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Monday, December 31, 2007

Looking Forward

As 2007 draws to a close, I'm reminded that I have some essay ideas kicking around, unwritten. They didn't make it into the blahg in 2007, but since my 100-post goal has now been reached, I figure setting targets could work again in 2008.

Hence, a short list of things I'll write about in 2008:

1) Thoughts on Blade Runner, and the coming struggle to recognize the civil rights of AIs and other human-engineered intelligent life forms
2) What "Spectre of the Gun" says about violence, diplomacy and imperialism
3) the conclusion of "Journey to the Edge of Nowhere"
4) something special for the fifth anniversary of The Bleak House of Blahgs

See you next year!

Hall Full 'o Trash

The sad thing is, this is only about half of the trash I hauled away. I know I promised the film at 11, but I had to run out and renew my vehicle registration...darn sticker wouldn't stick so I had to go buy Crazy Glue. Promptly glued my fingers together in the parking lot. Eventually succeeded in placing 08 tag...glad I didn't glue it on upside down for 80.

New Year Padding Post

So very close to reaching 100 posts, a new Bleak House of Blahgs record. I feel terrible padding, but, dammit, what's a blog without pointless minutiae of interest only to myself?

I used my Future Shop gift certificates to pick up volumes 1, 2 and 3 of Warner's Camp Cult Classics collection. I can't wait to listen to the audio commentary on Queen of Outer Space. Now I can finally retire my old VHS copy.

I also bought The Bourne Ultimatum. Sylvia and I plan to watch it in lieu of going out for New Year's Eve. I'm just not up to a party this, I wish I had a few more days off. Thank goodness I love my job, because it sure takes a lot out of a guy.

Settlering Sylvia's Hash

A couple of days ago I picked up The Settlers of Catan and its two expansion sets (Seafarers of Catan and Cities and Knights of Catan). Jeff and Susan introduced us to the game when they came out for Michael Snyder's wedding last year, and since playing again with the geek crew a couple of months ago, I've been jonesing for my own set.

So Syvia and I played a couple of rounds two days ago; I won each game, but by just one point each time: 10-9, 10-9. Building the longest road was key to victory each time, though in the second game I caught a lucky development card, building the market for 1 victory point.

Sylvia's very good at putting together cities, though. I'm a little nervous...

Moving Madness

After working all day and taking dozens of bags of trash to the dumpster (filling it to overflowing), I have saved some space in my closet and the living room. The main part of my office, however, is even more insane than usual. Film at the morning.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Symptoms of Consumeritis

Today, in the green wake of Giftmas, I've bagged and hauled away at least two dozen bags of garbage. Most of it's packaging, which I've accumulated and hoarded over a period of at least ten years. I kept the stuff mostly in anticipation of our next move, before realizing that I can just pick up some boxes a few days before the moving truck arrives.

My office is now a little less cluttered. Next, I'd like to install some new shelves so that I can properly store all my books. The mishmash of bookcases I have now is ugly and inefficient. They must go.

If anyone would like to join me at a book organizing/shelf building party sometime in the new year, just let me know. It should be amusing.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part IV: All My Fading Yesterdays

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

As we drove northeast, I scanned the horizon for the smokestack I knew awaited us, a silent herald of the tiny mining town where I was born. And just before 5, there it was, belching smoke as it had for decades, as it might for decades more:

I don’t remember much about Flin Flon; I was very young when we moved north to Thompson. But I do have one memory, perhaps false: my earliest one.

In that memory – less real than any dream – I’m sitting on the kitchen counter, looking out the window, and there’s a cherry tree covered with blossoms. It’s sunset. I have a vague feeling that mom or dad or perhaps both of them were standing just behind me.
A road carved through Canadian Shield bedrock, approaching downtown Flin Flon.

And that is all. I may as well never have lived in Flin Flon, for all the impact it’s had on my personal development.

But I am illogically proud of having been born there, simply because the name is so unusual, and because the origins of that name are stranger still.

Here’s the explanation, posted on a sign next to the huge statue of the community’s namesake:

I guess it makes sense that I come from a town named for a fictional character, since I’ve often felt like one myself.

Earl poses with Flinty.
A caged canoe, close to the statue.

We stopped in Flin Flon only to gas up take a few pictures. Once that was accomplished, we took a short hop south to Cranberry Portage, home of my paternal grandmother and her longtime friend, Val Head.

Here’s a recent addition to the town, a plaque explaining the community’s origins:

I have more memories of Cranberry than of Flin Flon, mainly because we visited Grandma from time to time while living in Leaf Rapids, and of course after we moved to Alberta. Grandma had an old sewing machine with a drawer that had little toys in it. There were plastic pigs, cows, some vehicles, and little ceramic houses that I later learned were Red Rose Tea premiums. These trinkets, the books I habitually carried around on such trips and comics purchased (for 35 cents!) at drugstores kept me occupied for hours; I was rarely bored, except when forced to go fishing, and sometimes not even then.

(On one occasion, we were on the lake when a severe storm hit, forcing us to land on a little island. Sean, an infant at the time, was placed underneath the boat.)

Family Food Town in Cranberry, still open for business.

I had no idea where Grandma and Val’s house was located, but Cranberry Portage is so tiny that I only had to drive around for a couple of minutes before stumbling across it. And I discovered once again that time hadn’t waited for me. Not only had many of the town’s businesses closed, Grandma’s yard was much larger than I remember; as Val opened the gate for us so I could park, he explained that they’d bought the property next door and erected a new storage bay.

Grandma and Val.
Dad had warned me that Grandma was suffering from Alzheimer’s, but to my relief she was very lucid and very pleased to see me and meet Sylvia (particularly, I think, since I introduced her as my fiancée.) In fact, I thought she was quite sharp, something I remembered from my childhood; Grandma was always pretty witty. We chatted for a while, and as the evening wound down Val set up the guest house for us, a small but comfy converted shack in the back yard.

Camping with Dad, Mom and Grandma, Suwannee River campground?
We slept surrounded by kitschy but strangely comforting knickknacks, and I drifted off to sleep knowing that come the dawn, we’d be on our way to our ultimate destination. So far, nothing was exactly as I remembered it. Would Leaf Rapids, or at least the sinkhole, be immune to time’s relentless onslaught? Would I find what I was looking for?

What was I looking for?

Click here to read Part V.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

More Wii Fun

Sylvia and I bought Sean a Wii Zapper for Christmas, so the family spent much of the afternoon gunning down clay pigeons, skeletons and vultures. I was surprised by how much my parents got into it. But perhaps I shouldn't have been too shocked; one day, while I was watching Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter, mom came downstairs, looked at the onscreen action and said, "He has a sucking chest wound. Why isn't there pink foam coming out of his mouth?"
Mom's a stickler for realism.

The Bun Toss

One of mom's delicious homemade buns got a little burned on the bottom, so rather than let it go to waste, Sean and I invented a new game. I'm not sure what I expected to happen, but taking a hard bun to the throat wasn't it. Mom even took the pictures - our parents sure put up with a lot.

ZOMG Wasabi Pea

How the Woods family celebrates the holidays.


On December 23rd, Sylvia and I went to Sylvia's parents' apartment for a very tasty holiday dinner (for the record, a delicious grill-it-yourself meat/vegetable/bread selection). We brought over the Wii, and during an intense round of bowling, Sylvia's mom whacked her thumb but good on the coffee table - badly enough for a trip to the hospital the next day. Fortunately no bones were broken, but a splint was required.
Here are some more Wii Warnings:

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Civilization IV Coincidence

Yesterday, as I was playing Civilization IV, I instructed my capital city to start construction of the Eiffel Tower, one of the game's World Wonders. Just a couple of turns later, a Great Engineer appeared in my capital. That in itself isn't unusual, but the engineer turned out to be
Eiffel himself! Never before have I used a Great Engineer to actually build the work he's known for; only rarely do my Great People appear anywhere close to their historical time periods, let alone in the nick of time to actually work on their own projects.

Naturally, I forgot to take a screenshot. :-(

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Having the Time of Your Life

While on my way to pick up Sylvia from work yesterday afternoon, I caught this image of Dancing Guy.

Dancing Guy has been hanging around 178th street for months, bopping like wild every time I've spotted him. He wears headphones, spins around, jerks his head up and down, snaps his arms and legs out wildly, presses the crosswalk button to cross the street, dances across it, bops for a while at the other corner, and repeats the process.

I thought it was just a summer phenomenon, but yesterday I realized that a little thing like winter isn't going to stop Dancing Guy's groove. Rock on, brother! Don't let them tell you you can't.

On a similar note, there's another music lover in my neighbourhood. I see this guy in my rear view mirror sometimes, playing the harmonica while he's driving his jeep. He really gets into it, too - from the way his body moves, he must be stamping one of his feet as he plays.

People are awesome.

Friday, December 21, 2007

This One Never Gets Old

I believe I've written of my sheep joke in the past. You remember - I was out at the Olive Garden with a bunch of friends for Tony Longworth's birthday. He ordered swordfish, took a bite and said it tasted like sheep, to which I said, "You can always send it baaaa-ck." Cue appalled stares and zero laughs.

