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Archive for the ‘People’ Category

My Losing Battle Against Spoilers, Olympic Edition

North Korea faces South Korea in ping pong.

Source: Korea Herald

Airing the Olympics should be a no-brainer. It’s like having the Super Bowl. Film the game, air the game. Make sure not to show exposed breasts during your halftime show. As long as you remember these three things, you’ll get millions upon millions of viewers and no real backlash.

But NBC has decided to complicate step 2 by airing the Olympics on a tape delay for American audiences. While the world watches live, the US has to wait until the network-calculated peak viewing hours to watch their favorite sports. And when those hours come along, well, I hope you like swimming and gymnastics, because other than a tiny bit of volleyball, those are the only sports I’ve ever stumbled across just by turning on the TV.

There’s only one problem: the Internet exists. Which means people are used to getting information pretty much immediately. There’s a good reason that, even in an era of video on-demand and DVR, sports are one of the few things I make a point to watch live, whenever possible. When something real is going on, when the rest of the world is feeling the same tension you do, watching TV becomes a more social experience. That’s true even if you’re alone. Mid-game phone calls, posts, and tweets are routine, and a good way to get through tedious commercials.

This isn’t just true for sports. Well I’ve never really felt the same way about reality shows (because I don’t watch them) or pre-recorded comedy/drama shows (because those rarely feel “social” in the same way sports do), I can understand the appeal of taking the time to watch premieres live.

NBC has apparently completely lost sight of that basic appeal to the social nature of sports. And weirdly, I’m pretty sure they think they’ve done the opposite. No doubt the decision to not air things live went down like this:

NBC EXEC #1: “London is 5 hours away from the East coast, 8 hours away from the West. All the events are going to be happening while people are at work!”

NBC EXEC #2: “What if we just wait until everybody’s home from work, then air the games?”

NBC EXEC #3: “Brilliant! That way we can cherry-pick the events with huge audience potential that we already know have dramatic outcomes! Nothing but swimnastics from 5 to 11 pm!”

INTERN: “Why don’t we just air the events live during the day and then re-air the cherry-picked versions during primetime?”

NBC EXEC #1: “You’re fired.”

Rather than relying on the inherent appeal of live games, which naturally create the sort of “event” TV networks always want for their programming, NBC thought it could recreate the “event” in a more commercially viable time slot.

But, all criticism aside, the approach is bizarrely actually working. The opening ceremonies set a record-breaking 40.7 million viewers. While many are bristling at NBC’s hyping of pre-determined events, many more are willing to go along for the ride with the tightly controlled presentation. I myself have probably watched as much of the games as ever and watched a lot more of the “big” matches than I would otherwise.

Still, I miss randomly stumbling across some weird outlier game because that just happens to be on when I turn on TV.  That’s always been the greatest appeal of the Olympics for me: finding myself surprisingly engrossed by hammer throwing or race walking or badminton.

Apparently North and South Korea faced off in table tennis this past Monday. I had no idea. I would’ve loved to watch that. But by the time I found out that this match had happened, I also found out who won. That takes away a lot of the incentive to seek it out after the fact.

Google Users All Want to Know If Ryan Lochte Is Single

Google’s suggestions feature (that is, when you start typing something in and it guesses in advance what question you’re going to ask) is a great way to get a snapshot of things the world is thinking, by showing what search queries tend to be on people’s minds.

For example, while watching the Olympics over the weekend, I did a quick search during a commercial break to find out more information on Ryan Lochte, the gold-medal winning swimmer. Notice the second suggestion:

Second Google search result for "ryan l" is "Ryan Lochte girlfriend 2012"

You can read a lot into “I’m Feeling Lucky.”

Don’t Click On Stories About the Aurora Theater Shooter

I’m going to keep this article short, because there isn’t much to say about it, really. By now you’ve all certainly read about the horrifying incident in Colorado at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. A dozen people lost their lives and many more were injured.

Currently, the front page of just about every news site is littered with images of the shooter’s face. I can’t remember his name. Normally I wouldn’t use that as an excuse, but in this case, I’m making a point of not looking it up.

I expect a lot more stories to show up over the next weeks and months, psychoanalyzing him and reporting any weird or theatric behavior by him. I don’t see a purpose to it. Why give him an audience?

I plan to avoid these stories as much as possible. I’ll certainly read about the tragedy itself. And I’ll certainly read about the victims. Especially now that we know there was real self-sacrifice and heroism among them. But I don’t want to contribute anything toward making the shooter any level of celebrity. I don’t want to dignify his name or face by knowing them.

