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Friday, December 31, 2010

The End of Year Eight

Over at Jeff Shyluk's Visual Blog, Jeff has posted a year one review of his website. Jeff made extensive use of Blogger's relatively new stats features, and I am therefore stealing his idea to post a quick year-end analysis of My Name is Earl (J. Woods). All stats begin in May 2010.

As might be expected, most of my pageviews come from Canada, with 3,982 pageviews since May. The United States comes in second, with 1,696. Not surprising. But I was surprised by the countries that fill the rest of the top ten:

Russia: 291
Netherlands: 217
United Kingdom: 156 (presumably Andrea and Greg)
Latvia: 69
South Korea: 65
Slovenia: 44
Brazil: 39

I'd be very interested in knowing what appeal this blog has to someone from, say, Latvia, so I welcome any and all international guests to post comments.

Most Popular Posts
Board Games at the Bijou (presumably because this is at the top of my "Earl's Greatest Hits" list)
Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part V (gratifying; I spent a lot of time on this - I suppose this comes up for people searching for Leaf Rapids, Manitoba)
My Kingdom for Some Potato Skins (a mundane post; I have no idea why this is in the top ten)
Earl's First Attempt at Cooking with the New Oven (see above)
Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part VII (same as part V)
First Glimpse at Our New Home (mundane again)
Thanks, Kevin (fans of Kevin Taft must have liked this)
James Cameron (no surprise here; Cameron is famous)
Return to the Dungeons (D&D fans, I presume)
Superhero Speeches #1: The End of My Double Life, by Clark Kent (I'm glad this wound up in the top ten; I think it turned out quite well)

If I'm reading Blogger's stats page correctly, this blog has attracted 7,916 pageviews since May. I have no idea if that's a lot in the world of blogs, but it doesn't seem too bad to me, given the haphazard nature of my posts. There's no real unifying theme to this blog; it's mostly a collection of my random thoughts on pop culture, politics and daily life in western Canada. Writers thrive on readership like thirsty emotional vampires, so I'm doubly appreciative of everyone who visits.

I hope you and yours have a great New Year's celebration tonight, wherever you may be. And may 2011 be a banner year for you, yours, and everyone on our good, green earth.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Searching for Helen Noel

Thanks to researcher Kenton over at the Alberta Liberal Caucus for choosing the perfect Secret Santa gift for me: a Captain James T. Kirk Christmas ornament. I placed him in my festive diorama, and he actually comes pretty close to scale. I imagine he's searching for Dr. Helen Noel, a fetching officer famous for her attempt to seduce Kirk at - yes - a Christmas party. (See "Dagger of the Mind" for details.)

Crokinole Christmas

Mom and Dad's new crokinole board.

Mom and Dad purchased a new crokinole set a few months ago, so I invited them to bring it over on Christmas day. I had forgotten, however, that Dad is very good at this game - so much so that he and his father, my grandfather William James Woods, were allowed to compete in tournaments, but banned from playing on the same team.
Dad shoots.

Dad hasn't lost any of his skill, or if he has, he must have been a fearsome spectacle during the competitions of his youth. Sean and I struggled to beat him, succeeding only once. Sylvia and the in-laws were similarly overwhelmed, although I should note that Mom is pretty good too, and the in-laws picked up the game pretty quickly.

Sylvia's dad flicks his disc.

Crokinole is a Canadian game, about a century old. It's similar to curling or shuffleboard; the idea is to flick wooden checkers (called "discs" in the game's parlance) with your finger toward the centre of the board, knocking opponent checkers out of the arena. The first person (or team) to reach 100 points wins. 

A disc bounces into the ditch.

 A black disc bounces unsuccessfully off Mom's bullseye-occupying disc.

The game can get pretty fierce when a disc falls into the slightly depressed bullseye; under certain circumstances, it's permissible to attempt to flick the checker out of the hole. If flicked with sufficient force, checkers can turn into projectiles quite capable of knocking over beverage containers or bruising skin.

There's a so-called "one-cheek rule" which states that players cannot stand or leave their chair when shooting; they may lean over if they need to, as long as one buttock remains in contact with the seat. This can make some shots pretty tough.

Here's a brief video of one of our matches. Slightly NSFW language from my brother, enraged by a missed shot:

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Season's Greetings from Space

I've been a huge space exploration buff all my life. Here's a holiday message from Expedition 26 astronauts/cosmonauts. Dig the floating Santa and Christmas tree!

