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Monday, May 30, 2016

Wonderbook Challenge: One

When Arthur finally found the courage to put fingers to keyboard, a demon conjured itself into existence. Arthur's fingers froze before he could type the first word of his yet-to-be-born novel. His transfixed eyes widened in horror as the demon resolved itself fully into uncanny existence.

It was a slimy, bulbous thing. Bulging, fish-like eyes protruded from either side of a head that was just the tapering endpoint of a great spheroid body. Thick, finned arms spread outward from this corpulent mass in a gesture that parodied embrace; it stood on a quivering stalk of blue-green flesh.

Arthur jerked back in disgust, toppling the pile of antique books that rested with habitual unease behind his creaky old office chair.

Arthur's parrots, one perched on his left shoulder, the other on his right, dug their talons into their master's shoulders, squawked indignantly and raised their wings in warning.

"Fire torpedoes!" trilled Igor, the parrot on the left. "Energize!" said Henry, the parrot on the right.

All this happened too quickly for Arthur. He sat stunned for a long moment after his books had stopped tumbling to the carpet.

One of the demon's cloudy eyes swiveled in its socket, peering at the trio behind the typewriter.

"If you type one word, you shall die," the demon said.

Arthur's fingers, cold, slid across the porcelain keys and coiled themselves into fists. He ground his teeth, and his eyes were furious.

"Why come to me now, when I'm finally ready to write?" he asked, slamming a fist down on the desk, jarring a golden pen loose; it rolled off the desk and landed softly on the floor.

"If you type one word, you shall die," the demon said.

Arthur stood. Though he felt a great, clammy knot of fear growing in his chest, he rose up and flung his grandfather's inkwell at the demon. It vanished in a puff of blue velvet mist, taking the inkwell with it.

Arthur collapsed back into his chair. Igor and Henry launched themselves into the air, flapping about the tiny old library.

"Risk is our business!" Henry said.

"Let's get the hell out of here," Igor said.

Arthur slumped back in his chair, gazing at the clean white sheet of paper that waited for his words. After a long time, he leaned forward, resting his fingers once again on the keys.

"I wasn't planning to type just one word," he said, and with increasing speed and ferocity the typebars slammed against paper and platen, leaving their arcane marks.  

Sunday, May 29, 2016

G&G XI Day Five: The Champion Crowned

As Sean noted in the comments yesterday, "Are you not entertained?" Just after midnight, Jeff became the first person to be presented with the coveted Circvs Maximvs trophy. The victory did not come without a heavy price: five horses killed during the race, including one of my own and Pete's entire team. Fortunately no real horses were harmed during this thankfully simulated spectacle. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Etsell Farmhouse 1950

From Aunt Margaret's collection of photos, here is the Etsell farmhouse near Virden, Manitoba, in 1950. I wonder whose bicycle is leaning against the house...

Monday, May 23, 2016

Earl, Moon and Sun

In Iain M. Banks' 2009 novel Transition, the author hints Earth is a popular destination for disguised alien tourists because our solar system possesses an almost unique astronomical phenomenon: our planet, moon and star are the perfect sizes and in the exact positions necessary to create total solar eclipses at regular intervals. Were the moon or the sun any larger or smaller, or were the moon any closer to or farther away from Earth, perfect solar eclipses would be impossible - and in fact they are a fleeting phenomenon, for eventually our star will indeed grow larger and the moon is getting farther away from us. Eventually - millions of years from now - we won't enjoy total solar eclipses any longer.

So when I learned that a total solar eclipse will cast its shadow across North America next summer, I started making plans. The best spot to see the eclipse in terms of duration and totality, falls somewhere close to Cerulean, Kentucky, at 6:24 p.m. on August 21, 2017. Driving down will take three or four days; alternatively, we could fly to Nashville and rent a car for the short drive to Cerulean.
Here's the main drag in Cerulean. Plenty of room for the tens of thousands of people who will turn out to see the eclipse!

