If America’s Got Talent, then the Arab World’s Got Science–that’s if you believe the messages in reality shows, anyway. The Arab reality show Stars of Science, currently in its second season, takes young (18-30) inventors from around the Arab world and pits them against each other, American Idol style.
The show, presented by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, hopes to encourage entrepreneurship and creativity in both the contestants and the show’s viewers, Abdulla Al-Thani told AME info:
“The aim is to showcase the whole process of innovation — from inspiration, to the elaboration of a concept, its development and finally, its application,” said Dr. Abdulla Al-Thani, Vice President, Education of Qatar Foundation. “Science and technology will now be given an entertaining twist through the very popular reality TV show format, making the topic accessible to all. We hope ‘Stars of Science’ will promote the innovative spirit of young people in the Arab world.”
Tonight’s the night: Futurama returns with fresh episodes on Comedy Central, starting at 10 PM Eastern Time. Two weeks ago we featured our conversation with Billy West, the voice actor behind Fry, Professor Farnsworth, and other characters. Today, it’s executive producer David X. Cohen, who worked on The Simpsons before creating Futurama with Matt Groening more than a decade ago.
Cohen discusses how he went from scientist to comedy writer, the logic (or illogic) behind heads in jars, why things still don’t work in the 31st century, and how he sneaks math jokes into the show.
*Plus, read through to the end for some spoilers about the plots of some new episodes coming this season.
DISCOVER Magazine: I feel compelled to ask: Does the X stand for anything? Or is it like the Harry Truman S, and it stands for nothing?
David X Cohen: I’ll get that off my chest right off the bat: It’s a fraudulent middle initial, but there is a logic behind it. The reason for that is the writer’s guild, which has a regulation that no two writers can have the same name for on-screen credits. So, when you join the union, if your name is already taken, you have to change your name. Being named David Cohen—as you can imagine, there were several other David Cohens already in the guild, [and] one with my actual middle initial, S, for Samuel.
So, I decided to go for the craziest most sci-fi letter available, X.
DM: Both of your parents were scientists, correct?
DXC: Yes. Both PhDs in biology. I grew up in a house that was very science-oriented. The family activities we did were usually science-related—trips to the zoo or the museum of natural history in New York. So it was just taken for granted—by me at least—that I would be a scientist sooner or later. I tended to gravitate, though, more toward the physical sciences and math and computer science and physics, and I actually majored in physics in college. So, my undergraduate degree is in physics, and then I got a master’s degree in theoretical computer science as well. Before I derailed.
DM: How did you “derail?”
DXC: When I was growing up I just wasn’t really aware that there were careers such as writing cartoons. It wasn’t something that anybody I knew did and never popped into my mind. But then, when I went off to college, I worked on the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine, and suddenly I did know some people who had the career goal of becoming writers, or specifically, comedy writers.
And after that, I was somewhat torn. Should I continue down my path to be a scientist, or should I pursue this thing which (I thought) I did for fun? Ultimately, [I decided] I would like to go to graduate school before forgetting everything I did as an undergraduate. I went to UC Berkeley and had a good time there, but got to the point where I had reached the end of the line of what I was working on, and I had to reevaluate. I decided I might rather try the other option after all.
It worked out. So, my leave of absence from graduate school is still in progress.
Next: Fermat’s Last Theorem, Star Trek, and suicide booths
|Preview – Interstellar Fugitives|
Robot-human intermarriage. The Harlem Globetrotters performing mathematical wizardry. Hearing, “Good news, everyone!” when bad news is on the way. It means one thing: Futurama is back.
The interstellar travels of the Planet Express crew—canceled by Fox in 2003 but kept alive by syndication, straight-to-DVD movies, and the unstoppable force of geek fandom—return with 26 fresh episodes on Comedy Central, starting with a full hour on June 24 at 10PM eastern.
Here’s our conversation with voice actor Billy West. The voice behind Philip J. Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, and Zapp Brannigan on Futurama (not to mention Stimpy on Ren & Stimpy and Looney Tunes characters like Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in Space Jam) talks of the origin of the professor’s vocabulary, why Richard Nixon is the President of 31st century Earth, and whether it’s weird to talk to yourself so much.
