Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween Fright Frame: Attack of the Sadistic Stapler

To celebrate Halloween, here's a Halloween Fright Frame! Will Earl survive the attack of a demon-possessed stapler? Have no fear, Stephen King is not here - that's just ketchup on my finger. As for why this photo exists in the first place, well...that's just another Halloween mystery.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Drive Angry

Every Halloween, I cajole Sylvia into watching a horror movie with me. She's scared of horror movies, so I try to pick something mild; for example, Shaun of the Dead rather than The Descent. This year we chose Drive Angry because of its intriguing premise: a man escapes from hell in order to rescue his granddaughter from a cult. The trailer promised lighthearted action and over-the-top violence, so I figured it might provide some harmless fun.

Unfortunately, while there are ample car chases and gunfights, the direction, editing and choreography and dialogue are so crass and artless that what fun there might have been is drained away by the film's utterly pedestrian nature. Protagonist Milton (Nicolas Cage) gets into a gun battle while having sex with a waitress in a seedy hotel room, a scene that's played for laughs but falls completely flat; the only emotion I felt was sorrow for the actors. Cage dispatches the cult-member hillbillies one by one as the woman he's having intercourse with screams in horror. I'm not above a little tasteless humour - in fact, I revel in it - but this was just sad. If you're going to shoot a scene like this, you need to do it with some self-awareness of its tastelessness. Instead, it just comes off as cheap and exploitative.

The film's only bright spot is the always reliable character actor William Fichtner, who plays the Accountant, a sort of super-powered bounty hunter from hell whose job is to bring Cage's character back to Satan's realm. Even though he's playing a demon, Fichtner manages to imbue his character with competence and empathy; in a strange way, he becomes the only hero of the film. Even Amber Heard as Piper, Cage's sidekick, loses any connection she has with the audience by failing to display any remorse for killing (admittedly, in self-defence) two innocent police officers.

The film climaxes with a by-the-numbers gun battle between Cage, Piper and a couple of dozen anonymous cult members and their charisma-challenged leader. One-liners and bullets are exchanged, Milton rescues his granddaughter, and the Accountant takes Milton back to hell, his mission accomplished.

It's really a shame that the film falls so flat, because there are a couple of intriguing ideas buried in the mayhem. One is that Milton deserves to be in hell, and he recognizes that fact, yet remains committed to escape. The other, mentioned in dialogue by the Accountant, is that Satan is really nothing more than a glorified prison warden, a well-read and sophisticated fellow who takes great offense when infants are sacrificed on his behalf. In the film, hell is a very necessary evil, one constructed to keep Earth safe.

A braver film would have taken this concept further. Imagine a film that made Satan and his Accountant its leads, rather than supporting players, tracking down escapees from hell wreaking havoc on Earth. They could work with or against the earthly police, depending on the cops' level of corruption. Perhaps an angel or two could descend from heaven to chastise Satan and his Accountant for wreaking too much havoc, to which the minions of hell could rebuke the angels for never taking an interest at all in earthly affairs.

Drive Angry never rises to this level of ambition - nor does it show any ambition at all, really. It's a by-the-numbers horror-action film, boring one moment, repellent the next.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

85 Billion Stories

Barring a global catastrophe, the world's human population will soon hit seven billion. According to this BBC application, when I was born the population was about half what it is now. That's a staggering amount of growth for my short 42-year lifespan, but what really puts the scale of human existence in perspective for me is the news that I'm merely the 78 billionth (rounding up) person to have lived since history began*.

For fun, I tried pretending that I'd been born in the year zero just to see what numbers that would produce, but unfortunately the earliest birth year you can choose is 1910, which would make you about the 1.7 billionth person alive on Earth at the time and the 72nd billionth to have ever lived. Children being born in the next few days will live at the tail end of over 83 billion souls.