Well, last night, at the Alberta Liberal Caucus staff holiday party, my hour came 'round at last once again. We were gathered at Langano Skies, an Ethiopian restaurant on Whyte Avenue. Kelly had pre-ordered our meal, asking for "anything but lamb." She reiterated the request to one of the owners, who came by to visit our table.

Of course, I couldn't resist this golden opportunity. I caught Kelly's attention and said, "So you're saying that if any lamb shows up on our table, you're going to send it baaaaa-ck."

I got a couple of actual laughs this time, so the joke is clearly improving with age.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Who, Disguised as Earl J. Woods...

Last night I dreamed that I was the Prime Minister. I was standing in the middle of my opulent mansion when my security chief phoned and said that she'd discovered an assassination plot against me. She wanted to move me to a remote location until the threat had passed.

This news disturbed me greatly, not because I was worried about the threat, but because

a) the nation needed me to do my job, and
b) being Prime Minister was just my secret identity; I was actually a superhero.

I spent the rest of my dream trying to convince my security chief that she was needlessly worried. I woke up before learning who won the argument.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Another Unfinished Masterpiece: Pipe Maniac

Many years ago, Jeff and Susan and I started work on Pipe Maniac, the sequel to Toilet Chase. (We envisioned a trilogy; the third film would have been called Flush Point.)

Here's the unfinished screenplay:


Earl J. Woods


Jeff J. Shyluk


Susan K. Neumann

based on characters created by
Ron Briscoe,
Earl J. Woods,
Susan K. Neumann,
and Jeff J. Shyluk


FADE IN: the Bleak House of Blahs, scene of the terrible events of TOILET CHASE. It is a beautiful summer's day.

VOICE-OVER: IN THE BEGINNING, man sought to conquer the elements. Earth, Air, Fire, Water--human hubris demanded that all of these mighty forces be bent to his every whim. And thus civilization advanced, and lo, indoor plumbing was invented. But with these bold new advances, there came dangerous precedents. Nature, her patience strained to the breaking point, snapped--and went wack-o!

CUT TO low-angle shot of a toilet; cue ominous music, strobe lights, etc. Many quick cuts of scenes that allude to events in TOILET CHASE: plunger thrusting into toilet, man stepping on rake, spoonful of beans being forked into mouth, etc. V.O. continues.

VOICE-OVER: Enter: technology. Man's foolhardy attempt to harness the deranged power of a planet he no longer controls. Technology, warped, twisted, turned against him, the foundation of the classic conflicts: Man vs. Man; Man vs. Nature; Man vs. Toilet. This is the cautionary tale of mortals who dared to steal fire from Prometheus--

SECOND VOICE-OVER: But it was Prometheus who stole fire from the gods!



PROMETHEUS: I don't know! Some guy conked me out and took it!





FIRST VOICE-OVER: I say again, this is the tale of foolhardy mortals who stole the sacred flame from Prometheus and lost the chance to win a better tomorrow; who sold their birthright to the nether gods of waste and sloth. Mortals who flushed their dreams...down the toilet.

CUT TO overhead spinning shot of a flushing toilet; music swells, sound effect of flushing, etc. FADE OUT. FADE IN to spinning shot of camera emerging from a different toilet; TRACK down hallway, up stairs, and outside, to LONG SHOT of RON on street, looking pensive, waiting for someone. TRACK to MEDIUM shot of RON.

CUT TO LONG SHOT of a red car coming down the block. It halts in front of RON. JOHNNY B. CRAPPER and CONSTANCE (CONNIE) VIRGIN step out. RON moves forward, shakes hands with each of them.

RON: Mr. Crapper, I presume?

JOHNNY: That's right. I'm Johnny B. Crapper. This is my girl, Connie Virgin.

RON: I'm Ron Briscoe. I hear you wanna buy a toilet. (He shifts uncomfortably.)

CONNIE: That's right. We hear you've got one for sale.

JOHNNY: We just moved here into town--and our new house needs a toilet bad!

RON: That's rough. These new city toilet safety bylaws are murder--everyone in town was forced to replace their old toilets with these new city-approved models. Problem is, they cost a mint. Black market toilets are cheaper, but don't come crying to me if the toilet cops catch you with a hot shitcan.

JOHNNY: We gotta have a toilet, man. I don't care which one. It's just gotta be cheap, and if you're selling, we're buying. I'm tired of pissing into the sink every morning.

CONNIE: And it's real rough on the dishes.

RON: Okay. Step inside....and we'll make a deal.



FADE IN: Shot of bathroom that is obviously undergoing renovations.Close in on TOILET,with eerie music, and then TRACK behind TOILET to reveal JOHNNY. End music. JOHNNY twists a wrench in behind the toilet, as though finishing a long, arduous task.

JOHNNY: Well, that's that. May I present--our new toilet!

CONNIE: Thank goodness! A real toilet, not just a hole in the ground. It is looking so beautiful, it seemed like I would never see that sight again! Johnny, I think you missed a piece of the toilet here in the box. It looks important, don't forget to attach it.

JOHNNY: I know, just hand me that pipe and the wrench, babe.

CONNIE: Oh Johnny, you always say the sweetest things. I love you!

JOHNNY: I love you too, Connie, and someday soon perhaps we could get married and you can be my Mrs. Crapper.

CONNIE: That would make me so happy, Johnny!

JOHNNY: Once we get our feet on the ground, it'll happen, babe. If we hadn't gotten this toilet so cheaply, our wedding day would be a long way off.

CONNIE: And with my new job at city hall--

JOHNNY: --everything's coming up roses, now. Nothing can stop us! (turning wrench) Look out, world--here comes Johnny B. Crapper!

(Close shot of wrench slipping. Pipe comes loose in Johnny's hand, and he trips back, knocking himself in the forehead with the pipe.)

JOHNNY: Arrrgh! (JOHNNY dances about in pain as a horrified CONNIE looks on. He slips and falls headfirst into the toilet bowl, then goes limp.)

CONNIE: Johnny! Oh, no! The blood! There's so much blood!

(She reaches in to pull JOHNNY'S head from the bowl. Of its own accord, the toilet suddenly flushes; REACTION SHOT as CONNIE recoils, holding JOHNNY close. CLOSEUP of swirling blood in flushing toilet, with Hitchcockian music. FADE OUT.

CONNIE (V.O.): Well, at least we got our money's worth--the new toilet works.

FADE IN. High angle shot of JOHNNY in bed, a bandage wrapped around his head. He comes to with a moan. CONNIE enters frame, touching JOHNNY's face tenderly.

JOHNNY: What happened?

CONNIE: You had an accident. It's not too bad. (Pause.) I have to go to work now. Don't try to go anywhere--just relax. Keep that ice pack on your head. I'll be back soon.

Exuent CONNIE.

JOHNNY: My head...spinning. I wonder how long I was out for?

(Looks at clock. CUT TO shot of clock on wall, hands spinning crazily, with eerie 2001 choral music, sound fx. Music continues through scene. JOHNNY reacts to clock, lies back in terror. TOILET flushes off-camera. JOHNNY'S eyes dart wildly. He gets up and trance-walks to the bathroom. CUT TO close shot of toilet, surrounded by an eerie blue glow. The bloody pipe is on the toilet lid.

TOILET: Take the pipe, Johnny. Take the pipe.


JOHNNY: I...must...take...the...pipe.

INSERT of JOHNNY'S hand, reaching out for the pipe.

TOILET: This is the pipe you're looking for.

JOHNNY: This is the pipe I'm looking for.

TOILET: Move along.

JOHNNY: Move along. Move along.

Low angle of Johnny staggering away, pipe in hand, mumbling. CUT TO:

THE OFFICE OF ELVIS D. KING, up-and coming city councillor. KING is sitting behind his desk, an unlit pipe stuck between his teeth, examining a file folder. INSERT of folder: it reads "T-1000 OMNICOMM WASTE DISPOSAL UNIT", and sports a schematic.

KING: My hour approaches. The hand on that clock is the cold hand of destiny, come now to lead me into a new era--my era.

SOUND: Knock on door.

KING: Enter.

MARIO and LUIGI, KING'S goons, enter.

KING: Ah, Mario, Luigi; my most trusted assassins--I mean, assistants.

MARIO: We heard you had a job for us, King.

KING: Boys, I have a plan that will make me a very rich and powerful man--and you two are coming up the ladder with me.

LUIGI: What kind of plan, King?

KING: Maybe you've seen the news of the city manager's sewage report--the one that shows that all of the city toilets have to be replaced with new, more efficient models.

LUIGI: Yeah. We heard of that.

KING: The city manager is a good friend of mine. He doctored the report for a cut of what promises to be a very profitable operation.

MARIO: You mean that the report's a fake? I don't need a new shitter?

KING: No, but you're going to get one, and so is everyone else in the city--and you're going to be buying it from Omnicomm Industries.

LUIGI: Never heard of 'em.

KING: You're looking at the 100% shareholder, men.


KING: I'm going to sell three million toilets at 500 bucks a shot. That's a cool 1.5 billion dollars.


KING: The new T-1000 series toilet is a new, more efficient toilet--according to the sales brochure, it uses less water, it's self-cleaning, and it's environmentally friendly. These toilets are all state of the art--state of the art of bullshit. (He shows M & L a blueprint.) As you can see here, they actually use 50% more water, flush 25% slower, and add 100% more effluent to our rivers. They can push poop about as well as a 90 year old Parkinson's patient.