Sylvia has given her tentative approval of this mad scheme, but of course we'll have to see how things go next summer. I really hope we can do this; it really is a rare opportunity. Maybe we'll meet some aliens...even if we don't realize it. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Soda Fibonacci Fountain

Root Beer
Royal Crown Cola
Sioux City Sarsaparilla
Acid reflux sugar high keeps me awake all night

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Trees and the Stars

One of the things I miss about Leaf Rapids is the way in which the town remains embedded firmly in the thick of the Canadian Shield's northern boreal forests. If you could abide the mosquitoes (luckily, gigantic dragonflies were plentiful, mitigating the pest population somewhat), the forest was the perfect environment for all manner of adventures. I remember in particular how the root system and stump of one very large, fallen tree provided a cave of sorts; it often served as a fort or a gateway to other worlds.

At night, a few minutes' walk would put you in pitch blackness; the stargazing was incredible. On a clear night in Leaf Rapids, you need only look up into the night and the stars to feel yourself perched on the edge of the universe, about to fall up into the cosmos were it not for an accident of gravity. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Rare Bitter Litter Imagery!

I know many of my readers are curious about the oft-mentioned, but never-posted, Bitter Litter, a short film I directed some years ago. Since my friends would probably be annoyed (to put it mildly) if I posted Bitter Litter on YouTube, I can offer only fragments, such as this still from the coda - my director's cameo. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Star Trek 2017 Teaser

Today CBS unveiled its first tease of the new Star Trek series they'll release in 2017. Frankly, this teaser leaves me with mixed feelings; for one, it's a little fast-paced and showy for what should be a cerebral enterprise, and two, Star Trek isn't about "heroes" and "villains," at least not primarily.

On the other hand, it looks like the name of the show will be plain old Star Trek without any qualifiers, which pleases me for nostalgia's sake if nothing else. And the "New Crews" tease lends credence to the rumour that this might be an anthology series, with a different focus each season.

Well, this is just a teaser, after all, and often the showrunners don't get much input into ad department shenanigans. I remain cautiously optimistic. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Dibonacci Bumber Spirad

One hundred seventy-one
One hundred thousand, one hundred ninety-nine

Monday, May 16, 2016

Late Blooming Legend

I haven't yet blogged about the WB superhero drama Legends of Tomorrow, mainly because save for about three episodes of its season-long run, it's been embarrassingly bad.

For those who've skipped the show thus far (and who can blame them?), Legends of Tomorrow brings together a disparate cast of DC Comics heroes and villains (White Canary, Captain Cold, Firestorm, Heat Wave, the Atom, Hawkman and Hawkwoman) and throws them in a time ship with Rip Hunter, Time Master, who enlists the team in a plan to save his parents - and the future - from immortal dictator Vandal Savage.

It's a silly comic book premise, granted, but in the right hands any premise can provide decent entertainment. Unfortunately, for most of its run Legends has been hampered by painful dialogue, gigantic plot holes, awkward characterization (Rip Hunter doesn't seem to understand basic time travel tricks that the average SF devotee knows by heart) and just plain lazy writing.

And yet, by some miracle, the season's penultimate episode, "Destiny," is fast-paced, entertaining, poignant and adds considerable heft and gravity to the overall story arc and each character. Usually I watch Legends while distracted by some other task, but this time I was on the edge of my seat as the team, captured by the Time Masters and about to be executed for their efforts to save the world, rallied and snatched victory - almost - from the jaws of defeat. It reminded me somewhat of the feel Buffy the Vampire Slayer gave me back during its run; I felt myself rooting for a group of heroes I could (finally) believe in. And it has a tragic payoff that reminds me of Buffy, too.

Whether they can continue this magic into this week's season finale is an open question. But at least "Destiny" gives me reason to care again. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Musical Instruments I Should Learn How to Play

1. Mouth harp
2. Harmonica
3. Bongos
4. Triangle
5. Gong
6. Bagpipes
7. Xylophone
8. Maracas
9. Ukelele
10. Whatever makes the wokka-chicka wokka-chicka noise

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Butchart Tree

I shot this at the Butchart Gardens on a trip to Vancouver Island in 2009. It's a beautiful spot. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

ABBA: The Movie

This is a weird little nothing of a film, a faux-documentary chronicling a hapless Australian DJ's attempts to record an interview with the 70s supergroup ABBA before the band leaves the country. Much to the consternation of his boss, the DJ hops from Sydney to Perth to Adelaide to Melbourne before securing his interview, completely by chance, in an elevator just before the Swedish minstrels are due to fly off to Europe. That must have been an expensive interview.

