Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Superman's Birthday

Longtime DC editor Julius Schwartz used to claim that Superman hardly seemed to age across the decades because his birthday is February 29th, and therefore comes only once every four years. (One might ask how you could assign a terrestrial birthday to a man born in another star system, but assume that Schwartz somehow calculated that Superman was born on Krypton during a Terran leap day.) No matter what his age or how its calculated, Superman has become a timeless character, one I hope will continue to resonate through many future decades.

For today, though, I'm sharing my earliest memories of Superman. The comic at left, Superman #279, cover-dated September 1974, is the oldest Superman comic in my collection that I purchased new in a store (probably the drug store in the Leaf Rapids town centre) as opposed to earlier issues that I purchased as a teen at garage sales and used bookstores. It's now safe in a plastic bag, worn from years of enjoyment.

The cover astounded my five-year-old self. This "Superman" person flew through the air! How? And why didn't the pretty girl want him to stop her from falling? I was terrified that she was going to go "splat," and purchased the comic with a great deal of trepidation.
Luckily, the cover was a little misleading. As it turns out, Batgirl was never in danger at all, merely plunging between the twin towers (how strange to see them represented in Metropolis just a couple of years after they were built in real-world New York!) to detect the source of sonic waves wrecking the city. This was one of a handful of stories that hinted at a budding romance between Clark Kent and Barbara (Batgirl) Gordon, but the plotline was dropped rather quickly. Too bad - it might have been interesting, given Barbara's role as a superheroine and US congressperson and Clark's friendship with Bruce Wayne and his job as a reporter. Lots of opportunities for dramatic tension!
About a year later I bought Superman #288, which also remains in my collection. Once again the dramatic cover art was enough to hand over a quarter to the drugstore clerk; I had to know who this "new Superman" could possibly be.
As it turns out...the new Superman was a super-computer! I'm not even sure I understood exactly what a computer was back then, only that I found Compuxo kind of scary, even if it seemed clear its intentions were benevolent.
You have to admire the economy of storytelling the classic team of Bates, Swan and Schaffenberger bring to the table. In a single page, Compuxo is given an origin, purpose and character, and effective foreshadowing prepares the reader for the coming link between super-computer and superhuman.
As coincidence would have it, Clark Kent's personality is copied into Compuxo, with predictable results:
As Superman's new silent partner, Compuxo helps Superman deal with a criminal out to destroy Galaxy Broadcasting. The bad guy assaults the building directly, taking out Superman with artificial Kryptonite and delivering a suicide bomb straight to the Galaxy basement. The ending is rather tragic:
Compuxo is destroyed in the attack on the Galaxy building, but in its last instant of artificial life it gave the stunned Superman the correct means of saving the building and all its occupants. Even though Compuxo scared me, by the end of the story I was sad that the computer hadn't survived. Compuxo was never referred to again, and I've always found that a little melancholy, probably because I've always been fascinated by the idea of artificial life.

Those are just two of the hundreds of Superman stories that have entertained and educated me over the years. So happy birthday, Superman, and here's to many more.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Open Letter to Albertans from Dr. Raj Sherman

Reposted from the Alberta Liberal Caucus Blog:

Dear Albertans,


Last week’s scathing Health Quality Council of Alberta (HQCA) report on patient safety was a shock to many. Unacceptably long ER wait times, endangerment of patient safety, chaos within the AHS, bullied doctors operating within a climate of fear and intimidation, and “bureaucratic and political interference” – all were detailed in the HQCA report.
For some, the HQCA’s deeply disturbing report into the sorry state of Alberta’s health care system is news. For doctors like me, nurses, and other front-line health care workers, however, this report is both unsurprising and incomplete. We know the true situation is even worse. There is more truth out there.

That is why it is so urgent that a meaningful inquiry into our health care system be conducted as soon as possible. To be truly effective – and to find as much of the truth as possible – I strongly believe this health care inquiry must have the following elements:
• It must be an independent, public judicial inquiry – free of any political interference whatsoever and completely open to the close scrutiny of Albertans;

• It must be empowered to compel testimony from witnesses, especially doctors, most of whom are so gun-shy of AHS that they will not come forward unless subpoenaed;

• It must have all authority to protect these witnesses from punishment for testifying;

• It must be very broad in scope, with the mandate to look into matters beyond just ER wait times, the bullying of doctors, and queue jumping; and

• It must report to the Legislature and not to Cabinet.

Our health care system has been broken by this PC government and it must be examined from all angles. The crisis with our ambulance services must not be left out of this inquiry. The lack of efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability caused by the creation of the AHS must not be left out.