(For spoilers about the new episodes, check out our interview with executive producer David X. Cohen, coming in two weeks.)
Discover Magazine: Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: During the hiatus, what was the turning point when you felt like this was really going to happen?
Billy West: Because, I think, the Futurama movies sold well, it gave them an indication of who was still out there. So as I’ve maintained all along, the super fans of this show kept it alive. It’s too good to go away. That’s my feeling.
DM: We’re big sci-fi nerds, and the show itself both parodies and pays homage to a lot of the past TV shows and movies. Were you a sci-fi person before you did Futurama?
BW: I used to try to tell my friends about some cool show I saw, and so I’d go to explain and I’d say, “Wait, let me just do it for you,” and I’d wind up doing a ream of characters in a scene. So, that’s where I think a lot of artists cut their teeth, because you didn’t have any way to instantly replay anything. It was on TV, and then it was gone. And maybe you’d see it in the re-runs, but if not, you’re out of luck, Charlie.
But, the thing about those movies: The Day the Earth Stood Still and all these things that people make fun of now were hair-raising back then. You know? To see this giant robot that was going to open up his hatch in front and disintegrate the entire planet put a lot of stuff in jeopardy. It was always the human race that was at stake with sci-fi, which is what I love. I love that much hanging in the balance. It’s a popular theme, probably more today than ever.
DM: Any other particular favorites of yours?
BW: Oh, yeah. It Conquered the World, where this craft from Venus somehow wound up in the Sierra Madre hills or wherever they filmed it. This thing that was in the spaceship hid out in a cave, and it looked like a giant cucumber or some sort of root vegetable with teeth and eyes, and it had these little vampire bats that would crawl out from underneath it and go and sting people in the neck, and they’d become his servants. Everybody wants everybody else to serve them. You will serve!
DM: Does the fact that you grew up on that stuff influence the way you do some of the characters on the show? The professor, in particular, is a classic sci-fi mad scientist.
BW: Yeah, I would say so. My whole world was a sonic one. I mean, more than watching something, I listened to it, spectrum-analyzed it in my head. I could remember what pitch they were in and what accent. Was it Midwestern or was it Mid-Atlantic or was it Southwestern or Eskimo? It just registered in my head for some reason. I can’t do anything else, but I can do that really well.
I would remember the lingo that some of these guys used, and I’ve dropped it here, there, and everywhere in the show. I think there was one sci-fi movie where the guy with all the answers—the mad scientist—ran out of answers, and somebody said something to him and he went, “Ah, fuff!” So the professor wound up saying, “Oh, fuff.” There was another instance where a lot of people in the 40’s: Instead of saying “robot” they would say, “What’s the big idea with the rob’t?” So I had Dr. Zoidberg, any time he refers to them he goes, “What’s with the rob’t? Why won’t the rob’t come home?”
It’s juicy because it’s language nobody knows, and it’s a pronunciation kind of thing that nobody remembers. I’ve had a love of language since day one, and when I listen to old radio broadcasts I listen to the stuff they used to say, the detectives, or whoever. There was a whole other bunch of descriptions for things, which would be brand new today.
Next: Futurama’s vision of the future and Nixon’s return
Over the years of our addiction to the great idiot box, television, we’ve gradually learned to block out the pesky commercials that interrupt and interfere with our viewing pleasure with their yammering attempts to sell us things. Unfortunately, this has only led marketers to wonder how they could influence our buying decisions in more subtle ways, ushering in a new era of creepy ideas that smack of brainwashing.
The first idea was product placement, where the stars of TV shows drank a certain brand of fizzy soda or typed on a certain brand of computer. But now that most viewers are hip to these product placements, the marketers and networks have stepped it up a notch to reclaim our attention again. NBC has introduced “behavior placement,” wherein certain behaviors are written into the show’s narrative in order to foist a more nebulous kind of marketing on us.
