How to make Formula 1 better

F1 is the greatest motorsport in the world. It’s fast, rich, sexy, glamourous and high tech. Based on any one of those attributes it beats the hell out of NASCAR. I have enjoyed watching it for 25 years. But does F1 need an overhaul?

Yes. And no.

The 2010 championship is currently as close as a championship has ever been. Red Bull-Renault, Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes are all serious contenders with Mercedes GP an outside chance. There’s nothing worse than seeing one team of two cars win every race by more than a lap. So the current balance of rules is doing something right in keeping it close and making sure that the champion will not be known until the end of the season. So there’s a valid argument against meddling with the rules; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Rule changes are introduced every year with the intention of improving the cars and making the racing more exciting and safer. The tech is expected to trickle down from the racetrack to the street, and indeed top of the line Ferrari sports cars make use of things developed in F1 that are now illegal on the track like movable wings. And turbochargers. The F-duct is a fantastic example of out-thinking the regulations and developing a system to alter the aerodynamics to give a speed advantage in the straights. Also, some teams have developed a flexible wing system that seems to defy the current static load tests but allows flex on the track which means they’re still legal because, hey, they passed the established tests. But I feel there’s too much reliance on aerodynamics in F1.

A serious attempt at taking the grip away from the upper aerodynamics and putting more of an emphasis on ground effects would definitely help. It would allow cars to run closer to each other. Currently, a car with front and rear wings is modeled on and runs best in clear air. The closer you get to a car you’re trying to overtake, the more you’re at the mercy of the turbulent air coming off it. Your front wing doesn’t work as well. This affects your grip, especially coming into corners where most overtaking is done. Allowing ground effects is one thing that would allow the cars to run closer together, and would allow more passing on track rather than in the pits.

If I was ever in charge of F1, and God willing it will only be a matter of time, I’d give each team two shells and as few design rules and regulations as possible. Hire the biggest engineering brains you can find and see what you come up with, working within a framework of some standardised aspects such as, for example, tyres. The only goal is to get around the track as fast as possible. I’m sure that even allowing ground effects and turbochargers in current F1 cars you could take 20% off the lap record of each track. I mean, when you sit down to a racing game, trying to build the fastest car possible to smash the track lap records is the most fun part of the game. Take the leash off design and you’ll see more innovations like F-Duct and KERS, new tech which can then be matured for street cars. You’d probably also need to hire drivers with no fear of death.

Thankfully, I’ll never be in charge of F1 and I think the current rules system almost has it right. Challenges such as restrictions to power could be introduced. Perhaps a small displacement turbo engine would be attractive and would make F1 more culturally and environmentally relevant. Whatever happens, I’m enjoying 2010 and hope that Mark Webber can keep is lead for four more races.

AFL Grand Final: Feels so nice we’re doing it twice

Today Collingwood and St Kilda met each other for the first time in a Grand Final since 1966. Like their previous encounter, St Kilda scored a very late point in the game – however in this case, the result was only the third drawn Grand Final in history with a final score of 68-68.

In the AFL, a drawn game is a drawn game. There’s no time on, there’s no penalty shoot out. There’s no rock – paper – scissors. What this all means is that we come back next week at the same bat-time, same bat-place for the AFL Grand Final Part 2 – Electric Boogaloo.

Interviews after the game with players showed dissatisfaction with the result, which is understandable. There were 100,016 people in attendance at the game, and they were all silent. No shouts for joy, no tears of regret. Just a stunned silence of disbelief that they need to pony up another couple hundred dollars for next weeks game. I’m not sure that any other professional sports league in the world replays their final, but that’s part of what makes the AFL the AFL.

On large numbers

There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it’s only a hundred billion. It’s less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers.

Richard Feynman

Brownlow: wake me when it’s over

Many players will contend this years Brownlow Medal, favourites including Dane Swan of Collingwood, Luke Hodge of Hawthorn, and Gary Ablett of Geelong who is also last years winner. It’s being televised now but I just can’t bring myself to watch the whole ceremony because it’s just so damn boring!  We have to sit through some dude reading three votes from 22 rounds of 8 games. That’s 528 repetitions of “Team, Initial Surname, X Votes”. Riveting stuff.

