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Monday, January 31, 2011

Monitor Mash

My beloved Dell 2407 monitor has given up the ghost. Fortunately I still have a 2408wfp, but that still means I'm down to one display. It's pretty tough to go back to one monitor when you've been using two for years; I feel completely at sea.

The Dell Ultra Sharp U2711 seems to be getting good reviews, and it's $350 off this week at the Dell store. Even with the discount that's still $900...but I do use my monitors for professional work; I need a good one, and it is tax-deductible.

Heavy sigh. If anyone can recommend a quality monitor, let me know.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Happy Birthday, Robert G. Woods

Today we celebrated Dad's birthday. Sean came up with the clever idea of presenting Dad with junior-level hockey tickets, which hopefully he and Mom will enjoy. Here's Dad in front of the RCMP depot in Regina, Saskatchewan, just after he and Mom got married. Dad used to be an officer in the RCMP, so he's familiar with the building. He looks a little like JFK here, doesn't he?

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The First Rule of Debate Club

The first rule of Debate Club is: you must talk about Debate Club. As if people didn't already realize that I'm a bit of a geek, the first rule of Debate Club compels me to reveal that I was a member back when I attended Leduc Junior High School. I surprised myself by discovering that I was, in fact, a pretty good debater, at least for our age group. That's me holding the statue after returning from our first debate team victory in Westlock. (Check out the corduroy pants - I think they were emerald green.) I don't remember who was on my team for that first tournament; it could have been David Ruel and Michelle Wilson, who are standing to my immediate right, or it might have been Jason Hewitt and Mark Lede, who are also to my right, but in the back row.

I do remember - quite vividly - the profound shock I felt when I was named top speaker of the tournament. I remember thinking that I'd performed poorly, but apparently the judges felt otherwise. Mark and Jason and I went on to compete in the provincials, narrowly missing a spot in the semi-finals to place fifth overall. I remember we felt pretty ripped off after losing one debate to a trio of pretty girls a year or two younger than we were. We felt we'd won the debate pretty handily, and that the judges awarded the victory to the other team out of sympathy. In hindsight, I'm sure the judges ruled correctly.

I don't recall which issues we debated, although I have a faint memory that nuclear disarmament may have been among them; on the other hand, that might have been a practise topic. It was certainly one of the biggest issues of the 80s, one that loomed large in the culture of the time.

I wonder if any of our provincial politicians participated in Debate Club when they were younger. I'd say that the NDP's Rachel Notley might have, or perhaps former Alberta Liberal Leader Kevin Taft; maybe our imported neocon Ted Morton was a member down in the States.

But then, if they were, surely the first rule would have already compelled them to talk about it.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Arch at Hole's

Once in a while I borrow Mom and Dad's old Canon T70 and load it with black and white film. Back in August 2002 I photographed the show garden at Hole's Greenhouses and Gardens in St. Albert. I'm pretty happy with it, though I wish I'd caught the flag fully unfurled - it would have been more picturesque.

I assume this show garden won't be around much longer, since the members of the Hole family are moving their operations to the new Enjoy Centre, a multimillion dollar megaplex opening sometime this year.

Working for the Official Opposition is very rewarding, but I'll admit that I do miss Hole's sometimes. If I needed a mental break, all I had to do was step outside to - quite literally - smell the flowers.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

My Most Dangerous Job

I graduated from the University of Alberta in 1991, during the last recession. Good jobs were hard to come by. For three years, I delivered auto parts to Edmonton garages, searching for more fulfilling work the whole time. I finally quit in 1994, and I was lucky enough to stumble upon a very odd transitional job before moving on to the Western Board of Music in 1995.

That transistional job was the most bizarre and dangerous I've ever had. I was one of many workers whose task was to empty a huge warehouse and move all its odds and ends, everything from office furniture and files to industrial equipment, to another location across town. It should have been simple, but this jobsite was so dangerous I quit after three months, fearing I'd be killed or badly injured.

There must have been dozens of workers, ranging in age from twenty to sixty. We were mostly left to our own devices; imagine a horde of workers without gloves or helmets or direction hauling heavy boxes every whichway. Now imagine that many of these people knew nothing about moving safely.