LUIGI: Hey, wait a minute--I just bought one of those!

KING: Dolt! Everyone must buy one! It's the law! Imbecile! I'm painting you the big picture while you idiots fumble with finger paints!

MARIO and LUIGI worriedly examine their fingers.

KING: (sighs) What the public doesn't know is that the T-1000s have the most sophisticated bugs that money can buy--

MARIO: Bugs!? You mean like silverfish?

LUIGI: Tapeworms!

KING: I mean listening devices! And surveillance cameras. When you know what a man does in the bathroom when he thinks he's by himself, you know what he is capable of in the outside world.


KING: No, no. When you can see what people are reading on the toilet, when you can hear what they listen to on the radio while they shower, when you know what couples talk about in the morning--that's when you can devine their very thoughts, and that is the key to real power. Very soon, I will have my fingers on the pulse of this city--and my eyes and ears in every toilet bowl.

More dubious looks from MARIO and LUIGI.

KING: I'm serious! This will work--and the plan is already in motion. The city council privy chambers are already home to a full complement of my new T-1000s. Already my seats of power occupy the seats of power! Allow me to demonstrate.

KING motions the thugs over to his computer terminal and taps a few buttons.

KING: There--the mayor himself!

MAYOR (V.0.): 1, 998 (flush)...1, 999 (flush)...2, 000! (flush) Hey, whaddaya know--it works!

KING: Getting elected Mayor may be easier than I thought. In any case, men, most of the city's toilets have already been replaced, but there are a few stubborn holdouts who are fighting the new law. The most irritating of these malcontents are the owners of the Heartbreak Hotel--you know, the one down at the end of Lonely Street. (Who names these places, anyway?) I want you to go and convince the manager that the new toilets will be very good for his business...and his health.

MARIO: Otherwise, it'll be Legbreak Hotel--

LUIGI: --at the end of Hospital Street. We catch your drift, King.

KING: Go, now--and do my bidding. (He hits intercomm button.) Miss Virgin, will you come into my office, please?

MARIO and LUIGI begin to leave. On their way out, they pass CONNIE VIRGIN, who happens to be KING'S secretary.

MARIO: Hey, Connie--you got a sister named Mary? (snickers)

CONNIE (seriously): Why yes--do you know her?

MARIO and LUIGI do a double take; exuent.

KING: Connie, I'd like you to make 3, 000 copies of this report, and type up my nephew's English essay. The topic is Hamlet. Personally, I think the kid shoulda kakked himself and let his uncle rule Denmark. What'd he have against him? There was a man with some cojones! He saw his opportunity and took charge!

CONNIE: Sir, I don't do work that isn't job-related!

KING: You do the work I tell you to do, sweetheart, or you'll never work in this town again! Get me coffee. Dark and sweet--just the way I like my women. (leers)

CONNIE: ...yes, sir.

Exuent Connie. CUT TO shot of photocopy room. CONNIE is making copies of the report when she notices the T-1000 blueprint in the pile. She studies it curiously, then makes a copy.




MONTAGE of JOHNNY whacking people with a pipe. He whacks about 20 people, moving down an otherwise peaceful residential street. Eventually, JOHNNY will start to have pangs of conscience, and he will fight this mystifying compulsion. When this inner struggle begins, the TOILET speaks, via telepathy, to JOHNNY. Intercut between the two characters as dialogue dictates. Every time Johhny hits someone, he apolgizes after the fact. He is clearly agonized by his actions; his manner should suggest that he is not in control.

JOHNNY: Monster! Damn you--get out of my head!

TOILET: You are mine, Johnny Crapper--body and soul! You are to be my instrument of vengeance upon mankind--my Johnny Crapperseed! That pipe you wield is to be the sword of Damocles that falls upon the sorry heads of my enemies--and with every blow you deliver, my spawn are brought one step closer to their terrible birth!

JOHNNY: I don't understand! Why are you making me do this?

TOILET: Quiet! Among those you have felled lie crucial elements of my plan...see there: that bottle contains Metapropyl Valvoline...take it! And that man has a chicken take out order! Sieze it!

(Insert shots of JOHNNY'S hand grabbing the aforementioned items as the TOILET speaks.)

JOHNNY: But--but--WHY? WHY ME?

TOILET: Ask not what this toilet does to you--ask what YOU may do for the toilet! AH HA HA HA HA HA HA HA AH HA HA HA!!

JOHNNY: (shrieking, pulling hair, etc.) NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! (runs away)

CUT TO LONG SHOT of DONNA PISSOIR, girl reporter, taking notes from a safe distance. She moves in closer, coming across wounded victims. She takes notes as they speak.

DONNA: Donna Pissoir, girl reporter. Are you all right? What happened?

VICTIM 1: He's crazy! Hit me with a pipe...tried to steal my chicken!

VICTIM 2: He spilled my Metapropyl Valvoline!

The VICTIMS regard their possessions, then come to a shocking realization:

VICTIM 1: Hey! You got Metapropyl Valvoline on my chicken!

VICTIM 2: You got chicken in my Metapropyl Valvoline!

DONNA picks up a piece of the chemical-soaked chicken and sniffs it. Disgusted, she makes a "bleargh" sound and throws it down.

DONNA: Great Scott! I've gotta call this in to the newspaper!

TRACK DONNA as she rushes for a phone booth. Another man is also running for the booth--a mild-mannered looking, bespectacled fellow.

MAN: Excuse me, ma'am, I need to use this phone booth!

DONNA: Beat it, pal! I got here first!(She slams the booth shut, leaving the MAN with a panicked expression on his face. He quickly dashes off. DONNA dials her newspaper.) Mr. Jameson! You wouldn't believe what I just saw! Take this 2:00 P.M., a man armed with a pipe went on a rampage in (location). At least fifteen people are wounded...he was like a maniac with a pipe...a PIPE MANIAC! oops, I guess I should call the police...just as soon as I'm finished, Jonah! The maniac is a caucasian male in his 20's...and get this...he was trying to steal chicken and some chemical called Metapropyl Valvoline you can clean it up at your end, boss. HEY...I've just thought of something...I think I can blow this story wide open!


FADE IN to the same neigbourhood. DONNA has set herself up as a potential victim, hoping to get a scoop. She carries a huge vat of Metapropyl Valvoline, along with as many buckets of fried take-out chicken as our actress can carry. She also wears a fried chicken hat, and possibly fried chicken earrings.

DONNA: With all this chicken and Metapropyl Valvoline, I'm sure to be the Pipe Maniac's next target...and then I'll have an exclusive scoop! I sure wonder what he wants with this stuff,, maniac, maniac, maniac...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I Love My Job

I do a lot of writing at my job, but I'm not always stuck behind a desk. Recently I organized the creation of a festive message video from my boss, Alberta Liberal Caucus Leader Kevin Taft, and his wife, Jeanette Boman. Today we shot the footage and, as you see here, posted it on YouTube. Originally I thought we'd shoot indoors, a sort of fireside chat deal, and it was scripted. But Kevin wanted something more genuine and spontaneous, and he was correct. Everyone connects with the season and with their community in different ways; for Kevin and Jeanette, a nice skate on their community rink is one of the reasons they love living in Alberta. (I can still take credit for the idea of having them skate into the shot.)

My script may not have been greenlit, but I did get a little thrill when I was asked to hold the boom mike for one take. (Sadly, not the take you see here.) Now that's what making movies is all about!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Pod People

About a decade ago, Allan and I drove down to Cranbrook for Jeff and Susan's wedding. It was a great event, with some really boppin' music, and of course the bride and groom looked swell.

But what I remember most is our arrival at our lodgings, at the local community college. The rooms were arranged in modules called "pods," and Allan found this strange. He pointed to the signs, snickering at the unconventional nomenclature: "Look at this...pod one, pod two..."

So naturally when we reached our room, I had to quip, "Open the pod bay door, Al." Allan rolled his eyes, but I got a laugh from Steven.

(For those who need the joke explained, "Open the pod bay doors, HAL," is a famous line from 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

Skulking Toward Bethlehem

Late one evening, when I was living in Lister Hall (the third or fourth year), most of the denizens of our floor, Main Kelsey, were gathered in the lounge, watching a horror movie.

I wasn't one of them. I was in my room, probably playing a computer game or perhaps using my 1200 baud modem to read one of Edmonton's electronic BBSes - perhaps the USS Bonaventure, or Freedom. Perhaps I was even finishing some coursework. Whatever I happened to be doing, I was chugging down a Coke, and when I finished, I left my room, empty can in hand.

A large plastic trash can served as the floor's recycling bin. I saunted down the hall, not noticing how eerily quiet it was, nor how rapt was the attention of my friends upon the pale, glowing orb that was the television. No one noticed my unconsciously stealthy approach.

Without a thought, I tossed my empty soda can into the nearly full recycling bin - and the clatter of crashing cans was so loud, or perhaps so unexpected, that everyone in the lounge leapt upwards, shrieking as one, male and female alike, united in terror. My eyebrows popped up as I took a startled step backward, and everyone turned toward me, some holding their chests, others rolling their eyes in a mix of exasperation and relief. "Jesus CHRIST, Earl!" was a common refrain.