To get people interested the media resort to televising the “blue carpet” where the players WAGS show off their frocks and as much skin as possible while still trying to maintain some semblance of dignity. Sadly, it’s widely conceded that this is the most entertaining aspect of the whole night.

Most of the actual players they’ve interviewed have appeared overwhelmed and uncomfortable in front of the camera, awkwardly wringing their hands with their eyes darting from side to side even when thrown the easiest lightweight questions. Have they had no training from the AFL or their agents in conducting themselves in front of the media?

I commented last year on why the Brownlow has little credibility anyhow. How can umpires be responsible in determining the best player?

Bad kids movies: The case against “The Clone Wars”

This is an article I wrote at a Star Wars collecting forum in September 2008, discussing the release of The Clone Wars animated movie. I’ve been reflecting lately on the quality of what my kids watch and comparing it to what I used to watch. With my kids now coming to better appreciate Star Wars, should I introduce them to The Clone Wars movie and the animated series? Read on!

If you can't make it good, make it 3DKids shows are often written poorly, and the excuse is that kids don’t need good plots, just smarmy messages. And if they aren’t exposed to quality stuff, then they pretty much expect everything is supposed to be that bad, and think of it as normal.

When you consider how many kids (including me) were raised to think so many bad shows from the 70s and 80s are “classics” despite them being essentially just advertising disguised with some minimal plot elements, it shows part of the problem that film goers and TV audiences accept the poor state of film and TV writing as normal. They simply do not know any better.

Which, I suppose, is part of the point. Why would you invest in decent shows and writers if you didn’t have to? Why break away from the formulaic style if people don’t expect anything different?

Yet, then we decry the state of TV, and the horrible films, and the tissue thin plots and barely cognizant themes. People are willing to accept bad film and television, because they just don’t know that there can be anything better. Part of the problem is also Political Conservatism. Kids movies can’t have swear words now, or nudity let alone an intricate story line. Some of the best movies of my childhood have naughty words and boobies.

Childrens’ literature is fine wire to walk. You have to have plots and characters that resonate, and that are understandable, and expose kids to good writing. Reading well, they will be able to have a bar set to shoot for themselves. Same with TV and film. If you hold that bar low, that’s what they’ll shoot for. They may extend beyond it eventually, but the bulk is going to be mediocre at best, and if the bar is set low to begin with, then that is where it will stay.

As far as the animation goes, Pixar and old-school Disney (the original movies up to the early 90′s. None of the direct-to-video sequel garbage, certainly almost none of the new stuff) prove that childrens’ movies can be excellently made on almost all levels. When the possibility for quality is proven, it leaves studios no excuse for sub-standard crap, even if it’s sub-standard crap for kids.

Compare the Pixar movies to the Dreamworks /everyone else releases that inevitably copy them. Both studios ostensibly make kids’ movies, but Pixar produces wholly excellent stuff like clockwork, while Dreamworks’ films are all over the place and are sometimes quite amazingly shitty.

Clone Wars comes from Lucas’ inability to put together a compelling narrative or create characters we can sympathize with. It’s just another example of Lucas losing all track of what made Star Wars great to begin with. That Lucas used the same excuses for Clone Wars as he did for the prequel trilogy, and that the Clone Wars suffers from the same weaknesses as the prequel trilogy, indicates that it’s a failing of a movie as a movie, not just as a childrens‘ movie.

Maybe we all look at the original trilogy through rosy glasses, but I can still watch the first three films and enjoy them, and also the prequel trilogy though I accept some can’t stomach them. The special effects hold up, the lines are more memorable, the pacing is generally better, and it generally just felt… more cohesive. Not some hastily cobbled together mess which turns Star Wars into a horrendous whirling abyss of sulphurous feces. I maintain that the six movies by themselves are great. It’s every other SW movie which is bringing things down – Ewoks, Caravan of Courage, The Holiday Special, and the special editions. Those animated Cartoon Network SW CW cartoons do have some merit, at least for me.