Many of the items in the warehouse were stored on high shelves, shelves that consisted of rickety wooden boards laid down upon metal frames. We had no ladders or lifts; we had to clamber up the shelves, which themselves were not secured to the wall and rose to the ceiling, some twenty-five metres high. Workers near the top would pass down boxes to workers below. One of my coworkers was a nice young man from France, who was stunned when a heavy box slipped from another's grip and hit the Frenchman square atop the skull, nearly knocking him from his precarious perch down to the hard cement floor below. "Mon Dieu! Ma tete!" he shouted as the box bounced off his head and fell to the ground, bursting open to spew its contents all over the floor.

Just a couple of days later, two of the older workers were carrying a chandelier from one end of the top shelf to the other. Somehow the wooden shelf slipped halfway out of its frame, causing one worker to lose his balance. To avoid falling off the shelf, he overcompensated, careening to the right and throwing off the balance of his coworker. To this day I still don't completely understand the physics of how this happened, but in effect the first worker wound up bouncing off the shelf as if he were sprung from a diving board. The chandelier whipped around and gashed open the face of the second worker, who understandably lost his grip, blood oozing from his stunned face. The first worker wasn't strong enough to lift the chandelier himself, and so the chandelier toppled over the side, smashing into a million pieces on the floor, showering the rest of us with glass and metal shrapnel.

Not long after that, I helped load a massive industrial blueprint printer onto a forklift. This machine had to be over five metres long, and I have no idea how much it weighed; it took a dozen of us to push it the few inches needed to give the forklift access. The forklift operator lifted the forks about halfway, which seemed high to me, but what did I know? I wasn't a trained operator.

Apparently neither was he, because he took off at high speed and hit a bump on the warehouse floor. The centre of gravity shifted and the printer rolled precariously forward; the rear of the forklift rose high into the air, then crashed back down violently as the unsecured printer fell off the forks, bursting open with an ear-splitting crash and a spray of glass, oil and mechanical parts. The operator fell back into his seat so hard that the impact bounced him back into the air, and he struck his unhelmeted head on the roll cage hard enough to give him a concussion.

For some reason, the business owner had a classic muscle car stored in his garage. I don't know much about cars; all I can tell you is that it was blue and looked sort of like the car they drove on The Dukes of Hazzard. I guess the engine didn't work or there simply wasn't any fuel in the vehicle, because one worker had to steer while four or five others pushed. Unfortunately, the man steering didn't do a very good job, scraping the car's side along a support beam to create a huge dent and a long gash in the door. The business owner himself arrived on the scene just in time to witness this accident, and he wasn't happy.

Then came the last straw. I was one of a few workers asked to stay on for some additional weeks at the new warehouse, presumably because I hadn't destroyed anything or injured myself too badly to continue working. Our first job was to set up the shelving system - the same one that had already proven so dangerous at the first jobsite.

I've already mentioned that the metal shelving frames were very tall. They were also very heavy. The frames were lying on the floor, and our job was to lever them upright. Four of us were positioned at the base of the frame, and another four, many metres away, at the tip. Those at the tip walked forward, gradually lifting that end of the frame higher and higher into the air. Of course, as they walked toward those of us holding the base, more and more of the weight at the tip was unsupported. As the centre of gravity moved, we all found it harder and harder to hold onto the frame; the more the angle steepened, the harder it got. Once the frame stood perpendicular to the floor, we had to hold it in place while another team repeated the process with a second vertical frame. Only then could other workers lock the horizontal frame pieces into place, giving the structure some measure of stability.

We repeated this process several times, but eventually our tired muscles couldn't hold. We levered another frame into place, but we couldn't hold it perpendicular. The top swayed back and forth dizzily as we struggled to hang on, but in just a few seconds I felt the frame slipping from my grip, tipping over. We screamed at everyone to get out of the way of the falling hunk of metal, trying to hang on to give people time to escape. The frame hit the cement floor so hard that we felt the vibrations through our feet, and the clang of impact made our ears ring for several minutes. If that frame had hit anyone, they would have been killed.

That was enough for me. I walked to the foreman's office and gave notice. Six months later I had a much safer job, where the worst danger would turn out to be a possibly rabid bat...ah, but that's another story.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Stop! In the Name of Snow...Before You Break My Car

This morning I drove this far, and no further. Our residential street hasn't been plowed at all this winter, and today's melting temperatures turned an already difficult-to-traverse road into a hill impossible to climb for my little car. To make matters worse, when I phoned AMA, a prerecorded message informed me that AMA would not be towing anyone stuck on one of Edmonton's side streets. I have to admit, that took me off guard - what am I paying my membership fees for, if not for situations like this? To be fair, they connected me with a towing company and told me to keep the receipt "for reimbursement at the AMA rate." Maybe they'll cover the whole cost, but it sounds more like I might get a small portion refunded.

