Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tonight May Be All About Frost And Some Loser

Tammy's in town for the weekend, and we're planning to finally go see Frost/Nixon at the theatre. This is a movie that's grabbed my attention ever since I first heard about it, largely because I find modern American political dramas so interesting right now (Vicki and I just watched a PBS docudrama about the J. Robert Oppenheimer hearing that resulted in him losing his security clearance in the 1950s). Soon, I should know if Frost/Nixon actually lives up to the hype!

Yesterday Was Networking Day

I'm not sure why, but yesterday seemed to be all about getting back in touch with people from my past.

First I heard from one former co-worker who's now in New Zealand, which subsequently prompted me to send an e-mail to another friend of a friend, now living in NZ, to see how he was doing.

Next, I got a LinkedIn connection request, and that started a whole viral effect, with me sending connection requests out to other names from my past, who in turn provided further connection opportunities for me and additional connection requests.

As if that weren't enough, I also got an e-mail that reminded me that, were I to have any desire to propose a session for this summer's Agile 2009 Conference in Chicago, then I should get that proposal in tout de suite as the deadline is fast approaching. (I wrote something up and submitted it this morning, despite not being entirely sure that I could actually swing going to the conference even if I were accepted as a presenter! Details!)

All of which means that I probably re-connected with more people in the last 30 hours or so than I had in the previous month and a half! Go figure.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Calling All Firefox Geeks!

So something has changed within Firefox for me recently, and I have no idea why (although if I had to guess I'd say I must have accidentally changed a setting without knowing it).

The scenario is this: I right click on an image, select "Save Image As..." and press Enter. What used to happen was that I'd get a pop-up window that showed my "Pictures" folder along with 2 input fields, one for the file name and another for the file extension to use. Now, however, both input fields are gone, leaving only "Save" and "Cancel" buttons on the lower part of the window. Thus, there's no way for me to specify the file name to use. Instead, I have to blindly "Save" and then go find whatever default file name was used and rename it to what I want it to be. This only started a few days ago, but I really have no clue how to get it back to the much friendlier way in which it used to work.

Anyone know how to fix this? An all-impotent Blog Point to the first person who can solve this for me.

3 Great Captain America Covers

I didn't even realize that Marvel Comics and artist Steve Epting had done this until I went to put away the last couple issues in the longbox down stairs, at which point I momentarily thought that I'd bought the same issue more than once! Above you see the cover to Captain America # 43. Now check out the cover to the following issue, # 44.
And finally, look at what graced the cover of issue # 45:That is such an awesome trio of covers even when seen one at a time, but they really catch your eye if you view them in close proximity to each other!

Biking Streak Has Now Officially Ended

With several feet of snow on the ground, I'm calling January 2009 a lost cause for cycling (by me, anyway), meaning that my biking streak has now ended at 36 months.

Being able to say that you rode your bike downtown (round trip = approx 20 km) at least once a month for 3 consecutive years (January 2006 through December 2008) is nothing to sneeze at, I'd say. As the photo in this post from December 2007 shows, it wasn't always easy... or even particularly safe! However, despite whatever the weather threw at me, not only did I keep the streak alive for those 36 months, but I also managed to complete those hundreds of trips without any accidents or injuries. About the worst thing that's happened to me on my bike (so far) has been breaking the axle between my pedal bars... which I've managed to do twice!

Anyway, the end of the streak doesn't in any way dampen my enthusiasm and impatience toward the arrival of Spring, and what that season always brings with it: the return of my biking way of life. I hope to be able to get back to finding excuses for bike rides two or three times a week, and see if I can't work off some of this winter flab in the process.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Resistance Comic Lurches Into Second Issue

I so want to like this mini-series, based as it is on my favourite video game from the recent past... and yet it just seems Hell-bent on under-delivering!

With a $3.99 US cover price, I'd really like to get more out of a lead story than 15 pages that can be summed up as: soldiers and sailors on battleship get attacked (by what I assume is a Kraken, from my playing of the game itself) and have to bail after the creature sinks their craft, only to begin trekking across land and have to deal with a Chimera with a cloaking device (was that a Chameleon, from the game? I can't really tell, but I didn't think it was). They kill the thing and examine his apparatus before moving on again.

And that's about it. No frame of reference is given (Where are they? What's their mission? What's special about them?) Oh, sure, there's the odd little character bit like the fact that one of their group is writing a letter to his mother that they all know will never see the light of day (and he, in fact, takes a bullet through the noggin while working on it) but it honestly took me all of about 3 minutes to read. And, as was the case with the first issue, pretty much nothing is explained... It almost reads like somebody had a World War II story in them that they were dying to tell and so they took the non-plot points of it and turned it into a Resistance "tale."

The 6-page backup once again follows the life of the English lad from # 1 who suddenly abandons his minor life of crime after news arrives that his older brother has died in battle against the Chimera in France. Yawn!

As with so many of the so-called "decompressed" comics of the last decade, I'd really love to have been the editor on this series and been able to hand each of the scripts (so far) back to the writer with the instruction, "Imagine that this was going to be the first comic book that I ever read. Imagine further that your job, as the creator of this piece of fiction, was to provide such a thrill-ride of suspense, wonder and enticement that, upon reading it, I would be, at worst, incapable of resisting the urge to track down the next issue, and at best, turned into a comic fan for life. When you've got that script ready, come on back. Until then, your job's not done."

Instead, what we've got is a comic series that, after two issues, I can only in good conscience recommend to the die-hardiest of Resistance: Fall of Man and Resistance 2 fans, and only if you can further spare the $3.99 entrance fee without feeling any pain whatsoever.

Oops, I May Have Spoken Too Soon (Or Not)

Just saw this article, indicating that the "delay the move to digital-only TV" bill which I'd treated as a done deal after it got unanimous support in the Senate, was today voted down in the House of Representatives (technically, it got a majority vote, but not a two-thirds majority which would allow its passage along the fast track that it was put on). Just when Granny thought that she'd have no problems watching TV after Feb 17th, it looks like she's back on the hot seat again (for the moment).

[Update Feb 6/09: Now it sounds like a more formal vote passed yesterday, meaning that the conversion to digital will be delayed until (at least) June!]

This Week's Lost Revelations And Theories

They're almost too numerous to mention, but among the more interesting revelations (aka SPOILERS) in tonight's episode, entitled "Jughead", were the following:
  • a young Charles Widmore was an "Other" back in the 1950s
  • Richard Alpert has "always" been with the Others, looking pretty much the same back in 1954 as he does today
  • Daniel Faraday ditched on a girl after some experiment of his left her in a time-traveling predicament similar to what afflicted Desmond in "The Constant"
  • Des and Penny now have a young son named after the ex-rocker who saved Desmond's life back at the end of Season Three
  • Jacob's already running the show, way back in 1954
  • Faraday loves Charlotte (duh, you think?) and his mother is currently in L.A. (just like Mrs Hastings; hmmmmmm)
  • Those men from the end of the last episode who were wearing U.S. Army uniforms? Not really American soldiers! (they just helped themselves to the uniforms after killing the original owners, it seems, explaining why Widmore's shirt had "Jones" on it)
  • Charlotte's health issues (presumably caused by the eXtreme Time Traveling) just got considerably worse
  • An episode can actually rock without having hide nor hair of Jack, Sayid or Kate in it!
And now a few theories and quandaries, courtesy of yours truly:
  • "Ellie", the young Other who took Faraday to the hydrogen bomb at gunpoint? Got to be his very own mother, aka Mrs Hastings! (no wonder she looked familiar to him!)
  • Could Widmore possibly be Faraday's father?
  • Why hasn't the girl who's bedridden in England because her consciousness is traveling through time (thanks to Faraday) already dead? That condition killed Minkowski on the freighter and would've done the same to Desmond if he hadn't broken out of it thanks to his constant (Penny). So why's the girl still alive?
  • Does Richard seek out a young John Locke (at the home of his foster mother) as a result of this meeting in 1954? (That would lend credence to the theory that everything's playing out in exactly the way it always has, and make me a happy camper.) [Edit: Now that I've seen the episode without missing 10 key seconds of dialogue (thanks to ABC for having the show run past the hour mark!) I got to hear Locke's "... and if you don't believe me, why don't you come and visit me" comment that would explain why Richard was looking for him a few years later.]
  • Do all of the Others live long lives on the island (like Richard apparently does) and if not, how do they make "new Others" (since pregnant women die on the island)?
  • If Ellie is indeed a young Mrs Hastings, was it her encounter with the time travelers in 1954 (Daniel, Juliet and Sawyer) that resulted in her delving into the subject later in life (as we've seen in her few appearances in "the present") and was that obsession also passed along to her son (Daniel Faraday)?
  • How did the U.S. Army locate the island in order to (try to) use it for H-bomb testing? Was the island not "unfindable" back then? Richard's comments to Locke in 1954 would seem to suggest that there were already difficulties in getting off of it back then, at least.
  • Who gets more funny one-liners now? Sawyer or Miles?
This show is really in hyper-drive now, and so it's a damned good thing we only have seven long days to wait between episodes!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

At Times It Seems Like Someone Is Actually Listening

Just yesterday, Vicki and I were trying to determine the difference between debit cards and credit cards, in terms of how much they cost the merchants when you use them.

