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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The House that Jack Built

During the 1970s, we drove to Cranberry Portage many times to visit my paternal grandmother. Grandma had an old Singer sewing machine with a drawer filled with fun toys and knick-knacks for my brother and me to amuse ourselves with. Naught survives but this Wade Whimsies ceramic model of the house that Jack built, of nursery rhyme fame. Grandma had this Wade Whimsy, and others, because they came packaged with Red Rose tea. How I managed to come into the possession of this lone survivor, I don't recall. 

I was surprised to learn just now that Red Rose still distributes Wade Whimsies with its tea

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Industrial Artist

Way back in Grade 7, I made this stuff: a key, anvil, and an anchor, molded in molten metal; a cannon, turned on a lathe; a box, bottle opener, and cube, made in ways I don't recall; a bookmark, banged out with leatherworking tools; a peace sign, molded in plastic; and a nameplate, sawed out of acrylic. Yes, I've kept them all these years, even though they're objectively terrible. Well, the cannon isn't bad, and the box is okay...

Monday, February 26, 2018

When All the Lights Go Out

Something sad and beautiful: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Lorene Scafaria's 2012 romantic comedy-drama about humanity's final days, seen through the lens of Dodge (Steve Carell) and Penny (Keira Knightley), two lost souls who made bad choices all their lives and who now have one last chance to find fleeting happiness.

Hopefully we'll never know how the mass of humanity will behave should the apocalypse ever loom; I suspect it wouldn't be as quiet (barring one riot) as seen here. And then again, perhaps it really will be as philosophically relaxed as Scafaria imagines.

The film delivers on the promise of its title, a reminder that everything we've ever accomplished or dreamed of can disappear, just like that. Near the beginning of the film, one overwhelmed character mutters "Life is completely meaningless." He could be right. Or maybe meaning doesn't matter; or maybe the meaning of existence is simply to enjoy it while it lasts, the best way you can.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Wrath of Pixels

Here's something neat: animator Anson Call has created a stylized, TRON-like interpretation of the confrontation between the Reliant and Enterprise a la Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Fans of the film will recognize many key moments from the film, lovingly reinterpreted with fluidic choreography. Even the soundtrack evokes James Horner's original score, but recast in a technopop mould. 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Fallout Encounter

Fallout really works as a board game! The high-quality components are beautiful, and the game mechanics to a very good job of translating the computer game's mechanics to a tabletop setting. Each player gets his or her own agenda and wanders the wasteland in pursuit of that agenda, encountering people and creatures along the way, with a variety of skills tested; sometimes your charisma will help you survive, sometimes your brawn, sometimes plain old luck. We did stumble on our first excursion into a Vault; the rules weren't completely clear on Vault mechanics, and the way the cards fell made it clear we messed up somehow. But aside from that glitch, the game went smoothly and I look forward to further adventures. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Stranger Things 2 Think About

Tonight I finally started watching season two of Stranger Things. While I understand that Stranger Things is designed to evoke feelings of nostalgia, I was almost frightened by the strength of my visceral reaction to tonight's episode. My response had nothing to do with the plot, and everything to do with the feelings the show evokes through its cinematography, music, sound design and set design.

Everything is so analog, even when the kids visit the video arcade to play Dig Dug. No one has cell phones; the computers use Commodore 1701 monitors, just like the one I had in the 80s. The pace of life feels so much more relaxed and carefree--but then again, it's told from the point of view of junior high school students.

While I love today's modern communications and the potential for good they harbour, I can't help but miss the days when you could be truly out of touch and alone for a few hours. It was the kind of freedom I'm not sure humans will enjoy ever again. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Black Canary Rocks

I never thought I'd live in a world with a Lego Black Canary, but here we are. Still one of my favourite comic book heroines: smart, sensitive, courageous, takes no guff, sings, fights crime, and runs a flower shop. Now that's a superwoman. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

I Will Take You By the Hand, with Reservations


The season finale of Star Trek: Discovery opens with a lovely sequence of two worlds in opposition: our lovely blue marble, Earth, and its grey sister, Luna, threatened by an approaching Klingon fleet; and Qo'nos, shrouded in green mist, home of the enemy. This short sequence heralds the end of the main story arc of the show's first season, the Federation-Klingon war. We know from other shows that the war must end without either side being destroyed, but how exactly does it end, and will that ending bring redemption for poor Michael Burnham? We find out the answer in "Will You Take Me By the Hand?"

