Friday, December 30, 2005

Stuff: Toronto Hawks

I'm kind of between books at the moment. After The Ancestor's Tale I'm having a hard time getting into anything else. I've started a couple of things, but haven't been all that engrossed by them.

Usually what I do when I'm in this sort of state is get out one of my old standby series out -- Lois McMaster Bujold or David Eddings or Glen Cook, for example -- and plow through them. Specifically, I wanted to re-read Cook's Garrett P.I. books, but I can't find the first volume (Sweet Silver Blues) either at home or in book stores, and I don't want to read them out of order. So I'm at a loss for books right now.

All of this is completely irrelevant to Toronto hawks, except to explain why I'm not posting about them and not books. The hawks -- well, one hawk -- came in this afternoon on our way back from groceries. We noticed a couple of flocks of synchronized pigeons circling over the street. We found that a little odd, as Toronto pigeons are not known for exerting themselves, until we noticed why they were flapping around: they were chasing a hawk, who fled the pigeon-infested area and settled down on a TV aerial on a nearby building.

Fortunately, this was quite close to home, so I ran in and got the camera. It was rather tricky photographing a hawk that was ten stories higher than me -- with the aerial in the way to boot -- but I did get a couple of not-bad shots. The image links to the shot on Flickr, where you find the best of the shots. Read more!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Stuff: Christmas Disaster Aftermath

We finally have back our PT Cruiser, without so much rat in it. Final damage report: they had to replace the spark plugs, several well-chewed belts, and a number of electrical wires. And they had to shampoo the engine to get all the little bits of rat out.

For the next little while, we'll be slapping the hood a few times before driving off... Read more!

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Stuff: Christmas Disaster Addendum

To give an idea of the difference in size between our PT Cruiser and the Queen Mary Dodge Grand Caravan, here are the two models to scale. Our Cruiser is actually "electric blue", not black, but you get the idea. We worked out that, if we had cleared the longer half of the garage and parked the Queen Mary there, we both would have had to leave by the driver-side rear door (the swing-out doors would not have opened in the width available) and climb over the hood to get to the garage door (which would have been dead-center in front of the thing).

On the other hand, we would have been able to fit the bikes in the thing. I have a Rans V-Rex and Lori has a Catrike Speed, so regular bike racks don't work that well for us. Read more!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Stuff: Christmas Disasters

Once is happenstance, twice is tradition.

Several years ago, we were driving down to my parents' places on Christmas Eve for the family Christmas get-together (a two-hour drive) with our two cats -- and a friend who was also visiting family down there -- and ended up stranded halfway there at 11pm with a ruined alternator. I'm going to skip the details here, but suffice it to say that it took both the CAA and my mother coming up to find us so we could get the car and ourselves to town. That was the first time we'd agreed to drive someone down with us on Christmas Eve.

This year was the second time did so, and our apparent tradition of the car not cooperating manifested itself again.

Christmas Eve, we set out to deliver gifts to my aunt's before driving down to the parents' places. We got in the car, started it up, and GRRND GRRND GRRND GRRND -- not a good sound. The engine started ok, but something was grinding against something in there.

So I got out, and Lori backed the car up a bit so we could pop the hood. First clue as to what went wrong: a large rat leaps out of the wheel well of the car and disappears down a fresh hole under the garage wall.

Second clue: a small pool of a thick red liquid under where the car engine had been.

So we opened the hood and had a look. The third clue: a mass of paper, lint, and fur wedged under the manifold -- apparently, a nest. Also, some of the insulation was chewed off a wire.

Removing the nest didn't fix the problem, so it was time to phone the CAA (to get a tow), the dealership (which was closed), my aunt (to say we wouldn't be delivering the presents just yet), and four or five car rental places. Unfortunately, this was all at about 12:50pm, and all but two of the rental places withing walking distance were closing at 1:00. And one of the two that were open to four had no cars to rent us anyway.