I'm not going to slam the city for not having this street graded yet; after all, this is a record-breaking year for snowfall. Still, I hope the plows will get to my neck of the woods soon. Today I waited over six hours for a tow, messing up my workday and causing me to miss a meeting that I was looking forward to. Yes, I worked from home and phoned in for the meeting, but still.

I'm just glad this happened today and not yesterday, the biggest day of the year for folks working in politics. I would have hated to be stuck on the sidelines for that.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Exit Ed Stelmach

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach won't run for office again, throwing Alberta politics into an even unsteadier state of flux. But that's okay; change is the lifeblood of democracy, and now 2011 will be a very exciting year for our province, with new ideas from every party and politician competing to determine our collective future.

As a past candidate for provincial office - in fact, I ran against Ed in the 2008 election as the Alberta Liberal candidate for Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville - it's tough to be objective about the man. I can say without hesitation that I admire his public service; being a politician can be a pretty rough job, and he stuck it out for a quarter-century, doing what he believed was best for the province of Alberta. Maybe this sounds like boilerplate politeness, but it's true. I'll never forget getting lost in the House of Commons back in 1987; I happened to walk past Joe Clark's office and he had his head in his hands, clearly agonizing over issues that could determine the fate of millions of people. That kind of responsibility can't be easy for anyone, no matter what their political stripe.

I was a little disappointed that the Premier didn't show up to debate me and the other candidates at the election forum in Fort Saskatchewan, but I didn't make an issue of it; as the leader of a provincial party in an admittedly safe seat, he had bigger fish to fry. Perhaps my political instincts were way off base, but I didn't think I'd gain anything by calling the Premier out. (On the other hand, given the election results, surely he could have spared a day to face a public grilling from his constituents, just as the other candidates did. Hindsight is 20-20, of course.)

I met the Premier only once, at the 2009 press gallery Christmas party. I introduced myself and he was kind enough to pose for the photo above, despite our ideological differences. I thought that was very gracious.

Albertans will form their opinions of Ed Stelmach's legacy based on their own ideological preferences. As a progressive sort who believes that government is (or can be) good, I strongly support public institutions such as schools, libraries, public health care and a social safety net for the disadvantaged. As one of the Deep Six social/fiscal conservatives and as a cabinet minister, Premier Stelmach was responsible for many of the program cuts that have, in my view, harmed Alberta for the long term, and more importantly, harmed many Albertans, some of them quite vulnerable. Those who feel that eliminating the debt as quickly as possible was Alberta's biggest concern will, of course, have a different view.

I won't speculate on what Premier Stelmach's sudden departure means for the Alberta Liberals or any other party. People deeply involved in politics obsess over this sort of thing, but in the end Albertans will collectively decide who will represent them in the Legislature, and who will lead them as Premier. At this point, only one thing is certain: it won't be Ed Stelmach.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Earl's Amazing Mad Science Adventures #4

This is one of my favourite Mad Science Adventures. When I first saw how Michael Gushue interpreted my script, I cried out in delight, for it was as ridiculously over-the-top as I'd hoped. I was particularly tickled by the Star Trek bedsheets. Naturally, I do not actually have Star Trek bedsheets.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Game of Hunger Games

"Look," Sylvia said, "I have the second book in the Hunger Games series!"

I took the book in hand, eyes on the cover. "'Catching Fire,'" I read.  "Ooo! Does any one catch fire?" 

"No," Sylvia said. "It's a metaphor."

Disappointed, I raised my fists over my head with an air of wounded melodrama.

"Metaphors have no place in literature!" I said. Then I smiled, pleased with myself. "Hey, that's kind of clever, isn't it?"

"Very amusing," she replied in the tone of a wife long used to her husband's eccentricities. And then off she went with her book.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Going Off the Rails

In 1983, my drama class created a music video for Ozzy Ozbourne's heavy metal hit "Crazy Train." Our interpretation was somewhat literal; we pretended to be on a train, and at the appropriate moment we went off the rails, going crazy. I'm at the far right, looking away from the camera.