Lights of the Legislature

The arrival of the Alberta Legislature's impressive Christmas display usually marks the end of session and the beginning, at least in political circles, of the holiday season. Here's how the Legislature appeared early this morning, just after I arrived at work. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Another Day, Another Template

A couple of folks have noted that the red curtain theme was causing the blog to load pretty slowly, so I've switched to a less graphics-intensive theme. Please comment if you notice a difference, pro or con.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

More Colours of Christmas

On Saturday, Sean and Sylvia and I went to Mom and Dad's place in Leduc for an early Christmas lunch. I spent some time fooling around with shutter speeds and aperture settings to capture some festive imagery. Can you spot the famous Log Channel?

All the Colours of Christmas

 Sylvia and I aren't into Christmas as much as some other folks, but we do both enjoy a few aspects of the holiday: the music, the lights, the chance to get together with friends and family, the decorations. Since we now have a fireplace, we thought we should get into the holiday spirit by sprucing it up a little.
Here's a closeup. Sylvia and I picked out the decorations together, but I assembled this particular tableau. I think it looks pretty cozy. Had I realized that the train actually moves before setting everything up, I would have assembled the whole track so that the train could move through the forest. Next year...
Sylvia decorated the tree. At first I was skeptical regarding the copper/bronze colour scheme, but I have to admit Sylvia's choices won me over. It even matches our wall and floor. I'm sure that this is related to graphic design somehow. Maybe my Christmas ads don't have to be exclusively red and green.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Six Million Memories

Fans have been waiting for The Six Million Dollar Man (and its spinoff, The Bionic Woman) to appear on DVD since the format’s debut. At last Time-Life has released the entire series in a handsome box set that includes all five seasons of the show, all the crossover episodes of The Bionic Woman, all the reunion telemovies and a collection of comprehensive featurettes and audio commentaries. The first season of The Bionic Woman is also available, with a less impressive but still satisfying collection of special features, including The Six Million Dollar Man crossover episodes and some very informative – even moving – audio commentaries from Bionic Woman creator Kenneth Johnson, later famous for The Incredible Hulk and V. I just finished watching the first seasons of each show, and they still stand up as wholesome entertainment, generally uncomplicated and sometimes less ambitious than they could have been, but fun.   

Here's a look at the packaging:

The Six Million Dollar Man tells the story of “Steve Austin, astronaut…a man barely alive” thanks to a terrible plane crash that costs him three limbs and an eye. His lost parts are replaced with bionics, artificial replacements that make him “better…stronger…faster,” in the immortal words of the show’s opening montage. The spinoff series, The Bionic Woman, arose out of a popular second-season two-part episode of The Six Million Dollar Man that introduced audiences to Austin’s high school sweetheart, Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner), transformed into a bionic woman because of a convenient (for narrative purposes if not Jaime) skydiving accident. Every week, Steve and Jaime performed astounding physical feats to save their country and sometimes even the world from terrorists, criminals, spies, saboteurs, robots, aliens and rogue space probes. They crashed through stone walls, threw fence posts hundreds of metres, ran at highway speeds, screwed on lug nuts with their bare fingers and tossed bad guys around like paper dolls.

This was pretty heady stuff for the children of the 1970s, who were naturally excited by the idea of being faster and stronger than humanly possible. (Kids didn’t seem to mind that horrific accidents were a prerequisite for bionic augmentation.) Back in grade school, I used to amaze friends with my ability to arch one eyebrow to express surprise or skepticism. Nearly everyone assumed I was emulating Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, but in fact I was aping Lee Majors, the six million dollar man himself. Like Spock, Major’s Colonel Steve Austin cocked a mean eyebrow.

The Six Million Dollar Man was one of a select number of genre shows broadcast way up north when I was living in Leaf Rapids, Manitoba. (The others were Star Trek, H.R. Pufnstuf, and Space: 1999.) Our television only received three channels, one of them French, so choices were limited. Fortunately CBC was pretty genre-friendly in those days, giving my friends and I ample fodder for the imagination. As often as we played cops and robbers, Fantastic Four or Star Trek, we pretended to be bionic boys and girls. I may not have possessed bionic strength or speed, but my eyebrow action was pretty convincing, at least on the playground. A cousin had the famous Kenner Steve Austin action figure, complete with plastic engine block (to demonstrate Steve’s amazing strength) and see-through “bionic” eye. A friend had the less popular Oscar Goldman figure; Oscar was the head of the Office of Scientific Intelligence, the organization that employed Steve and Jaime. Oscar had one accessory, the infamous exploding briefcase, which didn’t really explode at all; if you opened it in a certain (read: wrong) way, you’d see a sticker lining the briefcase exterior that made it look like Oscar’s stuff had been blown up. Open it another way, and you’d see a different sticker depicting the contents as intact. Cool!

