Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Buffing the Past

A couple of years ago I started scanning old family photos. This Polaroid was taken sometime in 1976, just after Sean was born in Leaf Rapids, Manitoba. If you click to embiggen, you'll see that the scan is marred by several scratches and countless dust motes. This image has been shrunk so that I don't use up all of my free Blogger space any sooner than I must; at the original scan size, it looks even worse.

Here's the same image after about an hour and a half's worth of correction. First, I corrected the levels as Jeff Shyluk taught me last year, trying to approximate a nice bell curve on the histogram. Then, I used the clone stamp and the spot healing brush to erase the dust motes and scratches. Finally, I used the burn tool to darken the image; this may have been a mistake or at least unorthodox, I don't really know. But I think it's an improvement. I probably should have tried to use the unsharp mask filter too, but my confidence with that tool is still minimal.

One thing's for sure: to minimize headaches later on, you should always keep your scanner glass as clean as possible. Every dust mote, fingerprint and imperfection on the glass will show up on your scanned image. I've learned this the hard way.

Monday, March 29, 2010

My SF Blind Spots

Speculative fiction portal io9 is asking readers "what's your sci-fi blindspot?" That is, which works in the genre have escaped your attention?

Despite an unhealthy obsession with popular culture, I have quite a few SF blind spots. Here's a short list of well-known, popular, influential or simply notorious genre works I have yet to peruse:

Stargate (and spinoffs)
21st century Dr. Who
The Tripods
Quatermass (original television series; I've seen most of the movies)
Dark Shadows
The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne
Dead Like Me
Pushing Daisies
Desperate Housewives
Six Feet Under

Quatermass IV
Day of the Triffidds
Mighty Joe Young
Donovan's Brain
On the Beach (I've read the book, though)
Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine
Beware! The Blob (I have seen the first Blob movie)
Who? (I've read the book)
Phase IV
The Brood
Altered States
The Brother from Another Planet
Star Crystal
*batteries not included
Short Circuit 2
Ghostbusters 2
My Stepmother is an Alien
Deepstar Six (I did see the similarly-themed Leviathan that year, though)
Robocop 3
Mom and Dad Save the World
The Arrival and The Arrival 2
Jurassic Park 3
The Faculty
Six-String Samurai

The Hobbit
The Lord of the Rings
Gravity's Rainbow
A Case of Conscience
Starship Troopers
Most of the works of C.J. Cherryh
Most of the works of Philip K. Dick
Most of the works of William Gibson
Most of the works of H. Beam Piper
Most of the works of Connie Willis
Most of the works of Lois McMaster Bujold
Most of the works of Ursula K. LeGuin
Most of the works of Octavia Butler
Anything by China Mieville

That's a lot of gaps to fill. The list of mainstream popular culture (and so-called "high" culture) I have yet to examine is even longer.

Now I know how Burgess Meredith felt in "Time Enough at Last." We're simply here for too short a season to keep up with everything.

Monday, March 22, 2010

While I Fiddled...

On Saturday I drove down Jasper Avenue and took note of the Edmonton Auto Spring Works building. I found the fading paint and bold signage very appealing, and made a mental note to return later in the summer to snap some photos, perhaps experimenting with HDR (high dynamic range).

But the very next day, the historic building went up in flames. I felt a moment of genuine sadness; the building wasn't beautiful, but it had character. It was a piece of living history, and its destruction reminds us that the world, as always, moves on.

Now I'll never have the chance to shoot the Edmonton Auto Spring Works, but this story did give me the chance to flex a speck of creative muscle by using Photoshop to give the above image from Google Street View an old-timey flavour.

Also on Jasper Avenue...
Today I left work a little early to pick up Sylvia from an appointment. I had a green light going north on 107th street, turning right onto Jasper Avenue. There was an ETS bus coming south on 107th, turning left so that it, too, would be heading east on Jasper. I believe I had the right of way and turned right; in the same instant, the bus made its left hand turn. Now, Jasper being a four-lane roadway, we each had a lane to safely enter; him on the left, me on the right. But of course he had to immediately swerve into my lane in order to pull into the corner bus stop. The driver honked rather aggressively at me and cut in right behind me.

Given this situation, I felt that I had the right of way; I was making a right on a green, he was making a left, in which case I believe the rule is to yield to oncoming traffic, i.e., me. Of course having the bus stop in the right lane made it necessary for the bus to immediately change lanes upon completion of his turn - but I would have figured that the driver's role was to wait for me until it was safe to make the lane change.

