Cool guys (and gals) DO look at explosions

I bought the tickets so long ago, it was almost a bit of surprise when the Mythbusters: Behind the Myths Tour rolled into Toronto on Thursday. We arrived downtown Toronto in record time (thanks to Andrew for driving), and while we had enough time to kill with a pint, C’est What was packed and had other ideas.

The audience was a heartening cross-section of people, with a generous helping of nerd, not surprisingly. It was cool to see that the male/female split was pretty much even, and there were lots of kids. We also saw a number of folks who couldn’t possibly have been anything but professors. Some epic beards, too. 🙂 (And, we think, Ed Robertson from Barenaked Ladies.)

Of all the things Adam promised in the pre-show video, the only one we didn’t get was beachballs. I’m ok with that. There was science, gadgets, stories, stunts, and, of course, pranks, largely played on enthusiastic audience members. They distribute a bunch of waivers on chairs before the show, and if you get one and sign it, you can be selected as an on-stage volunteer. Felt bad for the waiver-holders who were back farther than about 10 or 15 rows from the stage, since they were never getting called on.

The show was extremely family friendly, which isn’t terribly surprising, and many of the volunteers from the audience were kids. We had the distinct suspicion that Adam would have preferred something a little more “late nite”, which would have enabled swearing and more ridiculous stunts, but after Obama himself gives you kudos on getting kids jazzed about STEM, you know on which side your bread is buttered.

There’s plenty of content on YouTube from the shows — amusingly, the venue strictly prohibited recording or photography, but Jamie and Adam welcomed it, long as you kept the flash off. Plenty of photos and commentary on Twitter, too. Those gents definitely understand the value of smartphone ubiquity.

They did experiments and pranks with depth perception, friction, bikes and water balloons, a bed of nails, carnival feats of strength, and catching an arrow. (Apparently an Australian ninja corrected them after they “busted” that myth on the show.) They showed behind the scenes footage from the set and shows, and a number of their favourite explosions. Man, Adam LOVES him some explosions. And sometimes Jamies even smiles.

Both of them sat out and did Q&A at points during the show while things were readied backstage. The infamous cannonball incident came up, unsurprisingly, but Jamie answered in excellent diversionary fashion. The best question of the night came from a kid who asked about “that time they blew up a car for no reason”. The answer to why was, of course, because they could.

All in all, a very entertaining couple of hours. They’re born showmen (Adam more so), who know very well how to harness the enthusiasm (and social media proliferation capabilities) of an audience, and what better way to develop a love and learning of science than by doing crazy experiments and blowing things up?

Ignite Waterloo 5

Has it already been a month since the last Ignite event? Wow.

So it took a little while to sort out some administrative details, but the videos of the talks from the last Ignite event are now online: Ignite Waterloo 5.

Perhaps you’re looking for a great place to get a bite to eat in Waterloo Region, or your soul is on fire and you need the creative outlet of slam poetry, or you’ve had a helluva day and could really go for a shot of tequila… There’s something to get every brain tingling, and plenty of interesting community initiatives and good causes out there.

Our next Ignite event will likely be in June, and we’re still looking for speaker submissions. Everyone’s got five minutes of interesting in them. What’s your passion?

We’ve also been bursting at the seams, venue-wise, so we’re interested in suggestions for a new home for the event.

I have become a podcast devotee

I don’t even remember how this all got started, to be honest. For a long time I’ve thought I should try out listening to podcasts. However, I’ve always been reticent, since: a) I didn’t really know where to start, and b) I’ve never been great at absorbing info through my ears (audiobooks and the like).

Anyway, somewhere I saw/heard/read about How Stuff Works‘ group of podcasts. I’ve been aware of the site for ages, and had dropped in from time to time. You can see the full list of podcasts on their blogs page (cuz that makes sense) in the lower right sidebar.

Being a history buff, I started with Stuff You Missed in History Class, the archive of which I downloaded from iTunes. (They’re all free, just fyi.)

Since then I’ve also gone through the Stuff You Should Know (general interest), Stuff Mom Never Told You (women’s and gender-related topics), and Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know (conspiracy theories – on video) archives, and am nearly the end of the Brain Stuff (general interest – often scientific or technical and much shorter than the others) archive.

