Monday, January 31, 2011

Things Fall Apart

At the end of November last year, I blogged about the coming shitstorm over Internet bandwidth, prompted by the arrival of a streaming-only Netflix service here in Canada as well as the perpetually-growing popularity of YouTube and other streaming sites. Well, it appears that storm has now arrived!

The last several days have seen a flurry of reaction to Bell Canada's impending implementation of Usage Based Billing, which was approved by the CRTC last year. Starting in March (i.e. a month from now), Bell internet customers - which include Vicki and I - will be charged using an escalating fee structure based on the amount of bandwidth they use each month.

While it's a bit hard for me to criticize that approach in general - after all, most services like taxis, buses, electricity, gas, water, etc, operate under the same principle - it sounds like the pricing being used is going to be rather ridiculous. And by "ridiculous", I mean highly profitable to Bell and deleterious to their clientele. The critics are certainly painting a picture of increases for everyone, regardless of how reasonable your bandwidth consumption might be. I guess I won't really have a sense of the scale of the problem until we get our first bill under the new system, but if it's as bad as the most cynical depiction makes it out to be, that may be the end of Netflix for is. After all, $7.99 / month for Netflix is one thing; $20 or $30 / month is completely out of the question.

This development is certainly a sad commentary on just how backwards Canada can sometimes be both in terms of technology and catering to powerful industry, but I suppose none of us should be all that surprised.

[Update Feb 3/11: It looks like the CRTC's decision may be reversed, which would come as welcome news to most of us!]

A Bit Of Star-Gazing, On A Monday

For a bit of an update on the latest attempts to find Earth-like planets out there in the galaxy, check out this article. I still find it hard to believe that our current planet manages to be home to a species that includes both creatures as intelligent as the ones quoted in that piece and ones who can't even bring themselves to believe in evolution. What a wacky world we live on!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

All The Best Superheroes Have British Eyes

News has just broken that English actor Henry Cavill has been cast as Kal-El / Clark Kent / Superman for the Christopher Nolan-produced, Zack Snyder-directed Man of Steel feature film due out late next year. He joins countryman Christian Bale in the very select category of "British Actors Portraying One of the Two Biggest Superheroes Of All Time". If he's even half as effective at it as Mr Bale has been through two movies so far, then sign me up to his bandwagon. There's still the troubling aspect of Snyder's directorial involvement, which I'm fearful Nolan's producing powers won't be able to completely nullify, but what can you do?

[Update later that same day: Tammy, in the comments, points out that the current Spider-Man-in-filming, Andrew Garfield, is of British descent. Born in California of British parents, he was eventually raised in the UK. So we'll add him to the list!]

(The title of this blog post of course plays off the name of Pete Townshend's highly entertaining album All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes.)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Some Thoughts On True Grit (2010)

Last night McChicken and I ventured forth for a rare "out of the house" Movie Night. I've wanted to see the Coen Brothers' version of True Grit since I saw the first trailer for it, and fortunately my gaming compadre was onside with that choice.

I went into the film eager to see how it measured up against Clint Eastwood's 1992 classic, Unforgiven, better known in my brain as "the type of Western I enjoy watching." While the two films are quite different, they also share some common traits beyond the genre itself. As McChicken pointed out while we were exiting the theatre, humour was perhaps the biggest differentiator between the two. Unforgiven's lighter moments were few and far between and carried with them a harder edge when they did show up. Gene Hackman's portrayal of the sheriff, for example, was occasionally played for laughs - such as when he bragged of building his own house while it leaked like a sieve during a rainstorm - but he always seemed like a coiled snake, preparing to pounce if the wrong word were directed his way. Eastwood's "wild" Bill Munny may've had trouble getting onto his horse at times, but any laughs resulting from that situation were quickly silenced by the unrelenting grimness of the man's history and personality.