I desperately wish I had a copy of the video. I apparently had the foresight to label the photo, though: in the shot with me are Kelly Newman (far left, raising chair) Darren last name unknown (also hefting chair), Sherry Thompson (blonde closest to camera), Marshall Smith (behind Sherry), Neil Zastre (behind Marshall), and Angela Mandrich (the blonde in front of me).

I have no idea what any of these folks are doing nowadays, but if any of you stumble across this blog and have a copy of the video, I'd love to chat and get a duplicate.

I also wish I could remember our drama teacher's name, for it was he who suggested that I audition for an acting role in a CBC pilot about divorce. I read for the part, but I wasn't chosen; instead, the producers asked me to serve as one of the co-hosts. That, however, is another story...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Giant Robots of Orwell's 1984

"Orwell's nightmare world of 1984!"
"Machines turning against men!"
"Programmed to destroy!"

I've read 1984 three or four times. Admittedly, the last time was probably fifteen years ago...but I don't remember any giant robots. I wonder if Superman, Batman, the Atom and Black Canary bugged Flash about this after the battle:

"Hey know there aren't any robots in 1984, right?"

"Uh...sure...I was...speaking in metaphors. Like, in the novel technology runs amok and the country is at war all the time and all the war machines - "

"Barry, the only obvious technology in the book is a two-way television that you can't turn off."

"See! Technology enabling a nightmare world!"

"That's really stretching it, Barry."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Generous Nature DVD Cover

I've posted previously about Generous Nature and the other amateur films created by my friends in the University of Alberta Star Trek Club back in the 80s and 90s. A couple of years ago I went to the trouble of burning the short film to DVD and creating a custom cover for it. While I like the minimalist front cover, were I to do it again I would have made the title much larger. And I would have gone to the trouble of creating some sell copy for the back cover.

Here's the film again, for those who missed it:

Monday, January 17, 2011

Anxiety Dreams: Post-Secondary Edition

I'm sure that most people who attended a post-secondary institution have had anxiety dreams about missed classes, surprise final exams and so on. My school-themed anxiety dreams usually follow this pattern:

1) I'm in an exam room preparing to write my last final, when I suddenly realize that I missed a class in grade 7 or 8, nullifying all of my educational progress.

2) I return to junior high to start school over again from that point.

3) I slowly realize that I did, in fact, earn my bachelor's degree many years ago, and that the year must be (the current year), not 1991.

4) I realize that I'm dreaming, and I have a few moments of lucid dreaming before I awaken.

Last night's dream, however, took on a slightly different form. This time, I was in a fourth-year mathematics class, populated by my current crop of friends and coworkers. I was struggling to follow the teacher's lecture because even though I'd somehow gotten into her class, I hadn't taken a math course since high school, and even then I was a strictly above-average student. I wasn't nearly ready for calculus, or whatever she was describing.

Fortunately the dream's setting shifted to a bookstore, an environment far more appealling to me than math class. Here I discovered that Alberta Liberal MLA Kevin Taft was secretly the ghostwriter of a popular series of crime novels.

In just a few months it will have been twenty years since I graduated. Do these dreams ever go away? Or are they a symptom of impostor syndrome?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Burn Notice

Today I warmed up some carrot soup in the microwave for Sylvia. I cooked it for too long so the bowl was too hot to remove with my bare hands. I donned an oven mitt, but it didn't have enough grip to hold the bowl, so it dropped about a foot and a half to the counter top. Boiling soup bounced up to splash my face, arm and scalp. It hurt like the dickens, but I retained enough presence of mind to get my head and arm under ice-cold water almost instantly. I have some pretty painful red welts on my forehead and up under my receding hairline now, but I think I acted quickly enough to avoid any lasting damage to my rakish good looks.

In all seriousness, I experienced a moment of genuine alarm when that boiling soup came splashing up into my face. It made me remember that awful day when we were out camping in northern Manitoba and Sean burned himself with coffee. Dad drove like a demon to get Sean to the hospital on one of the worst, most remote roads in the world, but he got us all there successfully. Sean's burns were far worse than the mild ones I suffered today; he had to be flown down to Winnipeg with Mom for treatment, while Dad and I waited anxiously at home in Leaf Rapids. I remember how relieved I was when they came home and Sean was okay - his hair was all curly from the humidity on the flight. I remain impressed by Dad's driving skills, too.

