Archive for the ‘Watching television’ category

Why the Mythbusters Newton’s Cradle failed

10 December 2011

What with the Mythbusters having a bit of a mishap this week (a vast understatement by the way, and thank goodness no one was injured), folks have likely forgotten about their most elaborate and ambitious project of the current season: the supersized Newton’s Cradle. The thing was enormous, consisting of giant orbs hung from steel girders suspended over an empty drydock. It was an awesome concept.

But it was also a dismal failure.

Why? Well, there’s the inherent difficulty of precisely aligning such a massive structure such that the balls are in a perfectly straight line and a minimum of energy is lost to sideways motion. This was what much of Adam’s and Jamie’s fine-tuning addressed—but try as they might, they couldn’t get the giant clack-clacking effect they’d hoped for.

An in-depth analysis on Wired goes into the physics of a Newton’s Cradle, and what might have gone wrong, but ultimately punts a definitive conclusion by stating that “the camera angle wasn’t the best for analysis.” Now, I am not a professional physicist, but I think a hint at the real problem may be summed up in one comment in that Wired article: “It seems that these balls are not elastic.”

Right. See, the balls they used were not the solid steel balls of an ordinary Newton’s Cradle, scaled up, which apparently would have been prohibitively expensive to acquire. Instead they were homemade: spherical steel casings, each with a thick steel disk at the equator and both hemispheres filled with concrete.

As I said, I am not a physicist, so what follows might be off-base. But my impression of the impact event in a normal Newton’s Cradle goes like this:

  • When one ball strikes another, the first ball’s momentum is transferred as a force acting on a single point (ideally, that is) on the surface of the second ball.
  • That force of impact radiates in all directions through the second ball. The energy can’t escape from the ball (except for the bits that become heat, and that clacking noise), so as it crosses through the interior of the ball, the energy that reaches the surface is reflected (or refracted?) back into the interior.
  • Ultimately all that energy converges back at a single point on the surface of the ball, exactly antipodal to the impact point.
  • That energy convergence causes the ball to react and move—and if there’s another ball touching that convergence point, the energy is transferred into that next ball, and the Newton’s Cradle does its thing.

So far, so good. Here’s the problem: as I said, the interior of the Mythbusters balls were mostly concrete, not steel. Therefore most of the energy entering each impacted ball was muddled, diffused, slowed as it moved through that medium. Only the energy passing through the steel equatorial disk—a small fraction of the whole—was transferred efficiently into the next ball. The result was as seen on TV: powerful action, anemic reaction.

I believe that, had the Mythbusters used enormous, solid, hardened steel balls for their giant Newton’s Cradle, they might have come up with the amazing visual they—and we—were all hoping to see.

The spin-off’s spin-off’s spin-off

17 May 2011

For the past few months I’ve had a puzzler simmering on the back burner.

It was triggered by MeTV airing, the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, a marathon of Love, American Style. Amidst the episodes was the segment “Love and the Happy Days” which, as any classic TV fan knows, spun off into the long-running sitcom Happy Days—a show that spawned several spin-offs of its own. More recently, Fox aired an episode of Bones that was obviously—nay, blatantly—a set-up for its next-mid-season replacement series The Finder, something known in the biz as a “backdoor pilot.”

At any rate, here’s my puzzler: What’s the longest chain of spin-offs in television history?

Read more…

A monkey pulling levers at random in zero-g could do better

10 February 2011

As a spaceflight historian, I know more than the average person about the details of the Space Race. Just as a baseball geek can cite the rosters of their favourite team for every season all the way back to a time when socks were called “stockings,” I can name all the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo crews—as well as their spacecraft names, backup crews, launch dates, landing dates, etc. Many of the Shuttle missions too. Trivial bits of data fascinate and stick in my mind, so that when I hear a narrator say the Apollo SPS (Service Propulsion System) engine used “a 50/50 mix of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and hydrazine” as fuel, I’m the one that blurts out, “also known as Aerozine-50.”