The Coen Brothers, on the other hand, infused their update of True Grit with quite a bit more levity. From the hardheaded negotiation skills of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (played exquisitely by Hailee Steinfeld, who earned a rather strangely categorized Best Supporting Actress Oscar nom last week) to the sometimes incomprehensible mumblings of Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn and the too earnest-by-half Texas Ranger-aggrandizing of Matt Damon as Ranger LaBoeuf (humourously pronounced as "LeBeef" for most of the film), the audience that we saw True Grit with broke up on a regular basis, present company included. And each such outburst seemed to come just when the screenwriting/directing Coens planned it, which is always a good sign.

Although I have only vague recollections of the original, star-studded version of the film - featuring John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and a young Kim Darby - it seemed like the new one cleaved very closely to the source material. It's a tale of retribution, moved relentlessly forward against ridiculous odds by the will of the 14-year-old daughter of a murdered man. That quest for vengeance, on the part of a female character, is one of the similarities to Unforgiven. But where the slashed prostitute of the earlier film was willing to pay her bounty and wait for justice to be exacted, young Mattie Ross demands to go along for the ride. The heart of the film is the relationship that develops being the old, crusty drunk (Cogburn) and the bright but bitter-beyond-her-years idealist (Ross). We get the usual ups and downs that are standard fare for such unlikely alliances, but it's all done in a highly entertaining fashion. As with the Clint Eastwood vehicle, each of True Grit's main characters are striking in their distinctness. None are simply there to move the plot along or provide filler; in fact, each has an arc, of sorts, that he or she travels through over the course of the movie.

The final scene of the film is likely to be the one that stays with me the longest. It takes place 25 years after the main story and gives us a glimpse of what those early experiences did, both physically and emotionally, to the adolescent girl who should never had had to undergo them. It's incredibly poignant, in an understated way.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ethan and Joel Coen's True Grit, and look forward to watching it a second time!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Multimedia Mad Men

We're closing in on the end of Season Three of Mad Men on Netflix, with only three or four episodes to go. I was already starting to worry about how we'd see the fourth season in time to join the show when it launched its fifth season later this year, when Vicki happened to mention that she might have most of Season Four on her Tivo box upstairs. A quick comparison of the episode guide against what she has recorded showed that, sure enough, she has them all! So there goes the problem of catching up!

This means that, by the time we begin watching the next season of Mad Men, we'll have watched the show via four different media:
  1. DVD - Season One
  2. Video streaming (Netflix) - Seasons Two and Three
  3. PVR recording (Tivo) - Season Four
  4. Live TV broadcast - Season Five
That's a lot of different ways to watch Don Draper screw around on his lovely wife, Betty! Ain't the 21st century something?!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Books I'm Currently Reading (January 2011 Edition)

I've been plowing through books lately, so I really should do these lists more frequently than I have been!

Anyway, I've knocked off the following since my last update:

Room by Emma Donoghue - Julie whipped through this one back in November, reading most of it in one sitting. At first she didn't want me to read it because she feared I'd "ruin it" for her somehow (?), but eventually she changed her mind and handed me her copy. I found its fictional tale of a young boy growing up in a one-room environment with his kidnapped mother absolutely heart-wrenching, veering as close as it does to some high-profile, real-life tragedies like what happened to Jaycee Dugard. It's extremely well-written, and it managed to avoid the two pitfalls that I worried through much of the early pages that it'd fall into. It was hard to put down, and like Julie, I ended up reading it over the course of a very short time (about 36 hours, in my case). Wonderful and terrible, its twists and turns moved me to tears on more than one occasion.

Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire - Continuing the Julie theme, this is the book she lent me when I asked for something good to tide me over for the last few weeks until Christmas (when I knew my reading pile would be replenished, as it was!). Not for nothing, she mentioned to me that this was possibly her favourite book... ever. No pressure! I thoroughly enjoyed it, although it's unlikely it'll ever end up on any short list of my own personal favourites. Eire does a remarkable job recreating the Havana of his childhood in the days and months leading up to Castro's assumption of power. I learned more about Cuba in those 400+ pages than I probably had in my life leading up to last December. I could've done without some of the over-the-top Catholic imagery, but otherwise loved it. I can definitely see what Julie adores about it.

