Wiz Quiz 10: Japan’s struggle with the four elements

Image courtesy Vision Magazine
Earth, water, fire and air.

These are the four basic elements of matter as seen in ancient Greek, Hindu and other traditions. Each had different names for them, but the concepts were similar.

And in recent days, Japan has been experiencing multiple disasters involving all these elements.

It started with the 9.0-magnitude megathrust earthquake off the coast of Japan that occurred at 2.46 pm Japan time on 11 March 2011. Its epicentre was 130 kilometres off the east coast of the Oshika Peninsula of Tohoku, near Sendai. The earthquake triggered highly destructive tsunami waves of up to 10 meters (33 ft) that struck nearby coastal areas minutes after the quake, and in some cases travelled up to 10 km (6 miles) inland. The earthquake and tsunami waves killed over 5,000 people, caused massive property damage and started fires in some affected locations. Most worrying was the damage caused to the Fukushima II nuclear power plant where reactors damaged by the quake and tsunami led to an accidental leak of radioactivity.

Japan has a long history of living and coping with disasters, but the magnitude and confluence of multiple disasters has plunged the country into the worst crisis since the Second World War. This week’s Wiz Quiz devotes several questions to the history and science of tsunamis.

As it turns out, thanks to Japan’s strict building codes and preparedness, the country could absorb much of the powerful earthquake. But the massive tsunami is what caused most of the damage — there is little defence against the mighty waves that come roaring inland, wiping out everything in their path…

Read Wiz Quiz 10: Japan’s struggle with four elements

Wiz Quiz 9: Arthur C Clarke’s HAL, are you here yet?

Joy of Tech tribute to Arthur C Clarke, 19 March 2008
This week marks the third death anniversary of Sir Arthur C Clarke, author and futurist.

Among the numerous tributes that poured out all over the world following his departure, I found one especially poignant. It was the ‘Joy of Tech’ cartoon above, showing the sentient computer HAL 9000 (from 2001: A Space Odyssey) shedding a single tear in his memory…

In fact, researchers in artificial intelligence (AI) are still trying to create a real-life HAL, which remains the ‘Holy Grail’ in their line of work: a machine-based intelligence that mimics the human mind in all its nuances, and not just in raw processing power.

This is proving much harder than creating chess-playing or quiz-winning computers: human beings are capable of a wide range of emotions some of which – such as intuition and sense of humour – are still not within the capabilities of advanced AI systems.

In this week’s Wiz Quiz, I pay tribute to both HAL and his creator with a few questions on the march of supercomputers. We ask the long-running question: Can computers outsmart us?

Indeed, that prospect is becoming more real every passing year. An IBM supercomputer named Deep Blue created history in May 1997 when it won a six-game match by two wins to one with three draws against the then world chess champion. A few weeks ago, another human bastion fell — and this one concerns me more as a quiz enthusiast (I never learnt the rules of chess, and don’t understand what all that fuss is about.)

On 17 February 2011, a supercomputer owned by the IBM Corporation beat two veteran quizzers to win a high profile game in the long-running US quiz show called Jeopardy. The supercomputer won with US$77,147, while its nearest rival Ken Jennings, a 74-time winner of the popular trivia quiz, came in second with US$24,000. Brad Rutter, who has in previous appearances won a total of US$3.3 million, was third with US$21,600. IBM plans to donate the computer’s winnings to charity.

What was the name of this quiz-winning supercomputer?

In HAL 9000’s name, what did the letters HAL stand for?

Which famous rocket scientist once said: “Man is the best computer we can put aboard a spacecraft…and the only one that can be mass produced with unskilled labour”?

These are among the 15 questions in this week’s Wiz Quiz. Test your brains against ours (supercomputers may not participate!).

Wiz Quiz 7: Films, canals and famous cities

Toy Story 3: Reaching out to the child in all of us? Photo courtesy - Pixar Animation Studios/Walt Disney Pictures
Why did a 3D CGI comedy-adventure film on the abandoned toys of a upper teenager become the highest grossing feature film in the US, and also worldwide, during 2010? What does it say about our common psyche when Toy Story 3, a variation on an already twice-tested theme, earned more than a billion dollars — making it one of the top five money earners of all time?

Psycho-analysts can debate that for years to come. Toy Story series must tug on some deep emotions in many of us, for the third film was not only highly popular, but also received near universal critical acclaim.

Writing in The New York Times, movie critic A. O. Scott noted: “This film—this whole three-part, 15-year epic—about the adventures of a bunch of silly plastic junk turns out also to be a long, melancholy meditation on loss, impermanence and that noble, stubborn, foolish thing called love.”

At the 83rd Oscar Awards ceremony last weekend, Toy Story 3 won two awards — for best animated feature and best original song — out of five nominations.

Wiz Quiz this week, appearing just two days after the Oscar Awards ceremony, started off with a few questions based on some films that received nominations for the best film of 2010 (officially called the Best Picture Award). At the time we compiled the quiz, the winners were not yet announced. But we probed the 10-movie nominations list deeper to see connections not immediately apparent.

We then roam the world of ancient and modern cultures, hopping from Hindu mythology to modern day Japanese cartoons. In between, we take a look at the Suez Canal that was recently in the news, and salute Ronald Reagan.

