The ABS is one of the cooler national math clubs in the world. Their twitter account has even been called out on Buzzfeed for being so cool. Adding to their unusual non-nerd cred they've released a game on iOS letting you get all Simcity on your local hood, or anyone's hood, using data from the last census.
I haven't played it yet, but I am sort of curious to see whether I could run this joint better than the current clowns, so I might give it a go.
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I took the commission to write The Biggest Loser recap the day before the finale. The entertainment guys at the Sydney Morning Herald had enjoyed the essay I'd written about recapping here and asked if I'd be interested in doing any myself. For the right price I'm interested in doing most things. But also for the right reason. Payday is a pretty good reason, but there is so much work involved in writing a recap that you're unlikely to recoup the investment in your time. There was the possibility of recapping Agents of SHIELD later on, however, and that alone was enough to entice me. Actually, that's a lie. That and getting paid was enough to entice me. I hadn't bothered watching this series of Loser. I knew from previous years how it could be both addicting and pointless. A little bit like comfort-eating in that sense. So the first time I encountered the 2013 contestants was when I went to the show's website yesterday to do some research and preparation. The whole recap experience was interesting and, for me, a novel enough a form of writing to be worth recording here. The first point I would make is that recapping is a very particular written form. Having just teed off on a whole bunch of high profile Game of Thrones recaps, I was standing there, pants down, arse out, waiting for a good kickin' if I didn't do at least a half decent job on this one. A simple recounting would not be enough. But nor would a more traditional review, or review essay.
The Loser finale offered a challenge in this sense. Unlike a fictional show it offered no obvious narrative arc, character development or subtext on which to riff. The show has all of those things, of course. Along with a keenly developed, if somewhat perverse moral sense. But not in the way that well produced fictional narrative has those elements. To avoid the trap of merely skipping from one thing that happened to the next thing that happened, from what Haley said to what the contestants replied, I'd need a couple of alternative through lines. The rumored 'relationship' between Michelle Bridges and Commando was an obvious pick – especially as the nature of that relationship remains unknown to anybody but the individuals themselves. The cognitive dissonance, and blatant amorality, or even immorality, of selling fast food advertising during a show putting itself about as a 'cure' for obesity was another. A through line made all too easy to follow because of the preponderance of junk food advertising during the breaks. Having watched the previous two series I was also aware of the strange gear-grinding effect of having fallen into the mind set of the trainers – a censorious, judgmental and punitive psychology, especially as regards food — just before the network turns through 180° and rushes off in the opposite direction towards the launch night of MasterChef. This tied in nicely with the point I wanted to make about the junk food advertising.
Not that I'm expecting even half of the readers to recognize that point. But it's enough that some will. Then of course there are the three lines which the producers of the show have established over the length of its run. The 'journeys' of the 'characters' and the resolution – there is always a resolution – of their personal challenges. That would be enough to frame a series of jokes about the two-hour broadcast, and hopefully negate the fact that I was using exactly the same linear structure I'd criticized in the earlier essay. Having missed the entire series was a drawback, but not a serious one, since it was easily remedied by spending a couple of hours on The Biggest Loser website. All of the episodes are available for streaming, but they are not available en bloc; each individual episode being broken down into six mini eps, and each of those loaded out with their own advertising package. Grinding my way through season 2013 in this way was painful enough to make me wonder whether there's any regulation regarding advertising in streamed TV shows. At a guess, you seem to be subjected to about twenty minutes of advertising for every hour of the show. The Biggest Loser website's UI didn't help. It was clunky, poorly coded, counterintuitive and designed, badly, to serve up as many minutes of advertising as they thought they could get away with before viewers abandoned the site. Still, I can't complain. I was being paid to be there. The task of building out the recap can best be described as 'live tweeting' the show to yourself. I sat on the couch with a stiff drink – a very large stiff drink, frequently topped up – and watched the broadcast live on my iQ box, which allowed me to pause and rewind as necessary. I didn't want to lose the flow of the show, however, so I made the barest of notes on the first run through. And yes, I watched it all the way through, twice. Even went back multiple times to some sections. God help me. I wrote down my observations in Evernote on my iPad, trusting the the Cloud to back me up. I would normally prefer to use a laptop for this type of job, but our MacBook Air was being used by Jane for real work. The iPad, paired with the Logitech Bluetooth keyboard was fine, but for that intensity of work over an extended period (two run-throughs of the show, totaling about four hours) I think a laptop would have been better. In fact thinking about it now I'd do it very differently next time. I load Dragon on to the lappy and simply dictate my notes into the speech recognition window. I suspect it would be much quicker. [A little off-topic, but somebody is going to ask why I don't use the speech recognition on the iPad. Because it sucks. As does Dragon Dictate in its mobile app version].
