion, but after recording a recap/review for season 2 episode 9 last night, I think we've finally nailed it. It's been great fun to chat about this great show with a knowledgeable, articulate writer like Joanna and I'm impressed we've been able to crank out even half-decent episodes despite the fact that we've never met.

The podcast grew far faster than I could have possibly anticipated. To give you some sense of the scale of our growth, in less than 10 weeks we've achieved about 50% of the subscribers that it took the /Filmcast four years to achieve. Simply staggering.

But with success came a large number of haters, many of them on the /Film boards while others took to iTunes to leave negative reviews of our show (some while extolling other Game of Thrones podcasts). Many people accused me of disliking the television show, even though such an accusation makes no sense, even on its face (Why would I devote so much time to trashing a show I hated? Don't I have better things to do with my time? Answer: Yes.) I shared my thoughts on these comments at the end of this week's episode.

I've been podcasting for four years now and in that time, I've been subject to any number of negative remarks by listeners. I've always found various ways to deal with it. One of the reasons it hasn't been difficult is because the proportion of positive/negative comments has always been something like 95% positive to 5% negative. This makes sense; podcasting is a medium that demands a lot of effort from its audience. Most people who don't like a podcast simply don't listen. They don't return each week to complain. Some do, though. And apparently, most of those that do love listening to "A Cast of Kings." The percentage breakdown for this show has been closer to 70% positive and 30% negative. For a podcast that's just started to get off the ground, this is a huge amount of negative feedback to take in. This is one of the reasons I'm particularly vexed by the complaints about this podcast, as opposed to any of the other podcasts I've ever done.

On the last episode, I remarked that I wasn't certain if I would return for next year's show due to all the negative feedback and the ensuing stress. Since then, there's been a deluge of fan mail, most of them praising the show and demanding that I not "feed the trolls" by listening to their critiques and quitting. I found the following e-mail from listener Chris to be particularly insightful. It doesn't really say anything new or revolutionary, but it distills a lot of good ideas in a really articulate way:

I've been a listener to A Cast of Kings since its inception, and a fan of the /filmcast going back to the Kevin Smith/Dark Knight episode. I'm writing to offer my appreciation for the work you do, and to offer a theory as to why you receive the kind of personal criticisms from your listeners that discourage you from continuing to podcast. I suspect the kinds of criticism David receives, which are leveled at him personally, are rooted in the psychological nature of a certain kind of geek. Some of us in the geek community suffer from low self-esteem and a lack of self-actualization which has hampered our daily social interactions for our whole lives. People like this, who are insecure about their own identities and have no internal source of happiness, subsume their identities into their external sources of happiness: movies, TV, and other aspects of pop culture. As more and more people subsume themselves into a particular property (like Game of Thrones), they form communities of mutually-reinforcing dependence. Because of the nature of this relationship, any attack on the property will be conflated with an attack on their person. That's why, when you offer a critical analysis of the property, they respond with a personal criticism. They've taken your criticism personally, and responded in kind.  As for Joanna, her greatest crime was analyzing GoT from a feminist perspective. Geekdom is a largely patriarchal community, comprised of men who have been made to feel insecure about their feminine sides by years of bullying, and women who feel the need to repress their femininity to conform to the largely-male geek community that would otherwise resent and shun them. The criticism of Joanna's analysis is the same criticism feminists have been facing since the the women's suffrage movement started in the 1840s. To both of you, all I can say is that there are those of us who really appreciate what you do. Every week, you produce amazing content. Every week, you celebrate the show we all love in the best way possible: by giving it serious thought. Challenging, intelligent, critical analysis is a rare treasure in this world. As a graduate student, when I facilitate discussion among groups of undergrads, I only hope to achieve the same level of discourse and reason that the two of you bring to my favorite TV show every week. Thank you for your insightful and impassioned analysis. Please continue to discuss Game of Thrones for as long as it makes you happy to do so, regardless of what the haters say. After all, despite all their hate, they continue to listen. So you must be doing something right.

As I've said many times before, podcasts are nearly always a labor of love and frequently hang onto their existence by a thread. There's no reason for them to exist, other than that a group of people are passionate about a specific topic and want to let others in on what they hope will be an interesting conversation about that topic. In this instance, there's no money involved, no benefit to status, no tangible rewards. Just the satisfaction that comes from delving into one fo the richest, most well-acted and visually sumptuous television shows on the air right now. Try to take away that satisfaction, and what remains?