Wouldn't you just know that today I'd see an article at the Freakonomics blog that would send me to this handy site at which you can find out what rates are charged at different types of stores for any make of credit card that you might have? (I had to laugh when the site asked me to enter the first 6 digits of my credit card, as I suspect that many people who haven't ever worked in the financial market might believe that those digits would somehow contain personal identification about them... rather than being the company portion of the number.) For the type of card I used - MasterCard - I saw rates ranging from 0.7% (paying an electricity bill over the phone) to 18.7% (buying a pack of gum at a variety store), although the norm seemed to be about 2% - 3.5%... which is right in line with what I had long thought it to be. (I'm under the impression that debit card charges, on the other hand, are usually either a flat rate per transaction or at worst a lower percentage than what a credit card transaction would cost the store.)

So now all I need is a similar tool that answers our debit card question, and we're off to the races!

How Tough Are Things Going To Get This Time?

I've lived through a few economic downturns before this current mess, including the one that had the bursting of the technology stock bubble as its poster child and which cost me quite a few dollars in lost options (I made the move to a tech company just a year or two too late, it seemed). So this isn't completely new territory for me.

Somehow, though, what's going on right now feels different. Part of that may stem from me being older - what does a 20- or 30-something care about stock prices going down, when his retirement portfolio is still decades away from being put to use? - or even from having more time on my hands these days with which to read so much more. But I still think that there's a worse vibe coming off of it all this time around. It seems like more people, across more walks of life, are being affected, for one thing.

The company that I most recently called "home away from home" initiated a round of layoffs last week, for example. It was a relatively small downsizing, as far as I can tell, with only roughly 4 - 5% of the local office being deemed "redundant" (or whatever the euphemism du jour is at the moment). Rumours abound that more cutbacks are in the offing there, as well as that contractors - which make up a non-trivial proportion of the work force within those walls - may not have their contracts extended once they expire. It's almost impossible to separate baseless fears from authentic concerns at times like this, though, and so I lay claim to a stance of "no idea whatsoever" in regards to what may happen to my former co-workers over the coming months. That some have been let go already, however, is not in dispute.

And that's hardly an isolated picture. The headlines are full of such tales, if you have the stomach to even peruse the depressing news outlets these days. My gaming sites lament (or crow about) the massive firings at Microsoft and Sony, affecting even the virtually-untouchable world of online steam-relieving. The comic blogs I follow talk about cartoonists losing their newspaper jobs (which, truth be told, were already drying up before the sub-prime nonsense really caught fire) as well as comic book publishers either closing shop entirely or failing to pay their creators (or both).

Vicki and I continue to look for work of some sort, but it's a somewhat half-hearted endeavour because of the job climate within which we find ourselves. I have a few friends who've joined us in the ranks of the unemployed - they at least will benefit from severance payouts and Employment Insurance benefits, I assume - but haven't heard of anyone truly hitting rock bottom just yet.

What I do hear, though, are people talking about cutting back and saving up. Those are two expressions that didn't get a whole lot of bandwidth for the last decade (or longer), as more and more Smiths had instead been busy making increasingly-flamboyant attempts to keep up with more and more Joneses. Of course, this recent turn toward frugality, however long- or short-lived it may prove out to be, insidiously feeds into the economic woes all around us. Our western culture of "Why would I save when I could instead be spending money that I don't even have?" has powered a seemingly-unstoppable juggernaut of financial growth for decades, and even the recent revelation that at least some of it was in actuality a house of cards hasn't dampened much of our nostalgia for it. I don't get the sense that most people who have changed their spending habits of late are doing so as anything more than a stopgap solution until "things get back to normal."

So I'm left to wonder: is that a realistic hope? Will we see huge economic growth again in the foreseeable future? And if we do, will it simply be the calm before the next financial storm pummels us once again? A lot of the historical material that I've been reading about finance paints this as being cyclical. While the parameters may change each time - height of the highs, depth of the lows, the precise length of the cycle - the feeling is that we go through very similar patterns, over and over again. I don't know if this one's an anomaly or not, but I do know a few things for certain (as they apply to my own situation at this time):
  • one upside about not having a job right now is that I don't have to worry about losing it!
  • being an incurable saver, as I've been pretty much my entire adult life, has sure come in handy right now
  • being married to a woman who's always been a thrifty shopper, even when it didn't look like she needed to be, was never more appreciated than it is at the moment
  • 18 years of living by a budget and therefore knowing where every dollar goes has given Vicki and I an incredible sense of confidence about what we need to live on right now as well as what corners can be cut if it comes to that
So what do the rest of you think? What's your outlook right now? How much worse will things get before they get better? And what's the "new normal" going to look like when we get there (if there even is such a thing)?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Some Names Just Don't Work For Me

I've heard of, but never (until now) known what to make of a product called "LoJack."

Turns out (as most people reading this probably already know) that LoJack is a security system for cars (you can read the Wikipedia entry for it here.) It's an interesting innovation, as it sends out a radio signal that the police can use to track your vehicle if it gets stolen (or, for the conspiracy theorists out there, to track you in your vehicle!). I find it a bit hard to believe that car thieves haven't already hacked it to the extent that they can disable it within minutes of driving your car away, but the literature says otherwise. It also lines up quite nicely with an idea I've long had, which is that anything we own that's valuable ought to have an RFID (Radio Frequency ID) transmitter in it that can't be disabled. But I digress...

At any rate, the name LoJack just doesn't work for me. It's described as "the antithesis of hijack," which is cute - and somewhat clever - but somehow unpleasant. Maybe my bias against it stems from the fact that I think any "jacking" of my car that isn't done in order to change a flat tire is a bad thing, and I have trouble getting past that. I suppose I should really think of it as something that's being done to the car thieves, rather than to me or my car (the cops are "jacking" my car back from the bad guys) but I'm just not there yet.

How does everyone else react to that particular product's name?

Just When You Thought It Was Finally Going To Happen

It gets delayed, once again! Feb 17th, 2009, will be just another day now, it seems!


Monday, January 26, 2009

Is BSG Going To End With A Whimper?

After watching the first two installments of Battlestar Galactica's Season Four Point One (aka the second half of Season Four), I'm sorry to say that I'm filled with apathy and disappointment.

The first half of the season ended with such a great image - that of a devastated, post-apocalyptic Earth - that I suppose some letdown was inevitable. But geez Louise, I wouldn't have imagined being this non-plussed after two of the ten or eleven remaining episodes had aired! I had expected that each of those precious hours would be chock-full of twists and turns and shocking revelations, with a full-speed-ahead pace that would lead us to the series' conclusion, but instead it's mostly just been silly bits of political wrangling and Cylon-bashing.

And the scene with Tighe and Number Six looking at the ultrasound...? That almost made me give up on the show, right there and then. Not to mention how quickly the Chief abdicated his parental responsibility once he got "the news"... not exactly what I'd expect from someone who's been portrayed as being such a solid character up to then (Cylon or not).

BSG feels like a ship adrift to me, right now, and not in the metaphorical way that might actually be clever storytelling. The potential of that cliffhanger from last year seems to have been pissed away quicker than Bush blew the post-9/11 empathy that the U.S. had earned. And that's saying something!