Today's life lesson: accidents can happen anytime. I'm posting this as a reminder to myself: pay attention to what you're doing. You only get one shot at life, and you don't want to mess it up with an act of easily-avoided stupidity.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Bit-Sized Review: Tron Legacy

Tron Legacy is a more entertaining experience than it has any right to be, combining nostalgia, special effects, music and 21st-century aesthetics to form a picture that evokes a warm emotional response despite a very cool aural and visual landscape.

Tron (1982) engaged my sense of wonder when I first saw it as an impressionable 13 year old. Who wouldn't want to explore the hidden world inside computers, alive with sentient programs and a deadly "game grid" where our harmless arcade pastimes become all-too-real gladiatorial contests for the hapless software slaves? It was a brilliant concept that evoked the spirit of the times; for the generation that grew up surrounded by rapidly evolving computers, Tron reflected our growing fascination with our new cyber-reality.

Even then I recognized that the film, while innovative from a technical standpoint, was no classic. Still, it was a serviceable adventure story, with likable characters, unique visuals and Wendy Carlos' wonderful score. Despite its flaws, the film remains a sentimental favourite for those of us who were in our teens when the movie premiered.

Tron Legacy improves on the original with a cliched but still effective tale of abandonment and rapprochement, a promising young friendship, and the possibilities of technological evolution. While I was expecting a dumb, loud action movie in the vein of Michael Bay, instead I experienced a film that forgoes the "idiot plot" so common among blockbusters of this type. Protagonist and antagonist alike have clear, well-defined goals and pursue them logically; both sides make mistakes and adapt as real people might (even though most of the characters in this film aren't "people" as we currently define them).

Returning stars Bruce Boxleitner and Jeff Bridges slip back into their old roles as if donning comfortable old suits, although Bridges sounds an awful lot like Jeff Lebowski this time around. "You're messing with my zen, man!" Garrett Hedlund's Sam Flynn, son of Bridges' Kevin Flynn, is a refreshing surprise; though weighed down by the long absence of his father, Hedlund's performance balances angst with intelligence, cockiness with warmth. Olivia Wilde's Quorra, though, is the real delight. As a nascent artificial intelligence, Wilde infuses her character with just the right blend of innocence, courage, curiosity and loyalty.

Daft Punk's score suits the film at least as well as Wendy Carlos' did the original. It is energetic, even frenetic, but gives each scene additional emotional heft, just as a well-constructed score should. If this score and Hans Zimmer's brilliant music for Inception aren't nominated for Oscars this year, I'll eat my lightcycle. The art directors deserve recognition as well; like Tron before it, no other film shares Tron Legacy's unique visual style, a neon-lit world of flowing curves, less angular than its predecessor but true to the first film's basic aesthetic.

The film's action sequences are colourful, well-paced and unlike many of today's hyperkinetic pictures, edited with enough restraint that viewers can actually follow what's going on.

One final note: Tron Legacy begins at night, and most of the film takes place during the eternal nightscape of Kevin Flynn's computer world. The film's denouement occurs at sunrise with a touching emotional coda earned by the characters. It's a subtle, effective moment that caps off the film wonderfully.

Grade: a solid B

Friday, January 14, 2011

Mad Science in the Dark Heart of Africa

A friend of one of my cousins has started a blog named las aventuras de don ernesto. Aside from some excellent photographs of the nature and wildlife of Africa, the blog features my cousin Kevin Langergraber, a primate molecular ecologist attached to the Max Planck Institute. If you scroll through the photos, you'll see my Uncle John, Kevin's father, grinding a rail; here's a photo of Kevin himself doing the same thing.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Champ

This is George Henry Walpole Woods -my father's father's oldest brother, or my Great Uncle. As seen here, Great Uncle George was a formidable athlete, defeating Norm Woods (perhaps a relation, perhaps not) to earn the 1932 Canadian Lightweight wrestling title in Vancouver.

Dad notes that Uncle George was a young teenager - 15 or 16 years old - when he went overseas as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force to serve in the First World War. According to family legend, George and a number of his friends enlisted because their scoutmaster had been killed in the war, and they wanted "to kill the German that had killed their scoutmaster." Apparently George served with distinction, braving enemy machine-gun fire to save a fellow soldier - only (again, according to family legend) to have the army charge him for the rifle he left behind.

You can't tell in this black and white image, but Great Uncle George had bright red hair, "just like I used to have," Dad laments.