Even though I’m a stickler for accuracy, I try to give a little slack when I see errors in television and film. That the model builders for Apollo 13 painted the Saturn V rocket with the black-and-white pattern from the non-flight-worthy 500F “Facilities Integration Vehicle” is a sloppy mistake, but not one that detracts from the excellent and ingenious special effects of the launch sequence. I can live with episode 5 of From the Earth to the Moon, “Spider,” using a piece of stock footage of a Saturn V on the launch pad that clearly shows the “S-IC-6” label of the Apollo 11 vehicle, rather than Apollo 9; and the actor portraying Rusty Schweickart using the event timer reset/count switch to power down the Lunar Module.

What galls me however, what I find utterly unacceptable, is the horribly error-prone use of stock footage by innumerable television documentaries. The U.S. space program is so incredibly well-recorded—NASA filmed everything, down to the most basic tests—that any event one might want to depict will have high-quality footage available. There’s simply no reason—or excuse—to fake it.

So why is it that we’re forced to watch, say, an Atlas rocket while the narrator describes Alan Shepard’s Mercury flight aboard a Redstone? Or a close-up of Space Shuttle Main Engines firing up, during a sequence about Apollo?

We wouldn’t accept a picture of a World War I fighter plane, used to illustrate the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk. Nor a horse-drawn carriage substituted for a Model T. And it’s not at all difficult to distinguish between the handful of vehicles and spacecraft that have been used for manned spaceflight. So what is it that makes this so pervasive—and, apparently, acceptable—in spaceflight documentaries?

As an aside, I’ll say that not all documentaries are culpable; the British production The Space Age: NASA’s Story which aired recently on PBS is a fine example of “the right stuff.” The four-part series was not only highly accurate in its use of archival footage, it also selected many examples of less-often seen film that avoided the clichéd shots we’ve all seen so many times that they’ve lost their impact. I definitely recommend this documentary for its clear, well-written and interesting overview of NASA history.

What really set me off on this rant is this: A History of the Space Shuttle, a five-disc box set of stock (i.e. government-produced and hence in the public domain and royalty-free) footage, distributed by Madacy Entertainment. Their stuff is usually pretty decent, albeit dry in the narration. But for this one, I had to hit the eject button within the first half-hour or so in order to resist the urge to put my foot through the television screen. A lengthy—yet incomplete—listing of the mistakes the producers had the audacity to foist upon us while pretending to know the “history”:

  • At the 4:15 mark; narrator: “Once the rocket ran out of fuel, the X-1 [rocket plane] would glide to the ground.” Image: a Bell X-2 gliding to the ground. The X-2 flew almost ten years after the X-1, at more than twice the speed. Oh, and it was painted white, not orange.
  • 10:25; “When Scott Crossfield flew the first X-15 flight…” Image: smiling pilot, in flight suit, walking toward the X-15. The pilot is Joe Walker.
  • 18:45; “On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union changed history with its successful launch of Sputnik.” Image: animation of a generic rocket-looking thing, nothing at all like a Soviet R-7.
  • 19:30; “…the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 2” (also aboard an R-7). Image: liftoff of an American Atlas A ICBM.
  • 21:35; “Jupiter AM-13 mission…” Image: Explorer 1. The large “UE” letters painted on the side of the booster are a dead giveaway.
  • 22:00; “Two monkeys named Able and Baker…” Image: two chimpanzees, not rhesus monkeys. But what the heck, all primates look alike.
  • 22:15; “[Ham the Astrochimp] launched into suborbital flight…”  Image: a Mercury–Atlas launch. Ham rode a Redstone. (The gaffes are coming fast now—nearly every clip is misused.)
  • 27:00; In the midst of a montage about Mercury development testing that never shows an actual test, a misplaced clip of a Gemini–Titan launch. (The Mercury test footage shows up later—during the chapter on Apollo.)
  • 29:20; “…America had finally put a man [Alan Shepard] into space.” After two correct shots of a Mercury–Redstone launch, presumably Shepard’s, they just had to insert one of a Mercury–Atlas.
  • 32:00; Not an error per se, but it’s peculiar how the section on John Glenn’s orbital flight skips from pre-launch preparations to his post-flight ticker tape parade, without any footage of the flight itself; they must have already used up all their Mercury–Atlas film.
  • 33:00; “Gordon Cooper became the first man to spend a full day in outer space,” aboard Mercury–Atlas 9.” Image: yet another Mercury–Redstone.
  • 33:55; As the chapter on the Gemini project commences, two shots of the Agena target vehicle—one as the narrator says Gemini was “named for its twin-seat capsule.” In fact, nowhere within the entire Gemini chapter is a clear view of said capsule ever shown; nor footage of any of the ten manned Gemini launches.
  • 35:10; “Between August 11 and August 12 of 1962, two Russian capsules [Vostok 3 and 4] lifted off…” Image: another American Atlas ICBM.
  • 35:20; Continuing discussion of the Soviet Vostok 3/4 rendezvous. Image: a piece of tumbling hardware in orbit, unidentified but clearly not a Vostok spacecraft.
  • 37:35; “…Astronauts Grissom and Young piloted [Gemini 3],” which (like all Gemini missions) flew aboard a Titan II rocket. Image: Saturn IB launch, followed by S-IVB staging.