And the appalling lack of family doctors for all Albertans, as well as the lack of home care and long-term care beds for our seniors – and the political reasons for these failures – must not be left out.

We once had the best health care system in Canada. Now we have one of the highest-spending and lowest-performing systems. Albertans deserve the full truth as to why. Albertans also deserve to know why this government has run our health care system into the ground – and to see those responsible held to account.

It is clear that we must fix the health care system. An important step in this direction will be to make the HQCA a truly independent body which reports to the Legislative Assembly – and not to Cabinet. We cannot afford to delay. Lives, quite literally, are at stake.

Sincerely,


Dr. Raj Sherman
Leader of the Official Opposition

Monday, February 27, 2012

Best Picture 2011


Last year and the year before, I managed to watch all of the films nominated for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences "Best Picture" Oscar. This year I managed to watch only one of the nominated films, Moneyball, and even that only a single day before the awards broadcast. 2011 was simply too hectic to keep up with everything, and this year it was the movies. (I wasn't particularly interested in this year's crop of nominees anyway, but I'll see them at some point.)

Even though seeing only one of the Best Picture nominees should probably disqualify me from commenting on this year's winners, I always have a lot of fun guessing who will take home the Oscar trophies. Unfortunately I was too busy to watch the broadcast last night, but I did steal a few minutes just before the show began to pick my winners. Correct picks are bolded.

Best Picture – The Artist
Actor in a Leading Role – George Clooney
Actor in a Supporting Role – Christopher Plummer
Actress in a Leading Role – Meryl Streep
Actress in a Supporting Role – Octavia Spencer
Animated Feature Film – A Cat in Paris
Art Direction – Hugo
Cinematography – Hugo
Costume Design – Hugo
Directing – Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Documentary Feature – If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
Documentary Short Subject – The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom
Film Editing – Hugo
Foreign Language Film – A Separation
Makeup – The Iron Lady
Music – Hugo
Music (Original Song) – Man or Muppet
Short Film (Animated) – The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Short Film (Live Action) – Pentecost
Sound Editing – Hugo
Sound Mixing – Hugo
Visual Effects – Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Writing (Adapted Screenplay) – The Descendants
Writing (Original Screenplay) – The Artist

14 out of 24. Not great, and it didn't even come close to matching the winning contestant at Steve's annual Oscar party.  On the other hand, not bad considering I saw barely any of the nominated films in any category, never mind Best Picture!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Review: Green Lantern

Last night I finally got around to watching last year's superhero misfire, Green Lantern.

By TV's glow
In darkest room
We watched green stuff make things go boom
Let those who greenlit stinky fumes
Beware our censure
Box office doom!

Green Lantern wasn't all bad. The leads all filled their roles capably, particularly Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan, the titular hero. The cinematography was crisp and appealing. And one scene between Reynold's Lantern and his girlfriend, Carol Ferris (Blake Lively) cleverly sends up one of the most enduring superhero tropes, that of the secret identity. (Referring to Green Lantern's domino mask: "How did you know it was me?" "Hal, I've known you all my life. Did you think I wouldn't recognize you because I can't see your cheekbones?")

Ultimately, though, the film falls flat. The screenplay is simply too rote to help us care about the hero's journey, especially when his girlfriend proves herself smarter, braver and more capable at several points throughout the film; one wonders why the ring chose Hal Jordan instead of Carol Ferris.

Still, I wouldn't mind a sequel using the same setting and cast, but supported by a superior script. The Green Lantern mythology is rich in space adventure and character drama, and deserves a better cinematic adaptation.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Rising Interest

A little over a month ago I wrote about Person of Interest. At the time I called the show formulaic, but noted that it held promise. I'm happy to say the creators are beginning to deliver on that promise - Person of Interest is starting to explore subversive themes.

During last week's episode, Reese and Finch tried to help an undercover cop working on a massive drug bust. Most of the episode was fairly boilerplate stuff, until the revelation that the big fish at the top, the primary target of the undercover police sting, was in fact a CIA operative. In the end, Reese, Finch and the cop they tried to help have to accept defeat, resigning themselves to the idea that "they [i.e., the government] lost the war on drugs, so now they're using it to fund the war on terror."

That's a pretty radical idea for a mainstream television show, and I was both surprised and delighted that Person of Interest had the daring to take such a bold step. In the world of the show, this revelation isn't speculation or cynicism, but an established fact of the fictional universe inhabited by the characters!

Of course shadowy governments are nothing new in fiction, but they tend to appear in shows with less grounding in reality. Person of Interest plays as an only slightly more technologically sophisticated cop show; it's a procedural rather than straight science fiction, despite its very subtle hints that "the machine" is a nascent artificial intelligence. Nor is Person of Interest a paranoid thriller such as 24. It's almost as if a safe, mainstream show such as Law & Order or ER suddenly revealed, in-universe, that aliens really landed at Roswell.