Revisiting the series has been a joy. Before now, I’d never seen the three original telemovies that opened the series: “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Wine, Women and War” and “Solid Gold Kidnapping.” The eponymous first telemovie is the best of the three, and as with many pilots, there are a number of significant differences in texture and tone from the series proper. While Steve Austin is known as a military colonel in the series, here he’s portrayed as a civilian astronaut, the last man to visit the moon. He’s a bit of an anti-authoritarian figure, laid back, maybe a little snide. After his plane crash, he’s lost, vulnerable, even suicidal. This episode is far darker and more mature than the series that followed, treating the accident with the horror it deserves; when Steve wakes up minus three limbs and an eye, it’s hard to watch a formerly proud and independent man struggle to adjust to his new reality. Austin is horrified at first when Dr. Rudy Wells presents his new arm in a display box, not wanting to be transformed into a freak or a monster. The limits of the new limbs are treated realistically; while the fake skin has sensors, when Steve asks if he’ll really have a sense of touch like he did before, the question is answered with a heavy dose of evasion and embarrassment. He’s not the same man he used to be, and while he may indeed be faster and stronger, he’s not necessarily better.

Oscar Goldman doesn’t appear in this film; instead, Steve’s boss is the Machiavellian Oliver Spencer (Darren McGavin), head of the Office of Strategic Operations (OSO), a far more sinister-sounding organization than Goldman’s OSI. Oliver shows no sympathy for Steve’s plight; to him, Steve is a convenient test bed for bionics technology. “A robot would have been better,” he says at one point when describing the OSO’s need for a new kind of secret agent, “But given the current stage of technology, a cyborg will have to do.”

Spencer isn’t shy about letting Steve know that the government expects to be paid back for its six million dollar investment.

“I don’t want to kill anyone,” Steve says, almost mournfully. Spencer says that depends on Steve’s skill, and promptly sends him off on a dangerous, literally impossible mission (the target Steve is sent to rescue is already dead before Steve even begins) merely to see if Austin can return intact: “Please, please, Wells, don’t be sentimental. I can always have another cyborg built if this one fails. But if he should survive, which appears to be doubtful, then I know that I have my man.”

Strange opening for the second and third Six Million Dollar Man telemovies.

Of course Austin does survive. After two more telemovies, which oddly enough try to transform Austin into a James Bond-like figure complete with tuxedo, supervillains and exotic, willing women, the series proper begins. Early episodes explore Steve’s continuing ambivalence about his situation. Whenever he’s forced to use his bionics in front of witnesses, he explains the situation with discomfort: “I had an accident…they gave me some new parts,” or words to that effect, always with a degree of uncertainty and perhaps even shame.

The first season features a number of notable guest stars, including George Takei, John Saxon, Greg Morris, Farrah Fawcett (as astronaut Kelly Woods – no relation) and, in a bizarre, over-the-top performance, William Shatner. Shatner plays an astronaut who returns from a space mission with strange new perceptions and powers, abilities that eventually drive him insane. Shatner’s scenery-chewing is a thing of wonder, and I’m honestly uncertain as to whether it should be judged as transcendental genius or the nadir of his career.

There are some interesting technical glitches in the first season; one line of Majors’ dialogue seems to be read offscreen by a production assistant, as if they forgot to loop in Majors’ line during ADR. It’s quite jarring to see Austin’s lips moving with the sounds of someone else’s voice. Expensive stunt footage is reused frequently, sometimes in back-to-back episodes. And there are some very strange sudden zoom effects, as if to hide special effects rigging. But these oddities only add to the show’s charm. 

Even as a product of the cold war, the bionic shows are curiously apolitical. Steve has several sympathetically-portrayed cosmonaut friends, and works with the Soviets on more than one occasion, presumably thanks to d├ętente. The OSI seems to have no overt political agenda other than to protect military secrets, rescue hostages, conduct scientific experiments and complete other miscellaneous do-gooder tasks. They fight terrorists, deranged people and common criminals more often than ideological enemies. Then as now (see The West Wing and 24 for more recent examples), when our heroes do tangle with other nation-states, the enemy countries are generally thinly-disguised fictional analogues.