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein - The worst days of my January cold this year were made significantly more bearable by this wonderful book. Klein lays out her thesis in great detail over 560 pages, but I was never bored or felt that she was repeating herself. So much of what's happened on the world stage relating to privatization and de-regulation now makes much more sense to me, thanks to Ms Klein. I don't know that I'll ever be able to look at the International Monetary Fund the same way again, nor will I ever be confused as to why it garners such furious opposition whenever it meets. If I had to point to one book today that every coming-of-age young mind should have to read, this is it. Huge shout-out to daughter Tammy for introducing me to this excellent tome.

Books in progress right now:

Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov - I've made it all the way to the 4th Foundation book, which I'm actually enjoying more than any of the (classic) first three. I don't think I'll venture past this one, but it's been fun to reacquaint myself with work from my younger years. This series is an excellent example of a far-ranging story told in broad strokes, where events are less important in and of themselves than they are in terms of what they represent as part of a Master Plan (the Seldon Plan, in this case). Fun, simple Sci Fi.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking - I've heard a few people describe this as "inpenetrable", and yet I'm finding it anything but. Sure, some of the science is a bit beyond me, but Hawking clearly recognizes that fact and does an impressive job putting some of the more brain-busting concepts into simpler terms. I loved the chapter on black holes, and am just now reading about the origin of the universe. What's cooler than that, I ask you (actually, it was pretty hot... infinitely so to begin with, and then dropping all the way down to 1,000,000,000 degrees one second after the Big Bang!)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot - Almost a year ago, I blogged about Henrietta Lacks and opined that her story was possibly the greatest one ever told. That naturally sounds like hyperbole, but now that I'm actually reading Ms. Skloot's account of both Mrs Lacks' life and what became of the cells taken from her before she died, I stand by my earlier assessment. I think you'd be hard pressed to find another individual in the history of our species who so perfectly combines anonymity in the general public's minds (at least, until now) with the magnitude of his or her impact on society. In this case, it was Henrietta Lacks' cells that've changed all of our lives in a staggering array of ways, all while even her own impoverished family remained largely ignorant of her incalculable contribution to medicine and science. As this book gets more and more press, though, maybe Henrietta Lacks' name and descendants will gain the fame and fortune, respectively, that they're owed.

3 Demos, 0 Sales

Earlier in the month, my sampling of the Dead Space 2 demo convinced me not to buy the game once it launched. Good for me, in that it saved me approximately $70, but bad for the game developer.

Yesterday, I tried two more demos: Bulletstorm and Crysis 2. Neither came even close to winning me over, although I could see how each would appeal to different types of gamers.

Bulletstorm gets top marks for creativity, as the focus in the game appears to be on earning XP by killing your enemies in the most original manners possible! Combo moves, such as pulling the creature toward you via an electronic leash and then smashing him against a wall, generate more value for you than simply shooting them repeatedly in the head. Therefore, anyone who wants to really think about how to eliminate their enemies will probably have a great time with this game. To me, it felt too much like a button masher where I have to expend large quantities of mental energy just remembering what to press in what order, and so I'll pass. But the demo definitely had a few fun moments, including the point at which I completely ran out of ammo and yet stayed alive for another several minutes by virtue of simply kicking everyone who came at me firing!

Crysis 2 feels like a poor man's Call of Duty to me. The graphics were unimpressive, and most of the movements felt slightly off, rather like Killzone 2 did, at first. Now, I got used to KZ2's 'weighty controls' after awhile, so maybe the same would be true for this game if I stuck with it. But I'm not sure the payoff's there, to be honest. I got sniped many times, often from a distance, and had a hard time figuring out exactly how the physics in the game worked. At one point I fell quite a long distance but suffered no perceivable damage; at another, I saw players making huge leaps that I didn't seem capable of. I also got killed up close by an unseen enemy, which was my clue that we could cloak ourselves. Those are all teething pains, to be sure, but nothing about the map (a rooftop greenhouse area) or the action itself made me want to continue.