I can't promise that we'll do the show next year because I have no idea where Joanna or I will be when Season 3 of Game of Thrones premieres. If I had to guess, I'd say Joanna will probably be eating caviar and drinking fine wine due to her newfound riches as a New York Times culture writer, while I will be subsisting off of offal in a ditch somewhere in Central Washington. But what I can say is that the e-mails I've received (and hope to continue receiving) have started to tip the balance and make me believe that this is something that's worth doing. It's a huge sacrifice in time and energy to record the podcast each week. But knowing that people are deriving some kind of enlightenment and enjoyment from it? There's nothing finer.

A Smile to Your Lips, a Tear to Your Eye

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Not too long ago, Joe Biden inadvertently spurred President Barack Obama into supporting gay marriage. Now, the video below has surfaced of Joe Biden giving a moving speech to a TAPS gathering about the pain of losing a loved one. Suffice it to say, my respect for the man has increased dramatically this past month.

I defy you not to be moved by this.

 

Retaliation in March

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The big news in the entertainment industry yesterday was Paramount deciding to move back one of its major summer tentpole releases until March 2013. I'm only tangentially covering the industry at this point but my guess is that this probably sent shockwaves through Hollywood. The ad campaign for G.I. Joe Retaliation was already in full swing. I've seen trailers in front of movies. Paramount spent millions advertising the film during the superbowl. I saw a giant banner for this film in Bellevue the other day, unfurled right next to one for Men In Black 3. In an industry where so much of a film's success hinges on the first three days, squandering all of that advertising feels like madness, with maybe a hint of desperation.

Why did Paramount do it? Ostensibly it was to give the film time to be converted into 3D, thus generating increased revenue worldwide. I don't doubt that a quality 3D conversion could be completed in that time, but seems like some pretty poor planning to decide that this late if you ask me

Spinoff Online has some interesting conspiracy theorizing about why the move. My best guess? The suits at Paramount saw the returns on Hasbro's disastrous Battleship and got cold feet. Companies have been ended for smaller flops. Maybe give viewers time to warm up to the idea of a toy-based film again? 

Throughout all of this, my heart goes out to director Jon Chu. I was really rooting for him to break out into mainstream success with this film. He's no slouch, to be sure: his past films have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. But Retaliation had the potential to single-handedly reach grosses in the hundreds of millions and cement him as a go-to action director with the chops to deliver a major blockbuster. This decision can't have been an easy one for Chu (and I'm sure he didn't make it, nor was he pleased with it - his Twitter account has been strangely silent, save for a cryptic photo that may have been unintentionally ironic). 

Also check out this Hollywood Reporter interview, in which Chu talks about how liberating it was to shoot in 2D. Curiouser and curiouser...

(Thanks to Peter Smith for hooking me up with some of these links)


Places I'm Not Living

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My rental application was APPROVED. Here's the view from the rooftop deck of my new Seattle apartment.

Over the past two weeks, I have seen many, many apartment units in Seattle. After much searching and deliberation, I've finally settled on a brand new apartment in the Belltown neighborhood, and it's spectacular (the photo is above is a view from the rooftop deck). But even though I'm happy with my ultimate choice, this was a long, involved process that I'm not eager to repeat. No place I looked at was completely perfect; each one involved a series of trade-offs that I had to continually assess, as I decided whether or not I wanted to commit to spending tens of thousands of dollars on the property over the course of the next year.

At the end of this process, there were two finalists, each of which I made three visits to, frequently with friends so they could help me evaluate. It's always been weird to me how blithely people approach things like car buying and apartment renting, often committing after a simple 5-minute visit. You're about to spend like $30,000 on this thing that you're going to have to live with/in for the foreseeable future. Why not perform some painfully thorough due diligence?

In order to expedite and organize the process, I frequently shot videos of each location, which was especially helpful when trying to recollect the property later. Just for the heck of it, I thought I'd share a few of them with you. You may find that they provide an insight into the Seattle rental market. It feels kind of weird for me to post these videos, because they contain specific locations in them  and I almost lived at some of these places. Alas, they were not to be.