This week, Reese and Finch found themselves embroiled in an insider trading scandal orchestrated by the show's recurring villain, and again Person of Interest subverted genre expectations. It's easy these days to paint Wall Street as a monolithic bad guy, but this episode's hero is a trader with ethics who helps Reese and Finch prevent millions of people from losing their life savings. The show seems to be saying that it's not the system that's bad, it's the people abusing it - a fairly controversial notion if you happen to favour the idea that the system is fundamentally flawed. Somehow the writers manage to sympathize with the Occupy movement and brokers alike - no mean feat!

I like that Person of Interest is playing with these issues without obviously favouring one viewpoint over another. Whether your politics lean left or right, this show is presenting, if only via subtext, some pretty interesting moral questions.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Leaf Rapids Clip Episode

Sometimes television producers are forced by circumstance to create the dreaded clip show, an episode created by using a cheap framing story as an excuse to show a bunch of clips from previous episodes. When bloggers get sick, they too may resort to pulling this nasty trick on their loyal audiences.

Apropos of nothing, did you enjoy my award-losing Canada Writes short story, Edge of Nowhere? If so (or even if not), perhaps you'll also enjoy more tales set in the faraway land of Leaf Rapids, Manitoba! Featuring guest appearances by Flin Flon, Cranberry Portage, Virden, the Hanson Lake Road and Sean and Sylvia!

Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part I
Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part II
Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part III
Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part IV
Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part V
Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part VI
Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part VII

Return to the Edge of Nowhere, Part I
Return to the Edge of Nowhere, Part II
Return to the Edge of Nowhere, Part III
Return to the Edge of Nowhere, Part IV
Return to the Edge of Nowhere, Part V
Return to the Edge of Nowhere, Part VI
Return to the Edge of Nowhere, Part VII
Return to the Edge of Nowhere, Part VIII
Return to the Edge of Nowhere, Epilogue

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ailing Gingerly

Just a short post today; I'm not feeling well, down with some kind of bug that's causing muscle pain and an incredibly sore stomach, the same thing that knocked Sylvia out last week. Fortunately we had some flat ginger ale on hand, and consuming a glass of it has settled my stomach a little. I'm not sure if it's a placebo or if the ginger has some genuine curative effect, but in either case I'm at least well enough to type a few words. Sorry, folks - I'm afraid the title pun is going to wind up as the best part of this particular post...

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Shout-Out to Poplar Bay

I've mentioned my friend Neil's new blog before, but I feel his more recent posts deserve another plug. If you want to learn more about advertising, politics or both, Neil's blog is quickly becoming a must-read.

Unlike my Frankenstein-like hodgepodge of a blog, Neil sticks to a consistent theme; he reviews political ads from around the world. It's refreshing to see Neil bring his thoughtful analysis to bear on attack ads and positive messages alike.

His latest entry is my favourite so far. Just when you thought Republican tactics couldn't get any creepier (or funnier), along come the demon sheep..!

As citizens grow more saturated with advertising, it's becoming increasingly important to learn the tricks and tactics the experts use to shape public opinion. I'm glad Neil has started to provide his insights and I look forward to seeing more posts.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Edge of Nowhere

CBC has announced the longlist of 35 finalists for the 2012 Canada Writes short story contest. As I expected, my story, "Edge of Nowhere," didn't make the cut. Congratulations to the longlisted folks - the stories must be pretty great, to be selected from over 3,000 entries!

As promised (or threatened), I've posted my story below. For a really terrific image inspired by this story, please visit Jeff Shyluk's Visual Blog.

Edge of Nowhere
(June 2033)
I deserved no sanctuary, but as the merciless sun beat down on the carbon-blackened office towers of Calgary, frying what had briefly been the world's most valuable real estate, I behaved like every other panicking rat and used the last of my considerable resources to escape. While flames licked at the ring roads and maglev rails surrounding the city, I loaded up my Nissan-Ford Dreadnought with supplies and headed east, alone, protected from consequences by my shell of steel and plastic. My flight wasn't rational; there was no safety anywhere, not now that we'd wrecked the whole world, smothered it in greenhouse gases and pollution. But like any terrified animal, I followed the most likely escape route, and at that moment of ultimate fear I chose to go home - home to Manitoba, and perhaps, if I were more lucky than sane, if there really were no justice, home to another land I knew - or hoped - lay hidden beneath the Canadian Shield. I would escape through the sinkhole, exchange this ruined home for another more pristine and innocent. For passage, I would let my abandoned conscience be my coin.

