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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.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Third Degree, Burned

Yes, that's me, singing "Love in the First Degree." The video was shot in 139 Kelsey, my dorm room at Lister Hall, which means it would have been during my third or fourth year at the University of Alberta. Judging by the look on my face, I must have been feeling carefree and goofy rather than full of post-adolescent angst - thank goodness. It was an angsty time. Not angsty enough, thankfully, to push me toward what would have been a doubtless humiliating attempt to pursue a career as a vocalist.
The true purpose of this post is to test blogger's new video feature. Embedding YouTube videos is pretty easy, but what the heck - may as well try out all the options. Also, I've unearthed some 8mm footage that might make an excellent supplement for Part III of the Leaf Rapids story...

100 Posts or Bust

Earl was in Red Deer this weekend to stop some runaway horses...and maybe start some others.

Earlier this year, I told myself that I wanted to post 100 times in 2007. I'm almost halfway to that goal with only a couple of months before the end of the year. It's not for want of things to write about, that's for sure - it's time and spirit.

By publicly stating my goal, I'm giving myself an incentive to provide another 50 substantiative, interesting blahgs (well, that's all in the eye of the beholder) before year's end. So visit more often; there should be something interesting to read almost every day.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Anyone else having trouble with Blogger?

I've been trying to post a wedding followup for days, only to suffer timeout after timeout, and the dashboard won't load...I don't even know if this post will work. The connection to blogger keeps failing and failing...getting that wedding post up took me several hours of trying. I'm really getting frustrated.