Now I'm genuinely curious - was I in the wrong? I don't think so, but if someone with more experience with ETS rights-of-way wants to chime in, I'm all ears. No sense getting in the way of a vehicle with ten times my vehicle's mass...

Monday, March 15, 2010

P is for Principles...and Perry White

While re-reading my old Superman comics, I came across this panel from Action Comics #670, published back in 1991, during the last recession. Here, Daily Planet Managing Editor Perry White expresses his outrage, disgusted by the owners' decision to freeze wages and lay off workers - including Jimmy Olsen. Even Lois Lane and Clark Kent, newly engaged, lost their staff positions and were forced to do freelance work for the paper.

Perry's outrage certainly captured the zeitgeist of the era. I was just out of university and struggled for years to find meaningful employment, and of course others were even worse off. I finally landed a job at a non-profit in the mid-90s and started selling some freelance articles and haven't really looked back since, though like most people I've suffered my own economic ups and downs. Now Albertans (among most others in the world) are facing tough choices in the wake of high unemployment, wage freezes, rollbacks, unfavourable contract negotiaions...the same old 90s story all over again. Perry White wasn't just speaking for reporters, but for people like the public sector workers of Alberta, the teachers and nurses who sacrificed so much during the Klein years. Many of them left, including some friends of mine, and Alberta is certainly feeling their absence - despite the current downturn, we're still dangerously short of health care professionals.

You don't balance the books by breaking the backs of your workers. Seems like common sense to me, but it seems we have few political leaders willing to take the long view.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Supervillain Speed Metal

I love the Internet and affordable computer technology for many reasons, but above all is their democratization of the creative impulse. Some enterprising person must have spent hours putting this together, all for the sake of a laugh.

Twenty years ago, I sang "Breaking the Law" at a Battle of the Bands held in Edmonton. We lost. However, I was replaced with a much better singer and the band won the next year! A happy ending.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Oscar Shenanigans!

Last year, I emerged triumphant at the annual Fitzpatrick Oscar party, correctly predicting more winners than anyone else in attendance. This year, hoping for a two-fer, I made sure to watch all ten Best Picture nominees, viewed all the nominated shorts, and brought all my film geek knowledge to bear when making my picks.

This was Sylvia's first time at a Fitzpatrick Oscar party. She picked based on gut instinct.

In the end, the best I could do was a tie for second place with co-host Steve Fitzpatrick. Sylvia emerged as the winner, with 14 correct picks to our 13. I guess that makes her a Victourious Basterd!

I missed Art Direction, Cinematrography, Documentary Short, Foreign Language Film, Original Song, Short Film: Animated - should've gone with Logorama, my favourite, but bet on Nick Park winning for Wallace and Grommit again - Short Film: Live Action, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing - picked Avatar for these, lost to Hurt Locker - Screenplay: Adapted and Screenplay: Original. Sylvia missed all those plus Makeup and Best Picture but correctly predicted Foreign Language Film, Screenplay: Adapted, Screenplay: Original, Original Song, giving her the one-point win and a gift card to Cineplex...plus she gets to pick what we see.

I'll have my revenge.

Oh, I Wish I Were An Oscar Movie Wee-ner...

For the first time, I've managed to watch all of the Oscar Best Picture nominees before the awards are handed out. Here's my ranking of all ten films, from worst to best. Please note: I doubt that my number one choice will actually win Best Picture. It's merely the film I would vote for if I were a member of the Academy.

10) The Blind Side - The only film that doesn't really deserve to be on this list. It's a by-the-numbers sports movie, with no innovation whatsoever, a schmaltzy script, and a terrible message. The only black people in this movie are either criminals, drug addicts, servants or dependent upon white people to "save" them. The film also reinforces the destructive myth that professional sports is the best escape from poverty for black people. Aside from a couple of token racists - and very mild racists, at that - all of the white people are saintly humanitarians. Unfortunate. Only Sandra Bullock's charm saves this from being completely unwatchable. I laughed when industry buzz speculated that Star Trek might have received a Best Picture nomination, but having seen this film, I would have far preferred a third science fiction film on this year's ballot.

9) An Education - Lead actress Carey Mulligan is engaging and likeable in this coming-of-age picture, but really, it's just another in a long line of well-crafted British period dramas. Deserves a viewing, but probably won't stay with you for long.

8) Precious: Based on the Novel Push, by Sapphire - I loved the editing and the sequences depicting Precious' escapist fantasy life, but her tribulations become so extreme that I found myself laughing at two key junctures, when I was clearly supposed to be crying. Melodrama in the Sirk mode.

