Archives for posts with tag: TV

This is the third part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1 and Part 2.

This post covers some of the talks on Sunday. Matt Parker did a fantastic job as MC for the QED conference. Matt, who did a talk on maths some years ago, was uncannily witty and able to manage any situation effortlessly. Who knew that a maths training could lead to such important skills?

That video

Hot off the presses is the video of the event. It was shown for a second time on Sunday morning with a very subtle modification for the second day.

Mermaids and Crappy Science TV

The headline speaker on Sunday Morning was Cara Santa Maria. Cara is known to many in the skeptical movement as a new co-host on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. She talked about her upbringing into a Mormon family, and her mental health challenges during her early career in media.


It’s clear from her presentation that she is passionate about science and science communication. She has huge experience negotiating the American media landscape and  has a few thoughts on it’s merits and downsides.

The Discovery Channel has really shit the bed recently.

The American science media landscape is very different to Europe. There is a strong culture of anti-intellectualism and there are few incentives from government to provide quality, honest programming. In the past, news programs and factual programs, though not profitable in themselves, were funded from game-shows. Nowadays everything has to show a profit. This has lead to a race to the bottom: and lowest common denominator programming is the result with ratings beating truth each time. Recent examples include speculations about the continued existence of mermaids and megalodons on popular science channels.

Would you be opposed to dinosaurs still being alive in the Amazon?

Unnamed Discovery Channel executive after pitching a science show.

There are no easy answers to the problem, but Cara believes that it can be tackled through strong science role models such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, fighting back against the worst excesses of bad programming, creating popular DIY content, financial supports for good content and demanding change in the industry. It will be a long war.

Stop trying to sound so goddamn smart.

Cara has some thoughts on good science communication:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience, but always underestimate their vocabulary.
  3. A big effort in communicating science should be put into the process of thinking, not the spouting of facts. Teach people to think critically for themselves.
  4. Be yourself. If you are pretending to be someone you’re not, people will disengage.
  5. Meet people where they are. We need to understand the cultural background and unchallenged assumptions that people have before we can talk to them meaningfully.
  6. Stop trying to sound so goddamn smart. The best science communicators talk to people in their language.

Here’s Cara talking about GMOs on the Dave Rubin show.

Duck Vaginas? Yes. Duck Vaginas.


You had to be there. Sally LePage’s presentation was mind-blowing. Sally is an evolutionary biologist doing a PhD in sexual selection in Oxford. In a marvellously entertaining talk, she talked about the history of study into animal sex organs, noting that Darwin was really the first person in two millennia to take an academic interest in the field.

When a male has lots of sex it’s called sex. When females have sex, it’s called promiscuity.

She contrasted the research done on male animal genitalia to female animal genitalia, noting that the former category had been studied much more than the latter. Which is a pity, because without understanding the female reproductive organs, it’s difficult to come to conclusions on the variety of male sex organs. The duck is a case in point. Everyone knows that the duck has a corkscrew penis, but far less people (at least until this weekend) would have been aware that the duck vagina is even more elaborately shaped, allowing the female to decide which of the prospective males will become the father.


A beetle’s penis. Just in case you were asking.

Even eggs are much less passive than sperms. Where conventional wisdom has the active sperm penetrating the egg, recent research shows that chemicals in on the surface of the egg actively collude in accepting the male DNA inside.

Sally delivered a master-class presentation here. She is a clear, entertaining presenter with a marvellous sense of humour and timing. Great work.

Here’s Sally talking about the Tragedy of the Commons.

Not done yet…

Let’s say you were watching a programme on house building, but every time the builder spoke up about using concrete blocks, the camera panned afterwards to a person who believed that instead of concrete, Christmas tinsel should be a better building material.

Or, you were watching a motoring programme with a mechanic talking about putting oil in the engine to keep the parts moving. After he had spoken, the programme sought the views of a person who felt that Fanta Orange was a much better alternative than oil to lubricate the engine.

Imagine, in both cases, how the builder or the mechanic would feel about this. Imagine what they would think about the programme makers. “Short changed” would be putting it mildly.