You could argue “Well, you’re an adult. Your opinion doesn’t matter because it was made for kids.”

In conversations about movies, there is nothing that pisses me off more than a statement like this. (Well, if you were to say Keira Knightly is unattractive you’d see me go all Hulk on yo ass). What you’re saying is that if a movie is made for kids, then nobody need bother trying to make it good as long as kids enjoy it.

It’s this attitude that leads to cheap, crappy, mind-numbing, toy-selling Saturday morning cartoons and pure shit movies like “Shark Tale” and “The Country Bears” that have no standards beyond keeping kids still for 90 minutes.

Anyone setting out to make a kids movie should be aiming for Pixar/”The Iron Giant” quality. If you don’t get there, at least you tried. But the people who make kids movies without any ambition toward doing quality work that stands up to scrutiny are just out to make money off the fact that most parents have very low standards for their children’s entertainment.

Of course, in a world where “reality” shows and talent competitions dominate pop culture, these same parents clearly have low standards for their own entertainment too.

The point is, kids are not dumb, and adults shouldn’t underestimate their intellect. Being a “kid’s movie” is no excuse for lazy movie-making, something Pixar has proven over and over again. Dreamworks frankly just doesn’t “get it” – they think the key to success is running formulaic franchises into the ground (Shrek 3 anyone?). But Pixar enjoys massive commercial and artistic success by purposely avoiding formula, being inventive and original and talking to kids like real people (something Walt Disney used to do). I find it difficult to truly classify their movies as “kid’s films”, because actually, they’re not – they’re just great films that also happen to be very kid-friendly. Maybe that’s the example Dreamworks and Lucas should follow.

As for George Lucas, I give him all the credit in the world for being a great visionary and bringing the original Star Wars to life. At the same time, it’s very clear he’s lost his way these last 20 years, and he’s only a shadow of the artist he once was. In a funny way, the independence he so boldly sought was his undoing once it was granted.

The illustrated guide to a Ph.D.

I’m reproducing this from an article I read by Matt Might. It has a rare mix of being concise and entertaining.

Imagine a circle that contains all of human knowledge:

By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little:

By the time you finish high school, you know a bit more:

With a bachelor’s degree, you gain a specialty:

A master’s degree deepens that specialty:

Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge:

Once you’re at the boundary, you focus:

You push at the boundary for a few years:

Until one day, the boundary gives way:

And, that dent you’ve made is called a Ph.D.:

Of course, the world looks different to you now:

But, don’t forget the bigger picture:

Palpatine: a guide on turning a republic into a dictatorship

I’ve been watching the Star Wars saga with the kids over the last couple weeks, starting with A New Hope through to Return of the Jedi, and starting again with The Phantom Menace through to Revenge of the Sith. You know, the way the maker intended.

Seeing them all one after the other has been very entertaining and refreshing, and has reinforced the reasons I love Star Wars.

Let’s get this straight: Star Wars is the story of Anakin Skywalker. Sure, there’s lots of other characters including heroes and villains. Even the most obscure characters have their own legion of fans, for instance Bespin’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-him “Ice Cream Maker Guy”. But take away Anakin Skywalker (and therefore Darth Vader) and you have nothing. Star Wars would be a mere shell of a story with no real beginning, no middle and certainly no ending.

But, worthy of mention and indeed of study is the story of the rise of Emperor Palpatine, including the downfall of the Republic and the inception of the First Galactic Empire. As we shall see, Palpatine applied some very simple rules in order not just take power, but to have the power given to him.

Two books I read a while ago and still own are “None Dare Call It Conspiracy”  by Gary Allen, and “The Unseen Hand” by Ralph Epperson. Both fascinating reads. Allen’s book is a basic introductory guide to conspiracy theory but in the 21st century now seems outdated and simplistic. Epperson’s book is more detailed and broad. Both books should still be taken with a grain of salt, but they’re still worth a read. Epperson’s premise is that given all the awful historical events (wars, governmental policies etc) that happen despite governments being expected to prevent them, there are two explanations that these events still happened:

1) The events overwhelmed them, and could not have been prevented; or

2) The events were allowed to occur because the officials wanted them to occur.