Now think of how many people are remembered these days, out of 83 billion - all the generals, poets, painters, scientists, politicians, inventors, murderers, saints, athletes, singers, writers, philosophers, kings and queens. How many historical figures are remembered today, collectively? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? Even if we remember a million of our ancestors, that represents a tiny, tiny fraction of everyone who's ever existed. Not long from now, there will have been 85 billion of us. 85 billion human stories! Imagine if we could somehow reach back in time and rediscover just a few of the billions of stories that have been lost in the mists of deep time. How much wisdom have we lost? How much art? How many scientific breakthroughs?

Some might pessimistically argue that the vast majority of these 85 billion stories were (or will be, for those extant today) short, brutal and unremarkable. But even if that were true (and I would argue that every person's story has inherent interest), even if 84 out of 85 billion stories weren't worth knowing - that still leaves nearly a billion new tales to add to the human canon! How I would love to read an eyewitness account of the construction of the Colossus, for example, or the story of a common labourer in ancient Mesopotamia, or an account of the humans who crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia to North America.

Unless we invent some kind of time travel technology, most of those stories will remain lost. How bottomless is the pool of our collective ignorance!

*The BBC explains its methodology thusly:
Both numbers have been calculated using UN Population Division figures. The first is an estimate of how many people were alive on your date of birth. It is one possible value based on global population figures and estimates of growth rates over time. Data before 1950 is less accurate than figures after that date. The second number includes calculations based on the methodology of scholar Carl Haub, who estimated how many people had been alive since 50,000 B.C. His calculation has been amended by the UN to include additional points in time.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Meeting in Sector 2814

The last time my friend Colin came out to visit, we both showed up, unplanned, wearing Green Lantern t-shirts. It should come as no surprise that we've both scored quite high on various online geek quizzes.  Colin, by the way, is a prolific writer of role playing games, and has just completed a significant revision of the hard-SF Traveller 2300 RPG, on sale now!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Happy Birthday, Sylvia!

Sylvia is the best part of my day every day. Today she celebrates another revolution around the sun, though she still looks like a little college woman to me.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Spill Life

When Sylvia and I moved in together back in 2004, over a dozen of our friends generously pitched in to help. During any move accidents are almost inevitable, and I managed to capture this one on film mere seconds after the accident.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Uncommon Cold

According to the Canadian Lung Association, "The common cold is probably the most common respiratory (breathing) disease. Many different viruses can cause a cold; over a hundred cold viruses (rhinoviruses) have been identified so far."

Cold symptoms are very distracting and may impact work and leisure activities alike.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Blazing Strings

It's Day Six of my cold and the only thing I can think coherently enough to post about is the realization that I love, love love the combination of string instruments such as the cello and violin with powerful electric guitars. I've been listening to Henry Jackman's rousing score for X-Men: First Class; there's a track called "X-Training" that exemplifies this kind of pulse-pounding, fast-paced, almost melodramatic music. Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica) does this sort of thing well, as does Ramin Djawdi on the Iron Man soundtrack.

I love this sort of music; it's powerful, bombastic, perhaps even a little macho. About ten years ago, while listening to an Internet radio station, I heard a electric guitar-based rendition of Jerry Goldsmith's main theme to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and at the time I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever heard. Alas, there was no announcement of the cover artist, and I've searched in vain for the track in the intervening years. Sometimes it feels like a figment of my imagination.

So, strings and guitars. Soundtrack composers, more of that, please - I can't get enough. Oh, and throw some heavy percussion in there too.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Too Sick for Shatner


Sean and I were supposed to go see William Shatner live at the Shaw Conference Centre tonight, but my head cold has gotten worse every day since Wednesday. With the beginning of the fall legislative session looming, I have no choice but to focus on recuperating.

Needless to say, I'm very disappointed. I don't really care about the wasted $110 (although, ouch), but I was looking forward to an outing with my brother and to seeing a pop culture icon in person. I'm not much for celebrity worship, but Shatner played Captain Kirk, for crying out loud. It would have been cool to hear him speak to a live audience.