Really it's just a chance to show off footage from ABBA's Australian tour, and if you're a fan of the band that's reason enough to sit back and enjoy this frivolous ride. I certainly found myself compelled to sit through it, having happened across it by chance on Turner Classic Movies.

It's also an interesting time capsule of 70s fashion, architecture and design; the clothes sure were colourful then, as were the cars. And you can't help but think how much easier the DJ's task would have been had he had a smart phone...

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Vearltual Rearlity

Thanks to the generosity of my perpetually early-adopting friend Pete, I had the opportunity to enjoy my very first Virtual Reality (VR) experience, using the Steam HTC Vive. It's not quite the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it feels like the first step on the road to that technology. 

As seen above, stepping into VR requires a number of peripherals: in this case, a pair of hand controllers, a set of earphones, and most importantly, the VR headset itself, which places a high definition display centimetres from your eyeballs. This is the key to VR's immersiveness; your entire field of view is covered by the screen, providing very lifelike visual stimuli. 

Pete's demonstration took Steve, Mike, Jeff and me through four different worlds: the introductory orientation demo, a brief underwater vignette, a science fiction target game, and a zombie shooter. 

The first thing that jumped out at me during the demo was the weird feeling of disembodiment when I held the two hand controllers up in front of my face. The VR system knows where the controllers are and models them in stunning high fidelity, but of course it doesn't know what my hands look like, so even though I could feel the controllers and knew they were in my hands, I couldn't see my hands manipulating them. "I can't see my thumbs!" was a common cry during the demo. 

The other question that leaped immediately to mind was "How am I going to avoid smashing into something in the real world?" Sensors on the wall (you can see one behind me at the upper right) mark a virtual boundary on the floor. If you approach the boundary, a translucent wall of light springs up in front of you, warning you that you're about to leave safe territory. 

You don't use the hand controls in the underwater vignette; you're simply transported to the deck of  a shipwreck on the ocean floor. Fish and manta rays swim about, and you can walk around a bit on the deck to explore it. Then a massive blue whale swims up and casts a baleful eye on you, close enough to touch. I did, in fact, reach out to touch it, and I half expected some tactile sensation, so realistic was the visual illusion. 

Space Pirate Trainer places you in a futuristic city of neon. You're on a glowing platform, equipped with twin laser pistols, or if you prefer, a pistol and shield (controlled, naturally, by your hand controllers). Small robots swoop in from all sides, blasting you with lasers, and you do your best to shoot as many as possible before they murder you. The zombie shooter Pete showed us next uses essentially the same game mechanic, but with a horror skin. 

Describing the experience in print really doesn't capture the look and feel of being inside these virtual worlds. They are so immersive that when I took the rig off, I blinked, disoriented, because it felt like I'd just returned to the world from a long journey to another place. This really is a transportive experience. 

And this is just the beginning. Software developers have hardly begun to explore the vast potential of this technology. An exciting new world awaits. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The N-Dimensional Railyard Funhouse

In the dream I'm a blonde-headed toddler, but my adult self is there in disembodied form, watching helplessly.

Toddler Earl has found himself again in the land of the railyard funhouse, a place where all the dimensions are tangled together like a German expressionist film extruded into a hypercube. A locomotive charges toward me, black with red and gold trim; it's flat in all dimensions, impossibly real, but I fall away just in time to avoid being crushed.

The boxed-in, cardboard town surrounds me like a terrarium, a maze of golden carousel poles, narrow passageways, and worst of all the green hallway that dead-ends into the room with the man in the ape costume; he's trapped too, and terrified, because the shadows moving behind the room's translucent curtains are rabid and malevolent beyond belief.

