Saturday, January 14, 2012

Megacity Zero Point Five

On December 31, Sylvia and I ventured to Las Vegas' newest megamillion-dollar development, City Centre. Situated at the midpoint of Las Vegas Boulevard, this massive shopping/dining/casino/hotel complex sports an extremely futuristic look that made me feel as though I'd stepped a decade or two ahead in time. The Aria Express tram seen here links the various sections of the complex. Here are some more views, shot from within the tinted blue glass of the tram:

Friday, January 13, 2012

Brian and Rick

As I've noted in the past, the only constant in politics is change. This is especially true regarding political staffs. Today we at the Official Opposition said goodbye to outgoing Communications Director Brian Leadbetter (above) and Chief of Staff Rick Miller (below).
I've worked with Rick, in different capacities, since I started working for the Official Opposition back in January 2006. Rick is fair, compassionate, smart and generous, always willing to help others and fight for better government, which he's been doing for many years - long before we met. Rick has moved on so that he can focus his full attention on his campaign to serve once again as the MLA for Edmonton-Rutherford, and I hope that voters this spring take the opportunity to return this fine human being to office. He was a great MLA once, and I hope he will be again.

I've worked with Brian for a little less than a year, but during that short time I've been tremendously impressed with his professionalism, communications instincts, critical thinking, complete fearlessness, and above all, loyalty to his team. Brian was a real joy to work with, and I learned a great deal from his mentor-ship. His new employers are fortunate indeed to have him. Brian is also a great host and the snappiest dresser I've ever encountered, and I'll miss his insights and wry sense of humour.

Both these fine men deserve happiness and fulfillment, and I hope they find it as they begin new journeys. As they say in the movies, gentlemen, it's been a privilege serving with you. Excelsior!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dark Sentinel

This gnarled old tree overlooking the south rim of the Grand Canyon really caught my attention on New Year's Day, so I tried to snap a reasonably artistic photo. I'm not sure if I succeeded or not. It probably would have turned out better had I mounted a stepladder and shot from a higher angle to show more of the canyon itself. Alas...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sylvia Meets the King

While Sylvia and I visited downtown Las Vegas (Freemont Street, to be exact) on Boxing Day, we ran into Elvis himself, sadly reduced to posing for photos with tourists for tips. We were all shook up, uh-uh-huh.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Future of Photography?

Just before the holiday break, my friend Kyle told me about a new concept in cameras: the Lytro light field camera. Up until now, cameras have always focussed to a particular depth of field, but the Lytro uses new technology to capture "the entire light field, which is all the light traveling in every direction in every point in space," according to the company's website. In practical terms, this means, so the claim goes, that you can quickly whip out the camera, take a shot without the traditional delay to focus, and focus afterward - on any point in the frame. You can view some examples here; click on the portion of the image you want in focus.

I do wonder if there's a way to put the entire frame in focus, and how one goes about selecting their favourite version of each image - i.e., can you manipulate the photo and then save your preferred version as an ordinary .jpg? The website doesn't say. So far it seems as though the Lytro file format is meant for online sharing rather than archiving in your personal collection.

I've yet to see one of these cameras in action, and because of the questions above I'm certainly not going to buy one sight unseen, but I'd sure love a chance to play with one. At first glance, this looks like an important development.

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Coca-Cola Christmas Company

For the last century or so, Coca-Cola has done a masterful job of insinuating itself into Christmas traditions. They appropriated and reshaped Santa Claus' iconography back in the 30s, and now they have these admittedly cool ornament-shaped bottles. I doubt they're hung on many trees (not while full, at least), but they certainly evoke the Christmas spirit. I hope whoever designed this bottle received a hefty bonus.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Blackened Cajun Strips: The Beginning

Back when I was single, one of my favourite guilty pleasures was to go to Red Robin with a book and dine on their best dish, the blackened Cajun strips. Served in a basket with steak fries, the strips were make of chicken rolled in a blend of Cajun spices and blackened. I absolutely loved them, but about a decade ago or more, Red Robin took them off the menu, and they've been missing ever since.

If you search for "blackened Cajun strips Red Robin," the results are slim; if not for a few other complainers, you'd hardly know the item ever existed.