Anyone actually enjoying the show at the moment, who can give me some reason to believe it's still going to be worth the ride?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Just Eleven More Shopping Months Until Christmas

January 25th is the day, every year, when I think about the fact that the big gift-giving event of the past year's holiday season is already a month in the past despite it not feeling like it happened all that long ago.

If you charged your way through the spending spree, then it's around-about now that you might be receiving your credit card statement for December and wondering, "What on Earth was I thinking?"

By now you've probably returned or exchanged the gifts that didn't fit or simply weren't right, and possibly even resolved to "do better next year" at getting your shopping done early, even though history would say otherwise.

The older I get, the more that I wish we'd just tone down the hysteria around Christmas, and the less that it seems to happen. Maybe that's just part of the aging process, for all that I know. With only 334 days until the next one, though, I'm already slightly depressed at the thought of it all starting up again!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Lost And The Time Travel Conundrum

As fans of the show learned earlier this week, Season Five of Lost looks like it's going to build upon past seasons' occasional forays into time travel (which had usually involved Desmond) by thrusting several of the main characters squarely into the time-lost fray. What interests - and, to some degree, worries - me about this development is the so far unanswered question, What kind of time travel exists in the world of Lost?

While far from an expert on the topic, I do have a fair bit of passion toward this particular science fiction device. I love well-done time travel stories, and conversely tend to throw my hands up in disgust when I encounter the other kind. Because I have nothing better to do at the moment, here are my thoughts on what separates the two.

1. Consistency

I can buy just about any application of time travel, as long as it's internally consistent. By far, the most common place where writers go awry when trying to tell stories in which people travel to the past is in their treatment of what effect those travelers have by their actions in the past. There are several archetypes here, including:

A. Many divergent timelines - If you were to go back to 1920 and kill Adolf Hitler before he came to power in Germany, you'd create an alternate world in which World War II never happened (or, at least, happened without Hitler) and which would have a very different history, from the 1920s forward, than the one with which we're all familiar . However, this would in fact be a physically different world - a parallel one! - and not the one that you left behind when you traveled back in time. That original world would continue, unchanged, just as you left it. You might or might not ever be able to get back to your own timeline (depending on the rules set out by the writer) but regardless, it wouldn't really matter to anyone but you and perhaps your loved ones as the only impact on that reality would be that you disappeared at a certain point (today) and possibly were never seen again. Comic book publishers have put this framework to great use over the years, including an entire Marvel Comics series, entitled What If?, that focused on divergent points like "What if Uncle Ben hadn't been killed?" and "What if Captain America hadn't been found in Avengers # 4?"

B. One alterable timeline - In this sort of a story, the scenario above (kill Hitler in 1920) would obviously affect the one and only version of history that exists, essentially re-writing it (1920 onward) as a result of your actions. You'd expect that there would be huge changes from what we all know of the past 90 years, with the extent of the alterations being limited only to the author's imagination (more on this later). This is sometimes referred to as "the butterfly effect" (not to be confused with the Chaos Theory version by the same name, which relates to effects spreading out across the planet without the benefit of time travel). The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode entitled "Yesterday's Enterprise" is one of many, many examples of this category's rich potential.

C. One immutable past - If this is the rule under which the story operates, then no matter how hard you try, you just won't be able to kill Hitler in 1920. Maybe you just keep missing him every time you think that you've located him; perhaps you're intangible, invisible and inaudible when you arrive in the past; or it could simply transpire that you think that you've killed him only to discover, upon returning to the present, that you only wounded him and he'd always suffered a grievous injury in 1920 and you simply fulfilled destiny's calling by delivering him the motivation for hating Jews or Negroes. No matter the means, the end is the same: history can't be changed. The Terry Gilliam film, 12 Monkeys, presents this view of time travel in a highly-entertaining and satisfying manner.

D. You can't get there from here - As a less interesting variation on C, time travel to the past is simply impossible, and so your plan of killing Hitler in 1920 never gets off the ground. Instead, you settle for traveling to the future and hilarity ensues.

There may be others, but I think that the majority of stories I've read, watched or written have tended to fall into one of those four categories above. Where traveling to the future is concerned, though, there are often different rules applied. I'd say that that's true for the very natural reason that most people would consider the past to be more "durable" than the not-yet-written future. In most cases, trips forward in time tend to have an "anything goes" sort of feel to them, although in terms of consistency there's usually two main types:

E. The one true future - As with C and D above, the notion here is that there's one and only one future (already written in stone by Destiny's hand, as it were, even if we haven't experienced it yet), and so when you get there, you're seeing what will happen. This approach works best, in my opinion, if you also mandate no backward traveling through time (D, above), as that prevents anyone from taking what they've learned (in "the future") and going back in time to take advantage of it ("Must buy GreenTech stock now!") or try to prevent it ("We can still avoid the environmental disaster that we saw there if we act fast enough in 2009!"). Otherwise, you're really arguing against your own premise of the future being already decided. Although it's been years since I last read it, I believe that the granddaddy of all time travel stories, The Time Traveler by H. G. Welles, operated within this set of rules.

F. A possible future - More common in the literature, I think, is the setup where what you discover in the future may happen, but the jury's still out. This allows for all kinds of cautionary tales, including Ebenezer Scrooge learning his lesson on Christmas Eve and thereby avoiding the premature death of Tiny Tim, etc.

As you can see, lots of different rules are possible; all I demand is consistency within each story!

2. Imaginative Application

As with most science fiction mechanisms, while the concept of time travel is pretty cool all on its own, it's really what the writer does with it that determines how entertained the audience is by the results. Hand-in-hand with internal consistency, in my mind, is the requirement that time travel be applied in an imaginative manner. To see what I mean, consider the following two hypothetical outlines for our ever-reliable "Travel to 1920 and kill Hitler" scenario:

G. Straightforward approach - The hero discovers a time machine that his mentor, Dr Tempus Fugit, had been working on before his untimely death. Fugit lives just long enough to explain the operation of the machine to his protege, who then realizes that he can use it to go back in time and kill a young Hitler and thereby save millions of Holocaust victims. The hero follows through on this plan, only to return to 2009 and discover that the world has changed: it's now unbearably overpopulated and dying of starvation. Realizing that he shouldn't have messed with history, he travels back in time once again, and kills his younger self just moments before the fateful meeting with Hitler. He returns to 2009 (finding it back to the way he remembered it) and destroys the time machine before anyone else can repeat his folly.

H. Show some creativity - Same initial premise as G, but when he gets to 1920, the hero instead finds himself becoming friendly with Hitler. He can see some of the rough edges that will eventually turn the man into the monster he later becomes, but he also sees the sources of those missteps in the life that the young man has lived and is living. He begins to exert influence over the German through his own actions and attitudes, and sees a change in the other that clearly places him on a different path than the one history had recorded. Without Hitler's strong presence to rally them out of their post-WWI poverty and despair, Germany falls more deeply into ruination and is shortly thereafter invaded by Russia. When the hero escapes the invaders by using his machine to return to 2009, he finds that the U.S.S.R. won a very different 2nd World War in the late 1950s and is now the only superpower in the world. However, his time machine no longer exists (Dr Fugit was never born, thanks to the changed history) and he has no choice but to acclimate to the new reality in which he finds himself. Eventually he runs into the granddaughter of Adolf Hitler, who grew up hearing tales of the hero from her father and his father, and the two fall in love.

Now, neither of those are the outline for an award-winning story (probably), but the first is a sort of paint-by-numbers tale whereas the second veers off in some directions that might not be obvious right from the get-go. Time travel is too often the first variety for my tastes, where you can pretty much predict what's going to happen from the premise itself. I much prefer the second type! (The first outline also has the problem of hero instance # 2 killing hero instance # 1 - his slightly younger self - in the past, which would prevent # 1 from living long enough to become # 2! So much for internal consistency!)

3. Ramifications

I very quickly lose interest in any time travel story when it becomes apparent that the writer didn't really think through the ramifications of whatever operating rules he or she put in place. For example, wouldn't anyone who found himself in possession of a working time machine immediately use it for selfish reasons? Sure, it makes for a great story to have him go back to 1920 and kill Hitler (kill the cheerleader, save the world!) but isn't it more likely that he'd go back and gather up artifacts that he could sell for a fortune in his own time? Hell, I'd be faster than a speeding bullet in buying up brand new, near-mint copies of Action Comics # 1, back in 1938, if I had a time machine!