Who’s Higgs? And Who’s Boson? The Arbitrary Power of Names

Physicists Peter Biggs and Satyendra Nath Bose

Where did your name come from? Possibly from one of your parents, or a more distant, long-dead ancestor. Maybe you were named after a song, or a character from a book or movie your parents liked. Or maybe your parents looked at your squishy newborn features and decided you simply looked like a (insert first name here).

In other words, it’s fairly arbitrary. But that makes it no less important. Names are potent things. I’m not even aware of the thousand tiny ways my self-perception would be changed if I had been named Adam or Joshua or Maximilian instead of Chris. I might have even come out a little different if I was Christian instead of Christopher.

This doesn’t just go for people. It’s no less important with the names we give just about anything else. Look at dinosaurs. Everyone knows velociraptors from Jurassic Park, but actual raptors were feathered and about the size of dogs. The dinosaurs in Crichton’s book and Spielberg’s movie were closer to deinonychus. But the name “velociraptor” is more versatile (it can be shortened to raptor), easier to remember, and sounds more intimidating. So the misappropriated name stuck. Similarly, the spinosaurus is bigger and likely more vicious than a tyrannosaurus, but only one of these two gets the Latin “rex” slapped on the end of its name. Thus, the king stays the king.

Just like your name, the names of everything we discover or invent usually end up coming from a pretty arbitrary place: a parent, a long-dead ancestor, a pop-culture reference, or the first impressions of the inventor/discoverer. Almost half the planet bears the name of merchant, mapmaker, and sometime explorer Amerigo Vespucci, simply because he suggested, “Hey, maybe that’s not Asia.”

You’ve heard about the discovery of the Higgs boson by now, right? This is the so-called “God particle.” If you haven’t, here’s the simple version, coming from a guy who needed it really dumbed down before he understood it: Bosons are elementary subatomic particles of energy that do not occupy space, in the way particles like electrons, protons, or quarks do. The Higgs boson was a theoretical but (until recently) unobserved particle that permeates all of observable reality and allows all the stuff of the universe to have mass, giving all objects with mass a consistent set of properties. Got it, Jesse Pinkman?

Actor Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad saying 'Yeah, science!"

While it’s nearly impossible to speculate on the practical possibilities of this discovery, it’s a major scientific breakthrough because it helps us get a tiny bit closer to understanding the most basic mechanisms of the universe. So what do you call something that permeates all matter in the universe? You name it after the guy whose name came first on a paper suggesting that something like this could exist back in the 60′s. I can’t imagine the hubris associated with having a fundamental piece of existence named after you.

Meanwhile, poor Satyendra Nath Bose (whom bosons are named after) gets a bit of a snub. One of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, his work was more fundamental and more revolutionary, and, along with Einstein, he laid the groundwork that gave rise to Higgs’ theory, the eventual construction of the Large Hadron Collider, and the discovery of the particle. But because it’s not immediately apparent that “boson” (lower case “b”) comes from somebody’s name, it’s undeniable that more people will know the name “Higgs.”

Giving something so universally fundamental some guy’s name is one approach, but giving it a name that actually indicates its importance is another. As mentioned above, the Higgs boson has also been dubbed “the God particle,” by Leon M. Lederman and Dick Teresi from the title of their book The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? By and large, it’s a name that makes physicists cringe, since it suggests a science vs. religion debate where there is none. And the actual source of the “God” moniker is even more harmless. The authors originally called their book “The Goddamn Particle” (after the frustration scientists trying to detect it felt), but their editors weren’t comfortable with the profane title. So Lederman and Teresi changed it to “God,” with the after-the-fact justification that the particle is powerful and omnipresent.

So whether you’re naming a building block of existence or a cat you adopted, take your time with its name. It will inevitably affect the way everyone thinks about he, she, or it. Or you can just defy all expectations and go the “Boy Named Sue” route. It’s your call.

“As Much Education As They Can Afford” — Gaffe or the Plain Truth?

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R)

At a rally in Virginia, Mitt Romney said that he wanted to make sure that America remains “a place of opportunity,” where “everyone has a fair shot” and “get[s] as much education as they can afford.”

Now, we’re not a political blog. And we really, really don’t want to be one. A political blog latches on to every bit of phrasing and twists and turns it around to try to reveal some hidden truth or underlying theme about a candidate, a party, an organization, whatever. The knee-jerk reaction to Romney’s phrasing is easy: “What do you mean as much as they can afford? Are you saying the financially privileged deserve better educations than other Americans?”

That’s a boring conversation. Is Romney’s phrasing a subtle hint at an underlying bias toward the wealthy? Who cares? The last thing I want to do is contribute to the always petty conversation around election season.