(July 1976)
As a child I spent my summers playing Cops and Robbers or Forest Rangers in the sinkhole that bordered the western side of Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, a town on the edge of nowhere resting within a vast expanse of thick boreal forest. Imagine if God grabbed a battleship and shoved it into the earth to leave an impression, like a kid making a moat for his sand castle; the sinkhole was like that, a huge divot in the forest on the outskirts of town.

To a seven year old, the sinkhole was a magical place, its moss-carpeted floor, pine-needled pathways and towering trees wrapping children in an aura of mystery and adventure. The sinkhole was so deep, its walls so steep, the trees so thick that when you reached the bottom you could barely see the blue sky far above. Some days, clutching a plastic water pistol in one hand and a die-cast six-gun in the other, I knew if I followed the right path I could walk to another world, a fairytale place where I could kill monsters and rescue princesses.

On one such day, toy weapons in hand, I tripped over an exposed tree root near the top of the sinkhole. I rolled head-over-heels down the steep incline, bruising and scraping my limbs and back against tree trunks and exposed stone, screaming all the way down to the bottom. I landed flat on my back with a breath-stealing, bone-rattling thump. I wound up in a thick patch of moss, dazed, staring up at the sky through the treetops. For a few minutes I sobbed for air, tears streaking my dirt-stained face, whimpering. Eventually I realized that I wasn't really hurt, and with youthful resilience I stood up, gathered my guns and went about my imaginary business. On that day I decided to visit one of my favourite spots in the sinkhole, a huge tree that had fallen on its side in a long-ago catastrophe. The exposed root system, ripped from the earth and thus lying perpendicular to the ground, formed a sort of abbreviated cave. In the right light, the shadows seemed to suggest that the darkness hid not dead wood but a tunnel to another world.

When I reached the fallen tree, I was surprised to see someone had already laid claim to the cave: a pretty little girl, serving invisible tea to her teddy bear. I was a little annoyed by this intrusion, but I had accumulated enough schoolyard wisdom to recognize the iron rule of "firsties."

“Hi,” I said, “What’s your name?”

“Judith,” she said. “No guns allowed.”

“Oh,” I said, and turned to leave. But she insisted I stay for a spot of tea, and not wanting to hurt her feelings I shoved my guns in my pockets and sat down in the moss to endure a few minutes of pretend teatime. My head started to hurt a little; while I may have already forgotten the fall, it hadn’t forgotten me.

Judith said she was a princess whose parents only allowed her to visit Leaf Rapids once a month. This was a silly place, she pronounced, a dirty place of greedy people who’d be sorry soon enough, according to her parents. I played along politely, although I thought she was laying it on a little thick. Leaf Rapids and its people seemed nice enough to me, the kids, anyway. I was itching to play guns with Jeff or Melvin or Kelly, who could usually be counted upon to show up at the sinkhole eventually, but not, evidently, today.

“I have to go,” she said at length. “One day, you must visit. But no guns.” And then Judith smiled, took her teddy bear by the arm, and walked into the shadows at the back of the tree trunk, leaving behind only a cracked and broken old tea set. I blinked, stared into the empty space where the girl had been, and ran home crying to Mother, who chalked the story up to my overactive imagination and the trauma of the fall.

A couple of years later, our family left Leaf Rapids behind to surf the waves of black gold propelling Alberta's latest oil and gas boom. For the longest time, I forgot Judith and her bear.

(June 2033)
There came a day when the roar of anti-tank rockets and the staccato crash of machine-gun fire against metal and glass drove me out of downtown Calgary. After one close call too many, I locked down the mansion, revved up the Dreadnought, fought my way through the city's congestion until at last I hit the open road.

Even as algal blooms choked whole industries and communities on Canada's warming, sinking coasts, Alberta remained wealthy, at least on paper. Despite everything, the world couldn't get enough oil, so Albertans had the money and power to insulate themselves from most of the effects of climate change, determined 99-percenters aside. We all knew deep down that it was a temporary respite. The droughts that had emptied rural Alberta and swollen Edmonton and Calgary to bursting with refugees served as ample evidence that our relative good fortune couldn't last forever.

As I drove along the cracked and rubble-strewn highways that connected Calgary to Saskatoon, Flin Flon, Thompson and eventually Leaf Rapids, I wondered how much the sinkhole had changed, if global warming had extended its alchemy even to the far north. I wondered if the Churchill River had overrun its banks.

A quick tour of the old streets revealed the town was abandoned. I parked the truck on the path nearest the sinkhole and debarked. The air was fresh, the sky clear. I’d come far enough to escape climate change, at least until the supplies in the Dreadnought ran out. I suppose it was possible I could live on berries and fish for a while, but I had no illusions that I’d be able to survive a Manitoba winter without electricity. A childhood fantasy was my only real hope of true escape. At the back of my mind I wondered where the townspeople had gone.