The End is Near
As you might expect--this is, after all, a utopian vision--Michael is indeed redeemed, but I'm sorry to say that her arc, and that of the war itself, ends on a note so puzzling that it undermines the good work of the season thus far.

Last episode, Admiral Cornwell made a deal with Mirror Georgiou: her freedom and temporary command of the Discovery in exchange for her experience exterminating the Klingons in the Mirror Universe. While Michael, Saru, and the other Discovery crew suspect that trusting Georgiou with this task isn't the best idea, they reluctantly obey her orders; with the Federation on the brink of defeat, they have little choice.

Georgiou and company use the spore drive to jump the ship into the porous crust of Qo'nos, where they can stay hidden while assessing the planet's defences. Meanwhile, Michael, Georgiou, Ash Tyler, and Sylvia Tilly meet in the transporter room; there's a cute moment where Tilly, figuring out that Georgiou is the Empress and not "their" Georgiou, starts to offer the Terran Empire salute.

"Don't do that," Burnham mutters, pushing Tilly's arm down.

These Little People Went to Market
The quartet beam up to the surface of Qo'nos, to an Orion market. I fully accept that Qo'nos is cosmopolitan enough to have communities of offworlders, but it seems a little strange that the Klingons at the market don't care that humans are walking around openly. They are, after all, at war...

At the market, each member of the landing party searches for information about a shrine to Molor, which they've previously determined would be the best place to release a drone to locate military targets for a Starfleet assault. Tilly, who seems to get a lot of the best scenes (and more power to her), tries to ply information from an Orion trader played by Clint Howard, a lovely cameo from the actor who famously appeared as Balok in "The Corbomite Maneuver." After getting high with Clint, Tilly discovers to her horror that the drone she's carrying is in fact a doomsday bomb, but doesn't have time to tell Burnham and Tyler before Mirror Georgiou, having slept with a pair of comely Orions to find the shrine's location, knocks Tilly out, takes the bomb, and makes her way into the planet's crust.

While all this is happening, Michael Burnham and Ash Tyler take a different approach to finding the necessary information; Ash draws upon his Voq persona to ingratiate himself to a group of gambling Klingons. I must say I was impressed with the character's portrayal here, so much so that I believed in this character more as Voq than I do as Tyler; he really makes a quite natural Klingon, and clearly Michael feels the same way; she's visibly disturbed by Ash's all-too-easy transformation. And here we learn the exact, horrifying circumstances of Michael's central life trauma, the loss of her parents; they were killed by Klingons while she hid in a cupboard. To his credit, Ash Tyler is genuinely disturbed and shamed by this revelation.

Tilly arrives at this point to explain what Georgiou has done, and, fearing the worst, they beam back to Discovery to simulate the effect of the bomb: it would wreak massive destruction, probably killing most of the population and forcing the rest to evacuate. Burnham asks Saru to open a channel to Admiral Cornwell, who confirms that Georgiou's plan is endorsed by the desperate Federation Council.

Burnham threatens mutiny, this time to end a war rather than to start it. Cornwell asks what Burnham would suggest...

What if They Started a War and Nobody Came? 
This is where the episode goes completely off the rails. Burnham makes her way to the shrine and confronts Georgiou, who has already dropped the bomb-carrying drown down a well into the planet's depths. Burnham begs Georgiou not to detonate the bomb, and gives her proof that the Federation will still give her her freedom even if she doesn't destroy Qo'nos. Instead, she must hand over the detonator to...L'Rell, who arrives with Ash Tyler. Smirking, Georgiou agrees, heading off to wreak havoc in season two, one presumes.

Burnham offers the detonator to L'Rell, saying that the Klingon can consolidate power by holding the doomsday weapon as a trump card against the divided Klingon houses. To my shock, L'Rell agrees, and she and Ash Tyler go off to unite the fractured Klingon Empire. With a metaphorical shrug, the Klingons on Earth's doorstep turn around and head home.