Granted, Palpatine and the Galactic Empire are fictitious but the methods he used in his rise to power aren’t completely unbelievable. Epperson quotes a 1951 book by Jan Kozak, who details a five part program to seize control of a government, and illustrates how a slight variation of this program was used by Adolf Hitler. Yes, I Godwinned my own article.

The program goes like this:

1) The first step consisted of having the conspiracy’s own people infiltrate the government (the “pressure from above”)

2) The second step was to create a real or alleged grievance, usually through either an action of government of through some situation where the government should have acted but didn’t

3) The third step consisted in having a mob created by the real or alleged grievance that the government or the conspiracy caused demand that the problem be solved by a governmental action (the “pressure from below”)

4) The fourth step consisted in having the conspirators in the government remedy the real or alleged situation with some oppressive legislation.

5) the fifth step is a repeat of the last three.

Examining the first three movies of the Star Wars Saga, we know that Palpatine started off as a Senator in the Galactic Republic, representing Naboo. He was careful not to advance his career too quickly, content to be seen as a petty and small provincial and mostly flying under the radar. The first step of infiltrating the existing government had been achieved.

Palpatine used his Sith Lord alter ego, Darth Sidious, to create a crisis between the Trade Federation and his home planet of Naboo. Revealing himself as a Sith Lord to the Nemoidians, and making it quite clear that he held some power over the Senate, he orchestrated a blockade and invasion of Naboo requiring intervention. Step two, the real or alleged grievance, was in play.

This is where Palpatine’s path from the described method varies a little. As we see in The Phantom Menace, Sidious was surprised and disappointed that the Jedi were involved so quickly by Chancellor Valorum in this struggle and it upset his plans. Knowing how the Senate operated and that they would be bogged down in negotiations, innuendo and bickering about the allegations against the Trade Federation, he manipulated the young Queen Amidala into moving for a Vote of No Confidence in Chancellor Valorum. Unfortunately for Palpatine, Amidala ultimately succeeded in taking back control of Naboo, and he’d lost his apprentice, Darth Maul, to the Jedi but by the end of The Phantom Menace, Palpatine had succeeded in replacing Valorum as Chancellor.

If Palpatine was going to take control of the entire galaxy, he needed a way to enforce the control. But the Republic had never possessed or needed an army. He needed a way to get this army, so as Darth Sidious and with the aid of his new apprentice Count Dooku he created a Separatist Movement. Dooku united several commercial organizations and star systems to revolt and form a Confederacy. These pledged their armies to Dooku, and made the Confederacy a threat able to overthrow the Republic which would never allow the creation of their own army. Simple-minded Jar Jar Binks was manipulated into moving for a vote to give emergency powers to Palpatine, which Palpatine “reluctantly” agreed to. His first act with this new authority was to “create a Grand Army of the Republic to counter the increasing threats of the Separatists”. This army had already conveniently been created on Kamino. The third step in subverting the government was complete: the senate begged Palpatine to solve the Separatist threat (the real or alleged grievance) by governmental action.

The fourth step was to conduct the Clone Wars, playing both sides. Eventually the army was told to execute “Order 66″, a secret command to exterminate the Jedi. Remember, the Clones were loyal to Palpatine, not the Republic. He rinsed and repeated the steps to create the First Galactic Empire to the thunderous applause of the Senate after demonstrating that the Jedi were the enemy. He used a variation on these steps to seduce Anakin to the Dark side, offering his knowledge to allow Anakin to save Amidala’s life. He used his new apprentice Darth Vader to assassinate the Separatist leadership to bring peace to the galaxy. Of course Palpatine could bring peace to the galaxy, since he was the one who created the strife! In A New Hope, the Emperor dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic had been swept away. The Galaxy was under control of the Sith with Darth Vader and the Imperial Navy/Army as enforcer and Palpatine alone on the Emperor’s throne.