At the end of the second run through I had a couple of thousand words worth of very poorly typed notes, but because I was using a linear structure I didn't have to concern myself with how to arrange them. One word after another would do nicely. Getting the copy in on time then became a matter of racing the clock. I was still turning notes into finished text at one o'clock in the morning, at which point I was only up to the twenty minute mark in the show. This didn't bother me overly, because I had front end loaded all of the thematic material of the through lines. The back half of the essay – and it had grown to essay length by now, about 3000 words – really would be little more than an accelerated narrative. Again, this didn't bother me because it would help create the impression of urgency as we moved through the "story" of the finale. You'll notice if you look at the end of the recap the paragraphs are much shorter and more numerous than they are at the start. It's a simple technique for creating the impression of acceleration on the page. I finished writing the essay at ten in the morning, but it took half an hour to read and edit it before sending it off. 3000 words in a couple of hours is fast. Too fast really. Errors are inevitable. But timeliness is also of the essence in publishing recaps. You have to get them online as quick as possible. Finding the balance between quick and good is the challenge. I found the subject and its inherent contradictions interesting enough that I'd have been quite happy to noodle around with the text for another couple of hours, turning it into a much grander thesis about mass culture. But in the end you gotta go with what you got when it's needed. It's not the approach I'll take if I come to do recaps of SHIELD. For one thing, I wouldn't be doin' no 3000 words per episode, but also I'd hope that the very different nature of that show would allow me to write something much closer to the sort of think pieces you get in the best recaps.
Slate has a great, great interactive doo-dad letting you waste a few minutes racing famous space ship against each other:
It’s a little odd that a genre about science, the field of precision, can be so imprecise. The truth is that spaceships almost always fly at the speed of the plot. But, for those who refuse to accept that, this is a definitive guide to ship speeds, based on highly scientific computer simulations and highly unscientific speculation.
There’s no avoiding death and taxes, but surely I could give the Volvo station wagon a swerve? No, said my good lady wife. We had a new baby and that meant life as we knew it was over. No more nude surfing. No more Xbox drinking games. (Masterchief gets stuck in a doorway? Drink!). And no more fun cars.
Her little Mini, a perfect student car, that four hefty blokes could flip over onto its roof for an impromptu game of spin the bottle when all the actual bottles were still busy providing a home for my home brew? Gone.
My dream of crossing the continent in a retooled Hilux powered the concentrated left overs from the bottom of the home brew barrel? Gone.
No, it was time for the boxy Nordic dependability and to hell with the humiliation. We would become Volvo drivers. And just to tighten and accelerate the shame spiral, that’d be a station wagon; the extra space invaluable for hauling fold up cots, a small zoo of stuffed animals wrapped in a Barbie blanket and giant bundles of nappies all secured by the last lingering threads of my street cred and fast fading awesomeness.
The V60 it was, we drove off the lot, in a stealthy shade of metallic grey, the colour of leaden skies and stolid, enforced rectitude. Instantly I felt like my filing my taxes and cleaning out the gutters at home.
We lived at Bondi in those days, where the lack of off street parking spilled a bright, gleaming riot of cars out into the clean salt air. Soft tops, convertibles, Combis, shaggin’ wagons, and the muscular SUVs favoured by those many members of the Russian mafia who had recently escaped the former Soviet Union for our groovy beach side village… Oh and our sturdy grey family transport option, of course. It was also parked out on the street overlooking the famous bay.
Did the high incidence of car theft in the suburb bother us? Professional gangs of ‘rebirthers’ were often drawn to Bondi where they hid in the massive tidal flows of tourists. But no, that did not bother us, for we were Volvo owners. Not only was our choice of motor so determinedly unhip that it threatened whiplash as potential car thieves shook their heads in horror at the very thought of making off with it, but the cunning Swedes had fitted our vehicle with one of the first digital immobilizer systems.
