Olympic fever

4 08 2012

named-dropping – my friend and former boss, Chris McRae, and her son James McRae, with his bronze medal for the men’s quad rowing.

I don’t watch sport. I am known for this. I fall asleep if the football is on. I read the newspaper from the front and stop reading after the business section. I am unable to name any players of any team (unless they have made the front page for some scandal – and even then I may not know what sport they play).

Turns out however, there is an exception.

The Olympics. Every four years, for two weeks at a time, I will watch pretty much anything Olympics-related.

Diving? I love it. Swimming? It’s the national sport. Pole vault? Several hours of focussed viewing. Rowing? I name-drop the son of a work colleague from a decade earlier who is now in the team. Hockey? This becomes a family obsession. Soccer? Discussed at length around the water-cooler at work. Cycling? I might even drag out my bike for a ride. And how did I ever live without gymnastics and equestrian broadcasts?

So what is it about the Olympics that makes it such compelling viewing (despite the abysmal local television coverage)?

I think it is a combination of things….

1. It is a short-term committment. My attention span can last two weeks, but not much longer.

2. Pardon the pun, but I am starting on an even playing field. My knowledge of these sports is approximately the same as everyone else’s so I can hold my own in conversations. Unlike football, tennis or cricket where almost everyone else in the world knows more than me.

3. The variety of sport is sufficient to stave off boredom. Pole vault or sprint might not hold my attention for long, but a couple of hours….fascinating!

4. It feels like I am participating with the rest of the world. It is interesting to see people from all over the world competing, their team uniforms, the spectators, the flags and banners. It is a world event, and in a very small way, I am part of it sitting in the comfort of my living room, watching the flickering light of the TV. And part of team Australia. Without the hassle of doing any actual exercise.

So for a couple of weeks I become a sports fanatic, completely out of character.

But don’t be fooled. In a weeks time, I will be back to my normal level of disinterest.

Life in 3D

14 11 2011

photo credit: RCabanilla

Have you noticed, almost every movie comes out in a 3D version now? Particularly children’s movies. Which makes a family outing to the cinema even more expensive. And it’s not like the adults can have the normal version and the children can go 3D – if you are going to sit together then it is one or the other. And you know which one the children pick – the one with the novelty value, the one the advertising tells them is better, the 3D version.

Personally, I could care less. After the initial novelty of something appearing to leap from the screen aimed straight for your head, I barely notice the difference. Does it make my movie experience better? No. I have uncomfortable glasses perched on my nose and I don’t see any benefit in terms of picture or experience quality.

In fact I think the adverts make use of the 3D technology better than the movies. The other place where it really works is in theme parks. Somehow on those short rides where they show you a 5 or 10 minute film clip to go along with the experience – those movies are focussed on using the 3D technology. The other movies are focussed on telling the story, and occasionally they remember to use the 3D to get a gasp from the audience. It all seems a little superfluous, a little fake and pointless.

I do have friends who swear by it. I think they pick what they want to see based on the availability of 3D.

So is it just me? Is there something wrong with my eyesight / brain that is over-riding the amazing revolutionary mind-blowing technological experience of 3D? Or is it just another gimmick?

I don’t see us getting 3D TV any time soon.

Things I have learned from Big Bang Theory

5 11 2011

Big Bang Theory is a huge hit in our house. It is such a new idea, so different from other programs and involves intelligent people getting on with their lives, not people being stupid for the sake of it (which seems to be a recurring theme in so many sitcoms). They value higher education (great for my children to see) and the university setting actually includes some reference to work, research and learning, not just a place to pick up. Not everyone looks like a teenage anorexic Barbie or Ken doll. And maybe, just maybe, I am learning something. Admittedly, not life-changing lessons for life, but interesting things none-the-less.

I should add a disclaimer here. I am not a scientist and this is not a science blog. There are plenty of science blogs out there that are blogging on Big Bang Theory, so if you are looking for one of those, please glance over my posting and then move on!

