Noble Gases for Non-Noble Pursuits

Depending on who you ask, the noble gases (Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon, Radon, and the seldom seen Ununoctium, aka the inert gases, aka group 18 elements), are pretty boring. The noble gases have been described as being aristocratic, detached and aloof, never bothering to interact with the common elements, and in a very cool collection of anthropomorphized elements by Kaycie D, the most exciting thing that can be said for the noble gases is that “Krypton is commonly known for its role in Superman comics“. They have the maximum number of valence electrons in their outer shell, making them quite stable and unreactive. And while they conduct electricity and can fluoresce which is kind of exciting, they are odorless and colorless, which is kind of boring. However there are some people who find the noble gases to be quite interesting, namely, the Russians.

Cool anthropomorphized depiction of Xenon, with a somewhat uninspired description, which could stand to be updated with performance enhancer.

Cool anthropomorphized depiction of Xenon, with a somewhat uninspired description, which could stand to be updated to “performance enhancing gas favored by elite athletes”.

In Russia, the biological activity of Xenon (which is much greater than its chemical activity) lends itself to its use as an anesthetic. Xenon can also protect body tissues from the effects of low temperatures, lack of oxygen and even physical trauma. Low temperatures, lack of oxygen, and physical trauma are all things that can be associated with the Winter Olympics, and now so too can xenon. The head of Russia’s Federal Biomedical Agency, Vladimir Uiba, proclaimed in a recent statement that there is nothing wrong with Russian athletes inhaling xenon to improve performance. In addition to the other properties of xenon, it also increases levels of erythropoietin (EPO), which is a hormone that encourages the formation of red blood cells. Artificially raising the levels of EPO is illegal under the rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) just ask Lance, but there are other “natural” ways of boosting the hormone, which are permissible under WADA, including training at altitudes and sleeping in a low oxygen tent, like the one enjoyed by Michael Phelps. Because inhalation of xenon is not on WADA’s radar (at least not yet) it has been given the blessing by Russian sporting federation, which has produced a manual and set of guidelines on the proper administration of the gas. According to The Economist the manual advises using xenon before competitions to correct listlessness and sleep disruption, and afterwards to improve physical recovery. The recommended dose is a 50:50 mixture of xenon and oxygen, inhaled for a few minutes, ideally before going to bed. The gas’s action continues for 48-72 hours, so repeating every few days is a good idea. And for last-minute jitters, a quick hit an hour before the starting gun can help.

While there seems to be a strong case that xenon was used by the Russia Olympic team, medal count aside, it is unknown whether any other nations were using this not-illegal practice. It has been suggested that the use of xenon is something of an open secret in the sporting world, which might further suggest that more countries are tapping into this performance enhancer, but not the Brits anyway. So the question I am left with is, given the use of xenon is not that different from the use of an oxygen tent, is it OK to use Xe? To me something about the use of xenon just doesn’t smell right, which given its odorless nature, is saying a lot.

If all this talk of doping and Olympics has gotten you worked up, it might be best to sit back and listen to this catchy song by Duplex, titled 7 Noble Gases.


The Money and The Madness

The first round of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament is over, and my bracket is already pretty busted, thanks Georgetown and UCLA! Maybe I should have listened to The New Yorker when picking my bracket. They offered the following tip for picking teams in the tournament, follow the money. Citing that when schools spend a lot on flashy facilities, big-name coaches, and better recruits, they tend to do well. They note that this year, the schools in the tournament spent a combined $340,000,000 on men’s basketball, with revenues expected around $540,000,000, with the individual schools spending between $16,000,000 (Duke, a 2 seed) and $535,000 (Southern, a 16 seed) on their programs.  They created a handy infographic to help illustrate the disparity in spending between schools, as well as help track the success of that spending.