If I had to buy one of the two, it'd be Crysis 2, I suppose. I could imagine playing it for a day or two before I'd want to go back to Call of Duty: Black Ops and experience real fun. With the Killzone 3 demo/beta just a week away now, and the full game coming a couple weeks later, I can't see shelling out cash for either of these Tier-B offerings, though.

[Update later that same day: I just finished trying Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II demo, with similar results. It's possible that I'm the dumbest gamer ever, but when I try for five minutes to force grip a TIE fighter in order to throw it into a tower, all to no avail, that's a pretty good clue that this game ain't for me!]

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

That's Very Annoying, Microsoft!

I reported back in November/December that I thought I'd finally broken free of XBox Live when my credit card that was on my XBox 360 account expired. However, the joke was on me, as the transaction apparently still went through, despite having the wrong expiration date and verification code (it still had the values for the old card, rather than the new one). Therefore I've been signed up for another year of XBox Live Gold, despite barely using it over the preceding year of service.

Tonight, since I was downloading the demo for Crysis 2 on my 360, I thought I'd remove the credit card entirely from my account, so as to ensure the same thing didn't happen next November. However, when I tried to remove it through the console, it directed me to a website. When I went there on my laptop, I was told that I couldn't remove it because there's a "service" on it. When I tried to deactivate that automatic renewal "service", it wouldn't let me!

So I guess I'm left with no option but to either call Microsoft Support and get them to deal with this - unlikely! - or call Mastercard in the fall and make sure they know not to authorize the $59.99 charge when it comes to them with the wrong credit card info (which they shouldn't be doing anyway!). What a scam by MS: make it childishly easy to sign up for the service but ridiculously hard to cancel it! This of course makes me all the more determined to be free of it!

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Sad State Of My Comic Habit

When I went to the comic store over the weekend, I was picking up two weeks' worth of product. I had them in my hand when I walked to the back of the store where a friend, who'd caught a ride with me there, was picking out trade paperbacks from himself. He saw the small pile I was holding, and said, "Is that two weeks of comics for you?" I looked at what I had, which was six very thin comics (compared to the thicker collections he was about to purchase), and replied, "Yeah, kind of pathetic, isn't it?"

Not that many years ago, I was routinely buying 10 to 15 comics each week. I tried to cap my weekly expenditure at no more than $60, although I didn't always manage it. On Saturday, I spent less than $20 on my bi-weekly purchase! (A small part of that shocking difference is due to the Canadian dollar being on par with the U.S. buck at the moment, rather than it costing $1.60 CDN to make $1.00 USD as was true at the start of this century.)

I'm probably at the lowest ebb of interest in comics in my 40 years of collecting them. It actually seems conceivable to me that I might... just... stop... one of these days. But I've been saying that for a few years now, and it hasn't happened yet. So maybe I'm just kidding myself, still.

Friday, January 21, 2011

2010 Tied For Warmest Year On Record

For those of you who were pulling for 2010 in its attempt to reach the top of the Hottest Years List, good news: it did it! Oh sure, it had to settle for tying 1998 and 2005 there at the top, but that's still pretty impressive. I certainly wouldn't complain if I were lumped in with Brad Pitt and George Clooney in a 3-way heat for World's Sexiest Man, after all. :-)

Seriously, this is very bad (albeit unsurprising) news indeed... especially if you have children, as they'll most likely still be kicking around this swamp when things really go to Hell in a few decades' time. The fact that the 10 hottest years on record have all come in the last 13 years should really make your hair stand on end. But I'm sure it won't.

Killzone 3 Open Beta Coming Wed, Feb 2nd!