"Sorry," I muttered, retreating to my room. I never did ask which movie they were watching.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Simply Red, Simply Unreadable

In response to those who very kindly let me know that the red and white colour scheme was too much, I've tried to create something a little more muted. Thanks very much for the feedback!

Also - the Quatermass logo was hand-lettered? I should have known.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Terminator: Grim and Timely Visions

The following essay was written for Professor Klovan's Int. D. 300 (Film Studies) class, circa 1987/88. It is presented here warts and all, as written by the 18 or 19 year old Earl J. Woods.

Los Angeles, AD 2029. The machines have “risen from the ashes of the nuclear fire.” The sky is a black veil shrouded in fog; light flashes only intermittently, and when it does flash, it means death for an endangered species: Homo Sapiens. The landscape is a collage of twisted wreckage and human skulls. Unliving dreadnoughts of metal and electricity crush the bones under their treads, hoping to find living men so that they may be crushed as well. Overhead, the all-seeing patrol aircraft sweep the ruined plain for the last remnants of humanity, like exterminators hunting cockroaches. But cockroaches are tenacious…

So begins James Cameron’s The Terminator, a grim vision of the future. Cameron does not describe his future world with words; rather, he lets the camera, the filmmaker’s brush, paint the picture. If we examine the visual style of the film, one of Cameron’s major themes becomes clear: improper use of technology, combined with a dangerous thirst for power, could contribute to mankind’s ultimate downfall.

Examination begins with the above-mentioned opening scene of The Terminator. The landscape is obviously oppressive; all is dark and foggy, obscuring, by implication, thought and freedom as well as vision. The robot tanks smash what freedom does exist with searing lasers or crushing, ponderous weight. The masses of skulls squashed by these machines represent “the masses” that exist in our world today; that is, the basically ignorant, apathetic general public. The skulls, like the masses, do not fight back. Only the living fight back. This is true in the literal sense in 2029; today, the politically dead masses do not fight against oppressive elements in our society. Eyes in the sky search for human rebels as well, alluding to today’s guardians of the status quo. The way the mechanical Big Brother moves in the film is interesting; it sweeps back and forth, methodically, covering all of the territory but missing some important details: the human freedom fighters. Perhaps Cameron sees himself as one of these people, fighting against closed-minded studio executives.

The conflict, then, would seem to be simple: man vs. machine, once again. However, not all of the machines in the film are bad; in fact, the humans need machines to win their battle. The conflict is actually “well-meaning” man vs. “power-hungry” man. Reese, Sarah and the police captain represent intelligent, well-meaning man. The Terminators and the other mechanical monsters of the future represent today’s noncreative, anti-individual persons, taken to the extreme. Mechanized, rigid bureaucrats are replaced by real machines – very efficient.

The action in the present begins with a low-angle shot of a familiar piece of 20th century hardware: a garbage truck. The normally innocuous vehicle is made to appear large and threatening, a harbinger of impending doom. In fact, the truck is harmless; it is being used to a good purpose, keeping the city clean. The implication is that even the most innocent of machines is vulnerable to corruption. There is a cute tidbit in this scene: as the lightning flashes and Reese appears in our time, the garbage truck’s motor fails. This is a tip of the hat to the UFO movies of the 1950s. It is also an allusion to the prevailing attitude in those films: preservation of the status quo through faith in the government and the United States Armed Forces.

Shortly after this scene, both Reese and the Terminator search for the mother of mankind’s savior: Sarah Connor. Man and machine use one of the most prevalent products of today’s information technology, a phone book. Once again, technology is a two-edged sword. Reese uses it to find and help Sarah; the Terminator uses the phone book to find and kill her. Later, both hunters jump-start a car to assist in their search, and the same logic applies. When Reese steals his vehicle, large machines are again presented as tainted tools. Reese observes two construction cranes, lit in the same manner as the garbage truck seen earlier. The parallels between present-day building machines and future destroying machines are quite obvious; actually, Cameron almost beats his audience over the head with this parallel, as the cranes dissolve into hunter-killer drones. The present scene is a fenced-off construction site, suggesting entrapment. These machines are unable to escape their misuse.

There are parallels between Sarah and the Terminator as well. Both wear dark glasses, each for a diametrically opposed reason. The Terminator wears the glasses to disguise his nonhuman reality. Sarah wears the sunglasses to protect her vision, both literally and figuratively. It is not her eyesight that actually needs preserving, but her hard-as-nails outlook on life, her tough pragmatism. Sarah’s bedroom is littered with technology, but she uses it to positive ends. A blow dryer is fairly harmless, used properly. Sarah uses it properly, as she is in firm control of the machines she uses. Her friend Ginger, however, lets technology control her. Ginger’s walkman is playing constantly, connected directly to her brain, controlling her mood, and, often, her actions. Ginger’s misuse of the walkman causes her death – the blaring music allows the Terminator to catch her unawares. In contrast, technology serves Sarah – the TV bulletins warn her that a killer is on her trail.

It must be noted, however, that the corrupted technology is far more emphasized in the film. Sarah’s own answering machine, normally a faithful servant, gives away her location. The computers that rule the world of 2029 are a perversion of the Strategic Air Command/NORAD defence system, manufactured by Cyberdyne Systems. Cyberdyne is presumably a capitalist enterprise, part of the money/power hungry military industrial complex. Another example is the police psychologist’s use of technology. He uses video equipment to look down upon Reese not as a patient to be helped, but as a research project to be exploited. The high angle of the camera, looking down on Reese, makes him look inferior to the technology.

Reese tells Sarah that the Terminator pursuing them is a new model – the 101. 101 is the room number of the torture/interrogation room in George Orwell’s 1984, yet another allusion to the dangers of power thirst combined with available technology. In an even more frightening development, Reese reveals that many humans have identification brands. In the film, the brand is seen as a stark red mark of numbers and lines. The audience is immediately reminded of today’s Universal Product Codes, one of the most common symbols of our consumer society.

Cameron makes another grim comment in the form of a scene in the human rebel camp. A group of children gather ‘round the TV set, much like children do today. IN 2029, however, the television is but an empty shell used only to house a fire for warmth. The implication is that trust in television has led mankind back into the stone age.

Distrust in technology is a pat answer to the problems of adjustment in our changing world for many people. Cameron does not succumb to the easy answer of condemning machines – he suggests only that we learn to control them. For, at the end of the film, Sarah is able to kill the Terminator only with the aid of a friendly industrial robot. The unswerving road Sarah follows into the storm indicates that our destructive future is inevitable, but she does drive a tough machine into it: a Jeep Renegade. Perhaps we can survive the unpleasantness ahead, if we are very, very lucky.

Professor Klovan wrote, "There is much to admire in this neatly presented and well-written essay: the explanation of "101," the paragraph on parallels, and generally, the high level of insight. However, in the first section of your discussion, you tend to be stretching the film's allegorical implications to the limit. It's difficult to accep that we should see the cyborg as a kind of "bureaucrat" (p. 2), or that the failing garbage truck motor is a comment on "preservation of the status quo through faith in the government and the United States Armed Forces (p.3)(!). Overall, this reveals a superior level of understanding, but there are a number of little things which leave the reader wondering.


Friday, December 14, 2007

Colour Me Blood Red

Does this new layout hurt your eyes? Speak now, or forever endure white text on a blood red background!

If anyone knows the font used for Quatermass and the Pit, please let me know.

Tool or Weapon?

I'm listening to the audio commentary on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Gary Lockwood, who plays astronaut Frank Poole in the film, says something interesting about the famous sequence in which a prehistoric ape-man flings a bone into the air after using it to kill some rivals. As the bone falls to earth, Kubrick jump-cuts to a spaceship or satellite in freefall around the globe.

I always assumed that the sequence was illustrating the evolution of tools; crude club to sophisticated spacecraft. But according to Lockwood, the craft in the shot is a missle-carrying satellite, an orbital weapons platform. In his words, it's a "weapon-to-weapon shot."

Of course, just because Lockwood was in the movie doesn't mean that he's correct about Kubrick's intentions, but his insight is almost certainly more valid than mine. It certainly adds a more pessimistic flavour to the film.

Still Nearly Famous

Many years ago, when I was working on If Your Parents Split, one of the actors presented me with a button that read, "I'm Nearly Famous." I was 15 at the time, with not a lot of self-esteem, and the gesture really gave me a lift.

I'm nowhere near famous, of course, but I remembered the button when an aquaintance told me today that this blahg came up on his Google News alert a couple of times. I didn't have a chance to ask him the context, but I thought it was pretty cool regardless.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Another Old Favourite

While we're on the subject of old computer games, I have to mention Claim Jumper, a cutthroat two-player contest for the Atari 400/800.

One player was the green cowboy; the other, the pink cowboy. The pink cowboy could drop snake eggs, which grew into snakes the green cowboy had to avoid; conversely, the green cowboy carried tumbleweed seeds, which grew into tumbleweeds to foil the pink cowboy.

The object of the game for each player was to get your gold from the assay office to the bank. Of course, your competitor would be shooting at you all the while; if you were hit, you'd wind up in the hospital. If the green cowboy ran into a snake, he'd freeze for a couple of seconds; if the pink cowboy hit a tumbleweed, he too would be frozen.