I was initially totally taken with Lawrence Lofts in Capitol Hill. The view is just incredible. However, after a further visit with my friends (seen briefly in this video), they convinced me that the amount of square footage, the total lack of significant closet space, and the open-bedroom format did not justify the asking price of $1975:



Another strong contender was a location called Harbor Steps, located right near the bustling Pike Place market downtown. It is hard to describe how amazing the view is. Breathtaking. The units were also large and spacious. The biggest downsides come from the location; it's located in a sprawling complex with thousands of other residents, and it's right in the heart of one of the busiest areas in Seattle, with tons of tourists everywhere all the time. Parking is also a whopping $210 per month, which doesn't get you your own reserved space. That is unacceptable in my book.



One of my finalists was Citizen apartments in Capitol Hill. Like Lawrence, the apartment complex is totally brand new. I was particularly fond of this unit, which had a ton of space (nearly 800 square feet) and had a decent south-facing view. However, the amenities were not great (no fitness center, with the nearest one half a mile away), and noise from the highly trafficked street below also made the deal potentially unappealing. Parking was $175, slightly higher than in many of the other places I saw, though obviously not as high as Harbor Steps. Nonetheless, I was nearly certain that this was going to be the place until I found my current apartment.



For comparison, here's another unit in Citizen that has slightly less space, but with a courtyard view as opposed to a city view. This unit was $140/month cheaper than the above unit. Is the downgrade in view worth the downgrade in price?



One commenter pointed out that it was "gauche" for me to be occasionally evaluating the property in front of the actual rental agent, something you can hear a bit of in the videos. On the contrary, I think it provided some refreshing honesty. Imagine being a rental agent and showing dozens of people your apartment units for 9-10 hours six days a week (including weekends, when it's most busy). Most people are totally poker-faced about what they think about a unit, and often say nothing until they are talking about it on the car ride home. The process can be frustrating and trying for the agent, who is just trying to do a good job and has nothing to go by. When people are actually honest about their concerns in this process, it's a better experience for everyone.

HUGE THANKS to my friends Sarah, Megan, Audrey, Laremy, and Laura for helping me to navigate this treacherous process. Big thanks also to my rental agent, Kim Reidy, who was an invaluable guide throughout.

The Curse of the New Yorker Profile

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I thought the premise of this article was pretty silly, but it actually contains some great insights into the process and limits of profile-writing for a magazine like The New Yorker:

To put it mildly, there’s something of a New Yorker feature curse going around Hollywood these days. It doesn’t always hold true — Dana Goodyear’s profile of James Cameron certainly didn’t hurt “Avatar” — but when it does, the results can be startling, especially when you set the articles alongside the films they so effusively describe. Tad Friend’s profile of Steve Carell, for instance, portrays its subject as “a brilliant piece of software, a 2.0 fix for the problem of unfunny comedy,” whose approach to collaboration is nothing less than “a painstaking set of procedures aimed at maximum creativity.” The result? “Dinner for Schmucks,” a critical and commercial nonevent that few would hold up as a model of “the golden age of improvisation.”

In the Past 14 Days

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In the past 14 days, I have:

  • Moved myself and many of my possessions from my home in Boston to my new (temporary corporate housing) home in Seattle
  • Started a new position at Microsoft
  • Seen and evaluated dozens of apartment units (at least 20) in several different Seattle neighborhoods
  • Recorded three podcast episodes, and edited a fourth.
  • Put down a deposit on a new apartment
Things are slowly settling down, a little bit every day. And the adventure has just begun. 

Just Stop Trying Already

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Readers of this blog know that I've recently started a new job at Microsoft in Redmond, WA. I've only been there for a week, but I've already started to feel a sense of pride creeping into my psyche when I read about the company's breakthroughs in tech news. Conversely, I feel involuntarily defensive when people bash it.

Thus, it's no surprise that Alex Goldfayn's piece in Mashable this morning ("Why Microsoft Is Being Left in the Dust") really got my ire going. Here's the main thrust of Goldfayn's argument:

If you want to know why Microsoft’s share price has been flat for 11 years while Apple, Amazon, and Google shares have soared, this is why. Microsoft is not innovating aggressively. It is not leading categories or blazing trails. No, it’s acquiring aggressively as a shortcut to innovation. That isn’t working. Its own history suggests as much.