Thinking back to Consistency, imagine a story set in a B-type universe (one alterable timeline) where travelers go around killing people (in the past) and yet nothing significant seems to change in terms of history except that those people are now dead. Is that really believable? Let's dig into that a bit and see what we unearth.

I had a discussion about this with a friend once, after we watched the film, The Butterfly Effect (the one with Ashton Kutcher in it, in case there have been more than one). That movie purported to deal with this very notion of "change one thing in the past, and your present will change" (which I applaud) but it seemed to treat each change as some sort of isolated bullet through time whose effect was always very limited. If you save your girlfriend's life 10 years ago (instead of allowing her to die, as originally happened), then you open up the possibility that she's still alive now but has turned out very different than you expected (so far, so good). This is clearly a B-type setup. What bugged me about the film was that it never explored the idea that so much more would almost certainly have also changed: if you think of all the people who would've interacted with that girl over the past 10 years (who, according to the original history, would have been doing something else at that time in their lives), and then everyone who interacted differently with them, and so on, and so on, you get ripple effects that should have huge ramifications.

In the Ray Bradbury short story, "A Sound of Thunder" (one of the origins for the "butterfly effect" expression, I believe), something as trivial as killing a butterfly back in the time of dinosaurs changes the modern world significantly. If that sort of thing makes sense to you (as it does to me), then saving (or taking) a human life in the past should have major consequences, in the form of ripples, for the present.

Which, finally, brings us back to Lost. Several of the castaways are traveling through past eras on the island, and have already interacted with past residents, up to and including killing some. So how does time travel work on Lost? Did all of those events in fact already happen, such that the travelers are just fulfilling their destinies (and is that why "Destiny Calls" is the subtitle for the season)? Or are they re-writing history by their actions, in which case we should see an altered "present" when they return to it? Or are the writers eschewing internal consistency for the sake of mindless entertainment, damning those of us who want to really immerse ourselves in the work to spend our time pointing out all of the places where they're breaking the rules? I imagine that we'll know the answer by the end of this season (and maybe before).

And yes, I just thought (and wrote) more about time travel in the past couple of hours than most people will probably do in their lifetime. Go figure!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Math Tutoring

Today I completed the necessary steps to position myself for doing some high school math tutoring. I had to get a police background check done, make up a flyer to advertise myself as a potential math tutor, and then get those materials to our local high school's Guidance Office. What happens next, I'm told, is that my flyer goes into the school's binder for such things, and then parents and students go to that resource when looking for tutors. I have no idea if anything will actually come of that, though, and so I may need to figure out some other ways to advertise my services. While I wouldn't stand to make much money tutoring math, it's something that I could imagine myself really enjoying. Or, maybe I've just gotten lucky with the few experiences of that sort that I've had to date (with Tammy being the most notable of those).

This is the sort of thing that, if I get an opportunity or two, and am any good at, then word of mouth will probably do the rest of my work for me. But just like a new graduate looking for his or her first real job, it's all about getting that first foot in the door. So we'll see if it develops into anything before I get any hopes up!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

So How About That Lost Season Premiere?

I'm of two minds where last night's two hours of new Lost are concerned. I thought there was no shortage of things to love about the kick-off to Season Five - the cameo return of a cast member we hadn't seen in a couple of years, the trips back down Memory Lane to re-visit past events on the island, and that awesome opening with Daniel Faraday at the building of the Orchid - but that the second hour didn't live up to the high level of the first. A little Hurley goes a long way, after all, and hour number two had more than enough of that for my tastes.

Perhaps the biggest negative in my mind, though, involves the seemingly-inconsistent treatment of time travel that was demonstrated throughout. Faraday made a very passionate attempt to educate Sawyer and his companions on how "you can't change the past" and yet the episodes were full of examples of them doing just that. I'll buy that the rules were intentionally broken with Desmond - seeing as he's already got a history of affecting events while bopping back and forth in time and may therefore by "special" in that regard - but what about everything else that happened? Had Ethan Rom really encountered - and shot! - John Locke before flight 815 crashed on the island (as was shown last night), and if so, why didn't Ethan recognize him when he infiltrated the group later? (It's still possible that they'll explain that away later, but I'm not holding my breath.) And are we really to believe that the soldiers that Locke and the others killed (who were possibly WWII fighters?) had always died in that way? It's a relatively rare occurrence when someone in the mainstream gets time travel "right" (12 Monkeys comes to mind) and I fear that Lost's Season Five writers may not be up to the challenge.

Overall, though, it was a great couple of hours and I'm thoroughly jazzed at the prospect of another 15 or 16 installments to come over the next four months!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year (Again)

Yes, it's that time again: when we're blessed with new episodes of Lost every week for four straight months! It's the third of a year that makes up for the other two thirds!

Tonight kicks off Season Five with two hours of pulse-pounding joy, and I can hardly wait. Three hours and counting...

An Ode To Uselessness

Thanks to Blog@Newsarama, I discovered this great blog, which shares with the world some of the lesser-known superpowers in the world around us...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Long May He Reign

(Anyone wishing to brush up on the identities of Obama's 43 predecessors can view their official presidential portraits here. Thanks to Tammy for the link.)

President-Elect No More!

It's President Barack Obama now, people!

Have We Turned A Competency Corner?

Watching Barack Obama during the 2008 Presidential campaign, I was struck by how his focus was always on the issues, while John McCain followed the typical Republican game plan of attacking his opponent. McCain's negativity was business-as-usual within the political arena; Obama was all about getting down to the business of turning things around.

Among many other qualities that were attributed to the eventual winner of the election was "competence." Americans were slowly getting to know this man, through the debates and interviews, and by his reactions to the deteriorating financial mess in his country. And what they saw, for the most part, was someone who remained cool in a crisis, thought about every question he was asked (rather than automatically sticking to his talking points via offering canned responses), and had a wealth of personal experience that allowed him to relate to average Americans more than is usually the case with the modern presidential candidate-millionaire. In other words, he came across as someone who could conceivably be up to the task, as opposed to filling the "lesser of two evils" mentality that characterized apathetic electorate decision-making in years past. Was his successful campaign and inspiring personality the beginning of the end for a recent trend toward accepting incompetents instead of demanding excellence?

Dilbert creator Scott Adams offers another possible candidate for the turning point over on his blog: Chesley Sullenberger, the airbus pilot who famously brought his engine-less plane with 150 people on it down safely in a water landing near New York City last week. Adams makes an eloquent case for that event reflecting the fact that we've passed the nadir of the incompetence trough and are turning back in the right direction at last.

Either way, I hope that it's true that we've turned a corner in this regard. We need to begin celebrating competence once again and stop believing that mediocrity is the loftiest bar that we can set for our leaders, and for ourselves.

America's Long National Nightmare Is Finally Over

Eight years of misgovernance under George W. Bush has done more harm to the internal workings of the American system than anything since Richard Nixon, and that administration's contempt for the rest of the world has nearly ruined the country's standing outside of its own borders.

Today, though, the road to recovery begins. Or maybe that convalescence actually started back on November 4/08, judging by the reaction to Obama's victory that erupted inside and outside the U.S. on that day. Maybe today's official transfer of power is just the next milestone in that journey, but it's obviously a very important one. There may be more people on the planet hoping for a positive outcome to this development than have collectively wished for anything since the first moon landing, almost 40 years ago now.

I'd just like to say: congratulations to America on this landmark occasion, from just a little bit to the north (that's Canada up there on your map, folks).

And Vicki's been down with the flu since dinnertime last night and has missed all of the Inauguration coverage so far.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Remembering Doreen

On this, the 25th anniversary of the day my mother died, I thought I'd provide a bit of a memorial to her in this, my most public of private places.

My mother was born Isabel Hambrooke on March 21st, 1926. She didn't enter the world alone, however, as her fraternal twin sister Marion arrived just moments later (or was it earlier?). The two of them brought the sibling total in the family to eight, as they joined three older sisters and the same number of brothers.