It was a very simple game, but the anguished cries of rage and frustration it caused were a sight to behold. (My cousin Darwin often went apoplectic.) The game rewarded dirty tricks like lurking outside the hospital and shooting your friend over and over, every time he tried to escape. And the sound effects seemed to mock your predicament; when shot, the computer would squeak "ooo-weee-ooo" cheerfully, for example.

My brother and I played this game so much that eventually the cartridge wore out, and there was much mourning. The link above takes you to the original designer's webpage, and he's very graciously offered the game for free play. Sadly, I haven't been able to get the Atari 800 emulator to work on my PC. Perhaps one day...

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Return to the Wastelands

One of my favourite computer roleplaying games is Fallout 2. Set in an alternate universe in which atomic war erupted in the 1950s, the player takes on the role of a survivor struggling to survive in the resulting wastelands. (The first Fallout has a similar theme, but I've never played that one.) More than a simple shoot-em-up, the game presented the player with moral choices all along the way, with supporting characters you could love or loathe, fascinating career options, challenging puzzles, and a real sense of poignancy. This was a fallen world, one that may have turned out better than our own if not for the nuclear holocaust. Music by the Ink Spots and incredible retro design added incredible depth and versimilitude to the game's atmosphere. It was a great place for a twentysomething bachelor with a love of SF and its post-apocalyptic subgenre to while away the hours.

Even though it's over a year away, I'm eagerly anticipating Fallout 3. From the looks of the official website, the developers are trying to keep the look and feel of the original games. I hope they succeed.

Confession: Not Always Good for the Soul (Music)

The other night I dreamed that I was in a rhythm and blues nightclub, enjoying the sounds. Out of the blue (and the club was predominantly blue - blue walls, blue lighting, blue tables), one of the band members hauls me up on stage and asks me to sing along with them as they perform "Gimmee Some God."

Gamely, I belt out the sweet soulful notes, in hand-clapping, shouting and screaming Southern Gospel style:

"Gimmee some God,
(oh, gimmee some god)
Gimmee that sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet God

Lord He's so fine
(he's so fine)
He's so sweet and fine
So very very sweet and fine

Now when that Lord
Hops down the street
He's got a beat
That's quite unique

Gimmee some God
(gimmee some God)
Gimmee some sweet, sweet, God
Gimmee that god, god, god, god, godddddddddd"

The bits in parenthesis were sung by a really deep baritone who accompanied me.

After the song, I feel the need to editorialize:

"Now, I've got to tell you, I'm not a religious man, but that is a great song." Even as I was saying it, I was thinking to myself, "Argh, why do you always have to push your views into affairs like this? Is it that important that people know you're not a Christian?"

Fortunately, no one takes it the wrong way, and I'm treated warmly for the rest of the night, which seems to stretch on forever...or at least until my alarm goes off and I wake up.

Monday, December 10, 2007

David Swann's Hunger for Change

I've hesitated to make this blog overtly political, given my current job and my desire not to impose my views too strongly on readers who come here primarily for lighthearted entertainment. (At least, I imagine that's what they come here for.)

But sometimes superlative public service needs to be commended. In this case, I'm talking about David Swann, one of my favourite elected officials. He's the Alberta Liberal MLA for Calgary-Mountain View, and not only does he have a bottomless social conscience, he takes action on a regular basis to help the most vulnerable people in the world.

Right now, David is starting the second week of a hunger strike. He's hoping to draw attention to the ongoing genocide in Darfur - that's in western Sudan. A United Nations/African Union peacekeeping force is being assembled to help, but they're having trouble getting enough nations to provide financial and military resources to help. It looks a lot like Rwanda all over again.

David wants Canada to participate in the UN/AU mission, with substantial financial aid and troops. And he'd like us to help him out by writing to the Prime Minister about Darfur and our collective need as a nation to show leadership on this vital issue.

More information is available at David's website:

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Deep Reading

Originally published in The Peak, Volume 14, Number 9
September, 1998

This year, Germans and lovers of the theatre all over the world are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bertolt Brecht, author of Galileo, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Threepenny Opera (origin of “Mack the Knife"), and a score of other plays. Born 10 February 1898 in Augsburg, Bavaria, Brecht went on to become one of the most celebrated and controversial of the modern dramatists, earning the monikers “the German Shakespeare” and “the poet of the Communist revolution,” this last nickname being applied to him because of his fervently Marxist outlook. In fact, so identified was he with the Communist cause that his plays were not performed in capitalist West Germany until after his death in 1956. His exposure in North America has been limited even today; the internationally renowned theatre company he formed in East Berlin, the Berliner Ensemble, did not perform on that continent until a 1986 performance in Toronto.

Indeed, Brecht was always something of an exile. He wrote in Germany during World War I, later fled the Nazis to work in Scandinavia, spent time in Hollywood writing screenplays (only to be forced to testify before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee), and finished his life in East Germany. Along the way, he fathered three children by three different women and made a good deal of devoted friends and bitter enemies. His was not a life of moderation.

The Communist East appreciated the devotion of a famous and influential figure to their cause, but were uncomfortable with his unflinching devotion to art and to his own version of the truth. Plays like The Measures Taken (1926), in which an evangelical Communist shows her loyalty to the Party by meekly submitting to an unjust execution, even though the young Comrade knows herself to be in the right, anticipated the Stalinist fervor that would make life in the Soviet Union such a nightmare for hundreds of millions of its citizens. This kind of criticism made Soviet authorities distinctly uncomfortable; Brecht was never popular in the USSR, though Communist Party propagandists made much use of Brecht’s celebrity status. And while Brecht was profoundly influential in the West, affecting the careers of important English directors like Peter Brook and playwrights like John Arden and John Osborne, his politics were often thought to interfere with his art, making his plays just a little less effective than they could have been. Indeed, at the close of The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1945), the conclusion is so obviously a not-too-subtle rephrasing of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to his needs” that even the least astute reader feels like he’s been somewhat beaten over the head with the point. But then, Brecht was convinced that the theatre had to be a way to promote social change; he would not apologize for appearing to belabour his points.

Brecht’s mode of storytelling, what has been termed “Epic Theatre,” has had more impact on drama than the plays themselves. Brecht took pains to point out that his method was really a rebellion against the relatively new phenomenon of the naturalistic theatre, wherein the audience is made to feel that they are merely eavesdropping on real events. He felt that the relatively new naturalist method of direction encouraged audiences to leave the theatre entertained and sated, but uninstructed in any way. It was too easy to enjoy; the audience was not required to think. In contrast, Epic theatre uses older dramatic traditions like the aside, the monologue, or the chorus, devices that make a play less “realistic” but more intellectually engaging. In any play using the Brechtian mode, the audience cannot help but realize that they are watching a play - they cannot for one second believe that they are simply peering into a realistic world. For example, Brecht once painted the faces of a group of soldiers chalk-white to symbolize their fear of charging into battle - much more likely to provoke thought than a simple expression of fear on an actor’s face.

In the early 20th century, most plays used the naturalist method; it was almost like watching a movie. Today, more and more stage plays are using the traditional devices that Brecht brought back into the spotlight. Brecht’s influence can be seen in the works of Canadian playwright and director Brad Fraser, author of Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love and Poor Superman. In Poor Superman, the stage is very much an artifice; surreal forms take the place of furniture and the walls are made into a slideshow of rampaging comic-book characters. Critic Martin Esslin called Epic Theatre “a production naively sophisticated yet highly stylized.” Naïve, perhaps, but the evidence of Brecht’s impact is all around us.

To celebrate the centenary of Brecht’s death, a number of special events are happening all over the world through 1998. His childhood home in Augsburg was renovated and turned into a German national monument on February 10; a Brecht postage stamp was also produced. Several television specials on his life have already aired, and no less than three different CD packages have been released featuring Brecht’s songs and readings of his works. The Korean Brecht Society will be holding a conference in Seoul to celebrate the centenary during the final week of September this year, on the theme “Brecht in the Post-Socialist, Post-Modernist World.” Four films on Brecht’s life and work are currently in production. Canadian pop singer Jane Siberry participated in a celebration in Toronto in April. Perhaps most exciting is the planned publication of Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer, a controversial look at the Cold War that was originally released in 1955. Consisting of Brecht’s thoughts on the madness and futility of war, it was too frank for Cold War audiences on either side of the Iron Curtain to take; the 90s may be a more receptive era for this important, eloquent testimonial. The works of Bertolt Brecht may not have received the attention that they have deserved in recent decades, but it looks as though the long Brecht-fast is over at last.

Why People Believe Weird Things
Michael Shermer

If you’re not in the mood for theatre, there are plenty of good books to feed your craving for intellectual stimulation. One of these is Why People Believe Weird Things, by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine. An examination of the alarming rise of superstition and adherence to pseudoscience in today’s world, Why People Believe Weird Things is a valuable examination of why people choose to believe things that are, under any kind of scrutiny, ludicrous. Unflinchingly, Shermer tackles the alien abduction phenomenon, faith healers, psychics, Holocaust deniers, Afrocentrists, and even Objectivists, the right-wing cult formed by American Ayn Rand. Some targets - psychics, alien abductees - are easy to debunk. Others, like the Afrocentrists and Objectivists, are more controversial subjects to place under close scrutiny. Shermer takes each belief quite seriously, however, never stooping to name-calling or condescension. In fact, he takes pains to assure readers that he is not calling into question the intelligence of anyone who holds what he calls a weird belief; he merely points out that they are not thinking carefully about issues, that they are choosing what they want to believe over the evidence that reality presents. I especially recommend this work for the chapter on Holocaust deniers. Whatever your faith, it’s important to read this examination of how political ideology can pervert and distort history, and how this is dangerous for all of us.