Wow! What a great bit of news on a Friday: the open beta for Killzone 3 arrives on the PlayStation Network in less than 2 weeks!! I don't know about any of you, but I'll be downloading that sucker as soon as it shows up there that day, as the anticipation for this game (launching Feb 22nd) has been pretty intense. Bring on the Helghast!!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

2012: The Year Of Twin Suns?!?

This story is almost too strange to be taken seriously, and yet I think it's for real: the Betelgeuse sun, already a bright star in our night sky, appears to be headed for supernova status. When that happens - predicted for sometime in 2012 - we could, for a week or two, have two suns in the sky during the day and night times without darkness thanks to Betelgeuse's dying glory!

It's still too early for April Fools jokes, right?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Catwoman And... Bane?!

I think today's big news of Anne Hathaway being signed for The Dark Knight Rises to play Selina Kyle (the civilian identity of Catwoman, for those who don't know) as well as official word that Tom Hardy (already known to be in the film) will be playing Bat-villain Bane has to be digested with the help of six words:

Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

That small collection of words conjures up nearly five hours of Christopher Nolan Bat-goodness, and therefore fill me with unbridled, and possibly undeserved confidence that he'll make something magical out of an actress that usually doesn't thrill me (Hathaway) and a character who is completely uninteresting to me in the comics (Bane). If anyone can make it work, it's Nolan. So I'll just go with that for now.

The Great Pickle Saga

Nearly two and a half years ago, I reported, with great joy, our discovery at the local SuperStore of jars of Bicks 1.5 L Dill Pickles with Garlic, which had gone missing from this part of the world a decade or so earlier. We gratefully scooped up roughly 20 jars of the exquisite treasure over several trips to the grocery store, in large part because I had no confidence that we'd see them for sale again any time soon.

And, in fact, new jars of the stuff have been every bit as elusive as I'd feared, ever since. In all that time, we've not seen a single 1.5 L jar in all our travels. I've sent e-mails to Bicks and to local grocery outlets, asking if we can order them directly or requesting that the stores bring them in once again, but to no avail.

Yesterday, however, an old friend e-mailed me to say that he'd spotted them at a local Costco. Now, without photographic proof, I'm always inclined to regard these as being akin to Bigfoot sightings. I'm skeptical that it's the right brand, right size and right type of pickles, as other combinations just aren't the same. But hope springs eternal... and so Vicki is heading out later today, with a Costco card carrying friend, to see if this tantalizing tip is on the level. The fact that we're down to a measly 6 jars in our basement is reason enough to make me desperate, but I'm still expecting to be disappointed.

Stay tuned...

[Update later that same day: Well, it was an awfully good try! The friend got everything right: right brand, right type, nice big jar. Unfortunately, what he saw is simply a bigger jar of the same sort of pickles that you find in the 1 L jars, whereas what I've been hoarding for 2.5 years is a larger variety of pickle inside those 1.5 L containers. It's hard to explain, and inevitably leads to phalic jokes, so I'll just leave it at that.]

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Who Says Nature Walks Can't Be Thrilling?

Not this woman, that's for sure!

Today's moment of jubilation, following a "treacherous" log-crossing of a stream, is brought to you by the letters J and M, and the number 2 (for how many feet at most that we would have fallen had we tumbled off the log while traversing it).

At The Intersection Of Comics And Music Once Again

I had only ever heard of a couple of these examples of comic book artists providing covers to albums but I'm always interested in such things. I have to say the example by Bill Sienkiewicz is a standout, and the Surfing with the Alien Joe Satriani cover, with artwork appropriated from John Byrne is, of course, a classic. Checking the comments to the article you'll see a bunch more referenced, in case you're interested (as I am).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Up Shared Vocabulary

I just had the pleasure of talking Up (the British documentary series, not the animated movie) with a friend who's recently discovered it... possibly because of this very blog, in fact. It's funny how, with Up, we always quickly start comparing notes on some of the principals (I'm loathe to refer to these real life people as "characters" but I often think of them that way!), almost as if they're people we each know, but separately.