This small and young I can't do anything but run and scream and cry from room to room, street to street, the pastel-coloured false-front buildings with their angular, off-kilter doors and windows staring down at me with wooden jocularity. A flat yellow bumper car chases me; it has no driver, but it honks nonetheless, lights flashing gaily.

This is a dream world I visit every couple of years, and it's never pleasant. One day perhaps I'll manage to see it as an adult, with the ability to protect myself from its terrors. I hate this place. 

Monday, May 09, 2016

Kluane Lake, 2011

This is one of the breathtaking sights I enjoyed on my drive along the Alaska Highway. Not a soul in sight, just the water and the sky and the mountains.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Calgary Tower 2016

Here's how the Calgary Tower looks from street level through a wide angle lens. Unfortunately the restaurant was full...

Friday, May 06, 2016

Bitter Litter II: Basil's Revenge

Bitter Litter II: Basil's Revenge

Screenplay.....Earl J. Woods
Directed.....Earl J. Woods

Steven Neumann.....The Robot
Ron Briscoe.....Corpse
Jeff Shyluk.....Basil
Earl J. Woods...Voice of the Artificial Intelligence

1. INT. An apartment and adjoining hallway. A body lies prone with a cord wrapped around its neck. Another body is sprawled across the first. A humanoid ROBOT stands over them, a hammer in hand.

ROBOT: I have littered. I must take out the trash.

The ROBOT drags the two men - BASIL and VENGEFUL MAN - out the door and down the hall.

CLOSE SHOT of BASIL's eyes, fluttering open. He appears to have only been stunned by the blow delivered in the first BITTER LITTER film!

BASIL: My head...what...what happened...the brain mother told me...never to be a quitter...Doc...Doc...he shot her...that punk with the ray gun shot her...earrrgghhh!!!!

BASIL wrenches himself from the ROBOT's grasp. The ROBOT drops the CORPSE of the man with the cord around his neck.

ROBOT: Stop. You are trash. You are no longer bitter.

BASIL: No longer bitter? No longer bitter? I'll show you how bitter I am! I still have the brain machine!

BASIL starts turning and twisting dials. The ROBOT stutters and spasms.

ROBOT: Stop! My circuits - you are scrambling them - making my eyes - glitter - flitter -

BASIL: Yeah!? Why don't you tweet about it on Twitter???

ROBOT: Danger! Anachron particles detected! Continuity crisis made possible by mutant machine!


2. INT. OFFICE. A 1990s-era IBM PC sits on a desk. A happy face glows on the green CRT monitor.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: I am the world's first and only artificial life form, Doctor! Well, except for your Robot, and it doesn't count because it's just a rhyming murder machine! Aren't humans proved so respectful?

3. INT. HALLWAY. ROBOT and BASIL battle. ROBOT knocks BASIL's glasses off with his hammer.

BASIL: My glasses! I can't see a thing without them! I'm blind as a ba-aaa-aaa--aaaattt!

ROBOT: Now you can change careers and be a pipe fitter. You no longer need to be the witter of us anymore.

BASIL: You're not making seee-eeennn---ssseeee!!!

BASIL, in desperation, throws the brain machine at the ROBOT. The ROBOT's face is smashed and its head explodes.

BASIL: I did it! I killed the Robot! Now who's the quitter, Ma? Now who's the quitter!? Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

4. INT. the INSTITUTE. The DIRECTOR appears, carrying the brain machine. He scurries down a dark hallway as he delivers the film's coda:

DIRECTOR: This has been another...Paranoid...Production. 

Thursday, May 05, 2016

McHappy Day

I want one
I must have one now
Plus a side order of fries please
I will also consume a milkshake and some cookies
McDonald's has programmed me to eat and so I eat with gluttonous fury and wrath.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

May the Fort Be With You

As part of my job I spent the whole day monitoring Twitter for news of the wildfire disaster impacting Fort McMurray. The CBC has a great list of ways people can help. It only takes a moment to make a big difference. 

Monday, May 02, 2016

Calgary Expo 2016

A few months back, Sean asked if I was going to Calgary Expo. He and a friend were going down, and I decided that since this year marks the 50th anniversary of Star Trek and a lot of the guests acted on the various Star Trek shows and movies, it was an opportune year to head to Calgary.