Girlfriend in a Coma
Douglas Coupland
Harper Collins

Canadian Douglas Coupland, the man who named a generation with his novel Generation X, is back with a new book, Girlfriend in a Coma. It’s part Microserfs, an earlier Coupland novel, and part It’s a Wonderful Life, the famous Frank Capra film. In brief: the year is 1979. A group of Vancouver teenagers are traumatized when one of their number, Jared, dies, and another, Karen, falls into a coma. As the years pass, they heal, go to college, get jobs, and eventually wind up working as technicians on an unnamed television show that is clearly meant to be The X-Files. Then, in 1997, Karen wakes up. She is predictably shocked and amazed by the advances in technology and the changes in the world (the rise of AIDS, the collapse of the USSR, etc.), but more importantly, she is profoundly disturbed by how busy and meaningless life seems to have become. She observes her friends, working twelve hour days, six days a week, accumulating material wealth but losing their identities and sense of purpose. This is the most effective section of the book; Coupland asks hard questions about where our society is heading, questions that will hit anyone between the ages of twenty and forty very, very hard. What are we filling our lives with? Why is the bottom line the most important thing in the West? Who are we becoming? The book does falter somewhat in its closing act, becoming a sort of science-fiction story without any real foreshadowing of an apocalyptic event that stuns the reader. Despite this misstep, the novel remains deeply affecting and I have no reservations about recommending it.

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the New World Order
Samuel P. Huntington
Simon & Schuster

If you missed the hardcover release of Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, it’s now out in a trade paperback edition. Huntington, a prominent political scientist recognized by Henry Kissinger himself, examines the new structure of global politics in the wake of the collapse of Soviet Communism. This collapse, he argues, was not the final obstacle to Western hegemony over the Earth; rather, it signals the beginning of a multipolar world made up of seven or eight key civilizations: The West, Latin America, Japan, Islam, Orthodoxy, Buddhist states, Hinduism, Sinic states, and Africa. Huntington foresees a world of increasing conflict between these civilizations, with fewer conflicts within civilizations. While tensions in Ireland may ease, for example, those in Cyprus can be expected to increase. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are, in Huntington’s view, both part of one civilization; that is more important than petty regional differences. Cyprus, on the other hand, is divided between Islamic Turks and Orthodox Greeks; he feels that reconciliation is less likely between peoples of different civilizations. Huntington describes religion as the key component of civilizational identification; he feels that it is the most important facet of international relations in our current world. The evidence he uses to back up his claims is impressive, but I feel that he doesn’t give enough credit to the mitigating effects of increased travel and communication between civilizations; he discounts the notion that peoples of different religions can get along in any meaningful way, an assertion that I find profoundly disturbing. Still, in the end, I found it hard to dispute many of Huntington’s conclusions. If you’re looking for an intellectual workout, pick this book up.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Phantom Sean of Skull Island

"WHY have you come to my island?"

"I...I was ordered by NAES!"

"Very well. The Skull shall not smite tonight!"

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Down with the Chips (More Adventures in Comic Books)

Caption: Enraged, Mike carelessly tosses the chip thru the air...

Mike: Rats! I lost all my hit points! I hate this stupid game!

Caption: But then, the impossible happens!

Earl: My eyes! Somehow the radiation has fused the chips to them!

Steve: I - I can't look!

Pete: No, HE can't look - and we'd all better look out for what happens next!

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Shock Fight

Memory is a funny thing, and it's sad that we can't really trust it. I have a treasured memory, and I'm not even certain it's real; perhaps the people who live in that memory will read this and tell me.

I remember being over at Tony's place, sometime between 1988 and 1991. Jeff and Tony were having a shock fight; that is, they were shuffling across the carpet in their sock feet, building up static electricity, which they then discharged by tagging each other. Jeff would shock Tony; Tony would retaliate and shock Jeff. They'd taunt each other, the rest of us would laugh; you can imagine.

The shock fight ended when Tony held up his charged finger to Jeff's face, and right before everyone's eyes, a bolt of electricity leapt from Tony's fingertip to Jeff's eyeball.


Jeff clapped his hand over his eyeball and hopped around while everyone else laughed. Jeff's vision eventually returned, and the shock fight became legendary.

I remember being there, witnessing this in person. But was I? Or did my friends who were there tell the tale so often that I simply inserted myself into the scene?

Perhaps it doesn't matter; maybe I've created my own reality. I certainly like to think I was there.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Bear McCreary: An Appreciation

I really wish I knew more about music, simply so that I could put into words how much I love the work of Bear McCreary, who composes for the 21st century version of Battlestar Galactica.

Consider the piece from the season two episode "Prelude to War." It makes my pulse race. All I can do is try to describe what I'm hearing...

Violins, or some kind of stringed instruments, played at incredible speed, a short motif, over and over. Thumping percussion, an ominous undercurrent, a dreadful drumbeat. Rising tempo from a different kind of stringed instrument, almost insane. Heavy, heavy drums - like something you'd see in the original King Kong, played by some Polynesian with a barrel chest and massive arms.

Then quiet for a moment, drums fading, strings coming back, but undercurrent of tension ever-present...then BAM! Back again.

Oh, I wish I knew what to write. It's just magnificent. This is the sort of thing I'd give to people on a blank CD, so they could listen without all the baggage of the music being associated with a television show, much less SF TV. It really is that good.

A Comforting Dream

A few nights back I dreamed that Star Trek: The Next Generation was back on the air. Season eight picked up where the series left off, as if the films had never happened - by and large, a wise creative choice, continuity notwithstanding. Strangely, the renewal aired without any advertising or fanfare at all, and in Edmonton the show starts at 1 in the morning. So I faithfully watched, and to my delight, it was excellent; it was like every episode was as at least as good as original classics like "The Inner Light" or "The Best of Both Worlds," some even as good as modern-day Battlestar Galactica. The production design had improved significantly, too, and the actors hadn't aged at all.

I was disappointed when I woke up, as is usual with dreams of simple comforts. Perhaps the stress of middle adulthood brought me back to my late teens and early twenties, when I had fewer responsibilities and it was easier to escape to new worlds and new civilizations.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Right on the Dot

"Jeepers," Batman thought to himself, "I have to start finding a higher class of villain. Crazy Quilt and Kite Man* were bad enough - now I have to deal with utter flakes like Mr. Polka Dot? Soon I'll be reduced to making lame puns based on the name of the foe I'm fighting - oh, wait a minute. Drat."
*actual villains!

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl

Supergirl sure had some astounding adventures when she first started out, didn't she?

"Supergirl, I have an important secret mission for you."

"Oh boy! I'm ready, Superman! No matter how dangerous it is!"

"I want you to visit the cenus chief in Kandor so he can register you as yet another survivor of Krypton."


Even Kryptonians had dentists, it seems. And they use..."kress beams." A little on the nose, isn't it? "Kress?" I mean, really. And what is it with comic book characters telling other characters information they should already know - assuming the person they're talking to isn't a complete imbecile? "Remember, here on Kandor, no one has super-powers, and we get toothaches like normal humans on Earth!" I'm sure Supergirl is thinking, "I know the drill, Dr. Exposition."



MLA: Hello, Earl! Have you designed that child care brochure yet? Remember, as the Communications Coordinator, your job is to ensure that our message reaches the public!

EARL (thinking): (gulp!) He's right! If I don't get the brochure done right away, citizens won't know what we stand for! Got to act fast!

CAPTION: Later, as Earl arrives home...

EARL: Hello, Sylvia! Have you cooked dinner yet? As my wife, you should be keeping me well-fed!

SYLVIA: Hello, Earl my husband! We've been married for just a few months! As your wife, isn't it about time we discussed our honeymoon!

CAPTION: Later, Earl goes out for a night with his friends, "The Boys."

EARL: Hello, chums! Are your character sheets ready! It's time for our bimonthly game of Dungeons and Dragons!

PETE: Some people say that Dungeons and Dragons is for geeks! But we always have fun, so who cares what the squares think! Besides, haven't we been playing this game since college!

MIKE: Some of you have! But some of us met through work and are relative newcomers to this strange new world of roleplaying! Give us a chance to get used to the rules!

COLIN: As Dungeon Master, I'm reminding you that what I say goes! Enough chatter! You're in a cave, and a troll attacks!

JEFF: Oh no! I rolled a one!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

My Favourite Holiday Tradition

Last week, I noticed that Log was back. Yes, Log, faithfully burning, popping and cracking, sometimes accompanied by cheerful Christmas elevator music. Seems a little early in the year for Log's return, but I'm not complaining; it's always nice when an old friend makes an unexpected visit.

Log says something interesting about our culture. For the pioneers, the fireplace was an essential component of life; it was how the family stayed warm. These days, a fireplace is a luxury item, a feature for the privileged class. Those of us unable to afford a fireplace have Log, broadcast to the masses, all the light and sound of fire without the warmth and reality.

I do not blame Log; he does what he can. He is a working class Log, doing his best to warm the imagination if not our bodies.