Maybe I'll get another chance to see him in the future. In the meantime, Shatner's new music video will serve to express my angst.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Power of "What If..?"

As a child of the 1970s in Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, I loved making trips to the Town Centre's drug store, where a spinner rack of comic books awaited. My weekly allowance of one dollar allowed me to purchase three comics, which at the time typically cost 35 cents each - Mom or Dad always threw in the extra nickel. 

 One day, probably during the late winter or possibly the Star Wars Spring of 1977, I bought an issue of All-Star Comics - number 66, to be precise, cover-dated June 1977. This issue cost 30 cents, not 35, so perhaps my memories are from slightly further into the future, after a price increase, or maybe All-Star was simply a little cheaper. Whatever the price, my eight-year-old eyes devoured the images and the story. And there's one panel in particular that stands out to this day:
By the age of 8 I'd already been exposed to the concept of parallel universes many times over, but this panel was the first time I stumbled over the idea that not only could there be worlds where Superman was older and Green Lantern wore a different costume than on "our" world, but the politics of such alternate Earths could be entirely different. I was floored by the idea that the South Africa of Earth-2 had moved past apartheid. And then I was profoundly depressed, because I was, after all, reading a comic book; it was only imaginary.

But less than two decades later, the courage and dedication of real people on our own Earth put an end to apartheid and began the work of reconciliation between the diverse peoples of a divided country.

I was reminded of this comic because, stuck on the couch with a head cold, I've been resting and watching movies. Today I watched Invictus, Clint Eastwood's 2009 film about Nelson Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Anyone who knows me know that I'm not a sports fan, generally speaking. I am, however, a fan of Clint Eastwood's filmography; whatever the subject, he rarely disappoints. Invictus takes its name from the nineteenth-century poem by William Ernest Henley, which apparently inspired Mandela during his decades-long incarceration:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Henley's poem helped drive one of the era's most important political figures to lead a nation from segregation to reconciliation. While there's no doubt that South Africa is still beset by many problems, that nation's story remains hopeful, thanks in great part to Mandela and the millions of citizens - including the Springboks, the national (and almost all white) rugby team - who worked together, and continue to work together, to build a better country.

Aside from the connection to South Africa, what does a classic poem have to do with a one-off reference in a mostly-forgotten comic book?

It's this: hope is important. To dream of a better world, no matter the medium, is to instill in our minds the notion that the world may be imperfect, but it needn't stay this way. Just as Henley's poem inspired Mandela, I have no doubt that that panel from All-Star #66, or some other pop-culture reference with the same message, inspired others to work for a better world. Maybe that's too much import to impart upon a thirty-cent comic book, but I appreciate its message of hope nonetheless.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Best of ST:TNG Season One

Star Trek: The Next Generation is currently being remastered for a high-definition Blu-Ray release next year, and as a science-fiction cinephile, I'm thrilled. On the downside, with the exception of the three-episode teaser advertised above, the series will be released season by season, and TNG's first season isn't highly regarded by fans, thanks to uneven production values, weak stories and uncertain acting. There were certainly some growing pains, but frankly I think the show's first season contains several gems:


Where No One Has Gone Before
Trippy visuals and a voyage to the end of the universe evoke a strong sense of wonder, one of science fiction's primary goals.

The Big Goodbye
An engaging mixture of film noir and science fiction that asks important ethical and existential questions. Won the Peabody Award.

Datalore
The introduction of Data's twin android brother gives Brent Spiner his first chance to really show off his impressive acting chops.

11001001
This episode features an exciting doomsday countdown sequence and an interesting alien species.


Heart of Glory
We learn more about Worf and the Klingons - a suspenseful action story that empathizes with its villains.

The Arsenal of Freedom
Fun satire of our own violent culture.

Conspiracy
Creepy paranoid thriller with a truly shocking ending.

The Neutral Zone
Reintroduces the Romulans and hints at the Borg threat to come.