But we are (or at least we’d like to think we are) a blog about ideas. And at the root of over-analyzing Romney’s statement is an interesting discussion: How much education should be free, and how much should you have to pay for?

First of all, education is never free. It can’t be. Even if, in the future, our current concepts of classrooms, degrees, and homework are completely unrecognizable, students will always need two things: equipment (books, computers, art supplies, etc.) and teachers (professors, coaches, etc.). Even if the students of the future consume all of their education through all-purpose interactive tablets, someone needs to buy the tablets. Even if the students of the future are all taught by very life-like robots, someone needs to pay the programmers and engineers making robots. Because teachers will always need salaries and equipment will always need to be purchased, someone always needs to pay for education, whether parents, taxpayers, grant donors, or the students themselves.

So when we say “free” what we really need to be saying is “accessible.” Should everyone have the same access to education? Well, sure. That should be an easy answer. That’s only what’s fair, right? No sane person would claim that the very poor don’t deserve to be just as informed as anybody else. That’s the reason why it’s important to make sure resources like libraries and public schools allow anyone to access them freely. We can’t claim to be a democratic society and prevent accessibility of information.

But at the same time, we can’t really claim that all education is created equal. Obviously, some schools are going to be better than other schools. A lot of that depends on the quality of the teachers. A lot of that depends on the quality of the administrators. But most of it, unfortunately, has to do with money. Schools with more money will be able to pay teachers better, provide better tools for their students, fund more extracurricular activities, and provide more out-of-the-classroom experiences. So while we should certainly always strive to make education be as universally accessible as possible, the sad fact is that it won’t be.

Let’s take it back to Romney’s words, specifically, the word “afford.” Naturally, when we think about affording something, we think about money, but that’s actually a secondary definition. The primary, according to Merriam-Webster anyway, is “to manage [or] to bear without serious detriment.” So “affording” education means more than just paying for it. It means being able to dedicate the time and energy necessary to achieve your goals.

Again, I’m not here to nitpick word choice of a person who’s on camera 24/7, I’m just making a point. An education is always going to be an investment. Even if you didn’t have to pay for four years of undergraduate studies, you still were dedicating four years of your life toward making your future opportunities better. That’s a cost in itself. And that’s a cost that not everyone will be able to handle.

Getting a good education is achieved through hard work and good resources. That’s always going to take money and energy. The more we can help one another have access to quality education, the better. But there will always be a personal cost to a student: long-term, like loans, or short-term, like choosing to be a full-time student instead of having a job. We can (and should) keep the cost as low as possible, but a student needs to be willing to make that personal investment.

Why’s Everyone So Worked Up About UVA?

Image via The Washington Post.

You might have seen a few headlines here and there over the past few weeks about the University of Virginia. Specifically, about the massive uproar and student protests over the ousting of President Teresa Sullivan.

I’m from Virginia originally, so I noticed the headlines but didn’t think too much of them at first. The firing of a school official didn’t worthy of national news. My fiancee, who’s a UVA alum, felt the same way (at first). But the headlines kept appearing. And other UVA alums I knew were posting their outrage all over Facebook. So I figured it was time to see what was really going on. I tried, but the first few articles I read seemed written just for the already informed. The only background information I received was that Sullivan was abruptly and unceremoniously forced out, despite the fact that she was generally beloved.

My fiancee had an old classmate fill her in on the general idea, and I’ve been reading up on it as much as I can as well. Like all great stories (and like how the Supreme Court decides what cases to hear), the Sullivan ousting is news because it’s about much more than what’s on the surface. Once I found out what that bigger issue was, the story became much, much more interesting.

Here’s the bare-bones version: UVA, like many public universities, is governed by a Board of Visitors. It goes by different names in different states, but the general idea is the same: a board of officials appointed by the governor to oversee the school and make sure it’s adhering to the general principles of the state’s education policy. Note that these people are often not educators, as is the case with most of the officials in Virginia, but people who are well-connected enough to get the governor’s appointment.

So the rector and vice-rector of this board — Helen Dragas and Mark Kington, respectively — read a few articles, heard a few speeches, and started discussing the benefits of a more online-focused approach to education, concluding that they could spend less, make more, and stay “with the times” by reshaping UVA into a more prestigious University of Phoenix, basically. The idea circulated among the board members and the board agreed to enact this new idea. But President Sullivan was skeptical. She said:

“There is room for carefully implemented online learning in selected fields, but online instruction is no panacea. It is surprisingly expensive, has limited revenue potential, and unless carefully managed, can undermine the quality of instruction.”