For a week in April, NBC will use its shows to convince viewers to “get green,” compost, or otherwise save the planet. The benefits for advertisers are two-fold. Some companies simply want to link their brand to a feel-good and socially aware show, while other companies–like those that sell energy-efficient lightbulbs or organic household cleaning products–think advertising on these shows will directly boost sales.
As Stephen mentioned yesterday, 3D HD TV is a big theme here at CES this year: Multiple manufacturers, including Sony, LG, Samsung, and Panasonic are all showing products. Panasonic is using LCD shutter glasses to make it happen–the glasses receive IR signals from the TV and alternately blacken each of the lenses to give each eye a slightly different perspective, and that binocular difference creates the 3D effect.
But perhaps most importantly, the glasses remind me of the classic 80s sci-fi B movie They Live, with super awesome wrestler-turned-actor Rowdy Roddy Piper (and one notoriously, ridiculously long fight scene) . Before The Rock, there was Roddy, God love ‘im.
By the way, there are apparently plans to remake They Live. This could end in disaster.
Today Panasonic showed off a new television that is really really skinny (“flat-out skinny” might be more appropriate): the 54-inch TC-P54Z1 is just 1 inch thick, which beats out even the thinnest LCD screens on the market.
The key to making this all work is that Panasonic pulled the tuner out of the TV entirely and moved it into a separate box, which transmits the full, uncompressed 1080p HD signal to the screen using a proprietary format called (cleverly) WirelessHD. This frees up a lot of room on the display, which Panasonic’s taken full advantage of. Funny to think that in an era when Internet is converging like mad with TVs, here’s one TV that’s diverging from itself.
Beyond the wow factor of having a really skinny screen and the ability to hang the thing on your wall relatively easily (it’s 67 pounds, which is pretty good for that size), this new screen is a welcome development for those who have long been waiting for wireless HD to appear. In fact, LG also displayed a wireless HD TV here at CES, and they’ve also joined up with Amimon, Sony, and other companies to create a new format called Wireless Home Digital Interface, or WHDI. But ultra wideband, which once seemed to be the leading candidate for wireless HD, still hasn’t come to fruition.
Panasonic also says that they’ve improved the cells that hold the phosphors in this TV, allowing the screen to be 1/3 brighter while using 1/3 less energy. The TC-P54Z1 is due out this summer, with more models in the super-thin Z1 line to follow.
Update, Friday, January 9: Here’s some video I shot of the TV spinning around so you can really grok the thin-ness. If you buy the Z1, you might as well show it off by putting it on a rotating spit like this:
Who knew sharper images and clearer sound would be good for our feathered friends? Come January 15, Hawaii will be the first state in the U.S. to switch over to digital TV, a month before the mandatory nationwide conversion on February 17. But the interesting part about the switch isn’t so much when but why: Federal wildlife officials suggested tearing down the old analog transmission towers earlier to avoid interference with the nesting season of a bird, the endangered Hawaiian petrel.
Petrels, also known as the ’Ua’u, are only found in Hawaii, and more than 1,000 of them nest on the slopes of Maui’s Haleakala volcano, where the analog towers are currently located. The nocturnal species, which reportedly has a chirp that sounds like a yapping puppy, is not adapting well to urban sprawl: The birds are disoriented by city lights and sometimes get caught on wires. Officials think rebuilding the towers at a different location, away from the petrel’s nesting sites, will give them some peace to nest, and help the species’ survival in the long term.
Do you dream in color, or black and white? The answer may depend on the TV you watched as a child. New research shows that baby boomers who grew up watching black and white TV still often dream in grayscale while their kids dream only in color.
Eva Murzyn of the U.K.’s University of Dundee asked 60 people, half over age 55 and half under 25, to keep detailed dream diaries. She also collected information about the kind of TV and films they watched as children. More than 20 percent of the older group reported having black and white dreams, but less than 5 percent of the younger group reported them. A few of the older subjects who’d been exposed to color film and TV as children also rarely dreamed in black and white. The shift in dream palette directly coincided with the popularization of color TV in the 1960s. (It also means that pre-TV generations would have dreamed only in color.)