On the drive down, I stopped in Red Deer to fortify myself with a burger from the new Peters' Drive-In location. It serves food every bit as good as the original Calgary location, with fewer parking hassles.
The economic downturn has hit Calgary pretty hard, which is perhaps the reason why I was able to book this sweet room at Le Germain downtown for about half the normal price.
I've decided that I really need one of these rain shower heads. So relaxing.

I didn't take any photos of the Expo itself the first night, opting instead to observe the camera etiquette. It turns out I needn't have worried; practically everyone was snapping photos left and right, careful to observe the rule prohibiting flash photography during panels. A high ISO setting takes care of that easily enough, but I learned too late to get any pictures of the one panel I attended Thursday night: a spotlight on Connor Trineer, who played Charles "Trip" Tucker on Star Trek: Enterprise. Star Trek: Voyager's Garret Wang hosted, and coaxed Trineer into telling a number of funny and fascinating stories about the short-lived spinoff, as well as his early days as a football player and budding stage actor.
I spent the next morning wandering the BMO Centre, examining the merchandise of hundreds of vendors who packed the halls to overflowing with geeky apparel, props, toys, books, games and art. I limited my purchases to a few grey market Lego minifigures and a couple of old Playmates Star Trek action figures to add to my collection. They're for stop motion movies, don't you know...

That's me above, waiting for the Spotlight on William Shatner panel to start. I really wasn't sure what to expect from the man made famous for playing Captain James T. Kirk; I worried that perhaps he might phone in his appearance, perhaps having grown sick of doing so many of these conventions.

But I was blown away. Shatner, as I perhaps should have expected, has incredible stage presence and charisma, and took control of the crowd the second he appeared. People make fun of Shatner's acting, but when you see him live it's easy to see he knows exactly what he's doing. He made a doubtlessly staged appearance by representatives of Canada Post appear completely ad-libbed, and reacted with seemingly genuine surprise and humility when they unveiled the new Captain Kirk stamp (available May 5 at all Canada Post outlets, by the way). Prompted by questions from the audience - most of which were about Boston Legal rather than Star Trek - Shatner waxed eloquent about filming in Canada, what it means to be Canadian, the importance of good works and taking care of our environment. It really was a marvellous performance, and that experience alone was worth the trip.
I didn't have much time to reflect on what I'd just seen, for my photo op with Shatner was scheduled right after the spotlight panel. I rushed over to the Agri-building and stood in line with hundreds of other fans. With machine-like precision, the Expo volunteers marched us along an assembly line-like path; after about an hour, I was presented with the man himself. I had only seconds to say something, and managed to say "Thank you for doing this, Mr. Shatner!" just barely in time to smile as the flash went off. Shatner winked at me and said "Pleasure," as I made way for the next guest. It was a fleeting moment, but one I'll never forget.

After that, I attended the Star Trek: Voyager spotlight with Garret Wang and Robert Duncan McNeill, or Harry Kim and Tom Paris as they were known on the show. Compared to Shatner's legendary presence, Wang and McNeill seemed almost subdued, which is unfair; they were entertaining, candid and thoughtful in their own right. Amusingly, they revealed that Tuvok and Neelix tormented their fellow crewmates by farting at every available opportunity. Wang and McNeill were delighted when discussions with the audience revealed the existence of Dildo, Newfoundland. Clearly Voyager humour is about as sophisticated as...well, mine.

Calgarian Brendan Hunter presented "So You Wanna Be a Voice Actor?", a panel I couldn't miss; I've been interested in the profession for quite some time. To my surprise, Hunter claims that with a little legwork a career in voice acting is a real possibility for anyone with the drive and desire; all you need is the ability, he says, to make sounds. Putting his audience to the test, Hunter passed around contact information and tips for those serious enough to take a stab at entering the profession. Dare I..?
Karl Urban, who plays Bones McCoy in the rebooted Star Trek films, as well as Judge Dredd in Dredd, was a great ambassador for both properties, promising plenty of the classic Spock/McCoy rivalry in the upcoming Star Trek Beyond and telling fans he's working hard to return to the role of Judge Dredd. I hope he's right; Dredd was a great action film, and there are plenty of stories left to tell in that setting.
I missed most of John Barrowman's (Dr. Who, Arrow) panel, but caught his superb finisher, a performance of a love song he wrote himself. It was so good I'm going to see if it's available for sale somewhere.
Brandon Routh (Superman Returns) was friendly and genuine, but didn't have as many good stories to tell as some of the other celebrity guests on hand; his youth might be working against him here. Still, he clearly treasures his experience playing Clark Kent, and seems earnest in his efforts to uphold the values embodied by that character.