Eight good episodes out of twenty-six isn't exactly a compelling average, I know, but there are some good moments scattered throughout the rest of the season - certainly enough to justify Star Trek nerds like me purchasing the show all over again...

Thursday, October 20, 2011

UFO Premier

Last night I dreamed that I wandered out onto the Legislature grounds for lunch, only everything was newly refurbished and the fountains were completely redesigned in multiple tiers. The grounds were packed, and everyone, including, atypically, me, was dressed to the nines in black suits. I sat down and started munching on a ham sandwich, and seconds later overheard Premier Redford discussing the merits of a new UFO TV series, based on the original British show from the early 1970s. She wondered out loud how long the original series had lasted, and I turned around to answer.

"I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but if you're wondering about Gerry Anderson's original UFO show, it lasted for two seasons - or 'series,' as seasons are known in the UK - of 13 episodes each, for a total of 26 episodes."*

"Wasn't that a great show?" Redford gushed. "And the new one is even better, at least based on the pilot!"

"I didn't even know they were making a new show," I confessed. "I'd heard rumors of a movie, but not another series."

"Well, don't miss it again!" she said.

I went back to my sandwich, and looked down in horror to see that my suit was gone and I was sitting there in my underwear in front of the premier and hundreds of other people.

*In fact, UFO ran for one season of 26 episodes, but with a long break in between two 13-episode sections.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Stories Don't Write Themselves

As noted a few weeks back, I plan to enter the Canada Writes contest this year. But with the November 1 deadline looming, I have yet to bang out more than a few disconnected sentences. Though I make my living as a professional writer, 99 percent of my paid work to date has been non-fiction. (I sold one short story for $50 in the 90s, and I think the publisher was merely being generous.)

Writing a publishable short story is hard work. You need to determine your theme, setting, characters, conflict, resolution and plot while considering your target market - in this case, the contest judges. I assume that the judges of this CBC-sponsored contest are probably looking for Canadiana of some kind, so maybe I should just write about a beaver who can't get the required environmental impact assessments for his dam...huh, I just threw that out there as a joke, but that's actually not a bad seed for a story, if a little obvious. But as many real writers have pointed out, having an idea means nothing; ideas are a dime a dozen. Check it out:

A Dozen Ideas for One Thin Dime
1. Ellesmere Island gets sick of the cold and decides to migrate to the Carribean, causing all kinds of political havoc and creating jealousy among the other islands of the Arctic Sea.
2. A man discovers that his bank balance goes up, not down, whenever he withdraws money. While at first he delights in his good fortune, he quickly notices that the world gets worse the richer he gets.
3. A modern-day clerk discovers secret documents revealing that Sir John A. MacDonald once rode over Niagra Falls in a barrel to save Confederation.
4. For a period of exactly ninety-two hours, twelve minutes and forty-seven seconds, nothing bad happens anywhere in the world. There are no crimes, no one dies, no bad legislation is passed, there are no accidents of any kind. When things go back to normal, scientists and philosphers grapple with the existential questions raised by this statistically unlikely run of good luck.
5. An agoraphobic shut-in deals with the sudden death of her young grandchildren by forcing herself to play with their kite.
6. Two thousand years from now, archeologists discover evidence of a once-forgotten empire called "Canada" and try to puzzle out the details of its history and culture.
7. A Hollywood film crew arrives in Kelowna to shoot a movie about Ogopogo, disrupting the lives of the residents.
8. Canada's national symbols - goose, beaver, hockey player, Mountie and maple leaf - hold a press conference to withdraw their sponsorship of the nation.
9. While walking along a new but remote section of the Trans-Canada Trail, a hiker wanders off the path and finds a decades-old truck filled with mysterious knick-knacks. How did the truck get here, and what was its mysterious errand?
10. Teenage Adolf Hitler trips and falls into a wormhole and is flung forward in time to 2011. The boy discovers a world in which there are hundreds of short stories about people going back in time to kill him as a baby. Depressed, Hitler returns to the past and makes a fateful decision.
11. At the junior prom, a shy boy tries to work up the nerve to ask his favourite girl to dance. Little does he know that she's trying to work up the nerve to ask her favourite girl to dance...
12. An artificial intelligence captures the Democratic nomination for President, and the presidential race that follows threatens to set off a second civil war.

