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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Panorama Mania

For three or four years after I purchased my little Pentax point and shoot, I was enthralled by the camera's panorama feature, which allowed users to easily compose and stitch together panoramic shots to create a super-wide-angle effect. As you can see, the images can sometimes turn out a little distorted, but overall the effect is pretty good, at least to my eyes. Plus you can craft some interesting special effects with a little creative staging. Click to embiggen for the full effect!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Soap Operetta

As I struggle to archive and organize my own history, I'm often frustrated by my past self's inconsistent note-taking. Why did he take this photo of assorted gift soaps? I recognize the setting, thanks to the posters in the background and the shape of the furniture; it's my old room at Lister Hall, on the University of Alberta campus. But that's all I know. Were the soaps a gift? Was I the recipient, or the giver? Why were they significant enough to photograph? I use whichever soap is cheapest - a bar of Irish Spring or whatever. Did I buy these soaps? Was it a Secret Santa gag gone wrong? Was I hoping to woo some fellow student with a gift of decorative soaps?

I'll likely never know.

Lister Soaps 
(to the tune of Nessun Dorma from the opera Turandot by Puccini)
Lister soaps oh my...
Lister soaps oh my...
Why did I shoot these Lister soaps?
Did they embody all my hopes?
Why didn't Earl make notes, oh nooooooooooooooooooooooo oh my
I'll never know
Why these fine soaps
Were photographed...
Lisssster soaps....Lisssssster soooaaapppssss!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Big Gulp

One fine day in 1995 or 1996, my friend Colin Dunn came over to my apartment - the first one, the one on Saskatchewan Drive and 104 street - for a visit. I asked him if he'd like something to drink.

"Sure, I'll have a Coke," he said. Ever the host, I took a glass from the cupboard and poured him a tall, cool, refreshing serving of liquid candy.

We talked about this and that, and Colin upturned the glass to finish off his drink. Suddenly, an expression of stunned disbelief washed over his features. Slowly, shock turned to disgust.

"Earl..." he said, and handed me the glass, holding the open end toward me.

A layer of black mold some two millimetres deep lay oozing and putrescent at the bottom of the glass.

"GOOD LORD!" I screamed. "I'M SO SORRY!"

My face flushed bright pink as my stomach churned in mortification. I was astounded that Colin managed not to puke, having undoubtedly ingested some of the muck along with his soft drink.

To this day, I'm not sure how the goop got there. Though a bachelor at the time, I was disciplined enough to wash the dishes (though not until I'd dirtied every last item in the inventory). Poor Colin was very gracious about the whole affair, though he looked a little green around the gills.

Nowadays, I always check the bottom of the glass before serving guests.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The High Cost of Used Cars

Sylvia and I are in the market to replace our Corolla, which didn't survive my road trip to the Yukon and Alaska. I used my morning coffee break to check the top 10 deals at Kingsway Toyota, which included a used 2009 model for the great price of... million, two hundred ninety-nine thousand, five hundred dollars? Seems a little steep. Especially in beige.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Head in the Clouds

One day, just a few weeks before I finished university, I enlisted my brother Sean to come take some photos of me on campus. I didn't even know the photo above existed until I discovered it while scanning negatives a couple of months ago. I assume the photo lab didn't make a print because this shot was taken at the end of the roll and as a result I'm missing the top bit of my head, which seems to have disappeared into a fluffy layer of clouds. I would never have discovered this image's existence had the scanner not picked it up.

It's not a great photo, and I understand why the lab didn't make a print. On the other hand, it's the only image I have of myself at the Rutherford Library. Perhaps the text I'm examining transported me into new realms of philosophical insight, hence the disappearance of my brains into the heavens.

Monday, July 25, 2011

You Can't Take it With You

The dull ache asserted itself firmly in the pit of my stomach as I tossed the old scrapbooks into the recycling bag. Absurd that a few moldy sheets of paper - most of them blank - would cause such a surge of regret. A stack of photo albums four feet high quickly followed.

I assembled the scrapbooks in grade one; they were filled with bubblegum cards and newspaper clippings of the first space shuttle launch. The photo albums were scrapbooks of a sort as well. During university, I would snip interesting artwork and photos from magazines and promotional brochures; these I would slide into the albums, each page a bizarre collage.

As I attempted to create space in my library and office, I took a hard look at how much volume this sort of junk was occupying. If I didn't get rid of some of it, I'd eventually fill every available cubic centimetre of our new home. That wasn't fair to Sylvia, and even I have a tiny sense of aesthetics.

