As smoke from wildfires chokes the West Coast, social media has been flooded with crowdsourced maps providing near-real time updates on just how horrendous the air really is. Much of the data are from relatively inexpensive sensors from a company called PurpleAir. They’ve only been available for the past few years, but they’re already changing everything from government maps of air quality to how communities are watching out for each other — and keeping track of the air they breathe.
Low-cost air quality sensors that measure particle pollution — including dust, soot, and smoke — have only become available to most non-scientists in the past decade or so, experts tell The Sports Grind Entertainment. As people push back against polluters in their backyards and cope with fire seasons that have grown increasingly dangerous as a result of climate change, PurpleAir sensors and others like them have become more popular, and more powerful.
“The power is not in one individual monitoring their house, but in the individual contributing his data, and another individual, and the municipality, and a scientist,” says Núria Castell, a senior scientist who studies new pollution monitoring technologies at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU). “We put all this data together and then then we have something,” she says. The resulting high-resolution air quality maps can actually lead to better urban planning and cleaner air when it comes to pollution from fires, industry, or other sources.
In fact, PurpleAir got its start because of a dust problem. Every day, Adrian Dybwad watched dust from a gravel mine sweep downhill and settle just below his home not far from Salt Lake City, Utah. As the mining company made plans to expand, Dybwad wanted to know how much the dust affected air quality. But there weren’t any pollution sensors nearby, and he couldn’t find one on the market that could do the job and didn’t cost thousands of dollars.
So in 2015, Dybwad, who has a background in surface-mount electronics and computer programming and networking, set out to build his own. The endeavor grew into PurpleAir: a network of more than 9,700 low-cost air quality sensors that feed data into a near-real time global map of air pollution. For the first time this year, the US Environmental Protection Agency and US Forest Service included data from PurpleAir sensors into its AirNow fire and smoke map.
PurpleAir’s sensors cost less than $280 dollars — not exactly cheap, but still well below what someone would probably pay for a new smartphone. Compared to the heavy-duty equipment that researchers typically use to measure air quality, it’s a steal — those models can cost up to $50,000.
That huge range in cost reflects differences in how each air quality sensor is built and operated. High-cost, high-accuracy sensors are typically carefully calibrated, bigger, and use up more energy. Some of these sensors collect particles on a filter and then shine beta rays through them to measure mass. Those types of sensors might require a permit to operate, since the beta rays are emitted from some kind of radioactive source, according to Anthony Wexler, who directs the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California, Davis. Other sensors have very small, fine glass fibers with filters on the end that vibrate almost like a tuning fork, Wexler says. The vibration changes with the mass of the particles collected. And then there’s a slower, more old-fashioned way of monitoring particle pollution by weighing particles captured on a filter in a lab.
PurpleAir’s sensors measure particulates using laser particle counters. “You basically shine a laser through the air and then the particles in the air reflect the light and the detector picks up those reflections,” Dybwad explains. The method is called “light scattering,” and when Dywbad set out to make his first sensor in 2015, the technology to do this was becoming smaller and more affordable.
Around that time, citizen scientists in Stuttgart, Germany were also coming up with ways to take air quality monitoring into their own hands. After meeting in the basement of their city library, Ensia reported in 2017, the group developed a user manual for DIY sensors. The project called Luftdaten, German for “air data,” quickly spread across Europe and scattered across countries in other parts of the world. In China, pushback against dense air pollution also propelled the development of sensors that anyone could buy, say Wexler and Castell.
More expensive sensors are more accurate than anything someone can easily throw in their online shopping cart. But the sensors that professional researchers use are also too expensive to deploy everywhere. “You have a trade off between high accuracy in a limited number of locations and low accuracy in many locations,” Wexler says. Having the low-cost sensors where there otherwise would be none, Wexler says, is “a lot better than nothing.”
For decades, people living next to sources of pollution lacked evidence that could convince regulators and polluters that they were being harmed. Now, that’s changing. “These low cost sensors are great because they empower communities [living with pollution] to be able to assess what’s going on and say to their regulatory bodies, ‘hey, these guys are killing us,” says Wexler.
Ellen Golla bought an air quality sensor from PurpleAir in 2016 for her home in rural Humboldt County, California. She was worried about pollution from residential wood-burning stoves that she didn’t think official government monitors were picking up on from 30 miles away. “I was breathing obviously polluted air, but according to our county officials, the air was clean. I wanted data on the wood smoke here,” Golla, who started an organization to raise awareness of wood smoke pollution, wrote in an email to The Sports Grind Entertainment.