As you can see, a dime doesn't necessarily buy good ideas. I'm not sure whether or not I'll use any of these for the contest, but in a sense it doesn't really matter. It's finishing the work that counts, putting fingers to keyboard and electrons to...inboxes, I guess. Hmm...

13. A wannabe writer discovers that in the Internet era, the old metaphors are growing obsolete.

Wish me luck...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Showering at the South Pole

I consider my ability to enjoy a hot shower every day one of the greatest luxuries in life and a great achievement of science and civilization. It's a pleasure I never take for granted, and even understanding the environmental costs, one I hope to never surrender. But a stray thought made me wonder if we could redesign the typical shower to improve its efficiency.

When I shower on a chilling fall or winter morning, I notice that even while surrounded by the heat of the water I'll still feel a chill in my extremities thanks to the cooler air beyond the shower doors (or curtain, if I'm downstairs). While observing this phenomenon this morning, I wondered what would happen if the shower and I were suddenly transported to the South Pole, with the shower still, somehow, in operating condition, pumping an endless supply of hot water. How long would it take you to freeze to death? Shower doors provide virtualy no insulation, being glass; a curtain wouldn't be much better. My own shower is open at the top, since the doors don't extend to the ceiling. Even given an unlimited supply of hot water, I imagine the exothermic reaction would quickly suck most of the heat out of the shower and into the frigid Antarctic, dooming the showering human to an agonizing death.

Barring the intervention of sadistic deities or advanced aliens, such an event is, I admit, unlikely. But it does make me wonder about all that wasted heat. Could we design showers to trap all that waste heat and pump it back into the hot water tank somehow? Or distribute it through the vents to help heat the home? Would it be cost-effective to do so? Do they already do this in the top-secret underground lairs of shadowy spy agencies?


Could we design and build a more environmentally friendly, less wasteful shower...one I don't have to feel guilty about using?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Roll of the Dice

In 2007, Sylvia and I stayed at a condo in Canmore for Thanksgiving. While there, we played Yahtzee, and as I often do I fooled around taking photographs while we played. And this happened.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Head-On Cognition

Back in 2007, I doodled this stream of consciousness, apparently suffering temporary brain damage thanks to this commercial:

Today Brian expressed amazement that I keep old notes like this. I guess it is kind of amazing. Or perhaps there's another word for it. Obsessive compulsive? That's two words.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Duly Noted

Many moons ago, I served as Executive Assistant for the Western Board of Music, a charitable institution that organized music exams for students of piano, drums, woodwinds, brass, etc. I answered many phone calls and took plenty of messages for my boss, Leslie. To amuse myself I sometimes overdramatized some of the more banal calls, as seen above; the student pictured needed to postpone his exam due to a minor injury.

I think the funniest part is Leslie's matter-of-fact note, neatly scrawled in red. Like all of my coworkers (and friends) over the years, she quickly grew accustomed to my eccentricities and learned not to encourage me.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

Remember the CD-ROM reference software of the late eighties and early nineties - titles like Microsoft Encarta? My favourite title was probably Cinemania, a delightful reference work that included articles on practically every movie ever made, complete with reviews by Ebert, Maltin and Kael as well as multimedia features like photos, audio files and movie clips. Cinemania featured a gorgeous, easy to use interface and its depth and breadth of coverage was unrivalled. I was such a fan that I even wrote Microsoft with a list of suggested improvements, including a whole new product, TVMania.

Of course the World Wide Web made Encarta, Cinemania and a host of other CD-ROM titles obsolete, including another of my favourites, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, an exhaustive reference work covering all aspects of SF. Well, good news! The original authors have put the SFE on the web, with even more material. The encyclopedia is now over three million words long, with another million or so words to come over the course of the next year.