After their initial disappearance, the strips did return for a brief time, but since their second removal from the menu they haven't been seen since, and I despair that they'll ever return. This means that I must learn how to create this item myself - a daunting proposition, since I loathe cooking. But I'll give it a try. In the near future, I'll find the recipe, ingredients and tools necessary to make my own blackened Cajun strips, and I'll share the results here.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

MSTie Mints

Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 are known as MSTies. Misty Mints are a popular Christmastime confection. So this seemed perfectly reasonable...

Gypsy's pose reminds me of the time my friend Susan had a few too many Misty Mints and wound up vomiting them into the bathtub. Poor Susan.

Friday, January 06, 2012

100 Books a Year: Final Count

As noted last February, I decided to follow the lead of a couple of friends and see if I typically read 100 books a year. First, here are the books I've read since my last updates:

Ready Player One (Ernest Cline, 2011): See my review here.
Infernal Devices (K.W. Jeter, 1987): An early steampunk novel and worth reading to see the first appearance of several of the genre's tropes.
He Walked Among Us (Norman Spinrad, 2009): Black comedy about a possibly insane, possibly prophetic TV host. Spinrad pokes a lot of fun at science fiction fandom and himself, weaving in quite a bit of his own personal history in clever ways.
Cryoburn (Lois McMaster Bujold, 2010): The final (so far) Vorkosigan novel, in which Miles unravels an intriguing mystery.
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Charles Yu, 2010): Metafictional odyssey of the author's search for his time-lost father.
11/22/63 (Stephen King, 2011): See my review here.
Dark Messiah (Martin Caidin, 1990): Baffling sequel to the equally terrible The Messiah Stone. An aggravating waste of time.
The Curse of Chalion (Lois McMaster Bujold, 2001): I enjoyed Bujold's SF so much, I thought I'd try her fantasy work, and she doesn't disappoint. As always, the strength of her characters sustains her work.
Paladin of Souls (Lois McMaster Bujold, 2003): Sequel to The Curse of Chalion, even better than the original.
The World Inside (Robert Silverberg, 1971): Old-school SF that builds a premise and plot by extrapolating present-day trends, in this case, overpopulation. Most humans - tens of billions of them - live in gigantic skyscrapers in a free-love free-for-all in which having children means everything.
The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow Plus...(Cory Doctorow, 2011): I haven't read much Doctorow, an SF writer and Internet personality, but I've certainly enjoyed what I've sampled so far, including this short volume that includes the title novella and some non-fiction writing on current issues.
The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925): I've foolishly put this one off for decades only to discover there's a reason this is called one of the great novels. I found it surprisingly readable despite its thematic complexity. One of the great narrative voices.
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two B (Ben Bova, editor, 1973): Excellent collection of some of the best early SF novellas, though some of the stories seem a little overbaked now.
The Complete Peanuts, 1975 to 1976 (Charles M. Schulz)
The Complete Peanuts, 1977 to 1978 (Charles M. Schulz)
The Complete Peanuts, 1979 to 1980 (Charles M. Schulz)
The Complete Peanuts, 1981 to 1982 (Charles M. Schulz): Schulz' genius will endure, if there's any justice, for centuries. Sublime.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Thornton Wilder, 1927): Tremendously beautiful book with lyrical prose and timeless themes.
For Your Eyes Only (Ian Fleming, 1960)
Thunderball (Ian Fleming, 1961)
The Spy Who Loved Me (Ian Fleming, 1962)
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (Ian Fleming, 1963)
You Only Live Twice (Ian Fleming, 1964)
The Man With the Golden Gun (Ian Fleming, 1965)
Octopussy and The Living Daylights (Ian Fleming, 1966): What a pleasure to finally explore the literary Bond. I remain a fan of the films, even the worst of them, for their hyperbolic charms; the same, I find, is true of the books, which feature a more vulnerable, more human protagonist, much more grounded in reality. Intentionally or not, Fleming's Bond novels and anthologies wind up forming a very satisfying arc for the lead character and his adventures, though perhaps the denouement doesn't quite measure up to the bulk of the series - if only because Fleming died before completing the final draft of the final novel. 
Once Upon a Time in the North (Philip Pullman, 2008): A prequel of sorts to Pullman's more famous His Dark Materials trilogy. The story itself is fun, but what really sets this book apart is its physical charm; its beautifully illustrated and comes packaged with a whimsical board game.
Flatland - A Romance of Many Dimensions (Edwin A. Abbott, 1884): I've been aware of this book's general concept since junior high, but only this year did I crack open this slim, satiric volume; it's as much a commentary on class and Abbott's political surroundings at the time as it is a treatise on physics.