Two or three years later, after a long bout with illness, Mrs Hambrooke died. Faced with the prospect of raising eight children on his own, Isabel's father put the youngest three up for adoption and returned to his original home in England with the oldest ones. As my aunt always told it, the older children were considered by the despondent man to be "of working age, or at least self-sufficient" (9 and up). It may, in fact, have been the youngest four who were left behind, rather than just the three (that detail's always been blurry in my mind).

[Update 5 years later: Since posting this in 2009, I've learned from Mom's twin sister Dorothy that their father did not take the oldest children with him back to England as I'd thought.  Instead, he abandoned them to fend for themselves, even though some were not even in their teens yet.  It seems inconceivable that a father would do that, and yet that's what exactly what he did.]

While the adoption agencies of the day wouldn't hesitate to split up siblings in their efforts to find abandoned children new homes, they apparently drew the line at twins. As such, my mother and aunt were adopted by a childless couple (the Wilsons) who would rename them Doreen Isabel Wilson and Dorothy Marion Wilson, wanting the pair to have names that welcomed them to their new family (Wilson) while both respecting their original parents' wishes (Isabel and Marion) and more clearly reflecting their relationship as twins (Doreen and Dorothy). I've always loved that part of the story and could never write anything nearly as poignant in any tale that I might concoct!

The pair were in parental limbo for long enough before that happy event, however, that each formed strong memories of their time in the orphanage that would last them a lifetime. My mother developed a strong aversion to tomato soup, for example, because apparently it was served both with great regularity and an overabundance of water. This was, after all, the start of the Great Depression, and if we look at pictures from the time and shudder at the destitute straits of the average family, then just imagine what life must have been like in an orphanage in which meeting ends was a struggle during the best of times! The tomato soup that I grew up enjoying (and which is still a part of my limited diet today) has never been half as diluted as what my mother had to eat every day, though... a fact for which I'm very thankful! (And I don't believe I ever saw my mother partake of a bowl herself, presumably on account of the bad association it still held for her even decades later!)

When the twins were roughly 20 years of age, one of the older brothers came looking for them. Their adopted father had long since passed away, but their adopted mother had tried desperately to keep the girls from learning anything about their biological family. I used to wonder at that, but as I've gotten older it's become easier for me to understand just how insecure she must've been: widowed, with only her two dear girls to love, and the constant threat (in her mind, at least) that at some point they'd throw her over for their original family. Of course it was a completely irrational fear on her part, as anyone who's ever known my mother or aunt would recognize they each would've always had more than enough room in their heart for two families, but I can at least appreciate now just how delicate a position she must have thought she was in.

And so it was that their brother, Lionel, had a tougher time getting in touch with his "baby sisters" than he should have. Eventually, though, the pair would meet him, as well as the other sister (or two) who had gone into the adoption process, and even some of the older brothers and sisters. One had died in World War II, and I would, years later, get my middle name (Linton) from him. Mrs Wilson died a few years after the reunion, but despite her fears, she never lost the affection and devotion of her two girls.

All of this, of course, happened long before I was on the scene. The fact that many of the details about those events are cloudy (both in my memory and in my re-telling of them) says as much about the indifference of youth as it does about the aging process of the brain. Although the material was certainly there for it, I didn't grow up in an atmosphere of "You think you have it rough? Well let me just tell you about what I went through at your age..." while being raised by my mother. She didn't have a bone of that sort in her body. Rather, it was only on those rare occasions when I'd show the slightest interest in those long-gone days - you know, "when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth!" - that Doreen would provide some insight for me into how different our childhoods had been (despite both of us experiencing relative poverty within our very different cultural and social safety nets). Twenty-five years later, of course, I curse the fool that I was back then that I hadn't been more fascinated by and appreciative of the adventure that had been my mother's life before my arrival. Such are the stupidities of youth and the regrets of the middle-aged, I guess.

Because the twin sisters were so close, it should come as no surprise that my aunt Dorothy has always been among my favourite relatives. The bond that existed between the two of them was almost palpable at times, and therefore if I've ever had the luxury of a "surrogate mother," it's been through Dorothy. While she's had a wonderful life herself (still going strong at 82 as I type these words), which has so far included 55 years of marriage, 3 sons, umpteen grandchildren and recently a few great-grandchildren, I'm fairly confident that the worst day of her life coincided with mine, and happened 25 years ago today.

Despite only being 20 years old when my mother died, I still tend to believe that most everything I know about how to live a decent life I learned from Doreen. She made the most of whatever hand she was dealt, and provided a loving and upbeat home for my brother Richard and I even when there was barely enough money to pay the bills or put food on the table. If she felt the hardship of her situation - our family income was below the poverty line for most of the years of my childhood - she certainly never showed it. She taught me that you do the right thing because it's right, and because if everyone behaved that way it'd be a better world. Our situation was never an excuse to cut corners, take advantage of others, or play the pity card.

And when cancer finally got the worst of her, on the evening of January 19th, 1984, she even managed to show me how to die with dignity. As her strength waned and the pain running through her body ratcheted up, she remained more concerned with how her loved ones were going to get past this loss than how she was going to face it. She filled Dorothy's ear with advice on how to help "the boys" through it, and similarly tasked Richard and I with making sure that our aunt didn't succumb to the natural grief with which this turn of events was going to burden her. A very clever woman, my mother: she turned our attention toward each other at a time when all we wanted to think about was her and how each of us was ever going to handle our own pain in trying to get through "life after Doreen." I wish that I had half her smarts; and I can only hope that, when my time comes, I shuffle off this mortal coil with a tenth the class that she did.

It was early on a Thursday evening that she died, after several of us made the decision to take her off the ventilator (in accordance with her wishes, as she'd expressed them earlier). Of all the various reasons why I still remember after all these years that it was a Thursday, here's the stupidest: when I got home that night, and saw that my favourite show (at the time) was on TV, I wondered how it was that Hill Street Blues had suddenly become so meaningless and trivial. The program itself hadn't changed, though... I'd simply grown up a little bit on that cold day in January of 1984.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mr Obama: Please Don't Follow This Man's Example

Regardless of whether or not he's ever seen this little clip from a commercial break during The Late Show with David Letterman, I implore the next President of the United States of America to treat the people around him with more respect than the last one evidently did.

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin Demo Out Next Thursday

With the game itself due to arrive on the first Tuesday of February, it wasn't terribly surprising (but still welcome!) to learn today that a single player demo for it will be available for PS/3, 360 and PC gamers in less than a week. Since I haven't decided yet whether I'll be buying the game for 360 or PS/3, maybe I'll just download the demo on each and compare the two to see which one I like better!

Does this really interest anyone but me? Probably not, but when's that ever stopped me before?

Friday, January 16, 2009

His Fans Probably Just Wish He'd Died Back In 1987

Just think how much happier Boy George's fans would be if he'd gone out in a blaze of glory thanks to a drug overdose when he was still "on top of the world", like pop stars are supposed to, instead of headlining this gross tabloid story in 2009.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Today's Big News

Could anything else really top this?

Resistance (The Comic) # 1

It's interesting to imagine just what a typical buyer of Resistance # 1 might be looking for in the comic. Almost certainly some significant portion of the audience will be made up of fans of the Resistance 2 video game (like me), but others will presumably have picked it up because they recognized the Wildstorm logo or are fans of war comics. And possibly there might even be some sales that go to fans of the creative team (Mike Costa and Ramon Perez). Looked at from another angle, this could very easily be one of the first comics ever purchased by some, if they're comic virgins but love the video game and thought that it would be cool to get some backstory in this way. In other words, people will likely be coming at Resistance # 1 from a lot of different directions.

From my perspective, it's a nearly-workable start to the mini-series. The main story introduces us to a small cast of army personnel, some of whom are familiar to me (though barely) from the game franchise. I was jarred by the transition between the opening sequence, involving a squadron of U.S. fighter planes (circa 1951) being surprised and thoroughly outgunned by a Chimera armada, and the scenes that followed in which the first fledgling members of the Sentinel group were shown going about their workaday lives, back at some Army base somewhere. Did the air battle take place later and the following scenes constitute a flashback, or were they set in different locales but around the same time? We learn that the Chimera have moved from Europe onto American soil (Alaska) by way of the Bering Strait, and so possibly that was what was shown at the start. There just simply aren't enough visual or verbal references given to make it clear just what's being portrayed.