So here goes:

1. String theory. Now I am going to start by making excuses: I finished both high-school and university before the mid-90s when this theory was first developed. So this was certainly not part of high-school physics classes. And since then my field has been mostly biological science – as Sheldon would have it, applied science, not pure theoretical science. So when I first heard of string theory on Big Bang, a small part of me thought maybe it was something the program writers had made up, Just briefly. There – a true confession. Turns out it is real.

2. The Theremin. This is the instrument that Sheldon practices in order to distract the others from developing an app that will recognise equations. While the sound is vaguely familiar from various sci-fi movie theme music, I have to confess it sounded a lot like someone playing the Saw.

3. The Square-cube law. This states “When an object undergoes a proportional increase in size, its new volume is proportional to the cube of the multiplier and its new surface area is proportional to the square of the multiplier.” (Source – Wikipedia). In practical application, Sheldon uses this to explain to Raj and Howard why giant ants could not exist – as they became larger their increase in volume would render their physical structure unviable. Quite why Howard, an engineer, would require Sheldon to explain this to him is unclear.

4. Toast. Apparently the term “toast” referring to the clinking of glasses together and usually a few words such as “cheers” or “chin-chin” came from the Ancient Romans who used to dip toast into their spiced wine.

5. The importance of a decent business model. When Penny decides to make her fortune making Penny Blossoms and selling them online, she bases her pricing on having made one. When Howard makes her a fabulous website that also offers a rush-order option for ordering 1000 Penny Blossoms, they work night and day to get them ready and then work out that the profit margin is miniscule.

6. The spherical cow joke. The spherical cow joke is this: Milk production at a dairy farm was low, so the farmer wrote to the local university, asking for help from academia. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist, and two weeks of intensive on-site investigation took place. The scholars then returned to the university, notebooks crammed with data, where the task of writing the report was left to the team leader. Shortly thereafter the physicist returned to the farm, saying to the farmer “I have the solution, but it only works in the case of spherical cows in a vacuum.” (again, thanks to Wikipedia). The importance of the spherical cow joke is its commentary on the application of idealised scientific principles to real life.

7. Some excellent use of Progam Logic methodology. OK, not a learning, but I love the way they use program logic to map out relationships – particularly Sheldon’s attempt to map a friendship in order to get access to lab resources in “The Friendship Algorithm”. The logic loop and Sheldon’s strict adherence to it is particularly amusing.

8. Skinner’s principles of positive reinforcement can be employed in real life. Yes, yes, we all know that positive reinforcement can work – that’s why we tell the dog he is a “good boy” for coming when he is called. But Sheldon’s use of chocolates as reinforcement to get Penny to adhere to his rules was marvellous and devious at the same time and was a fabulous example of the principle.

9. Bose-Einstein condensate. Refers to the slowing of atoms in a dilute gas by the use of cooling apparatus to cool it to near absolute zero. This produces a a singular quantum state which is the Bose-Einstein condensate. I am sure I will use this knowledge eventually in my life.

10. Schrodinger’s Cat can be used to postulate the outcome of a date. I already knew about Schrodinger’s Cat, but have to admit this novel application had not occurred to me.

This is just a few things I can think of from recent episodes – no doubt there are more I have missed or haven’t yet seen. What else have you learned from Big Bang Theory?


26 10 2011

Queen and Prince Phillip, 1954 visit to Australia photo credit: State Records NSW

I am a bit of a news junky. I think it makes me feel up to date.

On top of that, having studied communications at university, I tend to have opinions on what constitutes “news” and how it is presented. Yes, Media Watch, a program that critiques news presentations, is aimed at people like me.

Watching more than one news bulletin a day means my “compare and contrast” function is on full. I know when one station reports different statistics to another. I know who is focussing on what I call “real news” (what is going on in the world that has major implications either here or abroad) and who is focusssed on “soft news”. While the old saying “if it bleeds, it leads” still holds true, it is now supplemented by “if we have decent footage, it’s in”. And hence a run-of-the-mill car crash in Sydney will be played in news broadcasts across the country, because they have good footage of it. Never mind that it has little relevance in any other city, nor that there may be other more catastrophic car crashes have happened locally.