The podcasts range from a minute (the early Brain Stuff ones) to over half an hour. I probably started listening nearly six months ago, and have gone through a lot of podcasts. Hundreds. That said, I also haven’t listened to the radio or my iPod in that time period, either. They make for great accompaniment to getting ready for work, running training, doing dishes, etc. And hey, my storehouse of useless knowledge grows by the day. 🙂

Not all topics are of equal interest, and while I haven’t skipped any, it’s certainly easy to do so if you’re not into the topic. One thing that’s a bit unusual and distracting at first is that these podcasters are not “vocal talent”. They’re actual How Stuff Works employees (and, in the case of Brain Stuff, the founder) and the same people you’ll interact on in the blog comments or on Twitter or Facebook.

On every podcast I’ve listened to so far, at least one of the presenters has a mild speech impediment. I didn’t really expect that. Slight lisp, “thick tongue”, or what sounds like just a permanent bad case of hayfever — you get used to it over time. The intermittent southern accents are fun, too. (How Stuff Works is based out of Atlanta.)

I’ve managed to get Andrew hooked, too, and have enjoyed being filled in on historical tidbits I’ve already learned on more than one occasion. 🙂 In any case, should your music library or trivia knowledge be feeling a little stale, I highly recommend heading over to iTunes and loading up. Mmm… useless facts…

“You’ve killed God!”

Last weekend Sherry and I went to see Creation. An interesting juxtaposition to seeing Paul Bettany in Legion not long before. (Inside tip: at no point in the film does Hot Angel Bettany get topless like in the poster. Also, no hot gayngel action. Just FYI.)

Fascinating how Bettany didn’t even look like the same person in Creation. Also, Martha West, who played Annie Darwin, totally reminded me of Billie Piper. But that’s neither here nor there.

They set the movie during what would at first seem like an improbable time in Darwin’s life to make a movie about — post-Beagle voyage, pre-publication of On the Origin of Species, and at a time when he was, by all accounts, pretty miserable.

I’d known Darwin had a hard time with the ideas in his evolutionary theories, and with his wife’s beliefs (she was devoutly Christian). He tried to maintain his own Christian faith when evidence against God’s perfect creation was right in front of him (and all around him on the ship, in his study, in his dovecote…) I don’t know if it actually happened or not, but there’s a scene where his daughter comes home with bloody knees from being made to kneel on rock salt — her punishment from the local parson for contradicting him and insisting dinosaurs did exist, as her father said.

I hadn’t known, however, just what a mess Darwin’s mind and body were for so long. Apparently at any number of points in his life, including before he and Emma were married, pressures on him and his work caused his health to suffer. Of course, given his extensive global travels and the relatively primitive nature of medicine in those days, it’s certainly possible he picked up a chronic ailment or two as well. The deaths of three of his 10 children, including Annie, his favourite, couldn’t have helped his state, either.

The emotional torture he went through vacillating over whether to make his theory public is present throughout the story, and they also tie it closely to the demons he fought after the death of Annie, as well. She is his wife Emma’s foil in the story, as imaginative and excited about science and the natural world as his wife is opposed to its “dangers”. Even receiving correspondence from Alfred Russell Wallace, who comes to develop the same theory as Darwin, completely independently, don’t fully spur him to complete the book. Quite the opposite; Darwin seems relieved to be able to hand the mantle of “God-killer” to someone else.

It’s also interesting to consider the excitement with which many of Darwin’s contemporaries looked forward to the theory of evolution going public and changing everything. Though Darwin was astute enough to know what they didn’t seem to want to acknowledge — that science wasn’t going to kill God. Those, like his wife, who wanted to believe, would continue to do so, regardless of evidence. But even a few hundred years earlier, Darwin and anyone else who dared propose such theories would have been persecuted, tortured, and killed for such heresy.

Of course, in the end, Darwin’s health and psychological state improve, and the book gets written and published, thanks to Emma Darwin. (I hadn’t known that, either.) Darwin gives his wife the finished manuscript, asks her to read it, and leaves the decision of whether or not to publish it with her. A rather monumental offering, when you think of it. One of the biggest ideas in modern history could have ended up on a bonfire. Or had burning lamp oil spilled on it. Or fallen off the mail wagon into a ditch when it was sent to the publisher.

The constant head-butting of science and religion is a major theme throughout the movie, of course. But what was equally interesting was the head-butting between the beginnings of a new chapter in modern science and what seems like still-medieval medical practices.

The theory of evolution is about to change the world, and yet you’re still hearing the Darwin family doctor recommend increasing their sick daughter’s doses of mercury, or recommending bleeding. It’s fairly appalling. Or the Gully water cure, in which Darwin was apparently quite a believer, but which seems pretty bizarre nowadays. (Though I’m sure being doused by a deluge of cold water early in the morning is quite bracing…)

All in all, worth watching, and not quite as “quiet” a many English period films, blessedly. Though really, they could have made a film entirely comprised of Darwin’s tales from his travels and the scientific world around him and it would have been wonderful. (Like the tragic humanity of Jenny the orangutan.)