Let me begin by acknowledging that Microsoft is not a perfect company. It's a massive organization with nearly 100,000 employees and on a fundamental level, large organizations just can't move as quickly as lean and mean startups. Microsoft's track record in the consumer market has not been perfect (see this interview with MS executive Robbie Bach for a fascinating take on this), but it's frequently come out with products that demand and deserve our attention.

Goldfayn's piece is pretty meandering; he brings up a bunch of random examples and doesn't really tie them very well to his thesis. The primary focus of his article is Microsoft's recent investment in Barnes & Noble. Why invest in an organization that is so far removed from Microsoft's core competencies? Goldfayn cites several acquisition examples to back up his claim that this acquisition will turn out to be ill-fated: 1) Windows Phone/Nokia, 2) The Yahoo/Bing search deal, 3) Skype.

With regards to Windows Phone, although Nokia had a rough quarter recently, people love their Windows Phones! With Windows Phone, Microsoft accomplished what any sane observer would have deemed impossible: it took a flagging operating system off the market (Windows Mobile), righted the massive ship, then came back from nowhere with a user experience that some reviewers have described as being "in a class of its own." Windows Phone may not have the market share of other OSes but we are just getting started over here.

With regards to Bing, Goldfayn writes that "Google’s search market share is a dominant 66%, with Microsoft’s Bing a very distant second at 15%. After spending billions building and marketing Bing, Microsoft is barely visible in Google’s rear-view mirror." Again, Microsoft has shown that it's in this thing for the long haul, and its recent innovations in social search show that it's not content to merely be a follower. Will the market share come? I can't say, but I know that we're the only company that has made significant inroads against Google. Who else can say that? Who else even has the capability to be able to do that?

And as for the extremely recent acquisition of Skype, even Goldfayn acknowledges that "it's too early to tell"! Give it a few months, will ya? Sheesh.

There's a broader trend here that really troubles me among the tech pundits, and that's the following implication that I sense from reading pieces such as Goldfayn's: "You stink at this so just stop trying already." I read Apple-centered blogs such as Daring Fireball pretty religiously, and the unadulterated joy that the authors get from seeing Apple completely lay waste to their competition is palpable. It's fun to root for the winning team; no doubt about it.

What we forget is that a world where one company dominates an entire industry isn't really great for anyone (Microsoft is no stranger to this concept). Do we really want ridiculously important industries like search, mobile, and publishing to be dominated by a single company (i.e. Google, Apple, and Amazon, respectively)? Do we really want people like Microsoft to lay down their arms and just give up? Because if so, we're asking for a world with less choice. We're asking for a world where consumers lose big time.

As for me? I for one am glad we're fighting these fights.

Things I've Learned So Far at Microsoft

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I have been an employee of Microsoft for three days. For my first day on campus, all new hires went through New Employee Orientation (NEO), a glorious 9-hour session where experienced employees explained our benefits to us and got us up to speed on the technical ins-and-outs of working at the company. Since then, I've just been soaking up as much information as possible, trying to ramp up for the exciting projects I have in the weeks ahead (and which I hope to explain to you eventually, when the time is right).

In the meantime, I present a few stray observations I've made during my extremely short time here so far:

The People - Over 45,000 people work at Microsoft's Redmond, WA campus, well above the number that populate many universities. The diversity of individuals is insane. There are FTEs (full-time employees) and contractors and vendors, recent college graduates and grandparents, people from every state in the U.S. and from dozens of countries all around the world. All types of viewpoints and personalities are well-represented, but there is one thing that everybody has in common: They are all extremely frickin' smart. From what I heard about Microsoft back when I was at Harvard Business School, the interview/recruiting process is designed to winnow down the pool of candidates to only the best of the best. The intellect of the employees here is palpable, and there's a really empowering sense that one gets from knowing that one is working with some of the most skilled people in the world.

The Benefits - My colleague at Microsoft described their benefits as "the Mercedes Benz of benefits." I'm inclined to agree. In learning about our benefits, I feel very much like Alice in Wonderland; just when I think I've reached the bottom of the rabbit hole, I continue tumbling down. In a word, the benefits are astonishing. People's lives can change due to the benefits they receive here. You can finally get surgeries done that you'd once deemed unfeasible. You can lose that weight you've been angling to get rid of. Most importantly, you can see IMAX movies for $3 a piece! When I learned that I'd be receiving an offer from Microsoft, I felt like I'd won the lottery. And while I don't think that sentiment has changed, learning about the benefits here is like learning I just won the Power Play component of the lottery too.