Soon, the CAA guy showed up and got the car hoisted on his truck, at which point we found the source of the red liquid: a second rat wedged quite securely behind the bumper. He towed the car to the dealership, where it will stay until Tuesday when they open again. So we made our way on foot to the Budget Car Rentals that said they had a vehicle.

The vehicle they had was a little intimidating, though. Lori's car is a PT Cruiser. Nice and roomy, but overall pretty small -- it's quite short for it's storage volume. The car we got was a Dodge Grand Caravan, over five meters long. The Cruiser is only four and a quarter meters. We've taken to calling the Caravan "The Queen Mary".

We paced it off -- the Caravan was only 20cm shorter than the inside of our garage. Even if we got it in there, there'd be no way we could use the door, short of climbing over the hood. And, of course, City Hall was closed, so we couldn't get an on-street parking permit.

But we did get the presents delivered. And we did get down to the family Christmas gathering. And back again, through sleet and snow and dark of night.

But we want the little cruiser back!

Fresh Disasters Read more!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Joyous Yule

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

Don't we know archaic barrel
Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker 'n' too-da-loo!
Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloupe, 'lope with you!

Hunky Dory's pop is lolly
Gaggin' on the wagon, Willy, folly go through!
Chollie's collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarm bung-a-loo!

Dunk us all in bowls of barley,
Hinky dinky dink an' polly voo!
Chilly Filly's name is Chollie,
Chollie Filly's jolly chilly view halloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Double-bubble, toyland trouble! Woof, woof, woof!
Tizzy seas on melon collie!
Dibble-dabble, scribble-scrabble! Goof, goof, goof!

Walt Kelly
Read more!

Friday, December 16, 2005

Stuff: It's Author's Week at '77 Track 7

Apparently I'm starting to show up on Google or something. First, Jessica Sachs commends on my post about Corpse, and now Roberto Casati has dropped in on my post about his Shadows.

Thanks for the comments! Read more!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Book (Science): The Ancestor's Tale

It's been almost a month since I started Richard Dawkins's
The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life. It's a pretty hefty book, and I got interrupted a few times.

It's hefty, but it's fascinating. There was a lot of good material I hadn't seen before, or only new about vaguely, and the novel presentation put an interesting perspective on everything.

As I mentioned in my preview post, the book is told as a backwards trip through the evolutionary tree, starting with modern humans, with a chapter at each of the branching points between our history and that of any still-surviving cousins we have. Dawkins calls these branching points "rendezvous" (since we're going backwards) and refers to the last common ancestor between the two branches as the "concestor" for that rendezvous. For example, Rendezvous 17 is with the amphibians, and concestor 17 would be the last animal who had some descendants who went on to become modern amphibians and other descendants who went on to become humans. Naturally -- and this is an important point Dawkins repeats often for the various concestors -- concestor 17 was not an modern amphibian itself! That may seem obvious, but when Larry King asks questions like "If evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?" on his show, it's a point that's obviously lost on many people.

Each Rendezvous has its own chapter, and most of those consist of one or more tales of modern animals from the other branch. For example, Rendezvous 26 -- Protosomes -- is where the our branch and the one that would give rise to insects, crustaceans, spiders, worms, and so on, join. That chapter includes The Ragworm's Tale, The Brine Shrimp's Tale, The Fruit Fly's Tale, etc.

What wasn't clear when I wrote my preview post, though, was that the animals in these tales are actually excuses to tell much more varied tales than just histories of various evolutionary paths. Rather, Dawkins uses them to explore evolutionary concepts exemplified by the subject species. The Fruit Fly's Tale deals primarily with Hox genes (whose function were first determined through experiments on fruit flies). Hox genes are responsible for turning other genes on and off within a cell based on a cell's position within a body: they're what make arms become arms and legs become legs (among other things). Mutations in Hox genes in fruit flies can turn antennae into legs or give the fly extra wings.