Coverage is extremely broad, the analysis brief but insightful. John Clute's editorial opinion is easy to spot in many articles and readers may find themselves disagreeing with his point of view from time to time, but overall I think he's fair. There's plenty of history to enjoy here, but the chief value of this work, for me at least, is its tendency to add many authors and titles to your reading list.

I encourage fans of SF to visit the Science Fiction Encyclopedia here.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Simple Plea

Say what you will, this button helped get me elected...as the Leduc Composite High School's Public Relations Representative on Student Council. The message is straightforward, the design simple; maybe I should have used this style in my 2008 provincial campaign.

Monday, October 10, 2011

She-Freak

Turner Classic Movies is my favourite television channel, but every once in a while they'll air a real dud. When I saw something called She-Freak on the schedule for TCM Underground, I eagerly set my PVR to record it, anticipating some weird, gonzo horror. Unfortunately, She-Freak turns out to be one of those rare duds.  

She-Freak (1967) opens with several minutes of stock footage of a carnival, complete with canned screams of delight repeated on an endless loop. Psychedelic rock attempts to make the setting seem creepy and dangerous, but the ham-handed editing, leaden acting and pedestrian direction sap all the life from what turns out to be, sadly, a dreary ninety minutes of boredom capped off with one of the most egregious rip-offs in cinema history: the last minutes echo Tod Browning's superior Freaks (1932) so blatantly that I exclaimed my disgust verbally, shouting at the television set.If you're familiar with Freaks, you'll know the scene I'm talking about; She-Freak not only steals it, but the makeup effects, acting and direction are so bad it's embarrassing.

There are a few moments of interest. Director Byron Mabe manages (perhaps accidentally) to frame a couple of genuinely goofy close-ups, and there are so many uninterrupted takes of mid-60s carnival life that the film manages to serve as a time capsule of a disappearing cultural phenomenon. If you want to know what take-out cups of Coke and Pepsi looked like in the 1960s, this is your film. Otherwise, don't waste the hour and a half.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Alien Ambush Poster

The tagline for the recent remake of Clash of the Titans was "Titans Will Clash." The idiocy of that drove me crazy, so of course I've emulated it here.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Restaurant Review: Pat and Mike's

Pat and Mike's Family Restaurant
17732 102 Avenue
Edmonton

Tucked away in Edmonton's west end among car dealerships and industrial parks sits Pat and Mike's, a charming utilitarian diner with down-home greasy spoon charm and hearty, satisfying fare.

Sylvia and I ordered the Breakfast Combo. For roughly eleven dollars we enjoyed French toast, hash browns, eggs, bacon, sausage and toast on the side. It's pretty hard to screw up breakfast - even I can manage to assemble something close to a decent plate - but I nonetheless appreciate the care and attention lavished on our meals. Our bacon was cooked to the perfect consistency, the hash browns were hot, the toast crispy, the French toast generously battered. Even my eggs were perfect; I always order them over hard, and rarely do cooks actually get it right. This time my eggs were exactly hard enough to prevent the yolks, once broken, from spilling all over my food like a nauseating yellow tide. (I know some people love dipping their toast in yolk, but the very idea makes me reel.)

Service at Pat and Mike's is genuinely warm. In fact, the service provided by the kindly couple that owns the place really elevated the experience. The matron brought us free samples of her baking (Rice Krispy squares and peanut fudge bars) and generally treated us like family.

Canned soda at Pat and Mike's is a little expensive at $1.60, but otherwise this establishment offers good breakfast and excellent service at fair prices. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 07, 2011

The White Tiger

Tiger, tiger, sapped of might
Trapped in lights of neon white
What immoral wish or whim
Could cage your noble soul within?