Looking at the results of the tournament with knowledge about spending, adds an extra layer of impressiveness, outrage, and excitement. It wasn’t much of a surprise that all four number 1 seeds made it through to the second round, they spend a lot of money;  $155,192 (University of Kansas), $132,911 (Louisville), $109,495 (Indiana University), and $86,460 (Gonzaga) per basketball player. The first near surprise of the tournament, was when the number 3 seeded Marquette, whose expenses are estimated at $283,871 per basketball player, nearly lost to 14 seeded Davidson, which spends $15,378 per basketball player, the fifth lowest spending team in the tournament. The first big surprise came from Harvard (14 seed), with total basketball expenses at $1,225,999 their expenses per basketball player come in at $13,365, they defeated number 3 seed New Mexico, which has total expenses of $4,448,425, or $50,797 per player. The Harvard win, their first ever in the NCAA tournament, busted a few brackets and resulted in quite a few good laughs, but wasn’t as exciting or shocking as the Florida Gulf Coast University (15 seed) upset over Georgetown (2 seed). FGCU spends $15,779 per player, whereas Georgetown spends an average of $121,756 per player, more than a $100,000 difference per player!

The final four based on tuition costs

The final four based on tuition costs

It is neat to look at how much money a school spends on their basketball program, and it is cooler when you consider how much it costs to go to those schools.The Awl ran their own version of the tournament based on tuition. Tuition at FGCU is $5,352 while going to Georgetown will set you back $40,920, putting it in the final four of the most expensive tuition in the tournament, but ultimately it falls short to Bucknell which has the highest tuition of $45,132. 

It is clear that while money may help you along the way to the tournament, and may result in a higher seeding, come game day, none of that matters anymore, and if you play like FGCU did (see below), you are going to win, regardless of much you spent to get there, and that is part of the beauty of March Madness.

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Round-Up Ready: March Madness Edition

It’s that time of the year again, March Madness! In case you aren’t sure what all the fuss is about, Rob Delaney offers a unique explainer of the madness, and this supercut from the characters of Mad Men effectively captures some of the madness.

A large part of the enjoyment of March Madness, comes from filling out a bracket, there is no shortage of advice for filling out a bracket (see here, here, here, here, and here), following the ups and downs, the Cinderellas (and all these other buzzwords), the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat (perfectly displayed in this 2006 UCLA vs. Gonzaga game) throughout the tournament. However, if for some reason the traditional bracket scheme doesn’t add enough excitement for you, Slate offers alternative ways to gamble on the tournament.

Who will be crowned the cutest animal. My money is on

Who will be crowned the cutest animal. I am going with Giraffes for the upset over Otters.

If college basketball is not your thing, there are alternative tournaments that are available that try and capitalize on the true March Madness. Be it MTV’s Musical March Madness, Vulture’s Best Sitcom of the Past 30 Years, Land Robots and Flying Drones, or Star Wars’ This is Madness Tournament, there is a bracket/tournament for everyone, especially for animal lovers. Buzzfeed is presenting Animal March Madness, which seeks to crown the next cutest animal (animals who have already been the big thing are excluded, i.e., cats, dogs, owls, pandas, dolphins, penguins, sloths, and hedgehogs). The Buzzfeed post inspired an Assistant Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, Katie Hinde, to create a bracket using *simulated* head to head combat and competition among mammals, as an access point for talking about mammals.The match-ups are previewed in the video below, and here is a link to a blank bracket.

Each round/battle features a discussion of the various traits and adaptations that might serve that mammal well in the battle, for example in the third round match up between the Lion and the Polar Bear she tweets “Lion: Claws, Jaws, & Leap; Polar Bear Claws, Jaws, & Reach… & Heavier #2013MMM”, ultimate winner, The Polar Bear (Without tall grass for Lion to stalk and surprise blitz Polar Bear, lion was at a major disadvantage). This tournament combines the joys of simulated animal battle and the thrill of betting on an underdog, or naked mole rat, as the case may be. And speaking of mammals, Radiolab is running a bracket to come up with a name for our hypothetical common placental mammal ancestor. So make your picks, enjoy the tournament, and don’t feel too bad if you don’t pick a perfect bracket, at 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 (based on random selection), the odds are not in your favour.