Similarly, The Platypus's Tale is about electro-sensitivity (platypuses can detect electrical fields with their bill), The Redwood Tale is about dating methods (starting with dendrochronology, taking by patterns of tree rings), The Salamander's Tale is about ring species and racial distinctions, and so on.

There are also two summary chapters at the end, Cantebury and The Host Returns. Cantebury represents the start of it all, the root of the tree from which all these Rendezvous descend, and Dawkins uses it to talk about important first step in evolution. Not so much the origin of life, but the origin of heredity -- without heredity, you can't have evolution. He discusses a fascinating experiment I hadn't ever heard of, done using a RNA virus called Qβ.

Qβ, like any virus, is a genetic parasite which hijacks a cell's DNA/RNA transcription systems to make copies of itself and the proteins that it uses (one to enclose the RNA, one to stick the virus to the cell, one to destroy the cell to let the copies free, and one that assembles the Qβ copying protein, Qβ replicase, out of proteins found in the cell).

The experiment consisted of putting Qβ RNA and Qβ replicase in test tubes away from any cells to see what happened. Before long, even without the cell's full-fledge copying system on hand, the Qβ was being copied. Not only that, but as the experiment was iterated through successive "generations" (samples from one experiment moved to a fresh test tube), the Qβ RNA changed, loosing the genes that encoded the shell, glue, or escape proteins, since they weren't needed in the test tube environment. The Qβ RNA was reduced from 3600 codons to only 550. In some experiments, the Qβ RNA wasn't even necessary: the experimenter simply mixed raw material for making RNA with Qβ replicase, and soon a very Qβ-like RNA virus appeared.

Dawkins found this interesting because it demonstrated that you could have an evolving system with heredity with only RNA (or RNA components) and a single protein. I found it interesting because it reminded me of Tierra and Avida, experiments in genetic programming. Tierra lets you write short, self-replicating computer programs and then runs them in an environment where they are subject to selection pressures and mutation. Avida is based on Tierra.

One of the early results from Tierra (or maybe Avida, I can't remember which one this actually happened on -- maybe both) was a program which, through evolution in the system, shortened itself substantially, making itself more successful by reducing the amount of steps it took to copy itself. In fact, the code was tightened so much that it was hard for the developers watching it to figure out how it worked -- it was more optimized than any human author would think they could make it.

This being Dawkins, there are some interesting sociology-of-science bits as well. Naturally, he discusses the shortcomings of creationism in addressing the results biologists have been getting in their research, and throws in a couple of light barbs at creationists' tendencies to quote biologists selectively. Though the thing he harps on most of all is how the rules of biological nomenclature have stuck us with a number of rather inappropriate names for species, processes, and theories. Unfortunately, I didn't think to make notes of examples, and they're rather hard to find by flipping through the book.

My only real complaint about The Ancestor's Tale is Dawkins's writing style. His tone tends to wobble between lectorial and conversational, rather than going for one or the other -- or striking a balance somewhere in between. It's not at all a major problem, but it did make the book's flow a little uneven in places. Still, he got to marry Romana after being introduced to her by Douglas Adams. I suppose it'd be too much to expect him to write like Isaac Asimov on top of all that. Read more!

Stuff: This is cool

You probably haven't noticed -- unless you actually make a habit of watching for new comments on two-month-old posts -- but a couple of days ago I had an unexpected visitor at my post on Jessica Snyder Sachs's book on forensics, Corpse -- namely, Jessica Sachs herself.

Corpse was a fun book (and one that comes to mind any time any of the CSI coroners makes a pronouncement about time of death). Sachs is now working on "a book about the microbes that colonize our bodies while we're still alive", which may be less -- or maybe more -- disturbing that her stories about the ones that colonize our bodies after we're dead.

She has her own weblog at -- be sure to drop by. Read more!