A month after Golla installed her sensor, a fire broke out nearby. “The air quality was incredibly bad in our area for several days. But our air quality management district didn’t issue an advisory about the choking pollution in the north of the county. Officially, we had good air quality, because that’s what the monitor 30 miles away was recording,” Golla said. She started posting her own warnings on Facebook and emailing friends to be wary. “I think that was when I first really began to understand the power of citizen science air monitoring,” she said.
Low-cost sensors available commercially are likely not accurate enough yet to be relied on alone to make policy or regulatory decisions, according to Wexler and Castell. They can miss very small particles or confuse water droplets as particles when there’s high humidity. But many are good enough to raise awareness on air pollution and get the ball rolling to take action. When air quality is really bad — like it’s been across the West Coast of the US over the past couple weeks as a result of wildfires — readings don’t need to be perfect to let people know they should take shelter.
Castell is also confident that low-cost sensors will become more accurate — whether because of changes to the equipment itself or algorithms that can correct the sensors’ biases. The new AirNow map, for example, applies correction equations to data from PurpleAir sensors that it uses to populate its map. The EPA says it turned to PurpleAir because of how large its network had grown, and the agency tested the lower-cost sensors against regulatory monitors to evaluate their performance. The combined map is a pilot, and its makers are still figuring out how to make the tool better.
“The [low-cost] sensor technologies can really play a big, big role if we take care of the limitations,” Castell says. “I’m very positive that technologically we will advance.”
For Dybwad, who still lives in the same home where he made his first sensor, it’s a “strange feeling” to see hundreds more people purchase his sensors every day as wildfires continue to rage and smoke inundates huge swathes of the West. He checks a Facebook group for PurpleAir sensor owners at least once or twice a day, and still answers users’ questions. “It’s a tragedy, what’s happening,” Dybwad says.
Serious Sam 4: Say something once, why say it again?
Where did the joy go?
Serious Sam 4 is almost a carbon copy of the previous games in the series, with a little extra emphasis on story, and some technical magic tricks that allow the developer to show a huge number of enemies on screen at once. None of these things really makes a difference in the experience of playing the game itself, however.
I have so many fond memories of playing the past games. Serious Sam releases have always been simple affairs with a lot of guns and a lot of enemies, and they’re at their best when played with fast music pumping in the background.
The franchise used to deliver an even sillier take on the action of fast-paced first-person shooters like the Doom and Quake series, without any of the self-serious aesthetics or even basic nods to realism. I can’t think of many other games that operated as such effective stress relievers, even in short bursts. The Serious Sam franchise has always been a little bit of an underdog in that way, but without any meaningful improvements to that basic idea, why did we suddenly need a new one in 2020?
Serious Sam returns, and repeats
The last mainline Serious Sam game was Serious Sam 3: BFE, released back in 2011. That game introduced iron sights and running to the formula, which were barely incremental improvements, but the new game doesn’t even go that far. Serious Sam 4 is just more of what I already expected from developer Croteam, created with an updated version of the Serious Engine.
The past games in the series weren’t broke, and their design certainly hasn’t been fixed with Serious Sam 4. Aliens have taken over the planet, and Sam Stone is here to crack one-liners and to send them all back to hell. Like the other games in the franchise, this one is another first-person shooter with large environments, hordes of enemies to kill, and a variety of weapons, each suited to a specific tactical need, all of which should be used in turn when the action calls for them. I spent most of my time running backward in the game’s large, open areas, twisting side to side to avoid being shot, and keeping an eye on my ammo while also scanning the level for healing items and armor.
Serious Sam 4 forces me to keep multiple things in my head at once, along with a willingness to change tactics once another wave of enemies warps in to keep me busy. There are skeleton beasts that throw bones and gallop at me, diving to slash at my face with their claws. There are the infamous headless enemies who scream (through their neck-holes, I guess) while running toward me, holding explosives to make sure I don’t get comfortable in one spot for too long; belching, vomiting beasts covered with pustules; and much more.
The enemy design has always been one of Croteam’s strong suits. Each type of enemy is easy to identify, even at a distance, and each one gives hints about their numbers, direction, and attacks through sound as well as visuals. Juggling each enemy threat without making myself vulnerable to the next is a big part of the Serious Sam magic, and that challenge comes through in this game as well.