Could this happen in our own country? In our own workplace? Perhaps in our own families? Has it already happened? Keep your eyes open and see who has the most to gain from strife and why people ally themselves the way they do. Why do these events continually happen? Cue Mr X from the Oliver Stone movie, “JFK”:

That’s the real question, isn’t it – “Why?” – the “how” is just “scenery” for the suckers … Oswald, Ruby, Cuba, Mafia, it keeps people guessing like a parlor game, but it prevents them from asking the most important question – Why?  Why was Kennedy killed?  Who benefitted? Who has the power to cover it up? …

I am your father

I’ve finally managed to get my kids excited about Star Wars. It’s been a game, somewhat, where I mention anything remotely related to Star Wars and the kids are immediately resistant, rolling their eyes or ridiculing me for bringing the subject up. But after watching Episode IV a few weeks ago, they’ve been enthusiastic about watching the rest of them. “Can we watch another Star Wars movie for Family Movie Night this weekend?” they’ll ask.

Ashton knows most of the major characters, but Jett is still learning. So far his favourite is Luke Skywalker from the original trilogy, and has been rather dismayed that he hasn’t made an appearance in Episodes I or II.

Jett is so excited about Star Wars, in fact, that he requested that he be dressed as Luke Skywalker for Book Week, a festival where Australian schools promote and celebrate book reading. At our school, they’re encouraged to come along one day in fancy dress as one of their favourite characters. It’s cheating, I know, since Luke Skywalker is more of a movie character than a book character but I don’t think the teachers or other kids are all that picky.

Luke Skywalker, as he appeared in Return of the Jedi, was fairly easy to put together with what we had on hand: black pants, black long sleeved top, black shoes and a black scarf around his midsection as a belt. All we had to invest in was a lightsaber, which he made good use of in the fight scenes when we watched Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.

I was also able locate one of my prized Darth Vader action figures to show the kids. It was released a few years ago to celebrate Father’s Day.

This weekend we’ll do Revenge of the Sith, the final link in the story of Anakin Skywalker succumbing to the dark side and falling under the influence of the Emperor. I’m still trying to educate the kids about the political story behind the Emperor’s rise to power (that may be the subject of a future blog post) but for now they’re happy with watching the special effects, lightsaber duels and shtick of Jar Jar Binks.

The Spud Shed: An exercise in degeneracy

We needed some supplies for a Sunday morning Father’s Day breakfast at my in-laws house, so on Saturday we stopped by The Spud Shed, Barragup. It’s not far from our home, and is half way between Mandurah and Pinjarra on Pinjarra Road. Yes, in Australia we celebrate Father’s Day in September.

I’m not solely responsible for grocery shopping in our house. I’m not remotely responsible. Really, I’m not responsible at all. It’s for this reason that I hardly venture inside grocery stores. On the odd occasion, I’ll be tasked by my wife to buy something on the way home from work or a meeting, usually milk or bread and the usual day to day essentials, or perhaps a treat to be consumed by hungry, ravenous children. Usually, I’ll pick these supplies up from the gas station which is conveniently on the way. Sure it means a couple extra dollars, but it’s convenient to not have to stop twice. I can get fuel and food at the same time. That’s the limit of my experience in doing the household shopping, and that’s the way it should be.

But on Saturday we needed more than what we’d find at the local gas station, which has never, to my knowledge, sold fresh mushrooms, tomatoes, bacon, eggs, chipolatas, orange juice and Hash Browns we were planning to have for the breakfast. We needed a proper grocery store.

Now, I’ve never classed The Spud Shed as ‘proper’ in any sense of the word. Driving past it, you can see it’s a dark, dingy looking place. I’ve always associated it with bruised, damaged, second rate food and bruised, damaged, second rate clientèle. The few times I have been in there, I’ve been confronted with living nightmares. Shabbily dressed people of questionable genetics groping around in the freezers, grunting derelicts with dirty hands pawing the fruit and vegetables. A morbidly obese woman in tights with her naked belly hanging over and being supported by the handlebar of her shopping trolley filling it up with as many 50c sausage rolls as she can fit while her two screaming butter-ball children cling to her ankles is an image that makes me weep for the future of the human race. Young but tired, soulless, uncaring girls behind the checkouts shoveling what passes for food into shopping bags. I usually follow along behind my wife, who in comparison to these people appears as glamourous and elegant as Paris Hilton or Scarlett Johansson, in silence trying not to make eye contact.