7) Up - Up deserves to be on this list for its masterful, tearjerking opening sequence, but the latter two-thirds of the film don't sustain the emotional impact. Turns cutesy once the leads reach South America, and the talking dogs don't help.

6) The Hurt Locker - This film has an excellent shot of taking home the award tonight, but it doesn't make my top five. Good performances, tight direction and a topical subject, but not innovative enough to compete with my top five.

5) Avatar - Terrific action, groundbreaking special effects, a richly-developed alien world and fine performances from all concerned (especially Zoe Saldana) - but in the end, a little too pat, with the good guys and the bad guys showing few shades of grey (or blue). Would have ranked higher on my list had Cameron given us more motivation for the human pillaging of Pandora.

4) A Serious Man - Another bewildering Cohen brothers masterpiece that challenges its audience. I'm a sucker for ambiguous endings, but like No Country for Old Men before it, A Serious Man forces us to consider our place in a world where random chance and/or destiny and/or a vengeful, unknowable creator holds all the cards, leaving mere mortals helpless.

3) District 9 - This movie takes a lot of chances - it's part alternate history, part science fiction, part human drama, holding up a mirror to ourselves as only the best SF can do. Unlike Avatar, this film is rich in shades of grey, with humans and aliens capable of both self-sacrifice and terrible cruelty.

2) Up in the Air - From the inventive opening sequence to the hard-hitting conclusion, Up in the Air is relentlessly engaging. The leads are all fascinating and watchable, the story topical and important, and the direction and editing top-notch.

1) Inglourious Basterds - I did not expect Quentin Tarantino's latest to be my favourite film of the year, but here it is. It's daring, violent, inventive and original, and dares to create an alternate history without giving the audience any warning whatsoever. Tarantino continues to stretch his wings with interesting editing and cinetographical choices, and gets fine performances from all of his actors, from the leads to the supernumaries. Christoph Waltz is amazing as Nazi Jew hunter Hans Landa, and deserves an Oscar for his work as well.

There you have it. My top five will probably shift up and down quite a bit with the passage of time, but as of this moment, these are my favourites. We'll see how my choices fare later tonight.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Where Angels Fear to Tread

Crude schematic for the Earl J. Woods CarTank (TM)

On the way home from work yesterday, I started to wonder how people with disabilities drive. I know that some are able to use hand controllers, so that the brake and accellerator are mounted on the steering wheel (or so I imagine). I don't think I'd have the necessary coordination to drive that way, but then I remembered Battlezone, the old Atari arcade game:

In Battlezone, you used two joysticks to move your tank. Pushing both joysticks forward made  your tank move forward; pulling both backward put you in reverse; holding one stick forward and one back would make your tank pivot. I wondered if this simple control scheme could be applied to vehicles - think how easy it would be to make rapid turns if you could pivot! Plus, driving with treads seems so much cooler, not to mention more stable, than plain old wheels.

Of course, this configuration would probably make cars heavier, more expensive, more ecologically damaging, and would almost certainly wreck roads fast. But wouldn't it be fun to make your car spin around on a dime until your passengers all got dizzy?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Harry Potter and the Procrastinating Reader

When the Harry Potter series began and took the publishing industry by storm, I promised myself that I would read the series when J.K. Rowling completed it. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released almost three years ago, and only now have I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the first book in the series.

But I think I'll finish the series quickly, because Rowling's style is crisp, her characters engaging, her world one that I'd love to visit. I was taken in by the big plot twist, and it's always pleasant to be surprised, especially by a children's book. I look forward to seeing what happens next to Harry and Ron and Hermione and Dumbledore and Snape and all the rest.

Speaking of what happens next, I'm rather surprised that I've managed to remain spoiler-free so far, despite having delayed my consumption of these books. No spoilers in the comments, please, or I'll be forced to curse you. Don't mess with me, I started playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was 12 and I've been refining my skills recently.

I envy the experience of the countless boys and girls who were fortunate to grow up with these books. It must have been a wonderful experience, reading the first book at around the same age as the protagonists and growing up alongside them. The fantasy series I grew up with were already completed long before I came along, and featured adult protagonists - I'm writing here chiefly of the Tarzan and John Carter novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Had I been born a decade earlier, I might have had a similar experience following Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the gang through high school and university on television...but alas.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Star Trek: The Motion Picture Remastered...Again

Exceedingly clever video from a British (?) bloke who matches, nearly shot-for-shot, the "leaving drydock" sequence from Star Trek: The Motion Picture...with his car. I wish I'd thought of this!