Children’s Day

If you checked out today’s Google Doodle, you no doubt found out that it is Children’s Day. The United Nations declared that,

By resolution 836(IX) of 14 December 1954, the General Assembly recommended that all countries institute a Universal Children’s Day, to be observed as a day of worldwide fraternity and understanding between children. It recommended that the Day was to be observed also as a day of activity devoted to promoting the ideals and objectives of the Charter and the welfare of the children of the world. The Assembly suggested to governments that the Day be observed on the date and in the way which each considers appropriate. The date 20 November, marks the day on which the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, in 1959, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in 1989.

To coincide with Children’s Day, here is a video which notes that a child dies, somewhere in the world, every three seconds.

The causes for this are numerous, and include hunger, malnutrition, lack of access to clean water, or the absence of vaccine protection and medical care.

An improvised football from Mozambique, picture by Jessica Hilltout

In addition to drawing attention to children’s survival, it is also important to highlight the need for children to thrive. One of the ways that children can thrive in any environment is through sport. After seeing kids in poor and war-torn countries forgetting about their daily lives by playing football with balls made of trash, like those pictured in the beautiful series of improvised footballs by Jessica HilltoutTim Jahnigen dedicated his life to creating an indestructible ball that wouldn’t deflate in the hardest of conditions. Eventually he came up with the One World Futbol, a football made of specialty materials from a company called PopFoam, whose tagline is “Soft Toughness” and whose titular product is made from EVA (ethyl vinyl acetate). As the company describes it, “PopFoam will improve durability, tear strength, tensile strength, flexibility, color availability, chemical resistance, cold weather resistance, sound protection and abrasion resistance while offering the cushioning comforts and the complement of design ascetics to your products.” This material would make for a perfect football, whereas all the millions of previously donated footballs would deflate within hours of use on the rough terrain.

Impact lives through the simple power of play, you can follow the One World Futbol here, and click here to purchase.

Education is another important area to focus on during Children’s Day. And here is a very cool story about what happens if you give a thousand tablet PCs to Ethiopian kids who have never even seen a printed word? Spoiler: Within five months, they’ll start teaching themselves English while circumventing the security on your OS to customize settings and activate disabled hardware. Awesome.

Lance Armstrong and the Most Sophisticated Doping Ring in Cycling

This afternoon the US Anti-Doping Agency will release its full 1000 plus page report detailing “beyond any doubt that the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team ran the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” The evidence is said to include financial payments, emails, scientific data, and laboratory test results that further prove the use, possession, and distribution of performance enhancing drugs by Lance Armstrong.

Statement from Armstrong earlier this summer when he decided to no longer pursue the legal fight against the doping allegations. The full case against Armstrong is to be released later today and includes admissions of guilt from his teammates.

Additionally, 11 teammates of Armstrong, (Frankie Andreu, Michael Barry, Tom Danielson, Tyler Hamilton, George Hincapie, Floyd Landis, Levi Leipheimer, Stephen Swart, Christian Vande Velde, Jonathan Vaughters and David Zabriskie) have admitted to participating in the USPS Team doping conspiracy, which was “professionally designed to groom and pressure athletes to use dangerous drugs, to evade detection, to ensure its secrecy and ultimately gain an unfair competitive advantage through superior doping practices”. Particularly damaging was the admission of doping from George Hincapie, who was at Armstrong’s side for all 7 of his now recalled Tour de France victories. It is a sad, but inevitable day for the cycling world, hopefully this will bring about a new era of honest competition, free of doping and performance enhancing drugs, not just in cycling, but all sports.