The first season’s special features reveal that series producer Harve Bennett – formerly of The Mod Squad, later to revive the Star Trek motion picture series – intoned the famous “Steve Austin…a man barely alive” voiceover for the opening credit sequence. Bennett has some fascinating stories about the show’s production, including Lee Majors’ enthusiasm at performing his own stunts, the challenges of small budgets and tight deadlines, the huge ratings success of the show and its distaff spinoff, and even the tale of the real pilot injured in the stock crash footage used to depict Austin’s accident.

The Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete Series is a pricey package, available for purchase only online at Time Life, but with over 100 adventures and a plethora of special features – not to mention the very handsome packaging, complete with lenticular art and sound effects – it’s worth every penny for fans of science fiction, nostalgia, or 70s kitsch. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Viva Blahg Vegas updated

I've used my new scanner to scan some old negatives from our Las Vegas trip, and I've added a few of those photos to the relevant old posts: Viva Blahg Vegas and Viva Blahg Vegas, Part II. One of these days I'll have to finish the story of that the meantime, here are a couple of the first photos from that trip, a shot of Sylvia waiting patiently at Edmonton International Airport and one of her at our hotel room in Vegas:

Winter Blunderland

Having lived in northern Manitoba for a decade, I don't complain about Alberta winters very often; even at their worst, they're relatively mild compared to what I'm used to. But today was pretty grim, not because of the cold (it was only minus 12 or so), but the snow. Our new home exists in a cul-de-sac, and my car barely made it into our condo complex entrance, and getting to the garage was an even greater struggle. It doesn't really look so bad in the video, but I very nearly got stuck out there in the dark. Good thing home was only a few steps away.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

David Swann's Holiday Greetings

Here are some nice holiday thoughts from Dr. David Swann, Leader of the Official Opposition. If anyone knows how to ensure that YouTube videos display properly when embedded instead of being cut off on the right, I'm all ears...the non-cut-off version can be viewed at

Edited to add: Thanks to Jeff and Steve for offering some solutions. I'm going with a template change for now - I'm not too comfortable with HTML. Nor am I fussy about preset templates, either...but this will do  temporarily. At least the red curtains remind me of Twin Peaks...

Monday, December 06, 2010

Goodluck..!!!!!!...and Goodnight..!!!!!!

Last month I received my umpteenth Nigerian advance fee fraud letter. Most savvy internet users are familiar with these desperate missives, characterized by their eccentric use of the English language, bald-faced flattery and promises of great riches for just a tiny investment of trust...and cash.

This particular email caught my eye immediately, coming as it did from the Honourable Doctor Goodluck Douglas Grayham - an MD and parliamentarian, I immediately surmised, one with parents fairly bursting with optimism for their son's future. My comments are in italics...

Sent: November 3, 2010 2:18 AM
Subject: Goodluck..!!!!!!!

The next time I write an email to a stranger, I'm going to write "Earl..!!!!!!" in the subject line. Interestingly, the current President of Nigeria is also named Goodluck, surely a coincidence...


Good day and thanks, It is understandable that you might be a little bit apprehensive because you do not know me, (a little bit?) Please forgive this unusual manner to contact you, but this particular letter/email is of exceptional and very private in nature. I am Hon (Dr.) GOODLUCK D. GRAYHAM, a 55 years old International Financial Consultant. (Already my mental image of the man is changing, from a white lab coat to a dark grey business suit. Somehow gold teeth have entered the picture.)

I am writing you about A Former African President who is one of my numerous VIP and  Influential Clients that came to engage in Private Banking Services, This late President had a financial portfolio of $185m and this I help turned over in the Capital Markets. (When I Write, I always do my Best to Ensure that I Randomly Capitalize words.)

Since this original owner listed no next of kin in his bio-data form, (Bio-data form? Sounds very official. And Star Trekkian. I am intrigued.) my proposition is this, I am prepared to place you in a position to instruct my Bank to release the all/part of the deposits with its accured interest to you as the closest surviving relation. (I'm related to a former African president? Wicked.)