I shot this photo while visiting Las Vegas in 2004. The strip is a monument of tragic magnificence. Opulent but impoverished. It's seductive; you can't help but marvel at the tremendous scale of the engineering, the marketing, the dream that's being sold...that you too can live in a gold and marble tower, your every wish fulfilled, nothing to do but feast on luxury.

The tiger looked sad, and on impulse I took a photo, and by doing so I became an accomplice, no better than any other gawking tourist.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Jen and Steph

When you attend university, hundreds of people will pass through your life, never met before, and too often, never seen again after graduation. I have many fond memories of my four years at the University of Alberta and particularly of the time spent in our dorm at Lister Hall.

Here's a shot of Jennifer and Stephanie sitting in the girl's wing on our floor, Main Kelsey, circa 1988 or 89. I don't remember why the hallway is strewn with litter, nor how or why we acquired a construction sign. The photo itself is from Wayne Reti's collection, another denizen of Main Kelsey.

Jennifer was in the nursing program; Stephanie, education. One night Kim, Jen's roommate, lured me into their room for a Halloween prank; while Kim engaged me in conversation, Jen fell out of the closet, corpse-like, flopping onto the bed. Stephanie asked me to take some photos of her to enter in the Miss Edmonton Eskimo contest; she placed second.

I never saw Jen again after university, but I did run into Stephanie once, in 1992 or 93, at a Safeway; we exchanged addresses, I sent her a copy of the first issue of Blazing Earl News; the second was returned, as she'd moved on. Wayne loaned me the negatives that include this photo, and I haven't seen him again to return them. Sorry, Wayne. Be assured they're in good hands.

I wonder what Jen, Steph and Wayne are up to today. Maybe they remember why the hallway was so filthy.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Once Upon a Time in Canada

Once Upon a Time in the West is an epic Sergio Leone spaghetti western. Once Upon a Time in America is Leone's gangster odyssey. Once Upon a Time in Mexico is the third chapter in Robert Rodriguez' El Mariachi series. Bollywood has Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai. There are even two Once Upon a Time in China films. 

I think a notable Canadian director - perhaps David Cronenberg would be a good choice - should direct Once Upon a Time in Canada, with a story just as rooted in our national mythology as the other "Once Upon a Time" films. In keeping with Cronenberg's dark sensibilities, perhaps it could be the story of a Canadian of European descent and a Canadian Inuit who embark on an ill-fated ice-fishing expedition. It could begin in medias res, with the two stranded on an ice floe that's calved off the main shelf due to climate change. As the floe drifts through the frigid Arctic Ocean, the pair could share stories in flashback about their respective experiences...both growing up as Canadians, but with experiences wholly alien to each other. They argue politics and the merits (or lack thereof) of Canadian culture; they can't even agree if there is such a thing, and if the aboriginal experience is part of it or something wholly separate. As they waver between suspicion, rage, grudging respect and enduring companion ship, the midnight sun circles overhead, watching their struggle dispassionately. In the end, an American nuclear submarine surfaces to rescue them, mere seconds after they die of exposure. An exhausted polar bear beaches itself on the floe and stares at the corpses as the American sailors look on. Pan up to the midnight sun and fade to brilliant white; roll credits.

What do you think? Is that Canadian enough?

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Ready Player One: An Ode to the 80s

Born in the sixties, a child of the seventies, I came of age in the eighties. If you too were a teenager during the Me Decade, Ernest Cline's Ready Player One will resonate. Cline's first novel is heavy on charm and pop-culture references, if light on powerful prose; it is nonetheless charming and yet cautionary.
Earl in the 80s, when video games were loud and shirts were louder.
When I recall the 80s, I remember the bloops and bleeps and disco beats of one of the dozen video arcades strewn across Leduc, Alberta. I wasted many hours and many quarters evading the ghosts of Pac-Man, blasting away at the alien Space Invaders, rescuing humanoids in Defender and Stargate, running down pedestrians in Death Race, defending my cities in Missile Command and all the while getting distracted by teenage girls with big 80s hair in painted-on jeans. At the same time, I was learning how to program in BASIC on my Atari 400 computer, listening to Journey, Kool and the Gang and the Tubes and playing Dungeons and Dragons with my friends. At the movies I marvelled at Tron, the Star Trek films, Return of the Jedi, Aliens, Valley Girl, Weird Science, Buckaroo Banzai, Terminator, Big Trouble in Little China and The Thing, not to mention the teen angst comedy-dramas of John Hughes. Our family never owned an Intellivision or an Atari 2600, but my friends certainly did, and we whiled away long afternoons playing Adventure, Discs of Tron  and Yar's Revenge.