Sullivan was forced out a few days later, though a record of emails indicates that Dragas and Kington had been planning the change earlier than that.

So there’s two different directions the outrage can go when discussing this story:

  1. You can be outraged that a board of appointed officials with little to no education background can decide what’s best for a public institution, especially when they’re basing their models on purely for-profit businesses.
  2. You can be outraged that the BOV has decided that the best way to evolve is to fire or defund the “old-fashioned” education models.

The first is just a general policy problem, and isn’t so much about schools as it is about politics. So I’m going to leave that one alone for now. The second, however, is very interesting, particularly to my generation, which generally thinks of ourselves as digitally native, but still has clear memories of rotary phones, floppy disks, and library card catalogs. (I’m 27, if you’re trying to guess.) Open and widely available education is the way of the future, certainly. But does that devalue a traditional, four-year, living-in-a-dorm, attending-lectures-and-seminars college education?

I’ll revisit the topic in a later article, when I can spend more time on it. But in the meantime, what do you think? Who benefits the most from online education, the schools looking to cut down on costs or the students who gain a cheaper alternative to a traditional education?

Ray Bradbury Loved and Hated the Future

Last week, legendary science fiction author Ray Bradbury passed away at the age of 91. If you’ve only read one of his books, it was probably Fahrenheit 451, but if you read more, they’d probably include Something Wicked This Way Comes or a few of the hundreds of short stories he published in his lifetime, such as There Will Come Soft Rains. Or maybe you’d be more familiar with the screenplays he wrote for The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

To say he was an influential writer is a pretty massive understatement. It would be better to say that he bridged the gap between classic and modern science fiction. He was equally comfortable with the wildly imaginative (strongly influenced by a childhood full of L. Frank Baum, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs) as the psychological and personal. He wrote apocalyptic and distopian fiction, pure fantasy, noir, dark comedy, and sometimes two or three of these at the same time.

Last year, Ray Bradbury made a few headlines when he finally agreed to let Fahrenheit 451 be distributed as an ebook. He was a long hold-out against the technology, saying:

Those aren’t books. You can’t hold a computer in your hand like you can a book. A computer does not smell. There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it. And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that for you. I’m sorry.

To be honest, I’m a little confused about his complaint against portability, when that’s exactly what ebooks are supposed to offer. And I’ve also never understood why “smell” always comes up as an argument about ebooks. (I guess because it’s the sense closely associated with memory.) But I’m not criticizing Bradbury or his viewpoint at all. If I ever make it to 91, I’m going to hate whatever fancy new garbage inventions my grandkids come up with.

What’s important to take away from the story is that Bradbury felt there were certain more intimate aspects of human interaction that couldn’t be replaced by technology, as much as technology was going to try. You can see that viewpoint running through all of his books. There Will Come Soft Rains tells the story of the gadgets in an automated household running through all their daily motions long after the human inhabitants have died. Fahrenheit 451 includes a subplot about protagonist Guy Montag’s wife, who’s addicted to a wall-size interactive television, which provides her with a virtual version of a social life. That’s a powerful image, probably even more so today in a world with social media sites and video games that primarily serve as social settings, such as Second Life or World of Warcraft.

(As an aside, director Frank Darabont has long been saying he wants to release an updated film version of Fahrenheit 451. If it ever gets made, I wonder if those sort of details from the book will be updated for a modern view of the future.)

But while it’s easy to think of Bradbury’s prescient fiction as condemning future tech and attitudes, that’s really not the case. He was critiquing, not condemning. No one who becomes a science fiction writer can be a complete technophobe. Bradbury clearly loved the promise of exploration that came with the future. Shortly before he died, he even stated that he wants his remains to be entombed on Mars. (And proving how much he wasn’t intimidated or threatened by new technology, he said this on a podcast.)

I want to be buried on Mars. I don’t want to be the first live person to arrive there. It’ll be too late. But I want to be the first dead person that gets there. I want to arrive in a Campbell’s soup can.

Anytime Bradbury did express caution about technology, whether through his fiction or through interviews, the theme was always the same. There’s never any reason to be afraid of progress. We should just always be aware of the weaknesses of human nature. Another great quote:

I’m not afraid of machines. I don’t think the robots are taking over. I think the men who play with toys have taken over. And if we don’t take the toys out of their hands, we’re fools.

Bradbury both loved and hated the future and that conflict is precisely what made him such a brilliant writer. His voice was perfectly poised between excitement and trepidation. He was fascinated with the creations of humanity’s progress, and terrified of how they could be twisted and exploited.

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