I sourced your profile from a Human Resources Profile Database in the Internet. I went through your profile and was highly impressed and satisfied. (President of the University of Alberta Star Trek Club, #3 geekiest person on the Internet (2002), comic book trivia wonder he's impressed.) You are to advise me on the Best Investment in your country as well as providing the feasibility study, Labour Cost, Construction Cost, Taxes, Income Per Capital Gross etc. (Best investment: Earl's Pop Culture Museum and Minstrel Show. Labour Cost: Six Million Dollars, man. Taxes: not if we hire good accountants. Income Per Capital Gross etc.: I'm not sure how big a "Capital Gross" is, but I'll bet it's somewhere between fifteen kiloquads and two quatloos.)

I will be waiting for your urgent response so as to proceed. If you find yourself  able to work with me, contact me through these email accounts below. Meanwhile, I have worked out the strategies and technicalities where the funds can be claimed in any of our 7 clearing houses without any hitch. Our sharing ratio will be 50-50 while expenses shall be incurred as per each capability during the process of transaction. (From each according to his ability, to each 50 percent. Sounds fair...although why do I have the sneaking suspicion that I'd be footing most of the bill in this particular partnership?)

In case you are interested; please email me your direct telephone number for discussion of this deal in further details. (Oh, straight away!) If you give me positive signals, I will initiate the process towards conclusion. Best Regards.






(1). This e-mail contains information which may be protected by Law from disclosure and is intended only for the use of the addressee(s) of this e-mail.  Other than the addressee (s) of this e-mail, reading, copying or distributing this email is prohibited. (I'm sure you won't mind me posting it on my blog, though...) If you have received this email in error, please contact the sender immediately.

(2). There is absolutely going to be a great doubt and distrust in your heart in respect of this email, coupled with the fact that, so many miscreants have taken possession of the Internet to facilitate their nefarious deeds, thereby making it extremely difficult for genuine and legitimate business class persons to get attention and recognition. There is no way for me to know whether I will be properly understood, but it is my duty to write and reach out to you. (I think I understand you pretty clearly, Goodluck.)

(3). Irrespective of similar mails or news of this nature, I would like to let you know that this request is not a fraud or scam, but real. I never ask you for anything more than your Bank Coordinates & Phone Numbers, this is to ensure your security and non involvement in cases of identity theft or Scam. (Nothing more than my bank coordinates and phone numbers, which of course can be used to discover everything else about me...some guarantee!)

Here endeth the letter, and my mockery. 

Nigerian advance fee fraud emails always make me sad. On the one hand, these scam artists have successfully bilked people - many of them on fixed incomes - out of millions of dollars. On the other, they tarnish the reputation on an entire nation, one already suffering from poverty, disease, environmental devastation thanks to exploitative resource extraction, crime, corruption, lack of infrastructure and a host of other serious problems. It's not difficult to see why some Nigerians turn to fraud schemes; those of us lucky enough to live in rich countries can't imagine the level of desperation fostered by such a lack of opportunity. Of course scam artists are culpable for their actions, but if there are no excuses, there are at least understandable reasons for their acts.

It's easy to be pessimistic about Africa's future given the lengths to which people are driven, but there is hope. Nigeria is home to one of the United Nations' twelve Millennium Villages; each village serves as an example of how the UN's Millennium Development Goals can be met by African citizens. If you need a dash of hope, tempered with a dose of realistic short-term expectations, I encourage you to read the links. 

With its vast natural resources and population, remarkable history and cultural diversity, Africa will one day free itself from poverty and disease. I look forward to a day when email scams will be a joke not just to us, but to Nigerians, who will have long grown past the need for them.

Alberta Liberal Caucus Podcast for December 6, 2010

The fall sitting of the Alberta Legislature wrapped up last Thursday, and my colleague Tanara has created one last Alberta Liberal Caucus podcast for 2010. Listen here.

Most folks tend not to pay too much attention to the length of time legislators spend in the legislature, but I think it's important to note that Alberta MLAs spend less time in the house than any other jurisdiction in Canada save Prince Edward Island; this fall sitting lasted only a few weeks, for example, and each "week" in the legislature only lasts four days. That doesn't leave a lot of time for question period or debate, the cornerstones of our process of democratic accountability. This episode reveals just how little time the Premier devotes to that process.

I greet the end of each legislative session with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I'm disappointed that the time for debate and discussion is cut short in Alberta; on the other, session is pretty exhausting for caucus staff (and MLAs!), so the slightly less hectic pace is welcome.

Kevin Taft's book Democracy Derailed explores the problem of short legislative sessions and  a host of other issues in far greater depth and with more insight than I can offer here. Daveberta posted a good review of the book a couple of years back; you can read it here. Or you can read Calgary Grit's review here.