With due consideration to the Christmas Tinselists and Fanta Orangeists out there, we might consider it completely mad for a programme to devote time to people who clearly were off the range as regards issues that are generally accepted as mainstream ideas. Not only that, but it would be seen by many as sowing confusion and distraction where no such thing was warranted.

The principle of balance is ingrained into most broadcasting organisations. To be fair to all sides, they will often invite people with different viewpoints to debate particular points. This is a good principle in the main. It minimises the chances that we are being excluded from hearing important contrary information when making your mind up about various issues. It also makes for good, entertaining TV and radio.

In the cases above, however, you can see that the principle of balance can be overextended, particularly when subjects are largely decided and incontrovertible. In many situations, therefore, the broadcaster is not required to create a “balanced” debate; they are perfectly entitled to represent the single accepted position and get on with it. This is the picture acknowledged by most experts in that field. It’s accepted because there is overwhelming support for it. Why create debate when there is none?

Take evolution for instance. There are people in this world who deny evolution, primarily for religious reasons. That’s their choice. It is a nonsense, however, to employ the principle of balance when discussing evolution, because unlike evolutionary scientists, creationists have no real evidence supporting their position. In the many decades since Darwin first published his ideas, creationists have utterly failed to provide reliable support for an alternative, while the scientific underpinning have multiplied in size. The scientific evidence is so overwhelming that it’s a complete nonsense to suggest that a debate even exists. Pitting a creationist against an evolutionary scientist – no matter how many people feel there is a debate to be had – is quite ridiculous. It only serves to elevate a faith based position to be seen as a plausible alternative to the scientific research – a position it does not deserve.

After so much debate and so much evidence, we are also entitled to question the motives of those who would continue – to this day – to promote creationism or intelligent design as credible alternatives on a par with evolutionary science. Since their positions have been refuted in so many ways and for such a long period of time, we can safely say that such people are no longer interested in an honest pursuit of the truth. Denial has a propaganda value. Thus, it’s not just false balance: anyone organising a debate between creationists and evolutionary scientists nowadays must accept that the creationists are not coming to the table with pure intentions, despite what they might say publicly.

Such is also the case with climate change. The vast majority of climate scientists are in agreement that a) CO2 and other greenhouse gasses are warming the planet, b) that intensive human activity is the major factor in this warming and that c) this issue needs to be tackled urgently. Deniers take issue with some or all of these statements, but their arguments have little scientific merit. Pitted against decades worth of evidence building and hypothesis testing, the denier community has come up short. They are losing and they know it. Having singularly failed to develop a plausible scientific alternative, they resort to sowing doubt and muddying the waters. It’s the Creationism vs Evolution debate all over again. Because it too has only got worse for deniers in the past years, we have to ask ourselves what the underlying motive for maintaining their stance might be.

It’s for these reasons that I don’t think it’s useful to be giving a platform to climate change deniers on broadcast media. Like Christmas Tinselists or Fanta Orangeists, they have no scientific argument to make and thus they are a distraction from the real issue. But more than this, just like creationists, I have a problem with their motives. When the evidence is so overwhelming, there has to be an underlying reason for maintaining their stance. An honest debate in such circumstances is impossible.

I only started watching Game of Thrones a few months ago. Having finally brought myself up to date, I am converted. Here are some of the reasons why. Lots of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it, my apologies.

The Geography

I was originally attracted to Game of Thrones when I discovered that southern Westeros was just a slightly modified, upturned and greatly enlarged version of the island of Ireland. King’s Landing is Galway, Casterly Rock is Dublin, and Oldtown is Belfast. Sort of.

There are also interesting similarities with Britain, with King’s Landing not so different, geographically, to London; and Lannister and Stark not echoing Lancaster and York. The Great Wall is clearly a nod in the direction of Hadrian’s Wall, just south of the Scottish borders.

Imprinted over this is a greater European picture. Game of Thrones is set in a region far greater than the UK and Ireland, reaching all the way from Scandinavia to North Africa. You can see traces of cultures throughout the series. The primary focus is English, with Northern and Southern accents plainly evident. Dorne is Spain and Essos is Middle Eastern.