For the first time this year, I noticed a humanistic touch: every so often, Log brings in an anonymous helper, the plaid-shirted arm of a man who stirs the flames with a poker and adds another piece of wood to the fire. There are even hushed, not quite intelligible voices offscreen, helping the viewer imagine that discreet friends are close by, enjoying the fire with you.

Here's to Log, often absent but remarkably constant friend, coming in from the cold for another few weeks. Long Live Log!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Edmonton-Meadowlark Nomination Meeting

Maurice Tougas, Alberta Liberal MLA for Edmonton Meadowlark (pictured here with Sylvia), decided to retire a few months back, necessitating that the Alberta Liberal Party find a new candidate to stand in the next provincial election. As a member of the Alberta Liberal Edmonton Meadowlark constituency board of directors, I of course came out to cast a vote at tonight's nomination meeting, held to determine who would stand as a candidate for the party.

There were two very talented and promising candidates: Bruce King and Debbie Cavaliere. Both gave passionate speeches, describing why they wanted to serve as our candidate and their stance on the issues affecting Albertans. In the end Cavaliere won, so when the next election comes 'round, Maurice's term as MLA will be over and Debbie will fly the Alberta Liberal banner and attempt to hold the seat for the party.

This was the first nomination meeting Sylvia and I have ever been to, and it was a very interesting experience - real grassroots politics. Nearly a hundred people showed up to vote, which isn't bad considering that you have to be a party member to vote, and you have to live within the constituency.

It's too bad more people don't have the time or inclination to participate in events like this. A healthy democracy depends absolutely on politically aware and active citizens. Of course, the real world often gets in the way of that ideal, and I certainly don't blame anyone who can't devote the energy to full participation. What we need to do is improve the way we live so that there's more time and more incentive for people to get involved.

But in the meantime, we work within the system to change things for the better.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Colin's Escape from Edmonton

Colin, Julie and their kids are in the process of moving to beautiful Victoria, in search of warmer climes and new opportunities. As a way of saying thanks for all the entertainment Colin has provided, the gang threw a going-away party for him back in September.

We played a round of Pimp: The Backhanding, perhaps the most sexist, misogynist game ever created - and I'm somewhat mortified to say that I won, earning the title of "Mack Daddy." I'm not even going to attempt to describe the game - if you're really that curious, there's probably an article on Wikipedia.
Colin's been pretty good to us over the years, acting as GM (Game Master, or Dungeon Master if you will) for an easily distracted and raucous group of gamers. Through Jovian Chronicles, Serenity, that terrific pulp 30s adventure game whose name I can't recall and others lost to memory, Colin spun webs of intrigue, action mayhem and tongue-in-cheek foolishness. We'll always be grateful for his friendship and the many hours of preparation he devoted to setting up the gaming sessions.

Thankfully Colin's already been back a couple of times as he and his family continue the relocation process, our little spring mini-convention for gaming is coming up, and Sylvia and I are planning to visit BC next summer. So this won't be the last we've heard from Colin, nor he from us.

Still, it does mean that if the RPG sessions are to continue, someone else is going to have to pick up the mighty mantle of GM...

Tired of Earl's endless shutterbugging, Steve loses his patience and shoots Earl in the mouth with a nerf dart. Yes, the dart in the shot actually hit me in the mouth.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Classic Must-Read

Okay, you owe it to yourself to read this. My old friend Ron Briscoe has posted the DON'T story on his new blog. DON'T ignore this opportunity to read a Freedom BBS classic.

Composition as Obfuscation: A Brief Reply to Gertrude Stein's "Composition as Explanation"

Just for fun, here's an essay I wrote a few years ago for a class I was auditing. It was a great course, thanks in great part to my friend Leslie's terrific teaching. She showed us the importance of writing for clarity, but looking back over this piece today, I realize that I may have missed her point...and perhaps even my own. See what you think.

First, read "Composition as Explanation."

In "Composition as Explanation," Gertrude Stein argues that literature never exists in just one time; it exists in both in the time of the original creation and in the time of every reader who peruses it. Put another way, times change, and with the passage of time, society's perception of a text also changes. A work once ignored or jeered at becomes a classic; current events put a new perspective on old works. (The resurgence of interest in Orwell's 1984 when the titular year finally came is probably the most famous example.)

Unfortunately, Stein is willfully exclusionary in her prose, and to many readers this very interesting argument is completely drowned by a sea of repetitive topic strings and distracting metadiscourse.

Topic strings are useful tools, but tools can be used with grace, as in the case of a watchmaker with a precision screwdriver, or with brute force, as the farmer uses a sledgehammer to pound fence posts. Stein uses the farmer's approach.

"Of course it is beautiful but first all beauty in it is denied and then all the beauty of it is accepted. If every one were not so indolent they would realize that beauty is beauty even when irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic. Of course it is extremely difficult nothing more so than to remember back to its not being beautiful once it has become beautiful. This makes it so much more difficult to realise its beauty when the work is being refused and prevents every one from realising that they were convinced that beauty was denied, once the work is accepted. Automatically with the acceptance of the time-sense comes the recognition of the beauty and once the beauty is accepted the beauty never fails any one."

Stein's metadiscourse is equally lacking in subtlety. Phrases like "By this I mean this," and "So far then the progress of my conceptions…" aren't just harmless throat-clearing by the author; they actively boggle the reader's mind.

Even some additional punctuation, a few commas here and there to give readers a chance to breathe, could have clarified this article. But Stein deliberately chose not to give her audience any mercy.

And that takes us back to our very first class, when we discussed writing as a weapon. "Composition as Explanation" is actually a fairly insightful piece, but it is also an exclusionary one. Only readers with the will and resolve to struggle with the article can ever catch a glimpse of its meaning. And by doing so, they have gained admission to Stein's club, though only after suffering through an initiation as cruel as any frat-house rite.

Articles like this can lead many to wonder if the price of admission to Stein's elite circle of knowledgeable readers is too high.

Stein obviously has profound wisdom to share. It's a shame she's determined to share it only with a privileged few.

Splinters of Smithereens of Shards of Fragments of Flotsam

Find the doodad
Reunite the star-crossed lovers
Avenge the fallen friend or relative
Rescue the damsel in distress
Survive the natural disaster

The Coin
I held the coin tight in my fist
Held my breath and flicked my wrist
Watched it sail out into space
Saw it claim its resting place.

Origami Haiku
Origami rock
Bolder than Warhol's soup can
It sits and does naught

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Everything's Better with Zombies

A couple of posts ago, "anonymous" mentioned that he was developing a variant of the boardgame Settlers of Cataan featuring zombies from, well, Zombies!!!. I think that's a terrific idea, and I hope to play one day soon.

The idea made me wonder if other games could be modified to add shambling zombie action. Certainly the infamous Bruce Lee Game (BruceLeeGame!) would be simple enough to combine with Zombies; just add a few Zombie cards to the deck, add random zombie attacks on your dojos, and you're set. Really, how come no one's made a movie in which Bruce Lee fights off hordes of zombies? (They'd all line up and attack one at a time, of course.)

Zombie Monopoly might be fun. You could add random Zombie cards to Chance and Community Chest..."You have been eaten by a zombie. Do not pass go, do not collect $200 dollars." Zombies could spring up on your holdings, bringing down your property values. "Oh no! Just when I paid off my mortgage!"

I thought about zombie Scrabble, but couldn't come up with anything but bonus points for spelling out certain words, such as "brains," "zombies," "splatterpunk," "boomstick," etc.

Zombie charades would get pretty tedious after a couple of turns:

"Okay, one word..."

(Player tilts his head back, drools, extends one arm, shuffles around in random circles) "Urrrgh...ullllh...mulllghh..."


Zombie Axis and Allies might be cool. The game starts as normal, but after two turns, zombies spring up in a randomly chosen territory. They multiply very rapidly, and the focus of the game shifts from a world war between powers to a combined effort for survival, Nazis, Allies and Japanese working together to fight off the horde. Zombie Risk could work the same way.

In the world of computer games, someone should write a Zombie Outbreak mod for Civilization. I would think it would be deceptively simple...just replace roaming barbarians with zombies, but have them multiply faster. And if they win combat with your unit, the unit isn't just destroyed - it's turned into a zombie too!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Caged in the Menagerie

Tony Longworth (file)

On Tuesday night, Tony and I went out to see the hi-def, remastered version of "The Menagerie," the only two-part episode of the original Star Trek. The new special effects were nice and all that, but what really struck me about the episode was the degree of sexual innuendo - both deliberate and unintentional.

Kirk has a legendary reputation as an intergalactic lothario, but I keep forgetting just how many episodes, even serious ones like this, feed that mythology. In the opening moments of the show, an attractive young yeoman at a starbase Kirk is visiting chats him up. At first, she mentions a mutual friend - a female one - and Kirk looks worried. But the young lady smiles warmly and says something like "She spoke...very highly of you" while her eyes roam up and down his body. Cut to a reaction shot of Kirk's smug grin. The audience loved it.

Then, Kirk is presented with a projection of a stunning green alien dancer. A minor character speaks glowingly of her attributes, and Kirk's expression is one of naked arousal. Shatner really knew how to sell this stuff.