Wiz Quiz 7: Films, canals and famous cities

Wiz Quiz 6: Cricket World Cup special – What’s your score?

1,100 million fools following 11 flannelled fools...for six weeks!
“Eleven flannelled fools chasing a red ball, with eleven thousand fools cheering them.”

That’s how Irishman George Barnard Shaw described the very English game of cricket.

A few decades later, he might well have said 1,100 million fools cheering. Probably that many people will watch or otherwise follow the The ICC Cricket World Cup 2011, currently underway in the world’s most ardent cricketing region: South Asia!

In terms of television audiences and media-linked sponsorship money, the ICC Cricket World Cup is the world’s third largest sporting event: only the FIFA Football World Cup and the Summer Olympics are bigger than this event.

Not everyone is equally enthusiastic about cricket. Those in non-playing countries must wonder just what the cricket frenzy is all about. But frenzy time it is, right now, in much of South Asia. The ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 started on 19 February 2011, and will continue until 2 April 2011.

What's your score, mate?
This is the world’s leading men’s one day international (ODI) cricket tournament, organized by the sport’s governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC). National teams of 14 countries are participating in this tournament, being hosted jointly by Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka.

To mark the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011, Wiz Quiz in Daily News this week was a cricket special, where we probed our readers’ knowledge of World Cup history, as well as the wider subculture of cricket.

I’m not a cricket fan myself, but living in South Asia, it is impossible to avoid catching at least bits and pieces of cricket fever. But cricket is not just a game of players and matches, but a whole cultural and social phenomenon, especially in South Asia. If the English invented cricket, the one-time British colonies have vastly globalised it.

So try your wider cricketing knowledge with this week’s quiz…and see what your score is!

Wiz Quiz 6: Cricket World Cup is here! (scroll down the page to get to the quiz)

Wiz Quiz 5: Beware, the Fury of a Young Lady!

The current spell of heavy rainfall and resulting floods is being blamed on a phenomenon called La Niña. It involves both the ocean and atmosphere.

La Niña occurs when surface temperatures get cooler than normal (by 3 to 5 degrees Centigrade) in the western Pacific Ocean. During a La Niña, the cold water that pools near the coast of South America surges westwards across the mighty Pacific, the largest ocean in the world. This flow causes a greater build up of warmer water along the eastern coast of Australia and in the South East Asia region. The contrast in sea surface temperatures across the Pacific, as well as the contrast in air pressure, produces more rainfall.

La Niña is the Spanish term for “the girl child”. In that literal sense, the current weather extremes might be called the fury of a very formidable young lady! And it’s not the first time she has unleashed such havoc on us. This week in my quiz column, I started off with some questions on freaky weather, and then moved on to other topics.

Other ladies figure in the quiz: from Nobel Prize winning Marie Curie to Harry Potter creator J K Rowling. And we ask about the lady school teacher who died in the Challenger space shuttle disaster in February 1986.

Read Wiz Quiz 5: Fury of a Young Lady

Wiz Quiz 4: Of Oil Prices and Food Crises…

Oil prices going up, up and up...

The international selling price of unrefined petroleum (commonly referred to as the oil price) has once again gone up to US Dollars 100 per barrel, causing concerns worldwide.

The ‘oil barrel’ is an old measure that has survived from the early days of the petroleum industry that originated in the Pennsylvania oil fields.

In the early 1860s, when oil production began, there was no standard container for oil, so whiskey barrels were used. Although actual barrels are no longer used to transport crude oil — and most petroleum is now moved around in pipelines or oil tankers — the measure is still in use. Since it was standardized in 1872, how many US gallons are in one barrel of oil?

This is one of 15 questions I asked in this week’s Wiz Quiz column in the Daily News, titled Of Oil Prices and Food Crises…

Once again, my co-compiler Vindana Ariyawansa and I offer a ‘mixed bag’ of questions, covering subjects ranging from culture and sports to science and business. These take off from some recent news stories and current concerns. For example, we hear about world oil prices rising (again!), and extreme weather causing food shortage in some parts of the world. When news reports mention oil barrels and talk about Malthusian scenarios, do we know what they really mean?

Read this week’s Wiz Quiz to test your current affairs knowledge!

Wiz Quiz 2: A Handful of Oscars!

It’s the film award season once again! Awards for the best performances and technical accomplishments in feature films released during 2010 will be announced during the first quarter of 2011.

The best known – and most sought after – film awards are presented by the (American) Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Official called the Academy Awards, they are better known by their informal name ‘Oscars’.

‘A handful of Oscars’ is the title on our weekly Wiz Quiz this week in Daily News. Film buff Vindana Ariyawansa and I have chosen a few of the great many records and outstanding feats from the rich and colourful history of Oscar awards.

There aren’t too many notable Asians in this history, but we’ve focused on some: Satyajit Ray, Dr Haing S. Ngor
Akira Kurosawa and Ang Lee among them.

The first Academy/Oscar Awards ceremony was held on 16 May 1929, at the Hotel Roosevelt in Hollywood to honour outstanding film achievements of the 1927/1928 film season. The 83rd Oscar awards ceremony is scheduled for 27 February 2011, and will honour the best of films released during 2010. Nominations for the 2010 Awards have just been announced, on 25 January 2011.

Click here to see full list of Oscar Award nominations for 2010