The History

The Game of Thrones borrows nearly everything from the Middle Ages. These were violent times, and nothing is left to the imagination. The castles and keeps are from that period, as is the weaponry and clothing. The tortures, murders and battles are brutally medieval and fights for supremacy are truly Machiavellian.

While the North is a gloomy, dreary place, full of capricious attacks and Viking rampages, Kings Landing is altogether more Byzantine. The slave-kingdoms of the East echo an Islamic caliphate, with “Khaleesi” Daenerys married to the Khan of a Mongol-like horde. The celibate Night Watch watchers are a semi-religious cast: monks of a bygone age.

The Characters

The landscape and historical setting is greatly enhanced by its cast of heroes, pawns and villains. Foremost among them is Tyrion Lannister, played by Peter Dinklage. Tyrion is wonderful – delightfully intelligent, cunning, debauched, humorous and empathic, while suffering damaging abuse and ridicule often from those closest to him. You can’t help but root for him.

Empathy with the misfits and marginalised is a common theme throughout the series. The girl Arya, who would be a boy; Brienne of Tarth, a grown up in the same vein; Bran the crippled boy on his mission to the north; the devious eunuch Varys; John Snow, the illegitimate son of Ned Stark – none of these are minor roles.

Then there are the shades of light and dark. While there are a few unredeemable monsters, many characters are more complex. Few heroes are whiter than white. Catelyn Stark’s treatment of John Snow is one example, as are the motivations of Littlefinger and Sansa Stark in the last series – both people stepping outside their assigned characters when events demand it.

The Stories

The older I get, the more I detest the straightforward story, because nothing in life is straightforward. Most of the time, it’s all incidental mayhem. The creators of Game of Thrones capture this perfectly. There is often an aimlessness about the journeys and unexpected tragedies are alarmingly commonplace.

But the stories, as they are, are compelling. John Snow’s seduction by Ygritte and his subsequent betrayal is heartbreaking, as is Ned Stark’s treatment by Cersei and Joffrey. Tyrion competently defends Kings Landing only to be disgraced by his father. The comeuppance of Theon Greyjoy, a man deserving of his fate, is almost too much to bear.

And you think the stories are going in a certain direction when – BAM – they turn into something altogether more ghastly. The Red Wedding, anyone?

A link to today?

Many science fiction and fantasy stories tell us more about today than they do about the times they were written. Game of Thrones is no different. It’s a modern tale in that it speaks to contemporary gender roles, despite an official insistence (by the likes of Tywin Lannister) on traditionalism. Arya and Brienne want more as women in a largely patriarchal culture. Homosexual relationships are seen as normal, if still somewhat secretive.

Ravens and the little birds of Lord Varys serve as a rudimentary Internet, and Varys’ character speaks to achievement by merit as opposed to noble background.

Unlike the Lord of the Rings, there is less racism. There is bad and good in all cultures. This is clearest with the Wildlings, as they flee from the terror to their north. The Night Watch acknowledge them as humans like themselves, with the misfortune of living on the wrong side of the Wall.

There is also an interplay between religion and atheism taking place that mirrors the outside world. Stanis Baratheon represents a world of religious fanaticism while other characters are more agnostic in their outlook. This, of course, is not an issue of this age alone, but in a world threatened by ISIS and Islamist fanaticism it rings a bitter note.

Final note?

I cannot wait until the start of series 5. I just can’t.

UPC flyer2

I just got a flyer in the door today telling me that Chorus and NTL, the two main providers of cable TV in Ireland, are merging. No news there, however it’s how they are trying to market it that has me irked!

According to them this merger is “a new kind of choice”, and inside in the leaflet we are told that with this new arrangement we will have “greater choice”.

No we won’t. We will have less choice. If this renamed service (UPC) is dreadfully poor (and I’m not hopeful, believe you me) then we will have fewer alternatives to seek out. Between them they will hold a huge percentage of the overall market with around a million customers here in the Republic. The only choices we should care about are our options should UPC fail to deliver, or increase their prices on a whim.

The sheer brass neck of this lot. “Greater choice”. Tsk.

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