There is very little real-world logic at play here. Instead, the game operates according to the rule of cool: Sam can carry all these guns at once because it’s cool to have an arsenal. Enemies can warp into wherever Sam is, in whatever numbers they want, because he’s meant to be overwhelmed. The story has Sam trying to find the literal Ark of the Covenant to save the world.
Why not, right?
The problem is that I’ve played this game already, multiple times. The effect of being nearly overwhelmed, while usually just barely staying in control, is wearing off through repetition. The engine can’t quite keep up with the situations that unfold in the game or the increased emphasis on secondary characters and conversation. That’s especially apparent when there’s a pause for conversations and everyone’s face looks a little off, or when enemies seem confused by their own numbers and stand around, waiting to be picked off.
So why do we need another Serious Sam game now? I don’t know, and Croteam didn’t seem to have a good answer to offer, either. While id Software found ways to keep the tone and ideas behind the Doom series intact while branching out in play and design with Doom (2016) and Doom Eternal, Croteam seems too fond of the base Serious Sam experience to try anything as daring. So we’re left with a retread of past games, with some impressive vistas filled with enemies and not much else.
It’s not bad, but again, the joy of the old games feels like it has been squeezed out through repetition and a lack of forward motion. There’s just not enough here to allow Serious Sam 4 to compete with the other big first-person shooters of the year. Still, maybe hardcore fans will be comforted by the return of a series that barely changes, even after almost a decade away.
Serious Sam 4 is out now on Windows PC and Stadia, and is coming to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2021. The game was played on PC using a download code provided by Devolver Digital. Sports Grind Entertainment has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Sports Grind Entertainment may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Sports Grind Entertainment’s ethics policy here.
Great British Baking Show is back on Netflix and coming for Nailed It
What did the Sports Grind Entertainment staff spend their weekend watching? Whether it’s the latest virally popular Netflix series, discovering an animated gem, or educating ourselves in older genre classics, most of us find something worth recommending before we head back to work.
And as usual, the answers range widely, as some people check out what’s new and popular on streaming services, and some return to past favorites. So here’s what we’re watching right now, and what you might enjoy watching as well. Head to the comments to drop in your own recommendations.
Great British Baking Show
The Great British Baking Show is back! A new season of Netflix’s baking competition series (known as The Great British Bake Off overseas) kicked off with Cake Week on Friday, a thoroughly polite dustup involving Battenbergs, pineapple upside-down cakes, and fondant-wrapped busts of famous people composed of cake sponge. The first episode of the new season was full of delicious drama to the point of being overbaked: cakes were hastily microwaved, accidentally knocked onto the floor, melted into puddles, and savaged by Paul Hollywood. One baker even combined bubble gum and soda flavors in a cake that makes one wonder if they’ve ever seen Prue and Paul give an opinion on taste. But the star of the show was baker Dave’s tribute to former Blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge.
The show’s showstopper challenge demanded that bakers create a bust of one of their heroes from cake. Construction-based bakes are always stressful to watch, but this particular challenge was pure “you tried” comedy. Cribbing from Netflix’s own Nailed It!, almost every cake hero was a melted, blobby mess, but it was Three Flavours of Tom DeLonge that reached viral hit status on Twitter. I feel for the bakers; cake sponge does not have sculptural qualities of clay or marble, so everyone deserves an A for effort. The Great British Baking Show’s graphics department also deserves praise for the delightful interior shots of DeLonge’s head. If there’s one way to start a season, it’s with the fondant flesh of a pop punk legend (that no one on the show seems to know).
It was a momentous episode, not just for Three Flavours of Tom DeLonge. New co-host Matt Lucas joined the show, replacing Sandi Toksvig, and brought a fun, slightly creepy energy to the proceedings. It was also the first GBBO season filmed during lockdown — the show is being produced in a “bubble,” an extra layer of challenge for this season’s bakers. I’m delighted that appointment television is here again. —Michael McWhertor
The Great British Baking Show Collection 8 is streaming on Netflix.
And everything else we’re watching…
A handful of movies from my childhood blew my little brain: Gattaca, Tron, and Contact. I haven’t watched any of these films in two decades, so I figure what better way to pass quarantine than see how they hit my grown-up noggin.