It would not be stolen, they promised.
And so it was not, until the day some villain put a brick through the front window and stole it anyway. Perhaps there were no WRXs around.
It was a drag, a massive drag in fact, but we were insured and the cops were helpful, assuring us we could forget about ever seeing the car, nappies or Barbie blanket again as they stamped and signed their report for the insurer.
And then things turned to custard. Swedish custard, made by the Muppets’ Swedish chef. So fiercely did Volvo insist that this car could not have been stolen with their immobilizer fitted that the insurance company began to have its doubts. I had visions of the Swedish chef ‘strudel-oodle-oodling’ down the phone at some dubious assessor, becoming more and more agitated at the idea their perfect system had failed.
Luckily the thoughtful car thieves thoughtfully stole some more ‘immobilized’ Volvos, or maybe the cops convinced my insurance company of just how good our car thieves were, because they eventually paid up.
Allowing us to buy another Volvo.
[This is another column one you won't find online, because Wheel's Magazine doesn't give away their content for free. Stupid Old Media Stupidheads! How can they make any moneys if they won't give it away for free! Gah!]
Joss Whedon was invited back to his old university to give the Commencement Address. It is, naturally, lathered in awesome sauce. But it also gives us some insight into his story telling mojo. When he says "identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just who you are. It is a process that you must be active in," he could be talking about any number of the characters from Buffy, Angel, Doll House, The Avengers or Firefly.
I actually sat through many graduations. When I was sitting where you guys were sitting, the speaker was Bill Cosby—funny man Bill Cosby, he was very funny and he was very brief, and I thanked him for that. He gave us a message that I really took with me, that a lot of us never forgot, about changing the world. He said, “you’re not going to change the world, so don’t try.”
That was it. He didn’t buy that back at all. And then he complained about buying his daughter a car and we left. I remember thinking, “I think I can do better. I think I can be a little more inspiring than that.”
And so, what I’d like to say to all of you is that you are all going to die.
This is a good commencement speech because I’m figuring it’s only going to go up from here. It can only get better, so this is good. It can’t get more depressing. You have, in fact, already begun to die. You look great. Don’t get me wrong. And you are youth and beauty. You are at the physical peak. Your bodies have just gotten off the ski slope on the peak of growth, potential, and now comes the black diamond mogul run to the grave. And the weird thing is your body wants to die. On a cellular level, that’s what it wants. And that’s probably not what you want.
I’m confronted by a great deal of grand and worthy ambition from this student body. You want to be a politician, a social worker. You want to be an artist. Your body’s ambition: Mulch. Your body wants to make some babies and then go in the ground and fertilize things. That’s it. And that seems like a bit of a contradiction. It doesn’t seem fair. For one thing, we’re telling you, “Go out into the world!” exactly when your body is saying, “Hey, let’s bring it down a notch. Let’s take it down.”
And it is a contradiction. And that’s actually what I’d like to talk to you about. The contradiction between your body and your mind, between your mind and itself. I believe these contradictions and these tensions are the greatest gift that we have, and hopefully, I can explain that.
But first let me say when I talk about contradiction, I’m talking about something that is a constant in your life and in your identity, not just in your body but in your own mind, in ways that you may recognize or you may not.
Let’s just say, hypothetically, that two roads diverged in the woods and you took the path less traveled. Part of you is just going, “Look at that path! Over there, it’s much better. Everyone is traveling on it. It’s paved, and there’s like a Starbucks every 40 yards. This is wrong. In this one, there’s nettles and Robert Frost’s body—somebody should have moved that—it just feels weird. And not only does your mind tell you this, it is on that other path, it is behaving as though it is on that path. It is doing the opposite of what you are doing. And for your entire life, you will be doing, on some level, the opposite—not only of what you were doing—but of what you think you are. That is just going to go on. What you do with all your heart, you will do the opposite of. And what you need to do is to honor that, to understand it, to unearth it, to listen to this other voice.