I climbed down into the sinkhole, the walls as steep as they had been in my innocence. When I reached bottom, I knelt and sank into the thick carpet of moss on the sinkhole's floor. I thought of my wife and children, wondered where they were now, if they’d managed to find safe haven after abandoning me to my paper riches.

I realized that I'd been seized by temporary madness. Judith had never existed. Mom was right; I'd imagined everything, seeking refuge in nostalgia. I stood and headed for the fallen tree-cave anyway. It was gone; the earth had reclaimed it. For a long while, I stared into space. There was no sound but the occasional rustle of a squirrel darting from tree to tree.

Just as I started to turn back for the return trip, Judith called my name.

"You've returned as I said you must," she said. "You left your guns behind?"

If I'd gone crazy, I might as well embrace it.

"Sure, no guns. They were a metaphor, right? A symbol of the corruption of progress or something."

She was beautiful, somewhere in her late 20s or early 30s, if age meant anything to an illusion. She looked puzzled.

"No, we just don't allow guns in Adanac. We're strict about some things. Ready to join the rest of the townspeople?"

I shrugged and nodded, stuffing my hands in my pockets as she led me deeper into the trees. My sins continued to burn behind me, and I wondered, before the darkness took us, if there really was no justice, or if there was merely too much mercy. Sometimes good things happen to bad people. Sometimes bad people happen to good planets.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Caprican't

From the little information I've been able to glean online, it appears as though Universal is not going to release Caprica, the prequel to the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, on Blu-Ray in North America. They're releasing it in France, but rather than purchase the show from overseas, I've decided to pick up the first and only season on iTunes. While I've purchased music and computer games online, this will be the first time I order filmed entertainment on line, and it's quite a psychological hurdle to leap.

I treasure books and film more than I do music or games, much as I love the latter pair. Games in particular are ephemeral, and I have only to look at the many CD-ROMs I've thrown out over the years to see the drawbacks of physical media. Valve's Steam service has served me reliably so far, effortlessly moving my purchases from one computer to another. So far I've experienced no hiccups with the music I've purchased from iTunes, either.

And yet I regret being left with only one option to buy this critically-acclaimed show. If prior experience is any guide, I probably won't wind up losing my purchase to the ether, but there's still a degree of comfort to be had in holding a box of discs in my hands and displaying them on a shelf.

And then of course there are the download times...despite recently upgrading to Shaw's fastest service, it's taking about an hour per episode to download the entire show. It makes me wonder if I'm being throttled.

Of course this conundrum is the epitome of the so-called First World Problem; my grandparents would have marvelled at such instant gratification. Heck, I marvel at it myself; I still remember the pre-VCR era, when the only way to watch a favourite TV episode or movie was to hope you caught it being broadcast. How quickly things have changed!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Earl J. Woods and the Manitoba Nail File

Little boys are often destructive. I was generally a pretty mild-mannered child, but from time to time I conducted physics experiments...experiments that put my parents' patience to the test.

I was perhaps four or five years old when I discovered a nail file. While Mom and Dad were distracted, I marched up to their new Naugahyde leather chair and matching ottoman, file in hand. I wish I could say that I was enraged by some slight or that I was having a simple childish tantrum, but I was oddly emotionless as I raised the file high and brought my arm down repeatedly to punch slits into the ottoman. After stabbing the innocent furniture fifteen or twenty times, I stopped. That's when my parents walked in and caught me at the scene of the crime.

Luckily for me, my parents didn't use corporal punishment; they expressed their profound disappointment verbally. Quite reasonably, they asked why I did it, and I couldn't answer. I wasn't angry or upset, I just wanted to see what would happen.

Despite a stern talking-to, it was only a few months later that I took the family Monopoly game down to the basement and fed several of the little plastic green houses and red hotels into the vise, one by one, crushing them mercilessly. Once more my puzzled parents caught me in the act and asked why I would do such a thing. And again, I had no answer.

When I phoned Mom and Dad today to probe their memories of these strange events, they confessed to having mostly forgotten about them, though Dad remembered that Mom was "very upset." Mom laughed about it today, asking "Do you remember why you did it?"

I really don't. I remember the guilt and shame I felt after perpetrating these acts of senseless destruction, and I've felt a twinge of guilt about them every few years thereafter, which is why I'm writing about the subject today.

I've thought about asking a mental health professional why a child would do such things, but I'm afraid the answer would be "Sometimes kids just destroy stuff, the little monsters. Get on with your life. That'll be $500, please."