So out went the scrapbooks. I also opened up the numerous old biscuit tins, pencil cases and duffel bags accumulated from grade school to university, each filled with everything from genuine mementos to stuff I'd never use - an unopened packet of reinforcements, for example. Remember those? They adhered to the holes in your foolscap so that the pages wouldn't rip so easily from your high school binder. The price tag read 39 cents. I wonder how much they cost now, if they're sold at all.

Four bags of garbage and recycling made a significant dent. I kept the buttons, the pins, a handful of old-school plastic soldiers, cowboys and indians, and most of the stuff I made during shop class in junior high. (The cannon crafted on the metal lathe was the best of these amateur projects.)

I wasn't saddened because I was tossing away much of my past. I was saddened because doing so...wasn't saddening me. I wonder if that means I'm growing up or getting old.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Lex Luthor in a Back Alley

While helping Jeff Shyluk with a mysterious project, I decided to fool around a little. I present my latest masterpiece, "Lex Luthor in a Back Alley." Analyze at your peril, for there are layers of meaning here beyond mortal ken.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

[SPOILER WARNING: If you haven't seen Captain America yet, beware: this review contains plot spoilers.]

When Richard Donner prepared to direct Superman (1978), he took great pains to avoid camp, knowing that would destroy any hope of producing a good film that stayed true to what made the character great. One word guided his approach: verisimilitude.

Captain America director Joe Johnston seems to have taken the same approach with this latest comic book adaptation, a World War II period piece with a modern-day framing story. Like all comic adaptations, the story is necessarily chock-a-block with elements of the fantastic; super-science, implausible action, grotesque villains. But Johnston uses clever art direction and scripting touches to give these elements a thin veneer of plausibility, allowing the audience to believe that yes, perhaps a good-hearted 90 pound weakling could be transformed into a super-soldier capable of leaping high walls and lifting motorcycles over his head. The super-science, for example, is always clad in World War II vintage cast iron and giant rivets. Readouts and maps are always vintage analog. Period costumes and music, acting choices and Johnston's direction all serve the film's patina of realism; we could almost believe that if history had been different, if technology had only progressed a little faster, the events of the film could have happened.

Chris Evans, above all, allows us to believe in the film. His portrayal of Steve Rogers/Captain America presents us with a hero who is determined, vulnerable and perhaps a little sad, yet filled with a genuine desire to serve his country. Evans' Rogers embodies all the positive aspects of patriotism, the love of country that manifests itself as a desire to serve others and sacrifice for the common good.

"Do you want to kill Nazis?" asks good-hearted German expatriate German scientist Professor Erskine, as part of a test to see if Rogers is the man he needs for his experimental super-soldier project. Rogers, at this point still a brave but physically hopeless weakling, shrugs:

"I don't want to kill anyone," he says. "I just don't like bullies."

Rogers' compassion, his lack of blood-lust and desire to simply do the right thing, convinces Erskine that Rogers is worthy. And so Rogers undergoes the heroic transformation from everyman to superman that forms the necessary dramatic nexus of virtually all superhero films. The magic of science morphs Evans from a scrawny runt to a mesomorphic fantasy figure, an ironically Aryan √úbermensch. It's an irony that Johnston chooses to ignore, though, perhaps for good reason; too much self-awareness would destroy the verisimilitude he's worked so hard to establish. Evans and Johnston play it straight, even during the comic interlude that serves to establish the iconic costume: before being allowed to participate directly in the war, Rogers is forced into a propaganda role, acting as a sort of USO entertainer, movie star and comic book hero, clever touches gleaned from the character's real-world media presence.

The film's pacing and believability do suffer somewhat after the generally excellent opening act. Captain America's adventures on the battlefield are presented in a frenetic montage of over-the-top action; Cap tosses his shield at a sniper, Cap gets into a James-Bondian motorcycle chase, Cap tosses grenades into tanks, etc. While this approach economically establishes Captain America as a force to be reckoned with, we lose some of the emotional connection we had with the character; it's hard to care about Cap's exploits when they're presented without any context. I far prefer Richard Donner's approach in Superman, in which the titular hero has only three our four heroic exploits on his big debut night, but each is given the appropriate weight and pacing to establish his heroism. In other words, we have enough breathing space to care about what's happening, to have some investment in the outcome.