You have, which is a rare thing, that ability and the responsibility to listen to the dissent in yourself, to at least give it the floor, because it is the key—not only to consciousness-but to real growth. To accept duality is to earn identity. And identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just who you are. It is a process that you must be active in. It’s not just parroting your parents or the thoughts of your learned teachers. It is now more than ever about understanding yourself so you can become yourself.
I talk about this contradiction, and this tension, there’s two things I want to say about it. One, it never goes away. And if you think that achieving something, if you think that solving something, if you think a career or a relationship will quiet that voice, it will not. If you think that happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace. It will always be in conflict. If you accept that, everything gets a lot better.
The other reason is because you are establishing your identities and your beliefs, you need to argue yourself down, because somebody else will. Somebody’s going to come at you, and whatever your belief, your idea, your ambition, somebody’s going to question it. And unless you have first, you won’t be able to answer back, you won’t be able to hold your ground. You don’t believe me, try taking a stand on just one leg. You need to see both sides.
Now, if you do, does this mean that you get to change the world? Well, I’m getting to that, so just chill. All I can say to this point is I think we can all agree that the world could use a little changing. I don’t know if your parents have explained this to you about the world but… we broke it. I’m sorry… it’s a bit of a mess. It’s a hard time to go out in there. And it’s a weird time in our country.
The thing about our country is—oh, it’s nice, I like it—it’s not long on contradiction or ambiguity. It’s not long on these kinds of things. It likes things to be simple, it likes things to be pigeonholed—good or bad, black or white, blue or red. And we’re not that. We’re more interesting than that. And the way that we go into the world understanding is to have these contradictions in ourselves and see them in other people and not judge them for it. To know that, in a world where debate has kind of fallen away and given way to shouting and bullying, that the best thing is not just the idea of honest debate, the best thing is losing the debate, because it means that you learn something and you changed your position. The only way really to understand your position and its worth is to understand the opposite. That doesn’t mean the crazy guy on the radio who is spewing hate, it means the decent human truths of all the people who feel the need to listen to that guy. You are connected to those people. They’re connected to him. You can’t get away from it.
This connection is part of contradiction. It is the tension I was talking about. This tension isn’t about two opposite points, it’s about the line in between them, and it’s being stretched by them. We need to acknowledge and honor that tension, and the connection that that tension is a part of. Our connection not just to the people we love, but to everybody, including people we can’t stand and wish weren’t around. The connection we have is part of what defines us on such a basic level.
Freedom is not freedom from connection. Serial killing is freedom from connection. Certain large investment firms have established freedom from connection. But we as people never do, and we’re not supposed to, and we shouldn’t want to. We are individuals, obviously, but we are more than that.
So here’s the thing about changing the world. It turns out that’s not even the question, because you don’t have a choice. You are going to change the world, because that is actually what the world is. You do not pass through this life, it passes through you. You experience it, you interpret it, you act, and then it is different. That happens constantly. You are changing the world. You always have been, and now, it becomes real on a level that it hasn’t been before.
And that’s why I’ve been talking only about you and the tension within you, because you are—not in a clichéd sense, but in a weirdly literal sense—the future. After you walk up here and walk back down, you’re going to be the present. You will be the broken world and the act of changing it, in a way that you haven’t been before. You will be so many things, and the one thing that I wish I’d known and want to say is, don’t just been yourself. Be all of yourselves. Don’t just live. Be that other thing connected to death. Be life. Live all of your life. Understand it, see it, appreciate it. And have fun.
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Everyone should have seen Commander Chris Hadfield's cover of the Bowie classic Major Tom by now. If you haven't, shame on you. Here 'tis.
In the vid below, shot before he took off, he talks about about how important music can be to the astronauts, cosmonauts, whatevernauts up there. And I have to say it's something I never thought of. The latest Apple ad, featuring nothing more than people groovin to their phones' itunes libraries, does a great job of reminding us how important music can be to us as a species. And yet you almost never see it in SF.
It was important enough to the space agencies involved in the ISS to commission a bespoke guitar.
Somebody, Blarkon or Damien probably, will now interject with three examples of seminal space operas featuring the protagonists playlists as pivotal plot devices. But I don't recall any, and that's all that counts.
Watch the vid. It's fascinating, especially if you've seen Hadfield's Bowie act.