I've always thought it somewhat odd that I didn't pick up any of the athletic heritage of my father's side of the family. Dad was an excellent baseball player, hockey player, and figure skater; his father was a hand-to-hand combat instructor. None of those talents rubbed off on me, nor am I at all certain I would have had the courage to enlist in a time of war. (Or a time of peace, for that matter.) Perhaps if the need was great...but I'm just as glad to have grown up in a time of relative peace. There are some questions that are better left unanswered.

Needless to say, I'm impressed by and proud of the athletic accomplishments of the Woods side of the family. I never took much interest in sports, but I can't help but appreciate the talent and determination required to excel, whatever the pursuit.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Trans-Dimensional Tunnel, Hurrah!

When Sylvia and I visited Radium in 2003, we used a couple of disposable cameras to take photos. Sylvia's thumb got in the way of my silly pose, but for some reason the blur created by her thumb almost makes it seem as if I'm stepping through a dimensional portal. (At least, that's how it appears to those of us living in the twilight zone between the real world and the imagination.)

A couple of Photoshop tricks now make the photo look like a still captured from a cheesy mid-80s science fiction show - something similar to Manimal or Automan. "Can a man ejected from his ordinary world cross the cosmic barriers that protect each dimension to return home again?"

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Thanks, Neil

I've been very lucky to have had some excellent supervisors who I also consider friends: Leslie Vermeer, Bruce Keith, the Hole family, and now Neil Mackie, until recently Communications Director for the Alberta Liberal Caucus. I've worked with Neil for almost two years; it's always been fun, challenging, and full of great learning experiences.

Thanks for a great couple of years, Neil. It's been a privilege.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Curling Up with a Good Movie (or sixteen)

Thanks to the generosity of my employer, I enjoyed a very relaxing break over the Christmas/New Year's holiday. I used the time to do a bit of writing, clean up my office, and build my library. I also watched a bunch of movies:
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)
Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sidney Lanfield, 1939)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Alfred L. Werker, 1939)
Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955)
Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955)
A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957)
Advise and Consent (Otto Preminger, 1962)
The Americanization of Emily (Arthur Hiller,1964)
Shivers (David Cronenberg, 1975)
Hellboy (Guillermo del Toro, 2004)
Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Guillermo del Toro, 2008)
Doubt (John Patrick Shanley, 2008)
Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, 2009)
Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)

To one degree or another, I can recommend each of these films; there's not a stinker in the bunch.

Cronenberg's pro-sex horror film, Shivers, is certainly the most subversive of the bunch; there are scenes in that film that I doubt would make it past the censors today, proving that the liberalization of societies does not progress steadily, but with periodic steps forward and back. Even in this early effort, Cronenberg's demented genius and unflinching adherence to his particular vision of the world shines through, despite a bargain-basement budget.

My second-favourite of the bunch is probably The Americanization of Emily, Edmontonian director Arthur Hiller's thoughtful satire of the glorification of war. James Garner's zest for life, which he unselfconsciously calls simple cowardice, is a joy to watch.

Bad Day at Black Rock is a short, powerful thriller about the importance of justice to civilization. It's suspenseful, exciting, and in the end, moving.

Blackboard Jungle is inspiring thanks in great part to the performances of Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier, as a struggling teacher and a promising but troubled student.

Slumdog Millionaire and Toy Story 3 are shamelessly feel-good productions, wearing their hearts on their sleeves without pretense.

The two Hellboy films have a wry sense of humour and use their fantasy trappings to tell two very interesting tales of alienation and loneliness.

As a communications professional working in politics, I probably should have watched Advise and Consent and A Face in the Crowd some time ago. The first film reveals the skullduggery of everyday politics, while the second shows how the media can transform any unknown into a celebrity - and then banish him right back into obscurity.

David Fincher's Zodiac isn't as groundbreaking as his earlier Fight Club, but it's still visually interesting and suspenseful, even though the murders it recounts took place decades ago.

Similarly, Fritz Lang's Fury isn't as good as Metropolis or his Mabuse films, but it remains an energetic portrait of one man's justifiable rage, and the revenge that nearly destroys him.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang features a Paul Muni performance that might seem somewhat affected to today's eyes, but the final scene is unforgettable.

Doubt is all about the performances. Meryl Streep is as amazing as she always is - so much so that it's easy to taker her for granted; the same goes for Philip Seymour Hoffman. But Amy Adams is the real treat in this film. Her innocence and compassion form the film's moral and emotional centre.