This development might have been believable if L'Rell hadn't been presented as a war-mongering xenophobe from the first episode. Why in the world wouldn't L'Rell just keep the detonator and continue the war, wiping out humanity for good and then disabling the bomb? Failing that, why didn't the writers have Ash Tyler/Voq convince L'Rell to end the war by offering to stay with her? L'Rell clearly adored Voq, and I can believe that she would do anything for him, even this. This would also have been a nice resolution for Tyler--a way to pay the price for the acts he committed in the Voq persona. And it would have taken all of 30 seconds' worth of dialogue.

The war ends, Discovery heads home to Earth, and Michael Burnham gets her rank restored while everyone else on the ship gets medals. This was a nice scene--it's always great to see how the showrunners visualize future Earth--but for some reason, Michael makes an inspirational speech, when really you think the Admiral or Saru (poor, disrespected, best character Saru) would be the more logical choice in this context.

The show almost saves itself with an eleventh-hour cliffhanger that's pure high-octane fan service, but the war's resolution is so distracting and nonsensical that I really wasn't in the mood for the tease. And that's too bad, because it sets up some pretty interesting possibilities for season two.

Final Frontier Thoughts
While some of this first season's twists and turns have annoyed me--the war's resolution, the inability of the writers to pin down what they were trying to do with Tyler, and Lorca's heel-turn chief among them--there's still a lot to like about this opening storyline. I genuinely like most of the characters, with Saru and Tilly being my favourites, followed by Stamets, Tyler (despite reservations about his arc), and Burnham...though I don't like her as much as I feel I should, considering she's the lead. I don't blame Sonequa Martin-Green for this; she's a fine actress, but the writers have made her deliberately unsympathetic for much of the first season, and playing a human raised by Vulcans, she comes off as pretty cold; colder, even, than Leonard Nimoy's Spock, who somehow managed to express his character's humour and humanity from his second appearance onward. (He feels a bit stilted in "The Cage.")

I'm also finding that it's difficult to name truly standout episodes that work outside the context of the season's arc. I can name two dozen or more classic episodes from the other Star Trek shows, but nothing in this first season really works unless you sit down and watch the whole thing. That's the nature of television these days, of course, so I don't blame the showrunners for it; but I do feel that something has been lost.

None of my friends will be surprised that I'll keep watching--I made it through Voyager's seven mediocre seasons, after all--but I'm not watching out of duty; I think this could become a great show, with more careful forethought on the part of the writers and producers, and perhaps - please - the infusion of some more science-fictional ideas. Star Trek works very well as a mirror for our present-day foibles, but it should also spend time living up to its initial premise, exploring the final frontier and simply asking us to marvel at whatever scientifically plausible marvels await our descendants. Maybe they can explore why future humanity hasn't lost itself to VR or runaway nanotech or artificial intelligence, or why people still get bald or grow fat; there has to be a sociological or scientific reason for that. Or show us a quasar, or the birth of a solar system, or just visit a geologically interesting moon. Something. I love space opera, but let's see some giant space amoebas or sentient rocks from time to time, you know? 

Maybe the writers will surprise us. See you next season! 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Broken Library

A couple of weeks ago, I tried to create one of those panoramic photos you can scroll around in. It didn't work. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018


Sometimes the right idea just refuses to spring to mind. I don't remember what I was thinking when I doodled the PPEsaurus, but I imagine I must have been thinking he could have been a mascot for the company's health and safety awareness campaigns. (PPE stands for "personal protective equipment.") I can't explain the hand growing from the tail. I will say that hands are very, very difficult to draw, especially for a terrible artist such as me. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Valentine 2018

*2007 wedding not exactly as shown, but pretty close. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Remembering Weird Dreams on the Atari ST

For four or five years during the late 80s and early 90s, my computer of choice was the Atari 520 ST. Weird Dreams was among the most memorable and imaginative games I played on that machine. During my original playthrough, I never made it further than the desert statues. I dreaded the giant wasp, but I loved the game's creepy, surreal landscapes and its excellent (for the time) music.

And now, thanks to the wonder of YouTube, I now know how the game ends! To think I only needed to endure a few more dreams to finish...