Don’t get me wrong. Not all of their food is the kind that you’d find in a Woolies dumpster. Their fresh fruit-n-veg is actually passable for human consumption and is quite plentiful and cheap, grown locally. Too bad most of the shoppers instead go for the kind of processed “brown” food that would make Jamie Oliver cry with disappointment and rage.

I’ve remarked to my wife more than once that the only thing missing from this house of horrors is Con the Fruiterer. Con is an old character from an 80′s Australian “comedy” show called “The Comedy Company“, a quasi-racist caricature of a Greek green-grocer with stereotypical catchphrases and mannerisms. He was pretty popular in the day, with the then Prime Minister appearing on his show saying that he was going to fix the economy in “a coupla days”.

And my goodness, who should we bump into hawking “Bewdiful” goods inside The Spud Shed at Baragup but the man himself.

Bewdiful

At least we got out of there without anybody trying to eat my children.

Social customs: elevator etiquette

So I’m in the foyer of the building I work in, and I’ve pressed the button for the elevator. I’m just daydreaming about what I’ll find waiting for me in my inbox. I’m alone. I’ve got my iPod on, half listening to some podcast to occupy my mind in the tedious minutes before clocking on. I’m waiting to one side of the elevator doorway so that when the door opens any occupants can get out without any inconvenience. I’m cool like that. Always thinking of others.

That’s the plan, anyhow. Over the dulcet tones of the podcaster yammering in my ears I hear the bell announcing that the elevator has arrived on my floor. It has been only a few seconds, perhaps less than 15, since I pressed the button. Honestly I couldn’t tell if it was 15 seconds or 15 minutes. At that time of day it’s all the same to me.

From my vantage point on the left side of the open doorway, I can see that there’s nobody on the right side of the elevator waiting to get out. I wait a couple heartbeats. This time period straddles the line of giving enough time for any unseen occupants on the left side of the elevator to get through the doorway and not being long enough for the doors to start to automatically close.

After these few heartbeats, I start walking through the door almost, but not quite, like the workers in Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis. There’s a woman standing inside the elevator right behind the left bulkhead, I guess you call it, looking at me like I was something she had stepped in. “Aren’t you going to wait until I get out?” she says gruffly, the smells of cigarettes and nail polish wafting through the air. I hadn’t seen her from the same position outside the doors. “Oh, sorry” I say, and take a step back. She spends another second bending down to pick up her handbag laying on the floor of the elevator and stomps past me out into the foyer, her snooty nose pointed skywards and her lips puckered and looking like a cat’s bum.

I didn’t know what to think, really. I’d waited what I thought was a good amount of time to allow anyone in the elevator to get out. Perhaps it wasn’t long enough. But I know those elevators and how long the doors generally stay open before automatically closing and I was cutting it pretty fine. Why had the woman waited so long to start moving? Indeed she needed to retrieve her bag from the floor which took another second or so and if it weren’t for me standing in the doorway then the doors would have already started closing.

You may think differently, but I thought I was treated unfairly by this woman. Usually when I get off the elevator I’m already in position right in front of the door which serves two purposes:

  1. it allows anyone getting in the elevator to see there’s someone (me) waiting to get out; and
  2. it saves time for others so that they don’t need to wait for me to get my act together getting out the door, holding them up on their way to wherever they’re going.

I don’t know. Maybe she was daydreaming herself and got caught out and decided to take it out on me. Maybe she’s a passive aggressive drama queen, needing some kind of attention from anyone even if it’s negative. She might have expected a fight or at least a glare back, and I let her down by not giving it to her.

But the question remains: What is the acceptable length of time to wait for someone to get out of the elevator? Does it matter that you can or can’t see them?