Update: Here is a link to the Reasoned Decision document

Lance Armstrong and the Fight He Couldn’t Win

Sorry for the lack of posts recently, I was preparing for, and ultimately successfully, defending my PhD (humble brag).

Picking up from my last post, today the cycling world is reeling (is that a pun?) from Lance Armstrong’s decision to no longer contest the doping charges being levelled against him by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). Armstrong’s decision to no longer pursue this fight, is being seen by many as an admission to guilt, and that the claims against him “have substance“. Because USADA is affiliated with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the decision to ban Armstrong and strip him of his records and wins, will be upheld internationally. This means his 7 Tour de France titles are gone, and likely his bronze medal at the 2000 Olympic Games will also be stripped.

Excerpt from Lance Armstrong’s statement explaining his decision to no longer fight the allegations against him. Source.

In his statement, Armstrong likened the continued accusations against him to a “witch hunt”, and maintained his innocence, while attacking the system he deemed corrupt and unconstitutional. The fallout and impact of this decision on Armstrong’s legacy, and indeed his foundation, remains to be seen, but I can’t help but feel incredibly saddened by his decision to no longer fight. Granted, the odds may have been against him, and the financial burden of the continued legal fees was starting to take a toll, but Armstrong has proved, perhaps more than any other athlete, that you can come back and fight back from anything, and overcome the odds. To see a man known for his ability to fight back and his resilience, give up this fight, essentially pleading no contest to the charges against him, is sad. Both because of the seeming admission of guilt, but also to see this man defeated in a contest that he thought he couldn’t win is, well I don’t really have any better adjectives to describe it, sad.


Why aren’t there more movies about the Olympics?

With the Olympics being a Global event of such cultural significance, it is not surprising that the Games should permeate into our popular culture. What is surprising is the almost small number of films about the Olympics. A quick search will reveal several top 10 or top 11 lists of the best Olympic movies, mainly with the same line-up of films, ranging from drama (Munich, Without Limits, Miracle, Chariots of Fire), comedy (Cool RunningsBlades of Glory (while technically not an Olympic film, it pretty much is), The Cutting Edge (while technically not a comedy, it pretty much is), and even documentary (Dare to Dream, or any Bud Greenspan retrospective), but you would be hard pressed to find a top 25, let alone a top 50 list.

Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, its Olympic portrayal in movies time… Cool Runnings

So why are there so few Olympic movies? Is there something inherent about the Olympics that prevents them from being adequately displayed on the big screen? Why haven’t their been any feature films about the Olympic games past 1988? It would seem that at any Olympics there are stories just waiting to be made into movies, yet they don’t materialize–not even in tv movie format.

Is it because true stories are boring or not entertaining? If we already know the outcome, can there be any real excitement and drama? Sure there can, I have spoiled almost every book and movie I have read or seen in the past 5 years and have still enjoyed them plenty, and movies like Miracle prove that it can be done for Olympic moments and films.

Is it just that sports movies don’t translate well to film, whether they are true or fiction? Given the success of so many great sports film, I can’t believe that is a reason – see Top 25, and Top 50 Best Sports Movies.

Are the Olympic memories and stories too fresh to warrant the need film adaptation? Maybe the story needs to age, and perhaps get forgotten a little before it can be made into a feature film (2020 film adaptation of the Alexandre Bilodeau story?). With all the media coverage during the Games, and the production values that go into telling an athletes’ backstory, maybe we don’t need a movie to sensationalize the story, it has already been done. With all the coverage, the athletes have not only become household names, but household faces, which may limit our ability to accept an actor portraying our favourite athlete. Perhaps that is why the documentary format is so popular for capturing the Olympic experience, it allows us to relive our favourite moments, with our favourite athletes, in a very personal and visceral way, that is often lost in feature dramatic films.

Next week I’ll look into the portrayal of the Olympics in other cultural forms, mainly TV and literature, where it has seemed to fair much better. In the mean time, if you have any other thoughts on why there are so few Olympic films leave them in the comments.