That's 27 books. Combined with my previous tally of 52, that means I read only 79 books this year, considerably short of my stated goal. Still, it was a useful exercise, and I'll continue to track my reading again this year to see if 2011was simply an off-year for me, or if my reading really has slowed down in middle age.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Up and Running

I picked up a new computer today - a Sony VAIO, a brand I've had good luck with in the past - so posts should become more substantial soon. The tech guy thinks he can save my photos and documents from the old computer, so, ultimate disaster averted. I'm grateful.

Today I'm reinstalling all my software and attending to all the other assorted tedium that accompanies a computer upgrade/replacement.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Breaking Bad

I've just finished season two, and I'm awestruck. This show is so much more than I thought it would be.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The South Rim

My computer is still inoperable, so I'm reduced to blogging from my phone; convenient, but cumbersome. Posts will be short and sweet until I'm up and running again.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Tony on Salt Lake City

It's unfair, but whenever I find myself in Salt Lake City, I remember my first passage through it via Interstate 15. 15 young people crammed into a 15-person van en route to Los Angeles in 1992 surveyed the wastelands bracketing the highway, including such charming urban design as a prison built across the street from a watermark, doubtless to taunt the prisoners. Tony Longworth summed it up best:

"Look at all the horses, dying in the mire!"

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Resolutions

About a year and a half ago, my friend Amanda mentioned a study she'd heard about claiming that resolutions stood a better chance of being completed if they weren't talked about. So a year ago today, I silently resolved to blog once a day during 2011. With this post, I have completed that goal, despite the interruptions of three long-distance trips.

Not every post was a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, but I think a few entries were worthwhile. When I have access to a computer again, I'll post a list of my favorites.

Since I started posting daily, traffic to this blog has increased dramatically, and I'm grateful to every reader who has stopped by. Thank you for spending some time here, and thanks especially to those who have left comments - many of which are funnier or more insightful than anything I've written here.

Happy New Year, and may you and yours enjoy peace, prosperity, health and happiness in 2012.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Work of Vacations

Astounding how time off work can often be just as exhausting as time on the job. Thank goodness we have some time at home to recuperate.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Carrot Top

When Sylvia suggested we see Carrot Top while in Las Vegas, I groaned a little. My impressions of the famously red-headed comic were mostly negative, gleaned from, I must admit, only a tiny helping of cultural osmosis. I pushed for Zumanity, but when we earned tickets to Carrot Top (and $50 in meals) at the Luxor, I knew the fix was in.

Before the show, we enjoyed some pretty good Mexican food at T&T (Tacos & Tequila, not "Tits & Tequila" as Sylvia lewdly assumed). Sylvia downed a pair of pomegranite margaritas in quick succession and was feeling a little under the weather by the time we were escorted to our excellent third-row centre seats. We wound up sitting next to Vinnie Paul and his band, which would become significant later.

Carrot Top is a prop comic. His stage is a simple affair, just a bare backdrop and several large chests containing his self-constructed props. To my surprise, I found Carrot Top's act not only hilarious, but also warm, honest and self-effacing; he really seems to genuinely appreciate his audience.

Near the end of the show, Carrot Top noted Paul's presence and came over to hand out whiskey shots. Because of our proximity, the comic offered Sylvia and I libations. I passed, but Sylvia took the offered booze with great enthusiasm, the act washing away her nausea: "I love you, Carrot Top!" "Aw, I love you too, sweetheart!" Very kind.

As much as I enjoyed myself, my greatest pleasure came from Sylvia's delight at the comic's clever antics. And no wonder she loved it; it was a legitimately great show. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Hoover Dam

Constructed in the 1930s, the Hoover Dam is an engineering marvel that must be seen with the naked eye to be fully appreciated. The dam has earned a prominent place in popular culture, tripling the thrill of seeing it close up; I watched Superman save it on film in 1978, built it as a virtual dictator in the Civilization games, and most recently visited it in Fallout: New Vegas. (The Fallout Hoover Dam is more accurate than I would have imagined!)

Here are some photos (pending):

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Time Shared, Time Stolen

Today Sylvia and I found ourselves trapped in a time share presentation. What seemed at first an invitation to brunch turned into a pretty intense sales pitch - one that lasted four hours, mainly because we're too darn polite.