Friday, February 17, 2012

Earl J. Woods and the Icebox of Malice

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that my office fridge wasn't closing all the way. There was a small gap between the rubber seal and the frame of the fridge, one that wouldn't close no matter how hard I pushed. With other distractions to occupy my mind, I fell back on a time-tested strategy: ignore the problem and see if it goes away on its own.

It did not. Two days ago, I decided that the problem warranted more thorough investigation. And so  on bended knee I peered into the fridge and saw that a four-inch-thick layer of ice had formed around the perimeter of the freezer section, preventing the inner freezer door from closing all the way, which in turn blocked the fridge door from closing.

The solution was simple enough. I retrieved my hammer from my library and smashed the ice into frosty chunks, easily deposited into a handy bucket. Problem solved!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Raj Sherman Rallies Striking Hospital Support Workers


This morning hospital support workers at the Royal Alexandra Hospital staged a wildcat strike, which is reportedly already spreading to the University of Alberta hospital and other facilities. Support workers are asking for a three percent raise, which seems pretty reasonable to me given the work they do and the rate of inflation. Official Opposition Leader Raj Sherman is really on fire here - his passion for fairness and the need to support working people really shines through.

Edited to add: the strike is over

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Lost on Fractalus


Back in high school, Rescue on Fractalus was one of my favourite games for my Atari 130 XE home computer. At the time, the graphics, gameplay and story (such as it was) were incredibly compelling. Charged with flying rescue missions on a hostile planet, your task was to avoid or destroy anti-spacecraft emplacements and UFOs and then land to pick up stranded human pilots.
The mighty Atari 130XE. Photo retouched by Multicherry.
As a sadistic twist, the programmers (at the suggestion of George Lucas himself) had the game randomly replace the stranded space pilots with an alien in disguise. If you let him in the airlock, you were dead meat. Even if you didn't let him him, he'd suddenly pop up and start banging on the windshield; you'd have to kill the beast by turning your shields on, frying it. The first few times the alien popped up, I jumped - it was an effective ploy.

Today's computer games are far more sophisticated than Rescue on Fractalus, but I still remember it quite fondly. Flying through the planet's fractal canyons while avoiding death rays and UFOs was quite a challenge, and you really felt like a hero when you picked up a desperate pilot. Given the relative complexity of modern games like Fallout 3, I suspect I'd probably be bored in minutes if I tried Rescue on Fractalus again, but I remain grateful for the diversions it provided my adolescent mind.

Monday, February 13, 2012

D&D TPK


I made this with a fun little iPhone app created by Bad Robot, the guys behind Lost, the rebooted Star Trek And Mission Impossible III and IV.

"TPK," in this context, stands for "total party kill."

Created with ACTION MOVIE FX
Get the App!


Sunday, February 12, 2012

River of Mediocrity

I've finally watched the first two episodes of The River, a new television horror-drama crafted in the currently trendy found footage style. I was really hoping this would be good, because the premise is pretty compelling; the patriarch of a popular nature show, The Undiscovered Country, goes missing under mysterious circumstances, and his family  and a reality TV show crew search for him on the Amazon river.

Unfortunately, the show is utterly predictable. Characters and their relationships are purely by-the-numbers: a son who feels abandoned by his famous father, a wife haunted by guilt over an affair, a tough-as-nails mercenary, slimy television producer, comic-relief cameraman, simple-but-clever Mexican mechanic, his plucky daughter, and on and on. There are horrors in the jungle, but they're never quite captured on film. This is supposed to be suspenseful, but it merely winds up making the cinematographers look utterly incompetent. There are even creepy dolls in the second episode.

The show's only saving grace is Bruce Greenwood, who plays the missing scientist. He appears exclusively in archival footage of The Undiscovered Country and a stash of videotapes discovered by his family. But one actor, no matter how appealing, can't save a show from hackneyed scripts and incompetent direction. The River is mustn't-see TV.

Friday, February 10, 2012

My Life as a Klingon

When I travelled to Los Angeles with the University of Alberta Star Trek Club in 1992, I made sure to visit Universal Studios, then home to The Star Trek Adventure. I arrived at a production too late to play a Starfleet role, but I climbed onto the stage to audition for the role of Klingon commander. I didn't growl quite loudly enough to earn that part, but I did well enough to land a spot on the landing party, where I fought tentacles. It was pretty cool - before the cameras rolled, I was costumed backstage, given marks and lines from the director, and had my Klingon forehead appliance tacked on. When the cameras rolled, I gave it my all, thrashing around with the tentacles like a madman and suffering the indignity of being rescued by a six-year-old in a Starfleet uniform. I loved it, of course.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

OMG STTNG HD

I never thought it possible, but CBS (who now owns Star Trek on TV), is in the process of remastering Star Trek: The Next Generation in high definition - a Herculean editing task, because while ST:TNG was shot on film, it was edited on low-definition video. That means each episode's elements have to be re-edited together, recomposited, the whole shebang.