What is apparent, though, is that the Sentinel squad is being prepped for an extraction job in Alaska. Robert Oppenheimer is among the missing up there, and that small detail leads to the final page's shocking revelation, which I won't spoil here. I'm disappointed in just how little background is provided in this first issue, though, since I would imagine that the average reader who'd never played Resistance: Fall of Man or Resistance 2 could quite easily be lost by this point. The squad members are told, "you've all been brought to this base because of your shared... experiences" but nothing further is provided. Have they all encountered the Chimera and lived to tell it (despite the fact that the alien invaders are just now expanding into America)? Or have they all had exposure of some sort to alien technology, and that's the common bond? We're simply not told, and I suppose that's considered a hook that will bring the reader back for more. Or at least someone hopes that it is!

The second story, which makes up the final six pages of the comic, takes place in a community outside London and puts the focus on a single family whose lives have been turned upside down by the arrival of the Chimera in England in the late 1940s. As with the main feature, this one's written fairly obliquely (again, by Mike Costa), leaving much to the imagination of the reader. We're shown that the aliens have established bases in continental Europe - a lovely shot by artist CP Smith is included revealing a Chimeran structure dwarfing the Eiffel Tower - but the exact state of London isn't clear. "The military's going to lock down the city any day now," the narrator's brother Johnny tells him, and yet he continues to head in there in order to... hang out with his riffraff friends? What's up with that?

Overall, I'd say that this kickoff issue is written and constructed like there's an unwritten compact between its creators and its fans that everyone is along for the six-issue ride. Under that conceit, we readers agree to sit back and wait for answers, as well as scanning (and re-scanning) pages, looking for the most subtle of clues. It's not a terrible approach to take for folks like me (I probably fit the demographic which they're targeting, after all) but I worry that others will pay their $3.99 U.S. for this first issue, reward it with a solid "meh" reaction and resolve not to bother with the rest of the series before moving on to more accessible fare. Personally, I would have given the general audience a little more to hang their hats on in that initial issue, but then again... I'm not a professional comic writer!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Barack Obama And The Empty Suit

One of the many derogatory terms that I've seen applied to President-Elect Barack Obama in recent days is "empty suit." In one way, it says something positive about how far our Western culture has come that the first black U.S. president is being slurred in a way that criticizes his assumed character, rather than his racial makeup. Believe it or not, that's progress!

But after reading that term for the 2nd or 3rd time, I started thinking about what its use really told me. I suspect that the employers of the "empty suit attack" believe that Obama is nothing but a speaker-of-platitudes. In other words, he's not someone who will ever actually accomplish anything, but rather will be all talk and no action. If anyone can think of an alternative interpretation, please speak up...

If I'm right, though, then I really have to wonder about the intelligence of those who'd throw that slight around. Yes, I know that the Republican party, especially as personified by Gov Sarah Palin, spent much of the last few months leading up to the election characterizing Obama as being inexperienced (when they weren't otherwise occupied insinuating that he chummed around with terrorists... just like the Bushes and their Saudi friends, I guess!). "He's only been in the U.S. Senate for 2 years," they'd point out, "and most of that has been taken up by his running for President!" What they always seem to forget, or choose not to remember, is that Obama was an Illinois State Senator for 7 years. He didn't wake up one morning and decide that he wanted to be President, spend a couple years in the U.S. Senate and then somehow ride a wave of change-hankering madness to the highest office in the land (as some would have us believe). He also, unlike the man he'll shortly replace in the Oval Office, didn't have a family name to fall back on in his pursuit of political power. Each success (and failure) that Barack Hussein Obama has experienced has come on the strength of his own character and his ability to speak to the voters' hearts and minds.

The other aspect of the "empty suit" argument that boggles my mind is that it suggests that he really stands for nothing. While I can understand some cynics attributing that character flaw to many politicians in this day and age, Obama has published a very entertaining (and best-selling) book that details exactly what he believes! The Audacity of Hope, which I'm now about 80% through, reads like a character study of its author. He lays out, in painstaking detail, what he considers the greatest challenges of the 21st century to be, and what he believes should be done about each. He often adopts stances that are surely going to turn some people off (such as some of the educational programs that he's supportive of) but he accepts that and moves on, after explaining why they're so important. It's all right there on the printed page, trapped for all eternity and immune to the artistry of HTML wizards who might update a campaign webpage to reflect the prevailing winds (such as a true empty suit might employ).

I had many doubts about Obama when he and Hilary Clinton were going at it head-to-head back at the start of 2008, and my biggest concern was that they'd beat the crap out of each other and leave an easy target for whichever Republican would win their party's nomination. It really wasn't until the three Presidential debates that I got a good read on this "young" man (he's roughly the same age as I am!) at which point it became clear that he was the real deal and John McCain was a desperate old man whose only chance for success rested with his ability to denigrate his opponent. Everything that I've learned about him since then has elevated Obama's star in my mind, to the point where I think that it's possible he may actually become one of the greatest leaders to have served during my lifetime. Not exactly the sort of person who I'd describe as an "empty suit."

If only George W. Bush had just been an empty suit, instead of a clown with the power of an emperor.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Some TV News

Thanks to Blog@Newsarama, we have this article to ponder, in which such Fox programs as Fringe and Dollhouse (among other, less interesting fare) get a few words. Nothing too earth-shattering, but at least Fringe sounds like it's healthy at the moment.

More Details About The Resistance Comic, Which Launches This Week

It's a fairly light news day (for me, anyway) but there was this, at least, which is an interview with the writer of the Resistance mini-series. We'll see how the actual product looks, a bit later this week, at which point I'll probably post some thoughts here. With all the snow falling right now, I'm not at all sure when I'll get to the comic store... but I doubt that it'll be tomorrow!

Monday, January 12, 2009

1/12th Of The Way Through The 7th Season Of 24

We watched the 2-hour premiere of Season Seven of 24 last night. There's something almost comforting about a new season of this show starting up (after a 20-month absence, not counting the recent TV-movie), in that... you kind of know what to expect! Jack will be in deep trouble of some sort (check!), someone will need his help to prevent or deal with an imminent terrorist threat (check!), and we'll start to suspect (or find out) that someone within that organization is a mole (check!). It's very by-the-numbers TV, and yet...

... somehow I enjoyed it. I may tire of it later, as I did during the previous season, but right now it's fun trying to guess which 24 archetype or cliche will be dragged out on stage next. Is FBI Agent Walker (the chick with the freckles) the new Michelle...? (sort of feels that way) Is Janeane Garofalo the new Chloe...? (so far, so good) Has Tony really gone bad, or is this all just an elaborate undercover job for him...? (my money's on the latter)

I certainly wouldn't recommend 24 to anyone these days. But at the moment, it's my guilty pleasure of 2009.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin Less Than A Month Away?

This article puts the F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin release date as Feb 10th, and also lets PC gamers know that an early demo will be available for their platform of choice, as well as for the two consoles. I'm excited at the prospect of PS/3 and XBox 360 demos for the game perhaps as early as a week or two from now, but really jazzed to think that I could have the game itself in less than a month! Between this one and Killzone 2, February's looking like a very exciting month for First Person Shooter fans.


I just had my own little version of Obamamania:

Not only am I actively reading The Audacity of Hope right now, but the issue of Time magazine that I'm in the middle of is their "Person of the Year 2008" special, which is all about Obama. Add in the fact that I just finished watching today's episode of ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos which featured an extended interview with the President-Elect and you get quite the immersive experience!

With only 9 days to go until the Jan 20th Inauguration, I suspect it's only going to get "worse." As his highly-ineffective predecessor might say, "Bring it on!"

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Perils And Rewards Of Continuity-Rich TV

Peter J has posted a very thought-provoking entry over at The Studio Has A Few Notes, which I encourage all fans of this site to go read. He links to a list of 94 unanswered Battlestar Galactica questions (and hey, what's not to love about the number "94"?) and opens the can of worms that's on many BSG fans' minds as the final half-season of the show looms on the horizon: by the time it's over, will it have been proven to be a tightly-written masterpiece, or just a ragtag collection of "throw it against the wall and see what sticks?" notions with no real master plan behind them?