The Cause - Nearly all the people I've met are not only more than competent, they're also passionate about what they're doing. They love this company. They love what the company is doing, and they love what it stands for. Ultimately, Microsoft is all about harnessing technology to make people's lives easier. And while we all may struggle occasionally with an Excel spreadsheet or agonize over a Word doc, nobody reading this can deny that their lives have in some way been touched by the work that Microsoft has done over the past few decades (most likely for the better!).

People are doing things here that will change the world. They want to surprise and delight their customers. They want to take technology to its fullest potential.

I can't wait to jump in.

Things I've Learned So Far in Seattle

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I've only been in Seattle for about four days, but here are a few brief, unscientific observations I've made during my time here:

Rain - WTF, dude? It's everywhere. It's constant, and it's cold. And people don't use umbrellas? My local friend Megan told me that using an umbrella is a really good way for people to tell that you're not from here. I say, if using an umbrella results in social ostracizing, then I am ready to become a pariah.

Speed - I haven't been here that long, but already I've had a person tell me, "We do things a lot slower here on the West Coast." I'll leave it to your imagination what the context of this was. Suffice it to say, people here are a lot more chill. They drive at the speed limit. They are patient and good at waiting. They don't flip out in the middle of department stores. Basically: the opposite of how people behave in Boston.

The Seattle Freeze - I haven't experienced this directly yet, but many of my friends have made mention of it. To quote from Urban Dictionary:

It's not that people here are unfriendly, they will hold the door for you and wave you into traffic and stuff like that, it's that everything is maddeningly impersonal. The attitude is "have a nice day, somewhere else". It's easy to get along but making friends is almost impossible. People will say they want to hang out with you sometime and look at you like a freak when you actually suggest something. People enthusiastically say they are coming to a party then don't show up. People are flaky and hard to pin down. Girls lead you on for weeks and snub you with no explanation. People are insincere. Norms of social interaction don't apply here. Most people don't like or dislike you, they're totally indifferent. Every interaction will be maddeningly superficial. 

This sounds like the worst fate imaginable. I shall endeavor to counteract this as often as possible by forcing my way into people's homes and having dinner with them against their will.

The Food, My God, The Food - I thought I had it good in Boston, but the food scene here is far better than I could have possibly comprehended. I've only eaten at a few restaurants so far and already I have been blown away by the selection and the quality. Dollar for dollar, you cannot beat this place. And I've only just begun my culinary journey.

***

To stay tuned to my travels and my random city photography, be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter.


Regret Makes Us Human

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I spend a lot of time thinking about my past and about the decisions that have led me to this point. This phenomenon has become even more pronounced, as I have just uprooted myself and moved to Seattle (follow me on Twitter and Facebook to see all my updates as I adjust to my new life here).

A lot of people say you shouldn't spend time in regret; it wastes a lot of energy and doesn't really accomplish anything. Still, a part of me can't help but dwell on my mistakes and ponder the counterfactuals.

Kathryn Schulz's TED Talk on regret, which I just watched today, is perhaps one of my favorite TED Talks ever. In it, Schulz beautifully articulates the importance of regret. Far from being something we should discard, regret is perhaps something we should embrace because it can help make us who we are.

I was unexpectedly moved by this talk. I hope it helps you too.

A Game of Thrones Podcast

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I've recently started a podcast about the HBO original series of Game of Thrones. Joanna Robinson (from Pajiba) and I talk about the TV show primarily as a TV show, but Joanna's insights as a fan of George R. R. Martin's books really help to make sense of some of the more confusing elements.

We've only been doing this for five weeks, but already the response has been incredible. I've been podcasting for four years and I have never seen listenership growth like I've seen for this podcast. I'm grateful that our audience is so enthusiastic, engaged, and intelligent. Won't you join them?

Subscribe to A Cast of Kings:


 

And if you like the show, feel free to leave us a review on iTunes! There are literally dozens of Game of Thrones podcasts out there. Any positive comments will help us to stand out among the crowd.