By that point, I came to the conclusion that whoever assembled the footage either was utterly disconnected from the narration production, or they had absolutely no idea what the hell they were looking at. Anger and frustration at repeatedly hearing one thing and seeing another forced me to shut the damn thing off, and left no doubt in my mind that the litany of mistakes goes on and on throughout the 90-minute program. I was going to say that the narration itself is fairly accurate and not entirely uninformative—until I heard him say that after Apollo 11, “the Apollo program launched three more manned missions to the Moon.” Okay, seriously—WTF? (There were six, five of which landed.)

This box set is such a steaming pile of crap, I have to call out the people responsible for it by name. Executive Producer: Edward Feuerherd; Producers: Mike Fitzer & K.C. Hight; Scripting: Edward Feuerherd & Mike Fitzer; Research: Lisa Neil & K.C. Hight; Creation Films, 2007.

I said above that Madacy products are “usually pretty decent,” but on second thought I retract that statement. Madacy Entertainment distributes poorly produced documentaries, assembled by hacks from public-domain archives, packaged in high-quality box sets that utterly belie the recycled garbage within.

I just want historical documentaries to get their basic facts straight. Is that so wrong?

À bientôt, Vancouver, it’s been fun — what we saw of you

1 March 2010

Every time the Olympic Games come to a close, there’s always that twinge of sadness, of let-down. It’s to be expected, for it is a melancholy moment when the torch is extinguished. As each Olympics has ended I’ve always felt the same way: “Is that all? Over so soon? It feels like we were just getting started!”

I used to think this feeling of dissatisfaction, of un-satiation, was normal—but no longer. I’ve come to realize that, along with exemplary sportsmanship, tales of tragedy and triumph, and edge-of-one’s-seat finishes, there’s another common factor to every Olympics I have ever watched: the dismal television coverage of the National Broadcasting Company. Read more…

A paean to public access

13 October 2006

Once upon a time, circa 1990, back when I was in college and living in the student ghetto, there was one television show we watched with unerring regularity. Oddly enough, it was on the public access channel of the East Lansing, Michigan, cable system—WELM—which was your ordinary public access station. During the week it carried the usual community-service stuff: religious programming, homebrew sports talk, and the like. But one show stood out.

As an aside, there was one other point of interest on WELM in those days: Eat at Joe’s, hosted by local impresario Joseph Szilvagyi and featuring, among other things, local musical talent. East Lansing’s own Verve Pipe and Wally Pleasant appeared, and, believe it or not, Smashing Pumpkins. I never watched this show enough before Joey pulled up stakes and left E.L.

The real subject of this tale was our television bread and butter: Sloucho’s Cartoon Control Room.

sloucho.jpgSloucho Barx was a guy (though I didn’t know it at the time, it turns out he was Tim Arnold, co-owner of Pinball Pete’s) wearing an ill-fitting, damaged and distorted whole-head rubber mask. I always remembered it as a Groucho Marx mask, but this screen capture makes me think of Frank Zappa. Each week Sloucho would point a couple of cameras at himself sitting in the control room of the cable company’s headend studio. Piled around him would be a portion of his massive library of videos—all cartoons. For six hours he would play cartoon after cartoon, classics from the Warner Bros., MGM, and Disney studios, old chestnuts rarely seen in years, interspersed with his introductions and commentaries—often to fill time while he tracked down and cued up the next tape. He’d record the whole show to a single VHS tape.

Then WELM played it, all weekend long. I figure the last person out the door on Friday night would fire up the playback on an auto-rewind loop, and for the next two days, while no one was working at the headend, WELM would broadcast six hours of Sloucho, followed by a few minutes of blue screen as the tape rewound.