And yeah, I have my own doubts that enough really will be "tied up" in the few remaining episodes of BSG as to leave us, as well as potential future fans of the show (in DVD format), with a fully coherent tapestry in which everything meshes up perfectly. I have the same sort of doubts about Lost, but with BSG the uneasiness is stronger and the journey itself has been (somewhat) less rewarding. So why do I like both shows so much?

Well... Part of it is the journey, for sure. I'd quite honestly rather watch a TV show that strives for greatness (on a topic that I'm interested in) and comes up short than one that never attempts to do anything more than provide a forum for 12 minutes of advertisement every hour. I like "mythology" shows, for example, because (as with the serialized comic book format) they have a larger canvas upon which to compose. That hardly guarantees quality results, of course, as more often than not they come up well short of the mark (see: X-Files, to name but one example). Still, I respect the attempt, and for as long as I can hold out hope (and the creators can hold my interest), I'll give them that shot. I stuck with X-Files right up until the start of the final season, for crying out loud... but I doubt that I'll ever extend my trust that far beyond the breaking point again.

I also love science fiction stories. That shouldn't come as any surprise, given that so many of my own short stories have been within that genre. I thrill to the possibilities inherent in science fiction, despite the fact that - once again! - the results across the board have been less than impressive. I tend to think that Theodore Sturgeon had it right with his "90% of everything is crap" and have long since derived my own corollary to that: "... and our challenge is to find the other 10%." That's how I approach every new comic series I sample, every new TV show I check out, and every book I read the first several pages of. When a comic series falls into "the other 10%" category, it can be an amazing experience, worthy of many re-readings over a lifetime. And the same is true of science fiction on TV. The best Star Trek episodes, dated though they may be 40 years later, still provided social commentary, suspense, and humour that could appeal to young and old alike. In fact, one of the hallmarks of really good science fiction (and, perhaps, fiction in general) is that you can still enjoy it even if some of its subtext is "over your head", "under your radar" or just not the sort of thing that you pick up on. To some, after all, The Matrix is just a really cool, kick-ass movie with lots of gunplay and a hero who learns Kung Fu in about 5 minutes.

While I still enjoy some shows that aren't continuity-heavy (CSI, ER, Law & Order, for example), the risks they take are fewer and the rewards they provide are smaller. A really good ER episode may deliver as much of a punch as a middling installment of Lost, but a top-notch hour of Lost blows anything ER has ever done right out of the water. The advantage that those "done in one" series have, of course, is that the entry cost for new viewers is pretty close to zero. Fortunately, the advent of DVD collections has mitigated that situation somewhat. Vicki and I passed on BSG after watching the initial mini-series, but when we decided to give it a second try, it was largely thanks to the availability of each of the first two seasons on DVD (and the kindness of a couple of co-workers).

And finally, I guess I just happen to like heroic fiction. Blame that one on all of those thousands of comic books that I've read over the past 40 years. I'm just not all that interested in tales that focus on the despicable types (The Sopranos, Goodfellas) or fill the screen with unlikeable people (Seinfeld, In the Company of Men). It's just a personal taste thing, but it's also values-based. I don't think that celebrating the vices of humanity is a good way to spend what little time I'll have in this life, and so I choose not to. I'd rather spend that precious time enjoying a contest between good and evil, or an adventure in which characters overcome adversity while growing in the process. I think that fiction should entertain us and maybe even enrich our lives, not depress us or play to our (mostly-suppressed) sadistic tendencies. Shows like BSG, Lost and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles at least present the possibility for that kind of experience, although it's always a bit of a crap shoot as to whether they'll pull it off or not.

Thanks to Peter J for giving me so much to think (and blog) about on this topic!

Some Early Thoughts On The Audacity of Hope

I'm only about 1/3 of the way through Barack Obama's second book, but it's impressed me enough already in a number of ways that I thought I should capture some of them while they're still fresh in my mind.

To begin with, I wouldn't have imagined, prior to getting well into this work, that a well-known politician would ever publish such an honest account of his values, experiences and viewpoints while still in office. What I would expect from someone in that situation is a book which would read like a collection of talking points, intended to show you in no uncertain terms just how correct each and every one of his or her stances actually is. Lots of anecdotes would be included, showing that abortion is or isn't murder, or proving that all markets should be unregulated or conversely how government should control every aspect of our lives. And it may even be the case that Republicans who choose to read The Audacity of Hope (for whatever reason) will interpret it in just that way. But if they do, then I suspect that they're probably skimming its pages and simply underlining the parts that they disagree with on principle.

I say that because there's a whole lot more to be found than just regurgitated Democratic Party doctrine, even within the four chapters that I've read to date. Obama allows throughout for the possibility that maybe he's wrong in this opinion or that one, but goes beyond that, focusing on the notion that what's important is that these topics get discussed! If he's trying to convince anyone of anything, as far as I can tell, it's this: let's respect each other's values and come together with the goal of finding the best possible solution to each problem with those values in mind (instead of simply shouting over each other). I found that a very refreshing approach from a politician, and it's no doubt part of his appeal in general.

Obama is also very deft at instilling empathy in the reader. In a chapter entitled "Politics", he expends some energy describing what it feels like to be a politician (recognizing, one assumes, that most people will never be in that position). He does this in order to more clearly identify why some of what the rest of us consider "politics as usual" actually occurs. He's not defending pork barrel politics or the disproportionate power of lobbyists in the least, but rather he's trying to provide context to the rest of us so that we can better understand the driving force behind those phenomena. By way of conveying just how big a part of an elected official's life "not losing" becomes, he uses the example of Al Gore in the months immediately following the 2000 election. As former Vice President of the United States, Gore had held incredible power before Jeb Bush's cronies cost him the presidential election (my bitter interpretation, not Obama's!)... and yet it all evaporated in short order when he became simply "the guy who lost to Bush." Seeing politicians through that lens provides all kinds of insight to readers of The Audacity of Hope as to what might impel them to go to the extreme lengths that they do in order to win elections... including, sometimes, criminally-long lengths!

He also writes very personally of how uncomfortable he was when he had to begin raising large sums of money to support his U.S. Senate campaign. "I started engaging in elaborate games of avoidance during call time - frequent bathroom breaks, extended coffee runs, suggestions to my policy staff that we fine-tune that education speech for the third or fourth time. At times during these sessions I thought of my grandfather, who in middle age had sold life insurance but wasn't very good at it. I recalled his anguish whenever he tried to schedule appointments with people who would rather have had a root canal than talk to an insurance agent, as well as the disapproving glances that he received from my grandmother, who for most of their marriage made more money than he did." Passages like that really humanize Obama, as well as pulling back the curtain a bit on campaign financing and the beggar's nature of it.

I'd love to see this book become required reading for (North) American teenagers, because I think that there are a great many important messages to be found within it. It's hard to imagine just how many young, impressionable minds might be inspired by Barack Obama's unique brand of pragmatism, optimism and honesty... certainly more than will be lead to greatness by Britney Spears' latest video or Plexico Burress' most recent night club misadventure.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Dear Diary: Today Was A Good Day

In a week that had been less than stellar, what allowed today to break that miserable trend? Well:
  • lunch with McChicken and another friend, during which we mostly talked about video games and TV shows;
  • a very nice after-dinner visit from Boneman followed by some online Resistance 2 Competitive and Cooperative collusion (cut unceremoniously short by a network disconnect on my end, but beggars can't be choosers);
  • Vicki setting a new high score for Hexic on the XBox 360, along with a new revelation for something even more elaborate to try next time in the quest for ever-higher placements on the worldwide Hexic leaderboard (she's now in the Top 3000!);
  • not having to shovel for a change!
See? It doesn't necessarily have to take that much for it to be a good day!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Letterman Humour

On tonight's Late Show, Dave did a gag about Obama considering former Time Warner Chairman Dick Parsons for Secretary of Commerce. He showed a little bio of Parsons, highlighting the Time Warner cable angle, and then said that Parsons had agreed to show up for his interview with the President-Elect on Friday "sometime between 9 A.M. and 4 P.M."