Monday, February 12, 2018

baremetalHW: Restoring Hot Wheels Toys on YouTube

This fellow restores and modifies old Hot Wheels toy cars and shares his knowledge through very understated but well-composed instructional videos. I don't collect Hot Wheels today, but when I was between the ages of about 3 and 7 I adored them. Watching these short vignettes brings back fond memories and allows me to marvel at the incredible talent and creativity that exists all around us. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

At Peace with "The War Without, the War Within"


As we close in on the season finale of Star Trek: Discovery, my impression of the show is as confused and muddled as the show itself can be: I'm impressed by its moments of greatness, but in equal measure I'm frustrated by its storytelling flaws. "The War Without, the War Within" reflects this ambiguity.

The basic structure of this episode is simple: Admiral Cornwell arrives to bring the Discovery up to date on the war (the Federation is losing, badly), and the crew comes up with a harebrained plan to turn the tide; meanwhile, Ash Tyler/Voq struggles with questions of identity and forgiveness.

The Ash Tyler/Voq question has been the show's greatest puzzle. By this point, I think it's become clear that the showrunners either haven't really considered the larger philosophical questions surrounding this character's journey (or is it two characters?), or they have, but they've presented it in such a way as send a message that's the opposite of the one they intended.

The dialogue in this episode and others seems to establish that what we have here is Voq's surgically altered body, which until recently also contained Voq himself (that is, his personality/memories/soul/katra/essence) with an overlay of Ash Tyler's memory/personality/soul/katra/essence. Since L'Rell "killed" the Voq aspect of this being's tortured psyche, we are left with, presumably, Ash Tyler, who now has all of Voq's memories.

Presumably, Ash Tyler's body is dead. Maybe some of it was even used to build Voq's human body. Or maybe Ash Tyler is still a prisoner of the Klingons, and they only transferred a copy of his personality to Voq. So maybe there are two Ash Tylers, one with an original human body, one in a surgically altered Klingon body. Or, if you take a different philosophical view, maybe there's a "real" Ash Tyler, and the one we know is really Voq, but Voq "brainwashed" to believe he's a human. It really depends on the sophistication of the medical technology involved; are people the future sophisticated enough to transport and capture souls, body-swapping them as necessary? I suppose there's precedent for it in Star Trek--witness episodes like "Return to Tomorrow," for example, in which non-corporeal beings possess Enterprise crewmembers. And in a way, it's much like the age-old transporter problem: do you die when you're transported, only to be replaced with a perfect copy at the end of the process?

Whatever Tyler's "true" nature--if that can ever really be established--we're clearly meant to empathize with him here, tortured as he is by Voq's actions. I thought the writers handled his situation  in this episode reasonably well, given the circumstances, if you accept their premise that this really is Tyler. Tyler bumps into Paul Stamets in the hallway, and Anthony Rapp delivers an incredible performance in just a few seconds; he looks like he wants to tear Tyler apart for the murder of his partner, and it's all in his murderous eyes. But he walks away, of course, because this is still Star Trek, a point driven home even harder when, after an awkward moment in the mess hall, a number of crew members join his table in an effort to start the process of forgiveness and healing. It's a reminder that this is still a utopian vision, an imagined future in which people try to do a better job of being nice to each other. On the flip side, Michael Burnham is not so forgiving of her former lover; Tyler begs her for forgiveness and understanding, but Burnham, clearly struggling, recoils; he tried to murder her, and she's having a hard time forgetting that. This interaction felt very genuine, and encapsulated how the showrunners are trying to balance classic Trek ideals with modern television storytelling techniques. They don't always strike the right balance, but I think it works here.

I also enjoyed Admiral Cornwell's reaction to learning that her Gabriel Lorca died (presumably) months ago, and that for several months she's been interacting with (and even sleeping with) an evil duplicate. In one amusing moment, she vaporizes Mirror-Lorca's trademark dish of fortune cookies: "Bastard!" She also classifies all knowledge of the Mirror Universe, which explains why, in "Mirror, Mirror," Kirk and company are so surprised to wind up there.