I began my nostalgia tour this weekend with Contact, which I enjoyed, just not as much as I did as a kid. Jodie Foster plays an astronomer searching for intelligent life (and meaning) in the universe, while slowly falling in love with a journalist/political influencer/self-help icon played by Matthew McConaughey. As a grown-up, the central “man of science vs. woman of faith” debate feels more polemical — I’d forgotten that McConaughey plays a preacher-turned-spiritual guru to the President of the United States. The core message feels a little thinner (especially compared to the more recent Arrival) but the story is no less propulsive, particularly the final 40 minutes which play like an acid trip at the planetarium. Getting older can be a drag, but here’s a positive: we get to rewatch great films, discovering new things to love, seeing them, in a way, for the first time with a fresh perspective. Now to see if Tron holds up to my impossible childhood expectations! —Chris Plante
Contact is streaming on HBO Max.
I slept on Doctor Sleep. Reviews from last fall’s sequel to The Shining were mixed (and our critic’s take was dire!). But in the months after the movie bombed at the box office, I only heard good things about Hush and Gerald’s Game director Mike Flanagan’s take on the Stephen King novel — including praise for an extended cut that turned a two-and-a-half-hour movie into a three-hour-movie. Having respected a lot of Flanagan’s past work, and feeling high off his Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor (more on that after the embargo next month), I finally carved out time to witness what many saw as a misguided attempt to build on Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic legacy.
Heeeeeeeeere’s Johnny with a take: Doctor Sleep is fantastic. Using traces of Kubrick’s movie as nightmarish memories, Flanagan ties the paths of recovering alcoholic Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor), superpowered shiner Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), and Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the psychic leader of a soul-sucking, immortal cult, together into a sprawling mythological epic. Similar to the two Haunting series, Flanagan has a sense for how to keep King’s literary flavor intact, and the characters grounded in reality. The violence is vicious — trigger warning: Rose and her gang feed on helpless kids like Jacob Tremblay! — the theme of self-destruction is as terrifying as the supernatural, and the eventual stretch of story that leads Dan back to the Overlook hotel feels earned. For me, the movie doesn’t feel like a Shining sequel at all, and more of what I’d always hoped we’d get out of a Dark Tower adaptation: A mesmerizing collision of fantasy and reality staged atop a bedrock of mythology. —Matt Patches
Doctor Sleep is streaming on HBO Max and HBO Go.
The Green Inferno
There is a scene in Eli Roth’s grueling cannibal exploitation horror film The Green Inferno that almost made my 100-minute investment in the film feel worth it: A group of protestors, held captive by native people after their plane crashes in the jungle, are fed a mysterious meal. Upon realizing that they are consuming their recently departed friend Samantha, the lone vegan in the group slashes her own throat. Immediately following her death by suicide, one of her fellow protestors concocts a plan to stuff her stomach with his weed stash, hoping that their captors will get so stoned when they cook her, that the prisoners will be able to escape amid the confusion. Yet another protestor decides this is an opportune moment to masturbate, which he justifies as a release to clear his mind. Disgusted, a third protestor starts to strangle the wanker, leading to the inspired closed captioning description “[tugging intensifies].”
It is an ugly, bewildering scene that skyrockets The Green Inferno into wild, text-your-friends “you seeing this shit?!” absurdist territory. I can’t necessarily recommend The Green Inferno, a brutally gory and smug reproach of “slacktivism,” but if you’re interested in watching this particular scene, it takes place approximately 69 minutes into the film. —MM
The Green Inferno is streaming on Netflix.
King of the Hill
As a kid, I only knew about King of the Hill from an online mini golf Flash game I would play with my siblings on the family computer. Recommended by my Texan buddy who said the show is an accurate depiction of Texas life, I’ve finally been watching the series and … I am addicted. I found out Bobby Hill’s voice actress also voiced Pajama Sam, the star of one of Humongous Entertainment’s old computer games, and my life hasn’t been quite the same since. My friend said they were interested in using charcoal to grill some Korean BBQ, and I only half-ironically scolded them for not using propane. That’s where my life is at this moment. —Julia Lee
King of the Hill is streaming on Hulu.
Mystic Pop-up Bar
Having completed (and loved) Strong Girl Bong-soon, I dug around Netflix’s impressive catalogue of supernatural Korean shows to find something else lightheart. Mystic Pop-up Bar is mostly lighthearted but also occasionally complicated and sad, and I definitely found myself reaching for the tissues as I polished the show off over the weekend.