I was telling him how our Up nights here have been events: Vicki, Julie and I would always start with dinner and then, prior to beginning the next installment, we'd review each of the various subjects - "So Neil was squatting in a flat in London because he couldn't afford his own place..." - and get Julie to predict what had happened to each in the intervening 7 years (Vicki and I had seen the series before; J had not). A two hour movie would just naturally stretch into a five or six hour evening while seeming to fly by, and the three of us would have an absolute ball! It's actually quite a downer that we finished it off on New Year's Eve, as we were on a fantastic run for 7 installments (7-Up through 49-Up).

I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a fascinating, immersive entertainment experience.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Under The Weather

I've had a nasty, debilitating chest cold since Friday night, which is why the updates here have been even less abundant than usual. I had thought I was over it yesterday - so much so that I even walked to the mall with Vicki and then went for a 2-hour walk with Julie - but I'm feeling crappy again today, so maybe I jumped the gun a little (Vicki suspected as much, and was right, as usual).

Over this stretch, I've been reading The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein (a Christmas gift from Tammy), and will soon have finished its 560 pages of goodness. I can't remember the last time I read such a long book in so short a time... but being laid up for a few days will do that for you, I guess!

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Most Exciting Badminton Point You'll Ever See

Pretty much guaranteed!

The Double-Edged Blade Of Game Demos

I think I've written about this sort of thing before, but it's a slow blogging period right now, so here goes...

I had tentatively planned to buy Dead Space 2 when it comes out later this month, and then just happened to download and play the PS3 demo for the game over the past 24 hours. My relationship with the original Dead Space, which I believe I borrowed off a friend, was a bit uneven. I thought it was a really interesting game with awesome graphics and design, but I didn't like how repetitive it got in the later levels nor how hard it seemed to be to keep myself stocked up with ammo. Given the shock-based, in-your-face nature of the game, I really didn't want to have to conserve ammunition all that much when I had snarling, screaming monsters charging at me from around every corner. Because of those conflicting reactions to Dead Space, I played through most of the campaign but didn't complete it.

Playing the demo this morning, all of the negative attributes came roaring back... in some cases, quite literally! Sure enough, I was having trouble keeping my guns loaded, and I was dying a lot, even though I was playing on the second easiest difficulty (of five, I think!). After about an hour of it, I'd nixed any notion of spending money on this sequel. For saving me the dough, I'm grateful to Visceral Games; and yet I'm sure that wasn't the result they were going for. Ah well.

Friday, January 07, 2011

What A Completely, Utterly Ruined Life Looks Like

The suicide letter composed by Bill Zeller, a 27-year-old programmer and Princeton grad, is absolutely heartbreaking and shows just how much damage can be done to a person who didn't deserve one iota of it. Normally I wouldn't link to something as personal as this story, but since it was Mr Zeller's wish that his story be as widely disseminated as possible, I'm willing to oblige.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Big Collapse

I made the mistake of watching tonight's Gold Medal game between Canada and Russia in the World Junior Hockey Championships. I hadn't watched any of the tournament before now, but so many people asked me about it over the past 24 hours that I decided to give it a look.

After two strong periods, with Team Canada up 3-0, I might've known it was too good to be true. Sure enough, the Russians opened the third period with back-to-back goals, and then rolled from there. A 5-3 defeat when you've held a 3-0 lead in the final period has to qualify as an epic failure, and that's what tonight's debacle feels like.

On the other hand, our juniors have appeared in each of the last 10 Gold Medal games, which is nothing to sneeze at. I guess they just can't win 'em all.

Monday, January 03, 2011

What 2011 Looks Like So Far

I could say that 2011 so far looks like a broken window in our garage - where the giant icicle fell on New Year's Eve, taking out a pane with it - but really it's more like this:

Jan 25: Dead Space 2

Feb 22: Killzone 3 [Update Apr 20/11: Came out right on schedule and is a very good, almost great game!]