The rest of the episode is pretty much a setup for tonight's big finale. There's a nice sequence of the Discovery engaging in a bit of terraforming to grow some more mushrooms to replenish the ship's spore drive, and Admiral Cornwell and Mirror Georgiou hatch a (possibly genocidal?) plan to turn the tide of the war. Cornwell even puts the Emperor in nominal charge of Discovery--posing, of course, as the real Georgiou, who she claims actually survived the battle of the binary stars. Only a few of the crew know differently, and presumably they're all just waiting for Georgiou to stab them all in the back, Mirror-style.

We'll see what happens a few hours from now...

Friday, February 09, 2018

4,000 Films

As of this evening, I have seen 4,000 films, or about 91 films per year since the age I was old enough to remember what I was watching. If I can see another 1,000 films before I turn 51, I can claim to have seen 1,000 films per decade on average...quite a stretch, unless I watch nothing but shorts for the next couple of years.

And now, for the first time ever on The Earliad, a pie chart! Click to embiggen.
The chart reveals that my attempt watch films from across the motion picture era is a qualified success, with no single decade absorbing more than 15% of my attention. However, the decades I've been around for (not counting my birth year, 1969) account for 60% of my viewing.

Here's a numerical breakdown of the films I've seen in each decade, counting down from top to bottom:

1980s: 597
1990s: 510
2000s: 451
2010s: 433
1970s: 405
1960s: 366
1950s: 361
1940s: 242
1930s: 182
1890s: 165
1910s: 96
1900s: 86
1920s: 78
Undated: 16 (These films have release dates, but the film database I'm using doesn't know them)
1880s: 10
1870s: 2
Total: 4000

And no, I still haven't seen Ferris Bueller's Day Off. 

Thursday, February 08, 2018

The Best Pictures Update

I have about 100 more films to go before accomplishing my goal of seeing every movie nominated for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) Best Picture Oscar. I discovered recently that two films on the list, East Lynne and The White Parade, can only be seen in one place: at the University of California at Los Angeles. In order to see these films, I'll have to travel to UCLA and make an appointment with the Powell Library Instructional Media Lab. Sounds like a good excuse for a long weekend trip to California...

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Heavy Mettle

I took a few minutes today to watch this launch and booster landing live, and it was magnificent. Seeing the side boosters land with pinpoint accuracy, right next to each other on their pads in Florida, was like seeing an Amazing Stories cover come to life. And that moment when the SpaceX people crank up David Bowie's "Life on Mars," well, I teared up a little. An astounding accomplishment. 

Sunday, February 04, 2018

What's Passed is Prologue?


Here's a little extra spoiler space for those who see this on Google Plus...

And so the U.S.S. Discovery's excursion to the Mirror Universe ends as I was afraid it would: serviceably, and not without considerable entertainment value, but stopping short of excellence. 

Holding Up a Mirror to Ourselves
"What's Past is Prologue" concludes the Mirror Universe arc with Gabriel Lorca plays his final hand: unleashing a violent coup to take over the I.S.S. Charon and overthrow Emperor Georgiou. The action is well-orchestrated and effectively violent; people are exposed to biological weapons, knifed to death, and vaporized by phaser fire; it's all as awful and ugly as it should be. It is also, however, somewhat contrived. The plot is constructed in such a way as to give Michael Burnham victory despite overwhelming odds: she wins over the Emperor and they essentially win out with fisticuffs and swordfighting. It's a little tough to swallow. 

That being said, the scenes aboard the Discovery, with Saru taking command of the ship, were extremely well done; Doug Jones really shines as Saru in this episode, throwing shade at Lorca and delivering a truly inclusive and inspiring speech to the crew before they head into battle to rescue Burnham, destroy the Charon, and make the jump back to their home universe. The climactic sequence is well-staged, exciting, and comes with a surprise twist that had me leaning forward in my chair...only to slump back, disappointed, in the final moments. More on that below. 