Monday, December 12, 2005

Photography: Toronto Winter

I just put a large batch of photos up on Flickr. Most of them are from theDecember 9th snowfall, with a few cat photos added in as usual. Read more!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Stuff: Celebrity Spotting

I'm not a big one for celebrity spotting -- largely because I'm not a big one for celebrities, period -- but sometimes it's unavoidable in a city like Toronto. Lori and I had one such encounter yesterday while heading downtown to pick up some friends for a tour of the city: while we were stopped at Esplanade and Sherbourne, George A. Romero, the King of the Zombies, wandered across the street in front of us, chatting with a friend or colleague. I wouldn't have had any reason to recognize him, had I not met him at Nash the Slash's View from a Gallery show and taken photographs.

Romero filmed Land of the Dead (which I haven't seen yet) here in Toronto -- he was in post-production when he dropped in on Nash's show. I don't know what he's working on now. Read more!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Book (Science): The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry

The Ancestor's Tale falls further and further behind. No fault of Richard Dawkins's, though -- just circumstances and my own reading habits.

For some reason I seem to mentally classify books as "the one I'm reading at work" and "the one I'm reading at home". ("Reading at work" here means reading while walking to/from work and to/during/from workday lunch.) The Ancestor's Tale is currently stuck in the "reading at work" category, so I rarely even think of picking it up at home. Which I should, or I'll never get through it.

This weekend was a little odd, though, because on Saturday I ended up stuck at Lori's work while she and her crew dealt with a software deployment. And I didn't have my "reading at work" book (or any book) with me. So I ran out to Indigo at the Eaton Centre to see what I could find.

This was one of those serendipedous trips -- I just happened to trip over a new Larry Gonick Cartoon Guide!

For those who don't know Gonicks books (The Cartoon Guide to Physics, The Cartoon Guide to Statistics, The Cartoon Guide to Genetics, The Cartoon History of the Universe, etc), they are some of the best introductory guides to their subjects around. As good as or better than most of the non-cartoon introductions to those subjects. Gonick (often writing with help from experts, but sometimes alone) doesn't believe in giving a superficial overview. The stats book gets into Baysian analysis; the physics book into quantum mechanics (without the woo-woo mysticism that haunts a lot of popular books on the subject); the history of the universe book actually covers Africa, India, and China quite well (which is unusual for popular general histories in North America, which concentrate heavily on Europe). They're not what you'd expect from a book of cartoons. Sure, they wouldn't take the place of textbooks, but they do make great supplemental material.

The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry actually started off disappointingly, though. The first chapter covers the history of chemistry very quickly. It soon became obvious that this was because Gonick wasn't going to be writing about the history of chemistry -- he needed all the space he could get for the actual science! By halfway through the book he's well beyond anything that I took in high school chemistry. In fact, he introduces material that I'd never even heard of before, such as "enthalpy" (which he describes as "possibly the ugliest word in chemistry"). I was always more math and physics than chemistry, but I'm pretty sure that the term never came up in Mr. Stephina's class. Of course, he was always so busy blowing stuff up, I might have missed it.

The book contains some of the best and most intuitive explanations for the different kinds of chemical bonds, and how their differing natures affect chemical reactions they get involved in. Gonick also has a great (and detailed) overview of the nature of acids and bases and how they're related. He ends with a section on electrochemistry that revolves around how to calculate the voltage you'll get from different kinds of chemical batteries -- I had never seen this material presented before, so it was fascinating.

I have to admit, though, that trying to read the book through in a single sitting (trapped, as I was, at Lori's office) got rather tiring. Things like deriving the base ionization constant tended to make my eyes glaze over. I don't know if it's because this book gets into more detail than the physics or statistics ones, or if it's just because I'd always been better at physics and stats than chemistry, but I did find it a little overwhelming at times. If I'd taken the time to work through the examples, it probably would have sunk in better, but I was reading to relax, not work!

In any case, it's yet another great Gonick guide. I'm still missing a few from my collection, so I've got to fill those holes in. Read more!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Books (Comic Strip): Thriving on Vague Objectives

I wandered into the local Chapters looking for a copy of Sweet Silver Blues, the first Garrett, PI book (I can't find our copy at home) and discovered that there was a new Dilbert book out, Thriving on Vague Objectives.