The two Sherlock Holmes films feature fairly pedestrian direction, but the scripting is witty and the leads archetypal. I found Baskervilles the more compelling of the two; it's more suspenseful, and the hound itself is quite terrifying; several times I wondered how the stuntmen escaped injury. Perhaps they didn't!

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Earl's Amazing Mad Science Adventures #6

The pun this time is more tortured than usual, even by the standard of Earl's Amazing Mad Science Adventures. But I thought Jeff did a remarkable job with the art!

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Harvest of '66

This is my maternal grandfather, Thomas Earl Etsell, harvesting on the family farm in Virden, Manitoba, in 1966. I've always considered myself pretty lucky that I didn't grow up on a farm, mainly because my numerous allergies would have made life pretty uncomfortable much of the time. But I did enjoy our many visits to the farm, both before and after the deaths of my grandparents. Southern Manitoba is quite beautiful in the summer, with its rolling hills, meandering rivers and gorgeous, pristine lakes. (Wintertime is another matter.) I was too young to do any farm work before the farm was sold, so my vision of the job is somewhat romantic; these photos match my imagination nicely. Of course, Mom told me about some of the more gruesome chores, such as pest control and animal butchery. I don't think I have the stomach for such labour, although perhaps I would have developed the skills had I really needed to. I'm just as happy to write for a living, all things considered.

When Sean and I met up with our parents in Virden in 2009, Mom revealed that her father had donated the land for the one-room schoolhouse, River Valley School, that still stands as a heritage site near Virden today. Here are some photos:

Finally, here's a shot of how the Etsell farm looked in 2009:

Sadly, the old house was burned down by an arsonist last year, but the rest of the buildings remain. The land itself endures, of course, changeless to human eyes, though the land, too, shall shift and move and transform itself as the centuries crawl by. For whatever reason, I've always been keenly aware of the passage of time and the havoc that passage wreaks on human beings. Sometimes I feel as though I cheated myself out of my childhood, always worrying that this or that era of my life would only last so long, and no longer. But I take comfort in these images, because they remind me that even though people come and go, memories remain to inform and educate the generations to come. I barely had a chance to know my mother's father, but the farm and his daughters provide ample evidence that he had something very valuable to contribute to the world - something even more precious than the harvests of the fall.

CORRECTION: It was actually Mom's grandfather, Peter Leask, who donated the land upon which the River Valley School stands. Thanks to Mom and Aunt Jean for the correction.

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Future is Yesterday: Toronto City Hall

Toronto City Hall is one of Canada's most familiar landmarks, so much so that the modernist building has permeated popular culture, particularly science fiction. Here it appears as a generic futuristic building in Gold Key's Star Trek #5. The building also pops up in a second-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, as one of several possible destinations cycling through an Iconian teleportation gateway. I always wondered why Picard didn't say, "Oh look, we can go right back to Earth if we wanted to." At the very least, he should have wondered why the Iconians were so interested in travelling to Toronto. Actually, since the Iconians in the episode are long extinct, the portal must predate Toronto's existence; at the time the portal was targeted, it could have led to some North American First Nations tribe, empty wilderness, or perhaps even Pangaea itself. It's nothing more than coincidence that the portal eventually points to the heart of Toronto.

The architects must have been proud when and if they saw this episode, for it implies that their creation is still standing in the 24th century. Here's hoping!

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Earl's Amazing Mad Science Adventures #5

One of my favourite Mad Science Adventures, this one features some of Michael's best art and one of the silliest puns yet.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Earl's Amazing Mad Science Adventures #2

This is probably my least favourite of the Mad Science Adventures, mainly because the pun is more tortured than most, and it's not immediately obvious that I'm tossing junk food - i.e., confections - into the ocean.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Earl's Amazing Mad Science Adventures #4

Back in the 1990s, I collaborated with Michael Gushue to produce a series of comic strips for the Edmonton Small Press Association. Each ended with some sort of horrible science pun, as seen here.

Saturday, January 01, 2011


Thanks to my friend and ex-colleague Amanda for throwing a fun New Year's Eve bash, even if we did inadvertently miss the actual countdown!

Sylvia and I look pretty innocent in this photo. But colour and typography can turn even the most innocent image into something dark and disturbing. I was fooling around with Photoshop for a few minutes and wound up producing this:

Hopefully 2011 will be less insane than this image seems to hint!