Books I'm Currently Reading

I often have more than one book "on the go" at a time, but right now I seem to be in overdrive in that regard. Here's the list as of right now:

Sixty Days and Counting by Kim Stanley Robinson - I'm about 1/4 of the way through and currently stalled. I enjoyed the first two in this series (Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below) but for some reason the conclusion just seems very uninteresting to me. I relished the thought of an environmental apocalypse (in fictional form, of course) and have so far just gotten a personal story about a woman on the run and the man who lusts after her. Yawn! I haven't completely given up yet, though, despite having not picked the book up in over a month now.

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner - Tammy brought her copy home over Christmas, and the three of us read aloud from it over the holidays! When Tammy left, there were still a couple of chapters to go, and so Vicki and I have similarly been narrating it to each other. Just one chapter remains in what's a very, very good book. It'll be hard to ever look at statistics relating to teaching, crime or sumo wrestlers quite the same way again!

Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem - This is, what, my fifth Lethem book now? While not quite as captivating as The Fortress of Solitude or Motherless Brooklyn, it's still proving to be an entertaining read. I'm about 2/3 of the way through this hybrid detective/science fiction novel in which animals have been forcibly evolved to possess intelligence and the U.S. government keeps it population well medicated.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell - I'm almost done Gladwell's latest page-turner, which I've enjoyed every bit as much as Blink and The Tipping Point before it. I realize that he's not everybody's cup of tea, but I appreciate his unique perspective and how he applies it so well in ways that I'd never even considered (like how the cultural background of airline pilots affects their ability to handle crises in the air). Any Gladwell fans would enjoy Freakonomics (and vice versa), I suspect.

Watching the Watchmen by Dave Gibbons - Despite being somewhat disappointed in the contents, this "coffee table book"-sized collection of sketch art and ruminations from the artist of Watchmen is still occasionally thrilling me. I'd hoped for more words but instead got lots of preliminary artwork... which I guess I should've expected, given that it's written by an illustrator! Having said that, I've still learned a thing or two about the creation of Watchmen, and that's quite an accomplishment for a property as well publicized as that one's been!

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama - Vicki managed to return A Confederacy of Dunces after I decided that I didn't want to read it, and replaced it with this best-seller. I'm about 60 pages in and have a favourable impression of it so far. In some ways, it's drier than I'd hoped for (given Obama's eloquence in his prepared speeches) but part of that is the subject matter that he's covered up in those early pages (mostly political, talking about the similarities and differences between Democrats and Republicans). The one aspect of reading The Audacity of Hope that absolutely gives me goose bumps, at times, is the notion that the man who put all of these fine ideals down on paper for all the world to see will shortly (in less than 2 weeks!) be leading the most powerful nation on Earth! Wow! If he can accomplish even half of what he lays out in this book, the 21st century may actually recover from the incredible damage perpetrated by Bush & cronies in its first 8 years.

Things That Make You Gag

I hadn't initially planned on buying any of the 5-issue Ultimatum series from Marvel Comics when it started up, because I'm pretty burned out on their whole "event" mentality at the moment. However, the artist for Ultimatum is David Finch, whose work I've enjoyed before, and so when # 2 came out, I decided to pick up the first two issues and give it a try.

It's billed as being a huge turning point in the "Ultimate universe" that Marvel introduced with their Ultimate Spider-Man title all those many years ago. I've largely ignored that imprint, although the first two volumes of The Ultimates were great, both in terms of story and art. When volume 3 of that title was announced last year and I saw that Jeph Loeb was writing it, I gave it a pass and everything that I've heard about it since has reinforced that decision. Not coincidentally, Loeb is also the mastermind behind Ultimatum, which brings us to this very disturbing scene from the second issue:

The dead woman on the ground is the Wasp (a founding member of the Avengers in the regular Marvel Universe, who was recently killed off at the end of Secret Invasion, which now looks like a mercy killing compared to what happened to her Ultimate U counterpart) and the creature eating her intestines is the Blob, one of Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. I'd confidently say that this is one of the most disgusting scenes I've ever come across in almost 40 years of reading comics. Oh, sure, we've had cannibalism in the Ultimate U before (the Hulk has been known to chow down on human flesh, believe it or not) but having the victim be a well-known superheroine just takes it to a new level of depravity.

Needless to say, I've purchased my final issue of Ultimatum, and probably my last Ultimate U title (at least for the foreseeable future). If what I'm seeing there is the new direction of that line of comics, then they're just going to have to get by without any more of my money (which I'm sure they won't miss, since I wasn't spending that much on it before anyway). Just when you think Marvel can't sink any lower in terms of good taste, they have to go and prove you wrong!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Time For Another Embargo

Following tonight's debacle at MSG (thoughtfully broadcast for the whole country to watch by TSN), it's apparent that the Rangers are, indeed, in a major slump (relative to how they started the season). With tonight's 6-3 manhandling by the hated Habs, they're now 2-4-1 in their last 7 games, most of which were played at home. Just imagine how they'll do on their 5-game road trip that starts right.



Well, you can imagine all you like, but I won't be following their escapades. I'm going dark on the Rangers once again, and will check back on them in a couple weeks or so. By then they'll likely have fallen from a playoff spot, but at least I won't have had to play witness to their collapse. Bad enough that we're on the cusp of yet another Steelers championship without enduring a Rangers crash-and-burn at the same time! (Yes, I'm in a pissy mood... so what?)

Respect the embargo! Comment about comics or politics for a change!

Final Crisis # 5 Raises The Bar Still Higher

Final Crisis # 5 came out 4 weeks ago, and the 6th issue is due out next week. Now seemed like a good time to re-read December's offering in the series, and what do you know: it wowed me even more the second time!

# 5 kicks off with a multi-page visit to Oa, the planet where the Guardians of the Universe chill out with their protectors of the cosmos, the Green Lantern Corps. In one of the most straight-forward, easy-to-follow segments in the series to date, six beautifully-illustrated pages are spent on Oa as Alpha Lantern Kraken is revealed to all as being merely the host body for Granny Goodness, one of the many Fourth World New Gods of Apokolips who've been popping up in the strangest places. Her ploy to frame Hal "GL" Jordan for the murder of another New God is finally seen for what it was, and the dire straits occurring back on Earth are recognized for the first time by the one group (outside of the superhero contingent back home, most of whom have already fallen under Darkseid's Anti-Life spell) with the power to do anything about it. This portion of the issue ends with one of the Guardians saying, "Cleared of all charges. You have 24 hours to save the universe, Lantern Jordan!" (No pressure!)

I stand by earlier comments that what this 7-issue series really needed is more room than it's been given, but even so we're getting an amazing tour de force trip through the DC Universe that operates on way more levels than your typical comic book. Author Grant Morrison is hitting on all cylinders in this one, and the art - split between regular contributor JG Jones and helping hand Carlos Pacheco - absolutely sings in this installment. There's a wordless centre spread that features as unlikely a collection of characters as you'd find anywhere, including Black Adam, Supergirl, Frankenstein's Monster (on a motorcycle), Captain Marvel and a few that even I don't recognize!

Batman apparently comes back onto the stage next issue (he's even on the cover!), at which point we'll find out just what happened after the "Batman R.I.P." storyline wrapped up last month. It's about time for the tide to turn in this one, as the heroes have been taking it on the chin for long enough and I have to think that the Caped Crusader and the currently-missing Man of Steel will factor heavily into whatever plan is going to the majority of the planet's population from Darkseid's control. And I can hardly wait to see what the post-Final Crisis landscape is going to look like, on the off-chance that it might just be very cool. Regardless of that, though, Morrison has created a modern masterpiece with this event, making it about as far removed from its Marvel counterpart (Secret Invasion) as I could imagine. Virtually every page of Final Crisis packs as many thrills as a typical issue of the other one, and that's pretty damned impressive!

Now I'm off to check out the Final Crisis Secret Files that came out last week...

Dog Humour, Courtesy Of Scott Adams

Dilbert creator Scott Adams has his own blog (I discovered today) and many of the posts there are quite interesting. This one, however, almost caused an unscheduled spit take to occur right here in my living room! I hope you enjoy it, too (but keep the liquid refreshments at a safe distance while reading).