Cline's novel is set in the near future, but draws upon all the 80s touchstones I listed above - and more - to form its nostalgic narrative. In the year 2044, most of humanity lives in poverty. Both the environment and the economy are a catastrophic mess. Many people, at least in the developed nations, have just enough money to lose themselves in the OASIS, a kind of super-Internet virtual reality system that serves as both promising educational tool and dangerous diversion for the lower classes (and in this future, virtually everyone belongs to the lower class). OASIS creator James Halliday, a sort of Bill Gates/Steve Jobs amalgam, dies and leaves his vast estate to whoever can solve the ultimate video game, an epic adventure that requires contestants to navigate a perilous virtual world.

Wade Watts is a plucky but poor adventurer, an orphan with nothing to his name but a cheap virtual reality rig, a few credits and an encyclopedic knowledge of 80s pop culture - and lucky for him, too, for Halliday, like me, was a teen in the 80s and was profoundly influenced by the pop culture of the era. With no realistic options for improving his lot in life, Watts joins the great game and through a combination of research, skill and luck manages to uncover the first clue to unlocking the mystery of the game. But doing so puts him at odds with a sinister multinational corporation bent on subverting OASIS for its own greedy ends, and they'll stop at nothing - not even murder - to be first to complete Halliday's quest...

Cline's novel is really a tale of two worlds: the technological video-game utopia of OASIS and the run-down urban nightmare of 2044. With money and net access, people can enjoy wonders such as flying their own X-Wing fighter to new worlds or transforming into a giant robot to fight other giant robots. You can even attend a first-class virtual public school, thanks to Halliday's generosity and vision. But what you can't do is help change the real world, a world that is winding down in the background as people devote more and more of their lives to the facile pursuits of a virtual world. While most of the action occurs in the OASIS, important segments of the narrative thrust Watts back into the real world, and each visit heightens the stakes of Wade's virtual actions. If he doesn't win the game, he'll live out his life as a poverty-stricken fugitive with no hope for a better life. But even if he does win...what then?

Ready Player One doesn't answer that particular question, implying that even a nest egg of billions and a pure heart full of good intentions may not be enough to repair the damage humans have wreaked upon the world. But it is, nonetheless, a novel full of hope. While there are antagonists, most of the characters, even the rich ones, are good people trying to do the right thing; it's the situation that's bad, not the actors. Thus there is a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, there's a chance the world can be redeemed. There's even a teenage romance echoing the themes of those old John Hughes movies.

More than a simple 80s homage or adventure story, Ready Player One asks important questions about personal responsibility, self-image and identity and all the possibilities, both good and bad, open to an evolving human culture. Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Ghost Car

While on a trip to Leduc, Sean asked me to take a photo of the amusing sign at Burger Baron. Click to embiggen and take a closer look at the car in the photo. This odd effect was produced because I used my iPhone's HDR setting, which forces the camera to take two photos milliseconds apart at different settings in an effort to capture a wider range of light. But while my hand was steady enough to prevent blur, I couldn't prevent the moving vehicle from being doubly exposed. However, I think the effect is kind of neat.

The Leduc Burger Baron, by the way, seems to be under new management - new to me, anyway. The burgers and fries are markedly superior to the Burger Barons on Edmonton's west end. The Leduc Burger is especially savoury. Yum!