With the conclusion of the Mirror Universe arc and the upcoming (one assumes) end of the Klingon War in the episodes to come, it's transparently clear that this first season of Star Trek: Discovery has been intended to serve as commentary on the world's currently upside-down political realities, with the rule of law, secular pluralism, and scientific rationalism under threat more openly than it has been for quite some time. (None of these threats are new, and one could argue that freedom, prosperity and democracy have long been somewhat illusory or at least unevenly distributed, but it's been a while since it's been at the forefront of public consciousness.) The allegory has been somewhat ham-handed, but then Star Trek has never been subtle; in fact, some might say that ham-handed allegory is the series' stock in trade. And while getting older has made me more cynical, the show gives me hope for the future despite its failings. In this case, it's that scene with Saru motivating the Discovery's crew, and Michael Burnham's anguished sincerity in believing in the angels of our better natures. She even rescues Emperor Georgiou, despite knowing she's a murderous cannibal--that's how much she believes in redemption and in the value of life, even evil life. (Of course, it's also true she has selfish emotional motives in play; but characters in Star Trek have always been imperfect.) 
Reflections on Mirror Lorca
I had hoped that Captain Lorca, once revealed as a native of the Mirror Universe, would turn out to be supporting the coalition of rebels fighting the Terran Empire, which might have added some shades of grey to the story; imagine what an endorsement of Federation values it could have been if Lorca changed his original plan and forswore his imperial ambitions? 

But no, Lorca was a wannabe dictator all along. There is a great moment, though, just before Lorca dies, when Burnham, confronting him, says that if he had just asked, the Federation would have helped Lorca get home. Jason Isaacs' reaction to this news is great; you can see on Lorca's face that asking simply never occurred to him, but given his experiences in the Federation, he realizes that Burnham is telling the truth. He doesn't say so (nor does he have much chance to, as he's killed by the Emperor moments later), but Isaacs' performance speaks volumes here. I'm going to miss him, and I hope we get to see him return as the yet-unseen original universe Lorca. 

A digression: I want to commend the sound designers of this episode for mixing in some old-school sound effects from the original series--a nice, nostalgic touch. 

Back Through the Looking Glass
When Discovery returns to the prime universe, they discover that they've overshot the mark...arriving much later than they had anticipated. This is when I leaned forward in my seat; I knew that Bryan Fuller's original plan had been to produce an anthology show that visited the various Star Trek eras, and I thought maybe Discovery had jumped forward 10 years, to the time of the original series, which would have utterly blown my mind. Unfortunately, they only missed nine months, and so the last two episodes of the first season will doubtlessly conclude with the wrap-up of the war with the Klingons. 

I know my initial hopes were unrealistic, but just imagine how cool it would have been if the writers had developed a strategy to make a Trek anthology work. Handled properly, it could have tapped into the powerful nostalgia that helps make the show work, while also using our current reality as a lens through which to re-evaluate that nostalgia and the Trek shows that preceded Discovery

I suppose, though, that would have broken the show's budget, and it may have failed utterly. But it could have been cool...

Here's where I tie this review back to the pun in the title. You can guess where this is leading: what we've seen so far from Star Trek: Discovery this year--what's passed--may or may not foreshadow what we can expect to see in season two. Depending on your response to the show, that may be (in my case) good television that falls just short of greatness, or more disappointment if you think the series has fallen short this initial season. The show may not be perfect, but it's trying to bring something new to a series with literally hundreds of episodes. I applaud the showrunners for their efforts thus far, even if they sometimes miss the mark. 

Friday, February 02, 2018

Friday Read: The Lost Civilization of Dial-Up Bulletin Board Systems

In late 2016, Benj Edwards wrote a somewhat melancholy article about the few bulletin board systems (BBSes) that remain active today. Like several of my friends, I was an avid BBSer from about 1987 to 1994, that golden era before the Internet changed the world. There was a BBS for the U.S.S. Bonaventure (the Edmonton Star Trek Club, which is still around and has a Twitter account (!)), and my friend Ron hosted Freedom BBS for several years, an anarchic reaction to some of Edmonton's more button-down BBSes. Someone has compiled what seems to be a pretty authoritative list of BBSes that existed in the old, more expansive 403 area code, which back then included all of Alberta and the Northwest Territories. There were hundreds of them! I had no idea.

Benj's article covers the American BBS scene, and he relates some amusing anecdotes. It makes me a little misty; thanks to Ron, I have some of the writing I shared on BBSes in those days, but most of it has been lost. Most of it was likely garbage, but I remember a story or two that I thought was pretty good.

I can still remember the screeching noise my modem made before it connected. Ah, those were the days.