A sampler disc has been released, including three episodes: the pilot, "Encounter at Farpoint," "Sins of the Father" and "The Inner Light." I watched the pilot tonight, and it looks spectacular. The six-foot Enterprise-D miniature has never looked more beautiful, and the image is uniformly sharp and vibrant. For a Trekkie like me, it's like watching a brand new show; little details once too blurry for the naked eye now stand out in sharp relief, offering a familiar yet new and exciting experience.

CBS will release the entire first season this year, with seasons 2-7 coming at a rate of about two seasons a year. I can't wait to enjoy one of my favourite shows all over again.  

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Mysterious Hallway

I've worked for the Legislative Assembly for over six years now, and because of that I've made many trips down the underground pedway that links the Annex to the legislature proper. During all that time, the simple barrier seen above has silently blocked curious pedestrians from venturing up that flight of stairs. Instead, we must turn left and take the spiral staircase or the elevator up to the main level.

Sometimes I'm tempted to hop over the rope and see what's up that flight of stairs, but I have no wish to annoy the building's hard-working and friendly security people.

Still...six years. When was the last time someone used those stairs? Are they reserved for the premier? The Lieutenant Governor? The Queen herself? Or is it reserved for custodians working the night shift?

Perhaps on my last day at the legislature (whenever that may be), I'll ask one of the security folks. There - something for my to-do list.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Atomic Haiku

New sun in the desert
Casting antennae shadow
Hungry for sugar

Poor colossal man
Grew too big for his diaper
Came back as a beast

Silent metal man
Klaatu barada nikto
Robot policeman

Giant spider strikes!
The ants were bad enough
Save us Clint Eastwood

Rocket summer looms
Bellus and Zyra overhead
New Adam, new Eve

Can YOU identify the subjects of these atomic haiku? Post your guesses in the comments!

Monday, February 06, 2012

Good People, Big Ideas, Better Government

Full disclosure: while most of my readers know that I work for the Official Opposition and I've volunteered for the Alberta Liberal Party, I played no role in the development of their just-released platform - aside from contributing one photograph. 

Today the Alberta Liberal Party released its platform for the election to come this spring. Titled simply "Yes" and divided into three sections - Good People, Big Ideas, Better Government - the platform is a bold and brave statement of vision and principle.

Since ALP Leader Raj Sherman is an emergency room doctor, it should come as no surprise that fixing the public health care system is one of the cornerstones of his party's platform. He aims to cut non-emergency surgery wait times to six months, and emergency room treatment within six hours. (A six-hour wait would be a vast improvement compared to what happened to Sylvia back when she broke her leg in 2007.) He also proposed to put decision-making back in the hands of front-line health care professionals and get every Albertan access to a family doctor. And for anyone worried about the state of care for seniors, Sherman is promising to invest heavily in public home care and public long-term care. This is necessary for two reasons: one, Alberta's seniors deserve to live in dignity. And two, caring for seniors appropriately means getting them out of acute care, which frees up hospitals and emergency rooms, unclogging the system - and saving a whole pile of taxpayer money.

For parents, Sherman is promising greater access to quality pre-school and non-profit day care, better parental leave, an end to school fees and a school lunch program.

A post-secondary endowment would eliminate post-secondary tuition.  Other endowments will support the arts and amateur sport.

But how to pay for these promises? Well, according to the conventional wisdom of the post-Reagan era, it's political suicide to campaign on raising taxes. And yet the Alberta Liberals are promising a progressive tax that would increase rates on those earning $100,000 or more and a corporate tax hike of twelve percent, up two from the current rate of ten percent. That adds up to about $1.4 billion in annual revenue. Combined with over $200 million in cuts to wasteful spending, including communications (ulp!), funding for private schools, subsidized carbon capture and storage (CCS), fewer MLAs and fewer government ministries, that's an extra $1.6 billion to help eliminate the deficit and pay for the Liberals' ambitious social programs.

The Alberta Liberals are also proposing a revenue-neutral carbon levy to cap greenhouse gas emissions, reward companies who successfully reduce emissions, and fund green transportation and environmental innovation. (CORRECTION: this proposal is not revenue neutral; it would produce $1.8 billion a year when fully phased in, a four-year process. $900 million would go back to emitters and $900 million would be used to fund green transportation. Thanks to Alex for the correction!)