The film regains some of its momentum in the final act, as Captain America squares off with his nemesis, the Red Skull (the always-affable Hugo Weaving) in a gigantic flying wing full of kamikaze buzz-bombs with the names of American cities painted ominously upon them. Like most Marvel movies, the story climaxes with a super-powered fight scene, and on this point I do wish the writers could come up with something new. Not all conflicts need to be resolved with fisticuffs; Captain America should be clever enough to outwit his foes. At least it would be a change.

Still, the climax ends with some genuine poignancy, dovetailing as it must into the film's modern-day prelude. A final radio conversation between Rogers and the object of his affections is quite moving, especially when the audience knows that their romance is ultimately doomed by time and tragic circumstance. Dramatic irony is rare in superhero films, and much appreciated here.

The present-day coda provides a well-crafted if somewhat utilitarian setup for the next film in this sequence of Marvel adventures, next spring's The Avengers. Stay for the post-credits teaser!

Final verdict: not as good as Thor or X-Men: First Class, but still enjoyable summer entertainment.

7.2 star-spangled vibranium shields out of 10.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The New Daily Planet

For the fourth or fifth time in his long publishing history, Superman's backstory will start all over again, and the character's status quo is being considerably shaken up. The new Superman will have lost both his natural and his foster parents, and he'll no longer be married to Lois Lane (indeed, because of the twisted logic of retroactive continuity, the marriage never happened at all).

Some readers in their 20s and 30s are livid over this change, feeling that "their" Superman is being taken away. I understand those feelings; I had them in 1986, when the Superman I enjoyed in childhood was erased from comic book history and replaced by John Byrne's take on the character. But I'm older now, and in the interim I've gone back and read most of Superman's adventures, from the 1930s onward. This isn't the first time the character has started over from scratch; it's not even the second or third. The Superman of the 30s is a very different animal than that of the late 40s, who is different than the character of the 50s, the 70s and on and on. Superman endures because he evolves, and there's joy to be had in discovering the adventures of each and every iteration of the legend.

There's one artifact of Superman's backstory, however, that is coming dangerously close to dating the character: his day job as a "reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper." Big newspapers certainly seem to be on the decline, and one wonders how long printing presses will continue to run. If the New York Times struggles to retain its traditional audience, how can the Daily Planet fare?

The solution is actually relatively simple. Traditional journalism may be on the wane, but society will always need the fourth estate. Perhaps the new Daily Planet shouldn't be a traditional newspaper, with offices in a skyscraper; perhaps instead its footprint should be more diffuse, an online news source of truly planetary scope, with citizen reporters blogging from all over the world. Lois and Clark and Jimmy Olsen would have to be multidisciplinarian ENGs, able to write, shoot video and photos and submit material online. Perry White could be the last grizzled relic of traditional publishing, facing a whole new learning curve as he struggles to ride herd on his younger, hipper employees. Imagine what Jimmy Olsen's flikr account would look like; imagine the sardonic, no-nonsense tweets Lois Lane would produce. Imagine how mild-mannered Clark Kent would navigate the merciless flamewars that so often erupt on social media!

The business viability of news reporting remains a problem; advertising revenues won't cut it. Perhaps this new Daily Planet could be publicly funded, maybe as a subsidiary of NPR. Or it could be funded by donations; certainly DC philanthropists such as Bruce Wayne or Oliver Queen would donate generously.

The only problem I see with this new milieu is the lack of natural storytelling opportunities that arise in a traditional workplace. Gathering together in a central location from 9 to 5 provides a convenient setting for drama or comedy, and having all of the Planet employees telecommuting presents new storytelling challenges, not least of which is that it makes it almost too easy for Clark to slip away during emergencies to change to Superman. Maybe Perry would insist on mandatory weekly meetings just to reconnect, traditionalist that he is.

This idea isn't at all radical or new; when television news seemed to be eclipsing newspapers back in the 1970s, Denny O'Neil tried a similar trick, giving Clark Kent a new job as a TV anchorman. That change lasted fifteen years or so, until the Byrne reboot, which reestablished Clark as a Daily Planet reporter once more. That return to the status quo was still tenable back in the 80s, but perhaps not so much anymore. Clark Kent should remain a reporter...but the character's writers should recognize that the nature of his job is evolving before our very eyes.

Besides, I think it would be interesting to read Clark Kent's Twitter feed.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Capital Ex Parade 2011

Here are a few images from today's Capital Ex parade.
Official Opposition Leader Dr. David Swann