Now, that being said, the folks making the pitch were very professional and we never felt unduly pressured. They were, however, extremely persistent and even convincing; the time-share option seems, on the surface, a reasonable way to save money on vacations...if you take a lot of vacations, that is.

Once we made it clear we weren't interested, the time-share folks gave us tickets to Carrot Top and a $50 meal voucher. We shall soon discover if the price of admission was worth the time...


Monday, December 26, 2011

Rime of the Addled Consumer

They call it Boxing Day, but in these conservative times perhaps the annual festival of consumerism should be renamed Ultimate Fighting Day. Oh, we're all polite enough, crammed together in malls air-conditioned to the freezing point, bumping and jostling with strained smiles that don't touch the eyes, but how we all wish we had the stores to ourselves.

Hours later we escape, bags laden with half-price treasures that we'll cherish for a year or two or five if we've made a particularly good choice. We collapse exhausted by the binge, bloated with luxury, sated for another year. But the cravings will return, dooming us all.
Sent from my iPhone

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Desert Xmas

The streets are quiet, but inside the gilt towers of marble and glass the hopeful ones feed their hungry masters-of-the-moment. Others queue for festive buffets, bemoaning the wasted hours in line. The tourist cameras flash futilely in the neon gloom, capturing only bright formless blurs. We glide among them, unnoticed, carefree, with no agenda.

Outside, the air is crisp, the skies clear, the sands quiet. Santa has come and gone, and the desert sleeps.
Sent from my iPhone

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Script Fragment

While on the road yesterday, Sylvia and I felt the call of nature. I sped up a little in search of relief. It occurred to me that if a police officer pulled us over for speeding, the conversation might go like this:

"Sir, you're 15 kph over the limit."

"I know, I'm so sorry. My wife and I really need to pee..."

"Sir, what's worse; peeing your pants or killing yourselves in a car crash?"

"You're right, of course. You'd be dead and you'd probably pee and poo yourself anyway."
Sent from my iPhone



Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas from Raj Sherman


While I make my living as a writer, I must say I've enjoyed producing videos such as the one above for the Official Opposition over the years. My main contributions have been writing and directing; I leave the editing, acting and cinematography to more competent folks. Still, I was playing with iMovie yesterday while working on another project for the Official Opposition, and I must say I think I'm starting to get the hang of it. One day I may even attain the status of "amateurish, but workable."

Oh, and Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Review: Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Famed Iron Giant director Brad Bird has crafted the best action film of the year, Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, a fast-paced thriller featuring impressively staged stunts, self-aware but never self-parodying humour, excellent performances and a surprising emotional core.

Impossible Missions Force (IMF) agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is languishing in a Russian prison when a team of IMF agents bust him out to lead a crucial new mission: stop a maniac from stealing the materials necessary to precipitate a nuclear holocaust. The team's initial job goes awry and the IMF is blamed for the partial destruction of the Kremlin, leading the Secretary to initiate "Ghost Protocol," the disavowal of the entire IMF. With meagre resources and a small team of three additional agents, Ethan Hunt is on the run from the Russians while pursuing a madman with his finger on the nuclear trigger.

The film's setpieces are divided geographically: Budapest, Moscow, Dubai, Mumbai. Each sub-mission puts IMF agents through their paces; there's exciting derring-do with all the requisite gunfire, leaps, car chases and explosions one could ever ask for. All the action is staged with clarity, suspense and surprising verisimilitude. At the film's midpoint, Cruise's Ethan Hunt is forced to free-climb the glass-walled outside of the towering Burj Dubai hotel. The entire sequence is bone-chilling in its effectiveness, and my palms were covered in sweat before the scene was even halfway over. If viewed in IMAX, this scene alone is worth the price of admission.

The film's true strenghth, however, lies in its characters - not just Ethan Hunt, but his team. Each member - William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton) - has their own character arc, enabling the audience to invest in each of them. In the best action films, we're given reason to care about what happens to the protagonists; otherwise, all we have is a series of empty explosions without emotional resonance. Ghost Protocol gives us reason to care.