Technology and storytelling: not mutually exclusive entertainments

We went to see Avatar last weekend. If you’ve been anywhere near media over the past few months, I’m sure you’ve heard plenty. We didn’t have terribly high hopes — the preview we’d seen months ago really was nothing special, and the animation actually looked less sophisticated than some of what we’ve already seen.

But we went, and had the full 3D experience (which I highly recommend). The movie was gorgeous. Some of the most beautiful visuals I’ve seen — in any format of film. The 3D was used carefully, so wasn’t just missiles blasting out of the screen and whatnot. More often it was subtle touches like floating pollen grains wafting among us. Lovely. And they’ve begun achieving things with textures that are spectacular. I’ve no doubt this movie will be the starting point for amazing things.

And, as they note in this post (humorous intentions aside), James Cameron does know how to put a scene together. Orchestration as opposed to mayhem.

However, the story was another matter. Now, yes, it’s James Cameron. You’re not there for stellar dialogue, intricate storytelling, or nuance. And you’re not going to get any. This was written with a club. Capitalism and environmental destruction bad. Living as one with nature good. Metal-clad bad guys do horrible things, but can be defeated by plucky natives and animals… at great personal cost. When you let go of your indoctrination, you can become eloquent, enlightened, and find love. Check your brain at the door: it’s paint by numbers; it’s not Rembrandt.

But what if it could be?

I couldn’t help but be disappointed by what could have been. The combination of those rich, intricate, beautiful visuals with a story that matched it. A story with nuance and textured mythology and 3-dimensional characters and moral dilemmas and bad guys you kind of liked and good guys you kind of didn’t.

Wholesale slaughter turns people off — we’ve seen too much of it. I don’t just mean emotionally, though that’s true, too. I mean mentally as well. There’s nothing to it but fast movement, loud noises, and carnage. Sure, big battles are exciting and move the story along… somewhat. But talk to Joss Whedon about the shock and power of a well-placed and well-timed single death. He can do more with offing a bit character than Avatar could do with one of the leads.

I understand the whole lowest common denominator idea in movies, books, TV, etc. And I get that it’s the intersection of investment and revenue potential. But I still prefer more of a long tail idea. I don’t think the NASCAR set is incapable of enjoying something that includes both explosions and thought. And I don’t think the Mensa set can’t appreciate a well choreographed action sequence.

Some day in the future I imagine someone will weave together that stunning technology with a story that makes both my brain and heart contort til it hurts. I can’t wait. Though I suspect I’ll probably have to see it at the Princess because the Galaxy will deem it incapable of raking in enough bucks.

Ignite Waterloo

The inaugural Ignite Waterloo took place on November 25th in downtown Kitchener, at the Children’s Museum.

I’d never been to an Ignite event, but greatly enjoyed this one (especially since I somehow managed to not pay for a single drink all evening — thanks, gentlemen!) 😉

It was a lot of fun, there was a lot to learn, and the presentations covered a most splendid variety of topics. And there were cupcakes. (To be decorated to potentially win a netbook, or just to eat.)

The presentation videos are up now, and range from technical: high altitude medicine, to the environmental: flood forecasting and climate change, to the interpersonal: hacking the ‘hood. We even had a bit of a poetry slam (certainly a crowd favourite).

The next Ignite will take place on March 3rd, same place, so mark your calendars, or, if you’re interested in speaking, let them know! (I am not planning to present… yet.)

The psychological immune system

Great talk on what makes us happy — or not — and the differences between and effects of “natural” vs. synthetic happiness. Great stuff: entertaining, educational, and leans to the scientific rather than a “hippie” side. 🙂

Body Worlds & The Story of the Heart

Last weekend Andrew, Melissa, Sherry, and I headed to TO for the latest Body Worlds exhibit to come to town. None of us had ever seen it before, but I’d heard good things. Plus, none of us are squeamish, and we’re all unabashed nerds, so bring on the flayed corpses! 🙂 (Sherry’s account.)

Because the feature of this series is the heart, and, by association, the vascular system, there were a number of exhibits where the vascular system was the focus of the plastination, either alone (the heart, a rooster, a lamb, etc.) or in conjunction with other body parts (a full skeleton with circulatory system, the circulatory system of the head, internal organs, etc.)

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