The platform also features some welcome democratic reforms, chief among them instant run-off elections, an idea I've blogged about before. Alberta Liberals also promise more free votes in the legislature, a simpler and more transparent pay structure for MLAs, truly fixed election dates (as opposed to the "election season" Premier Redford has created), recall legislation and more.

In fact, there's a lot more, including help for the energy sector, a better deal for municipalities, new consumer protections, a plan to decrease power bills...I hope Albertans will read the whole document - and, of course, the platforms of the other parties when they're released.

Will this vision convince Albertans to support the province's most venerable party? Maybe, maybe not, but I'm proud of the party for stepping way outside its comfort zone and wearing its liberal heart on its sleeve. Win or lose, Alberta Liberals can be proud for campaigning on a truly Liberal platform - fiscally responsible while investing in the programs and services that ensure no Albertan is left behind.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Choked Over Cherry Coke

Cherry Coke is available only sporadically in Canada, so while Sylvia and I were in Las Vegas I bought two two-litre bottles and 24 cans of the bubbly nectar and brought them back over the border. Today my precious supply ran dry.

I have a weakness for Coca-Cola and "red" flavours - cherry, strawberry, raspberry. When I first encountered Cherry Coke in the late 80s, my Coke addiction took on a new, fruitier (though sadly, not more nutritious) dimension. Even then it was hard to find; I remember encountering it only in convenience stores and gas stations, never at the supermarket. Now it's nowhere to be found, at least in western Canada.

However, while stopping for lunch in Vegas I encountered Cherry Coke's precursor, the soda fountain staple known simply as cherry cola. In fact, I found the fountain concoction superior to the canned variety. Inspired, I scoured the Internet for a home-brewed cherry cola recipe, and discovered that it's as simple as adding 30 mL of maraschino cherry juice to a glass of Coca-Cola. It'll make the perfect beverage for my blackened Cajun strips. By the way, thanks to Jeff Shyluk for emailing me a very complex but clear method for that project. I haven't abandoned it!

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Dharma Station: The Shield

They'd already stumbled across the Swan, the Door, the Hydra, the Flame, the Arrow, the Staff and others - and The Others, of course - but now they faced a new enigma: the Shield. What new dangers - or opportunities - lie beyond the heavy steel door, opened only by a key so huge and heavy it took six survivors to lift it into the keyhole? Did the Shield offer shelter, contact with the outside world, a means of escape? Or was it another blind alley, an abandoned enigma, unknowable?

Inside they found a silver-robed scientist studying crystals, a spitcurl of white hair falling carelessly across his brow.

"Who are you?" they asked. "How did you get here?"

"It's complicated," he answered.

Friday, February 03, 2012

The Infinite Allan

Here's one of my earliest attempts at photo-manipulation. I snapped this photo of my friend Allan back when he worked at Edmonton Police Services and chose recursion as my theme - simple enough, since he'd posed in front of his monitor. I only took it three levels down, and even that modest attempt doesn't quite work at the smaller/deeper stages. Still, not bad for an early attempt. 

Thursday, February 02, 2012

'Tis the Season to be Polling

Upon returning home tonight our phone rang and I found myself answering a poll conducted by Chase Research or Chase Marketing - I didn't catch the full name. With a provincial election around the corner these polls will start to fly fast and furious, and I sometimes entertain myself by guessing whether or not the poll was commissioned by a neutral party or hired by a political party in order to push the results in directions favouring that party.

I have a feeling Chase may have been hired by the Wildrosers. I say that because in addition to asking the standard questions - "If an election were held today, would you vote for party a, party b, party c" etc. - they also asked whether or not you had favourable or unfavourable views of Premier Redford and Wildrose leader Danielle Smith. They didn't ask this question about the other party leaders. They also claimed that Premier Redford is considering raising taxes and listed a number of way she might do so. And finally, they asked whether or not the illegal contribution scandal would make you more or less likely to change your vote/make it more or less likely to vote PC, one of the Wildrose party's pet issues. (To be fair, this question might also be asked by a firm hired by the Liberals; we've been pushing the issue pretty hard too.)

Sometime in the next few days, the results of this poll will be released to the media, and more likely than not the media will provide plenty of coverage regardless of whether or not the poll was conducted legitimately. Of course my own analysis is mere conjecture, but if an average citizen like me can smell something fishy about the way these questions were asked, you'd think the fourth estate would start asking questions too.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Bird of Paradise

Though we've had a blissfully mild winter in Canada, I still yearn for green grass, blooming plants and warm sunshine. Photos help remind me that warmer days will return eventually, particularly this shot of a bird of paradise, photographed in 2008 while I visited Pearl Harbor.