It was perfect for the college-age demographic. Any hour of the day or night, drunk sober or otherwise, it was always a safe haven: no commercials, no (realistic) violence, just funny stuff. He usually didn’t play the “big guns”—What’s Opera, Doc? or Duck Dodgers in the 24th-and-a-half Century—perhaps due to copyright issues. Instead he delved into much more obscure fare.

Sloucho’s trademark, aside from the mask and the repartee, was that every week he would show one cartoon in particular: Warner’s 1932 epic Freddy the Freshman. freddy.jpgOkay, “epic” is a joke… it was an early Merrie Melodies two-parter, starting with a musical interlude at a college party, where Freddy arrives in his jalopy to sing his theme song, followed by a football game featuring all sorts of silly sight gags. It was goofy, and more than a little rudimentary. A few weeks ago on an Adult Swim rerun of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, they showed the first half of the cartoon, and although I had my nose in a book I immediately recognised the lead-in instrumental and was shocked to realise that I remembered all the lyrics:

Who’s got all the girlies chasing him around?
Freddy the Freshman, the freshest kid in town!
Who wrecks all the parties, turns them upside-down?
Freddy the Freshman, the freshest kid in town!
He plays the ukulele, he plays the saxophone,
And the pretty babies just won’t leave him alone!
Who got bounced at Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Brown?
Freddy the Freshman, the freshest kid in town!

Sloucho also clued me in on some very interesting, but little-known cartoons. To this day, one of my all-time favourites is The Dover Boys, from 1940. This was a Chuck Jones experiment in animation “shorthand,” using blurred streaks of colour to denote rapid movement without drawing detailed parts in every cel. Surely it’s familiar to us now, having seen it used so many times for the Road Runner’s legs, but this was where Jones first gave it a try on a large scale. In The Dover Boys the effect is surreal, almost trippy. Plus this cartoon has a great line that I often find myself quoting for no real reason, when the villain Dan Backslide announces in an over-the-top stage whisper surely audible to all around, “A runabout! I’ll steal it—no one will ever know!”

Like all good things, Sloucho’s Cartoon Control Room had to come to an end. And what a strange and ignominious end it was.

One week, Sloucho put together a show with a single theme: culturally insensitive cartoons. Among his collection he had scads of cartoons from the 1930s and ’40s—mainstream Warner and MGM stuff, not backalley indies—containing jokes that were considered acceptable then, but not now; in those days, blackface gags, ethnic slurs, and the like were commonplace. Nowadays, if shown on television at all, the questionable parts are trimmed out, sometimes right in the middle of a setup, or just in time to skip over the punchline. But Sloucho had the originals, uncut, warts and ugly sentiments intact.

He presented the show as something like a sociological documentary. Between every cartoon he’d come on and explain what the show was about: that in the golden era of studio animation, not all was purity and light and a “left turn at Albuquerque,” that prejudices and racism existed even on the screens of the Saturday matinee. He’d disclaim what was about to air and warn that kids and impressionable minds probably shouldn’t be watching, and after the cartoon was over he’d register his disapproval at what we’d seen.

rooster.jpgEven Freddy the Freshman made it onto this show, thanks to a scene you won’t see on the Cartoon Network: a brief cutaway during the football game to three magpies sitting on a fence chanting “Oy! Oy! Oy!” while waving Hebrew-lettered pennants, who are then interrupted by an extremely effeminate and flamboyant rooster giving his own limp-wristed cheer.

I found this show fascinating, a real eye-opener. It was amazing to see how much cultural values had changed in the brief half-century since these shorts were created. And I felt that Sloucho did an exemplary job of putting them into the proper context, to come right out and repeatedly say, “These views are not acceptable. Period.”

But of course, it caused a furor, and parents wrote in to WELM to complain. (I had two thoughts on that, first that they weren’t doing an adequate job of supervising their kids’ television viewing, and second that they missed an opportunity to open a dialogue with their kids about this subject.) The next weekend, and those following, saw nothing but automated schedule pages. Sloucho was permanently off the air. Tim Arnold hung up the mask, and shortly afterward sold his share of Pinball Pete’s and moved to Las Vegas, where he now runs the non-profit Pinball Hall of Fame.