I appreciated Ghost Protocol all the more because this is not a cynical film. Characters muse out loud about the unrealistic situations they're thrust into, but there's not a hint of self-mockery; the fourth wall is peered through with some curiosity, but never shattered. Rather, the characters seem bemusedly delighted to inhabit their hyperkinetic world. And they look after each other, working as a team, forming genuine bonds of friendship under trying circumstances. The heroes here are well worth emulating: they're empathetic, intelligent, decisive but never rash. And while the film has its share of high-tech gadgets, in the end it is the qualities of the agents themselves that lead to their ultimate success; indeed, this is an important sub-theme of the film.

Unlike many modern films, Ghost Protocol features a real denoument, a chance for the audience to catch their breath after the climax, wrap up a couple of character subplots and summarize the film's themes. It's a welcome respite, one that promises more adventures with this group of agents. I certainly hope Bird, Cruise and their team will return for more missions, since this was the best M:I film by far. Light the fuse!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Quantum of Songstress

This year I've been reading Ian Fleming's original James Bond novels, and a couple of weeks ago I finished For Your Eyes Only, one of two Bond anthologies. This one features "Quantum of Solace," a short story about love, betrayal and cold revenge. Atypically, this isn't an espionage story; Bond, desperately bored during an obligatory diplomatic function, winds up conversing with a man who explains his theory of human relations by way of telling a story about a broken marriage. Bond is fascinated, and by the tale's end he realizes that everyday human drama is far more compelling than his own empty life of intrigue. I've been pleasantly surprised by the literary Bond, and "Quantum of Solace" may be my favourite Bond adventure so far.

Reading "Quantum of Solace" reminded me of the last Bond film, Quantum of Solace, which has only a tangential, metaphorical connection to the short story the film is named for. As a fan of the film (and all Bond films), I watched the opening sequence again, seen below:

While I believe Alicia Keys is a talented artist, her Bond song leaves me a little cold, especially compared to the note-perfect "You Know My Name" from the previous Bond film, Casino Royale. But thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I discovered a rejected theme for Quantum of Solace, one I feel would have served the film better. I can't embed this one, but I urge Bond fans to view the video here.

The producers rejected this latter theme, but I think Eva Almer's powerful, operatic ballad far more Bond-esque than Keys' effort, with the soaring, bombastic, exciting yet somehow mournful sound of the best Bond tunes. And for extra bonus points, "quantum of solace" is used as a lyric without sounding forced - an impressive feat all on its own. I wish the filmmakers had chosen it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Pipes, the Pipes!

For several weeks now our pipes have groaned in protest whenever flushing a toilet or turning on a tap. My research indicates that we may be suffering from the dreaded "noisy pipes" problem, and rather than call in an expert, I'm currently attempting that most foolhardy of tasks: attempting to fix the problem myself. A hasty Internet search suggests that I turn on every tap in the house, including the washing machine and outside spigot, and flush every toilet to clear air out of the pipes. Will this work? I have no idea, but it can't be helping my water bill...

Oh, early boy...the pipes, the pipes are honking...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Replicator Dreams

A mournful text conversation from a couple of weeks back. On the Enterprise-D, this conversation would make no sense at all.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

11:20:36

The Legislature Annex is full of these clocks. Have they faithfully kept track of time since the 1970s? The design would seem to imply thus.

11:20:36 is one in a long but finite string of hectic seconds when the Alberta Legislature is in session. This is when MLAs, researchers and communications staff prepare questions, private member's statements, ministerial statements, responses to ministerial statements, scripts for introductions, press releases, media statements and more. MLAs head into the house at 1:30, and only then can staff take a moment to inhale a sandwich or a cup of coffee. Those of us who have the time turn on our televisions and watch the MLAs perform. And then we carry on with the afternoon's business and prepare to do it all again the next day.

The Alberta Legislature won't convene again until sometime in February. Time will flow a little more slowly until then.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Death to Frosty

Tonight the Woods and Boucher families gathered for an early festive meal. Unfortunately whenever the Woods brothers get together, there's bound to be some juvenile mischief.
Sean brought a delightfully appropriate chocolate cake, which he purchased at the farmer's market.
Sean gave Frosty a special spot at the table.
But then...!
Don't get between Sean and dessert.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Rajey


Every year, the Alberta Legislature press gallery and each caucus creates an amusing, self-depcrecating video for the press gallery Christmas party. Here's the Official Opposition's 2011 video, a Rocky parody that tells the story of Raj Sherman's unlikely trajectory from Tory backbencer to Leader of the Official Opposition.

All the videos were fun this year, and daveberta has posted the Godzilla-themed Alberta NDP video here.