I've been following Dilbert since before the first strip collections came out, and my Dilbert-quoting habit is almost as bad as my Python and Goon Show quoting, and the latest book is as good as any (and has a shorter title than many of the more recent ones). I've occasionally had a few problems with Scott Adams, though.

Adams has some great insight into the absurdity of corporate life, but he's got a very bizarre notion of how science works. It's generally not a problem, but every once in a while it crops up in his books or (most recently) his new weblog, in which he declared that the Intelligent Design folks and biologists were equally bad at their arguments, and not only did each not really understand the other's argument, they didn't even really understand their own.

This was a very odd claim, given that, over the course of the rest of the post, it became obvious that Adams himself understood the least about the matter of the three of them.

PK Myers at Pharyngula posted a good rebuttal which summarizes the whole thing quite nicely. What was most odd, though, was Adams's response to Myers. Adams said that the problem really is that there are "no credible people" to inform him about the subject, and that (most amazingly) no one who has a professional stake in a matter can be considered credible on that matter -- and that the more stake you have, the less credible you are.

I can even see Adams's point -- within a corporate context. In the politics-heavy world of a business, very often the people most pushing for project A or project B are completely non-credible. And, of course, then there's marketing and advertising.

But outside of that -- are engineers really the least credible people when it comes to how to build a bridge? Doctors the least credible about medicine? Lawyers the least credible about law? No matter how much you might dislike lawyers, they do know more about law (on the whole) than non-lawyers.

That's when I decided that I wasn't going to follow the Dilbert Blog anymore -- I didn't want it to spoil my enjoyment of the strip. And I did enjoy the latest book! It had a number of strips I laughed out loud at over lunch. The last couple of collections were fun, but didn't have anything outstanding in them. This one has some really great strips.

I just have to remember that Adams lives in a world of Pointy-Haired Bosses... Read more!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Books (Fantasy): Whispering Nickel Idols

My wrap-up post on The Ancestor's Tale got delayed a little when, over the weekend, I happened to notice that Glen Cook has a new Garrett book out: Whispering Nickel Idols. Garrett books are on my "must read immediately, then re-read the whole series" list, so everything else got side-tracked.

Cook's Garrett novels are hard-boiled detective fantasy novels -- Mickey Spilane meets Mother Goose, Brothers Grim, various mythologies, and Tolkien. Cook is better known for his Black Company series, which is good but very dark (I have to be in a proper mood to read any of them). The Garrett books are much lighter to read, but are often still dark.

I don't actually read a lot -- well, any -- hard-boiled detective novels, so I can't actually compare the Garrett books to the original genre directly. Just as I first encountered many popular songs via covers or parodies, I know noir best through imitations and spoofs. Still, the basics are pretty well known, and are all found in Garrett: the tough-but-honest, perpetually broke, skirt-chasing gumshoe; the cops who don't trust him; the crime bosses; etc. But Cook puts them in an unusual setting.

Garrett's adventures take place in a fantasy world that draws from just about every fantasy tradition out there. Just about every sort of mythological beastie can be found in Garrett's home city of TunFaire: elves (Tolkien type, not Keebler), trolls, centaurs, dwaves, pixies, and so on. The city is the most cosmopolitan part of a human kingdom which was, through the first half of the series, at war with a neighbouring country -- though, apart from flashbacks to Garrett's life as a Marine during the war, most of the stories take place within a day's ride of town.

While the genre is definitely fantasy, the time period is more pre-Industrial Revolution than medieval, with some notable oddities. There are no firearms, for example, presumably because sorcerers with overdramatic names (that Garrett likes to poke fun of in his narrative) like Stormwarden Raver Styx handle all the heavy artillery during wartime. But the most recent few books have included background stories involving early forms of mass production.