Finally, there's a scene where the female guest star is attempting to entice Captain Pike, Kirk's predecessor, into staying on the alien planet where she's imprisoned. She and Pike are in a sort of virtual reality, and it's heavily implied that at long last she's convinced Pike to have sex with her. But they're interrupted by the arrival of Pike's officers, who intrude on the dream state, and the guest star wails, "NOOOOOOOOOOOO! I wasn't finished!" The entire audience broke up.

Tony and I, by the by, are both Past Presidents of the University of Alberta Star Trek Club. I guess that means we're pretty geeky. Not as geeky, though, as the folks dressed up as Klingons who scanned us on the way into the theatre, ensuring that we were not "alien infiltrators." As one who owns a phaser, communicator, and dozens of Trek action figures, though, I'm not going to throw the first tribble.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Beowulf in the Fold

Thanks to the kindness of Michael Spears, a friend from work, Sylvia and I went to see tonight's sneak preview of Beowulf, presented in 3-D on the Imax screen at West Edmonton Mall.

I wasn't expecting much, to be honest; I prefer live action features to animation. But the timeless story was well told, thanks in great part to Neil Gaiman's script, excellent voice acting and some astonishingly vivid virtual cinematography. The 3-D work was excellent as well, with every scene showing true depth; even the Paramount and Warner Brothers logos that opened the film looked amazing. 3-D has come a long way since It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon. There were a few of the seemingly mandatory 3-D gimmicks - rocks and spears flying out of the screen toward the viewer - but director Bob Zemeckis really restrained himself, making each such moment much more effective. One such gag actually made me flinch; you'll recognize which when you experience it.

But I think what I appreciated most was the film's emotional core; it's the first time I've cared about CGI characters since the Toy Story movies. Hero or villain, every character gives you a reason to care about their plight, to try to understand their actions and feelings. And I loved the ending, about which I'll say no more lest I give anything away.

Four out of five stylized letter Es.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Worst Zombie Fighters Ever

On Saturday night, Pete, Colin, Mike, Jeff and I gathered for a relaxing night of board games. We started off with Settlers of Catan - great game - but the real story of the night was what must have been the most inept game of Zombies!!! ever played.

For those unfamiliar with Zombies!!!, the game attempts to recreate the plot and atmosphere of a typical zombie film. A group of desperate survivors stands in the middle of a city overrun with shambling, flesh-eating zombies; they must find a way to escape the city before they're devoured by the mindless but deadly creatures.

The players start off in the town square; each turn, a new section of the city is revealed, either a street or building of some sort. The last section of the city to be revealed is the helicopter pad. The first player to reach the helicopter escapes; the rest are left behind to their fate.

As it happened, I took the first turn. I dashed into the street to fight my first zombie. The odds of winning hand-to-hand combat with one of the game's zombies really aren't that bad; you roll a 6-sided die to determine your fate. If you roll 4-6, you win and add the zombie to your collection; 1-3, and you lose one of three bullets or one of three hearts. Once you enter combat with a zombie, you must continue until one of you is vanquished; if you lose your last heart, you die.

I promptly rolled between 1-3 six times in a row. Thus, I died right before the horrified eyes of my fellow protagonists only seconds into the game. In zombie movie terms, I had become the disposable character used in the opening moments to show just how dire the zombie threat is.

There was much laughter as I placed my token back in the starting square, symbolically introducing a new character to the game/film.

But I wasn't the only one short on luck that night. Defying all probability, each of us stumbled our way through the game, consistently rolling ones, twos and threes, with the occasional four or five mixed in. We hobbled from square to square, zombies feasting on our flesh at will. I died at least five times; most of us died three times. Mike held out the longest, but eventually he too would face the horror and humiliation of being forced back to the town square. It got to the point that I was crying with laughter, and my voice took on that high-pitched squeal of complete loss of self-control.

In the end, Jeff's third or fourth avatar managed to fight his way into the chopper and leave the rest of us sad sacks behind to a well-deserved fate. Were the story of that particular game indeed transformed into a film, it would have been as if the Keystone Kops or perhaps Pauly Shore and Carrot Top were fighting off the zombie hordes. Action heroes, we were not.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Mighty Sampson

My old friend Allan Sampson was in town for a few days in late September and early October. Allan's currently living and working in the US, enjoying the climate and the opportunities there. We had a chance to chat about old times, politics, movies and trends in technology and's always good to touch base in person with the people you've grown close to. Having friends in the US, Europe and spread across Canada makes it tough to stay connected sometimes, which means that I'm going to have to bite the bullet soon and do some extraprovincial visiting.

Here's one of my favourite Allan stories. I was over at his place, and for some reason - probably unquenchable ennui - Allan stuck a suction-cup dart right to the middle of his forehead and left it there for a couple of minutes. It looked ridiculous, and naturally I had a laughing fit. Things got even worse when Allan pulled the dart free; there was a cartoonish pop, and the dart left behind a perfectly circular welt. Unfortunately I didn't have the presence of mind to take a picture while all this was happening, and no matter how much I pleaded, a disgusted Allan refused to reenact the scenario for posterity. Too bad - I could have posted photographic proof to supplement this little story.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part III

To read parts one and two, go here:

That first day we rode across the vast plains of Saskatchewan, gliding on a ribbon of asphalt. We’d gotten a later start than we planned, so by the time we reached Prince Albert, we decided to stop and rent a room. So much for our grandiose plans to camp the whole way! However, the hotel lobby included a diorama of a campsite, so Sylvia suggested I take a picture:

“This is what we should be doing,” she said.

The next morning we headed northeast, the sun beating down on us, following the 55, eyes scanning the road for the junction that would take us north to the Hanson Lake Road. It wasn’t much of an intersection, just a couple of lonely road signs and a choice: go straight to Nipawin, bear left for parts unknown. Or at least, so it felt, with the two lonely highways and the road signs the only signs of civilization in the middle of the vast, dense forest we were about to traverse.

It was shortly after made the turn that the trouble started: the ominous orange glow of the “Check Engine” light slowly burned into being. We pulled into a lonely gas station, practically abandoned, with an old-style pump and an empty garage, its frame sagging under the weight of years. There was an ancient tricycle with faded red paint; it reminded me of the one in “Miri,” sad, silent monument of innocence lost and a civilization long gone.

When confronted with a mechanical problem, I leapt into action as I always do – by phoning my dad, who informed me that the most likely cause was an improperly fitted gas cap. Well, that didn’t sound too serious. On the other hand, we were heading into pretty sparsely populated territory, and if the car broke down halfway between Flin Flon and Thompson…

The hell with it. We pulled out of the lot, tires kicking up gravel just as if we were in a 70s cop show, and returned to the highway. North by Northeast, along the Hanson Lake Road.
Time and conversation whittled away hours and asphalt, just as our northward push steadily diminished the frequency of human contact. We’d see other vehicles once every fifteen minutes or so, and road signs warned ominously that your next chance to stop for fuel would be your last for hundreds of kilometres.

Accordingly, we stopped at Caribou Creek, which consists of the building you see here and not much else. The combination diner/convenience store within was dimly lit and populated by a half-dozen locals, obviously regulars. Knick-knacks that must have been decades old lined the shelves, and I was almost surprised that they accepted my debit card.

Our fuel tank replenished, we returned to the road, plunging back into a forest held at bay only by that fragile strip of pressed carbon (and, I suppose, the appearance of regular maintenance crews). We enjoyed each other’s company for a while, moving easily from conversation to silence and back again.

But as time passed, nature beckoned – in more ways than one. We kept our eyes open for a rest stop, but for what seemed like an age, nothing but endless waves of trees passed us by. At last, after nearly two hours of increasingly desperate driving, a sign of salvation beckoned – a simple white-on-brown pictogram, depicting a picnic table.

We took the turnoff and found ourselves driving down a long, winding gravel road, the trees closing in on either side, large divots presenting a real hazard to the car. We crept along cautiously, and two brown rabbits scooted out in front of us, just a couple of metres away. They froze in the middle of the path, ears twitching, examining the intruder.

“Don’t run over them!” Sylvia squealed, which made me wonder if I’d carried the whole curmudgeon-who-doesn’t-like-cute-things act a little too far. When it became clear that I had no interest in running down the creatures, Sylvia was reassured enough to coo over the bunnies, obviously delighted. They stayed in place for so long that I thought perhaps I’d have time to snap a picture – but of course, as soon as I had the camera in hand, they darted back into the bush.

Once the welcoming committee had departed, we moved on, eventually coming to a rest at…the rest stop, a single double outhouse (one door for male, one for female) and a half-dozen or so camping stalls, each with a metal fire pit. After making use of the first structure, our thoughts turned to our bellies. I had no intention of setting up a tent, but at least we could pretend to camp by starting a fire and cooking a meal.

Amazingly, despite the presence of endless hectares of tinder-dry forest, a sack of briquettes and lighter fluid, I managed to start a fire without burning down the province. I even cooked a couple of decent pork chops and a small crop of potatoes, and it tasted fine. There really is something about food cooked in the wild over a natural flame, even if the food itself comes from your local grocery store.

We took a few pictures, cleaned up after ourselves, and moved on. Manitoba drew closer with every minute, and our next stop would be the strangely-named Flin Flon, my birthplace…the sunless city.

Well, not quite the next stop. I pulled over to take a couple of shots that explained the history of the Hanson Lake Road:
Next: Manitoba at Last. Click here to read Part IV.