Between panels, I spent a lot of time shopping and people watching. Here are some of the amazing costumes I saw:
Princess Jasmine in Arabian-themed Mandalorian armour.
"TV Head."
I'm not sure who she is, but the sign amused me.
A Canadian robot, perhaps inspired by Pacific Rim.
Assorted sword 'n sorcery types.
Some Stormtroopers and a Jawa.
A vile Decepticon.
The Justice League's resident magician, Zatanna.
A family of Lego super-heroes.
Lego Spider-Man vs. Dr. Octopus.
Dr. Octopus and the Lizard in mid-transformation.
And finally, Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash. Zoom!

This was the first science fiction convention I've attended since the 1990s. How things have changed. The crowds are exponentially larger and much, much more diverse, spanning all ages, cultures and, for lack of a better phrase, levels of geekhood. Calgary Expo is clearly a mainstream event, and much the better for it.

Will I go again? Absolutely, except next time I'll take Monday off, too. 

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Logan's Very Brief Run

Thanks to the miracle of cheap DVDs, I can now lay claim to having seen every episode of the short-lived Logan's Run, the television series that followed in the wake of the successful 1976 movie.

As in the film, the basic premise is simple: after a nuclear holocaust, a society arises in which humans live in luxury until age 30, at which time they endure the ritual of Carousel in the hopes of finding Renewal, or rebirth. Of course it's all a sham, and Carousel is simply an execution. Some citizens realize this, and become Runners, looking for Sanctuary. Sandmen are the state's policemen, charged with executing all Runners.

Logan 5, a Sandman, has doubts, and those doubts are fed by Jessica 6, a member of the underground helping Runners escape the city. Logan decides to run, and he and Jessica set out for Sanctuary, pursued by Francis 7.

The fundamental details of the movie and the television series pilot are the same, though all roles are recast and the television series replaces the computer overseer of the film with a group of old men who run things behind the scenes. In the series, Francis 7 is charged not with killing Logan and Jessica, but with bringing them back to the City of Domes so they can repent. The old rulers promise Francis 7 renewal if he can do so.

Once they escape from the City of Domes, with Francis and his Sandmen in pursuit, Logan and Jessica find a solar-powered car and the android Rem, who accompanies them on their trek across the blasted wastelands of the former United States of America.

The series premise is solid, and a couple of decent episodes hint that the show could have achieved greatness, given enough time and budget. In one episode, "Man Out of Time," a scientist time-travels into the future to see if it's possible to avoid the nuclear war that's imminent in his time. He discovers it's not, and that inventing time travel actually triggered the war in the first place - a nice twist. On top of that, the episode gives the audience a glimpse of post-1970s, pre-war Earth, giving the series a richer backstory and a sense of what's been lost.

In the next-best episode, "The Crypt," Logan, Jessica and Rem discover an underground nuclear shelter in the middle of a ruined city. At the shelter's entrance, a recorded message explains the vault below contains six of humanity's greatest scientists, people who could help raise humanity from the ashes. But they were infected by plague, and had to be frozen. Luckily, a cure was invented just after they were put into suspended animation, and all Logan, Jessica and Rem have to do is awake the frozen humans and administer the cure.

Unfortunately, an accident ruins half the doses, leaving the protagonists with an interesting moral dilemma: which of the six should be saved, and which must die?

Sadly, most of the other episodes don't have nearly as much ambition, and the series sputtered to a halt after only 14 episodes. It's too bad; there are glimpses of something special here.