Mar 22: F.3.A.R. (aka F.E.A.R. 3) [Update Jan 12/11: now delayed until May. Crap! Update Apr 27/11: Now delayed to Jun 24/11! Double crap! That's a 3-month slip, and counting... generally, not a good sign.]

Apr 18: Portal 2 [Update Apr 20/11: Out on time, and fantastic!!]

May 31: Red Faction Armageddon

Jun 7/11: Infamous 2

Spring 2011: Ico/Shadow of the Colossus release for PS/3 [Update Apr 20/11: now officially delayed, but with no new release date provided. Damn. Update Jun 7/11: Dated for Sep 28th at E3 this week.]

Sep 6: Resistance 3

Nov 8: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Nov 11: Aliens: Colonial Marines [Update Jun 12/11: This is now delayed until "Spring 2012", but a version was shown at E3 last week that seems to have gotten people excited.]

?? ??: The Last Guardian

?? ??: Battlefield 3

That's an average of a game a month over the course of the year! When you think about it that way, 2011's looking pretty sweet indeed!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

New Year's Eve Done Right

Last night, Vicki, Julie and I finally got in our Christmas exchange, our final Up night (watching 49-Up), and celebrated New Year's Eve while we were at it. I don't think I've ever had a more enjoyable sendoff to the year than last night. Just check out that smile:

So it turns out that Julie is kind of nuts when it comes to Christmas. Her gifts to me were in 5 different packages and came with 5 cryptic poems that contained clues to the nature of each gift. My first challenge was to match up the poem with the package it related to, which took at least 20 minutes to do. Then my job was to guess what was inside before opening it to see how I'd done. Here's one of the clues, just to give some sense of what I was up against:

"Since you're kind of a geek and you read all the books
Here's a cute little gift to help with your looks
I can't really promise it will make you a ten
But you'll get to hang out with some really cool men"

I really worried that she'd gotten me a membership to a crazy guys-only club of some sort, but fortunately it was referring to a beautiful X-Men t-shirt. It's a grey shirt with a particular comic cover pictured on it. As soon as I saw it, I said, "I'm just realizing: you don't even know what this is, do you?", ran downstairs and quickly returned with my bagged and boarded copy of Giant-Size X-Men # 1 from 1975. Though there's no way Julie could possibly have known, this is a comic from my childhood that was hugely significant to me. I can honestly still remember buying it off the stands at the news depot:

I guess it's true: sometimes you have to be lucky to be good, and good to be lucky! And she was both in this instance!!

I also received a "head light", a portable light I can strap on when biking, walking or - as she pointed out - peeing in the dark! Then there was an Italian movie on DVD that I'd never heard of - The Best of Youth, which holds an impressive 8.4/10 score on IMDB! - which Julie found by polling dozens of her patients in the weeks and months leading up to Christmas. Her great track record on book recommendations of late led her to give me Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, something she'd greatly enjoyed when she discovered it. And finally Vicki and I received 4 gorgeous glass coasters, each of which contains a winter photo of Julie, her dog Cooper or me, from our recent walks in the woods.

Vicki got various weird food stuffs that she'll love, which Julie's smart enough not to waste on me, and a box of chocolates, which I'll have no problem helping her deal with! Julie got books and a DVD of Long Way Round from me as well as flavoured teas and a special tea-making mug thingie from Vicki (who understands such apparati). They both seemed quite happy with their haul:

(And as Vicki's principle photographer over the past 20 years, trust me: that's her looking happy in a photo! Tammy apparently got all of the smile-for-the-birdie genes in that family!)

All in all, we had a great wrap up to 2010! I couldn't have scripted a better finale, but I'm already worried that 2011 is going to be a letdown by comparison!

A Natural Winter Beauty

From Christmas Day 2010:

Tammy may be the only person I know who just never takes a bad picture! It's an amazing superpower she has.