My other pet hate is media releases that make it as news. Now while this is particularly prevalent in newspapers, it happens on TV news as well. Somebody’s medical research that may lead to a cure for something – media release. They aren’t saying it will or can cure the disease. They are promotion the research laboratory. And often it isn’t new research anyway. Fundraising efforts for worthy causes – no matter how worthy the cause – are not news.

Which brings me to the Queen. I will declare my prejudices up front:
1. I fail to see the relevance of the royal family to Australia today. Get over it people, it is time to fly the parental nest. We should be a republic by now – our historic connection to the UK is not relevant to our existenace today. I say this as a former ten pound Pom.

2. I have no problem with the Queen, Prince Phillip and assorted hangers-on touring the country. I don’t even mind having expensive receptions for them as visiting heads of state. I fail to see, however, why we should be paying for their tour. They are very wealthy people.

However, back to the news. I can just about tolerate the blow by blow coverage of the Queen touring the country. After all, if it were Obama touring, we would expect to see it as well. However, keep it brief.

My big issue though, is the amount of “news” time given over to watching the Queen accept bouquets from 8 year old girls, and discussions about whether a bow, a bob, a nod or a curtsey is the appropriate greeting for someone who has educated themselves and worked hard to get where they are, to greet someone was lucky enough to be born into the right family. And secondly, why do we then compare this tour to footage of her previous visits? Why is this news? Why is it news about what she did in 1954 when she visited?

If the networks want to compare this royal tour with other royal tours, then make a documentary and show it separately. Don’t cut into my news time with this irrelevant drivel.

is it possible to get PTSD from CSI?

24 10 2011

photo credit Tex Texin

I am a recovering tv-aholic. My poison of choice – until recently – was the crime / science shows. The more science the better, so I was really into the CSI-type of show.

My partner and I would sit and pick apart the science – all the incorrect and improbable things that they would put into these shows. Knife wounds so defined they could be filled with rubber cement and show the outline of the knife – classic! And the episode where the crim breaks a cell-phone type battery and uses – wait for it – the acid (from a lithum ion battery) to burn through cell bars. There are web forums devoted to picking apart this sort of thing if you are interested – they are pretty amusing.

Of course, being the arm-chair experts that we are, we also like to pick apart the basic crime-fighting techniques. They pick evidence up without photographing it in place. They have high-speed chases and break into houses with guns – wait – aren’t they scientists, not cops? And then of course, every horror-movie fan’s favourite – walking into darkened rooms by themselves.

However much we love these sorts of shows – they make us feel intelligent and like we haven’t forgotten everything we learned in science class – I do wonder about the amount of gore we are exposed to.

I can’t watch anything where the victim is a child – it literally turns my stomach and I physically recoil. But likewise, are we becoming insensitised to physical trauma by the exposure we get to decapitated, rotting, murdered corpses on these sorts of shows? And in some of them, we actually get the flash-backs to how the murder was committed. The terror and trauma of the victim. The fragility of human life.

Is it possible to get post-traumatic stress disorder from the graphic representations of murders and murder victims that these shows expose us to?

I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. Cop shows then didn’t have the advantage of the special effects. They focussed on the relationships between the characters, with a bit of sleuthing and a high speed chase thrown in for excitement. The challenge was trying to work out “who dunnit”. Think The Bill, Midsomer Murder or in Australia, Cop Shop. In America, I guess it would have been (God save us) Charlie’s Angels and CHIPS. In the current crop of shows it is perfectly obvious “who dunnit” right from word go – the slightly overly helpful but otherwise distantly connected person who appears too often. The show focuses instead on how the pseudo-science will capture them.

The other side-effect of these shows is that the crooks are getting educated. And the jurors. Apparently the crooks are learning how to hide the evidence – avoid leaving fingerprints, footprints, hairs, shell casings, etc. And jurors are expecting 100% water-tight evidence – preferably DNA evidence – to be presented at every trial.

The omni-presence of this type of entertainment has an effect on the real world around us.

I am over it – give me a comedy any day.