The no-nonsense bar owner Weol-ju (Hwang Jung-eum) is an afterlife reject, forced to settle the grudges of 100,000 souls or be destroyed. With only a few more conflicts to resolve and less than a month to do it, she’s feeling the pressure. If only she could harness the powers of sweet Han Kang-bae (Yook Sung-jae), who can make people confess their deepest truth with only a touch. Even with the help of gentle former-cop Chief Gwi (Choi Won-young), she’s going to have a hard time fighting off rogue demons and reincarnated menaces to get it done.
The show takes its time unraveling its backstory (there is 500 years worth!), constantly hinting at the truth and rarely pulling a “gotcha!” style twist. Plus the food — there’s no shortage of glamorous food shots that will remind you to stop and eat while you marathon this incredibly engaging, moving show. —Jenna Stoeber
Mystic Pop-up Bar is streaming on Netflix.
The thing about the Paddington movies is that they are perfect. I’ve seen them before, but rewatched them over the weekend with my partner, who had not seen them, with Paddington on Saturday night and Paddington 2 on Sunday night. I honestly had forgotten that they are actually kind of emotionally harrowing, and ended up crying a few times.
If you’re not familiar with Paddington Bear, the general gist of the story is that a polite little bear named Paddington is trying to make his way in the city of London after leaving his home in “darkest Peru.” It’s just a sweet time for everyone. Ben Whishaw provides Paddington’s voice in the films, and Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant star as the villains in the first and second film, respectively. A third Paddington is supposedly on the way, or at least it had better be. —Karen Han
Paddington/Paddington 2 are available to rent on Amazon.
If you watched The Mandalorian and thought “this Pedro Pascal guy sure does a good job playing a reticent mercenary, but I wonder what he’d be like as a chatty mercenary instead? And also wore a helmet where I could actually see his face?” then you’d have as good of a time as I did watching this low-budget sci-fi flick.
Centered around a financially struggling father and daughter who search alien moons and planets for valuable commodities, Prospect isn’t trying to tell an expansive or existential story. Instead it focuses on the relationships that people choose (or are forced into) when living on the ragged edge of society. The practical effects do an extraordinary job of making the world feel tactile and lived in and the Pacific Northwest location is made just alien enough to seem otherworldly. And despite some similarities to Pascal’s role as the Mandalorian, his roguish performance is quite different here, not the least because we can see that charismatic face. —Clayton Ashley
Prospect is streaming on Hulu
Trolls: World Tour
When the news gets inescapably heavy and depressing, as it did last week, it’s tempting to retreat into something completely undemanding and unchallenging, and also potentially fun and pretty. That’s why I finally watched Trolls: World Tour, which just arrived on Hulu after an early stint in the “premium rental” $20 trenches. The original Trolls movie is a surprisingly good time — it’s surreal and almost obscenely perky, with some lively original songs that bring a subversive edge to its feel-good kid-movie vibe. The whole thing is consciously designed like an acid trip, complete with DayGlo colors and warping landscapes full of unexpected singing flowers and talking objects. So I’d hoped for something similar from the sequel.
I didn’t get it — the sequel’s a pretty standard kids’ quest movie, with a villain (voiced by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom) out to steal everyone’s uniqueness, and heroes (Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake) using music to stop her. The frustrating thing about the film for an adult viewer: the whole point of the plot is that all music is equally valid and that pop may be fun, but it shouldn’t overshadow other music, and yet all the music in the film is fed through a pop filter anyway.
But the visual design! The Trolls films are built around the conceit that the stories are being told through scrapbooks after the fact, so the entire world is designed like a crafting party, with fabric buildings, yarn stages, and a felt balloon. My absolute favorite images included a gorgeous canyon made of piled-up quilts, a pond where the foamy edge of the water is the ragged, frayed edge of a piece of cloth, and a waterfall consisting of silver ribbons. The songs are kinda boring and the plot’s pretty rote, but this film is shockingly beautiful and thought-through in all the design elements. —Tasha Robinson
Trolls: World Tour is streaming on Hulu and rentable on Amazon.
Billie Eilish documentary hits Apple TV+ and theaters in February
It’s been nine months since Apple acquired a feature-length documentary on Billie Eilish, and it has at last revealed when you’ll be able to watch the RJ Cutler-directed film. It will release Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry in theaters and on Apple TV+ in February. It didn’t confirm an exact premiere date, however.
Apple named Eilish its artist of the year at the first Apple Music Awards, which were held in December. The star won five Grammy Awards in January, including the ceremony’s biggest honors: Best New Artist, Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
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