One of the most enjoyable things about the Garrett books is how each novel builds on the previous ones. Each one is sufficiently self-contained to be read on its own, but if you read them in order you can follow background story arcs which span several novels each, enriching the world Cook's inventing. Many of the stories are simply there to do just that, but some also eventually become foreground stories in later novels.

Another aspect of the Garrett books is that, in spite of the relatively frivolous-seeming genre (Sam Spade and the Seven Dwarves!), the novels can be quite dark. It's not uncommon that the solution to the mystery leaves no-one happy. Old Tin Sorrows, which revolves around haunts and zombies and introduces the character of Elenor who stays with Garrett through all the subsequent novels -- even through she was long dead by the time the novel starts -- comes to mind.

Whispering Nickle Idols (you may have noticed that the titles I've mentioned have the form [adjective] [metal] [plural noun] -- all of the titles in the series do that) is one of the more upbeat of the novels, involving infighting among factions of TunFaire's organized crime and an out-of-town cult that derives its strength from terror and dispair. But all of the recurring characters survive this volume (something that is not guaranteed in these novels) and some of the more deranged and/or miserable ones have some hope for the future.

My least favourite thing about a new Garrett book coming out is that it means that it'll probably be another three years until the next one. And Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Verkosigan books -- a space opera series I also enjoy -- don't really fill the gap.

That and the way Roc Fantasy insists on using cover art that shows Garrett in a fedora, when the books mention -- several times -- that he hates wearing hats. (In one novel, Garrett disguises himself by simply putting a hat on and affecting a limp, since he knows that those looking for him know that he never wears a hat.) For some reason, the Garrett cover art always includes both elements from the novel (in this case, pixies, Belinda Contague, and a bucket of kittens) and elements that appear nowhere in the novel at all (the fedora, and, in this case, a tentacle-haired fish-creature and a Star-Trek-alien looking guy with horns and a goatee). Read more!

Friday, November 18, 2005

Music: Friday Random Ten

  1. Hardware Store
    "Weird Al" Yankovic
    Poodle Hat

    This is one of my favourite Weird Al songs. So far as I know it's an Al original, not a parody of an existing song or band. The best part is the list of items you find at the hardware store, performed with some great harmonies:

    They've got allen wrenches, gerbil feeders, toilet seats, electric heaters
    Trash compactors, juice extractor, shower rods and water meters
    Walkie-talkies, copper wires safety goggles, radial tires
    BB pellets, rubber mallets, fans and dehumidifiers
    Picture hangers, paper cutters, waffle irons, window shutters
    Paint removers, window louvres, masking tape and plastic gutters
    Kitchen faucets, folding tables, weather stripping, jumper cables
    Hooks and tackle, grout and spackle, power foggers, spoons and ladles
    Pesticides for fumigation, high-performance lubrication
    Metal roofing, water proofing, multi-purpose insulation
    Air compressors, brass connectors, wrecking chisels, smoke detectors
    Tire guages, hamster cages, thermostats and bug deflectors
    Trailer hitch demagnetizers, automatic circumcisers
    Tennis rackets, angle brackets, Duracells and Energizers
    Soffit panels, circuit brakers, vacuum cleaners, coffee makers
    Calculators, generators, matching salt and pepper shakers

  2. The Sour Song
    The Residents
    Our Finest Flowers

    Back in my discussion of The Way We Were, I mentioned The Residents' fondness for revisiting their past over and over. One of the major examples of that was the album Our Finest Flowers, a "Greatest Hits" album in which the hits are mixed and matched into new songs.

    Shinkichi Mitsumune
    FLCL 1 - Addict

    A fairly generic piece of TV soundtarck music. FLCL was a fun series, with some not-bad music, but this one doesn't stand out much at all.

  4. Goin' Under
    E-Z Listening Disc

    Like The Residents with Our Finest Flowers, Devo made a tribute album to themselves, only instead of doing mashups, they muzakified their songs. It's more of a completist's album, though -- a side-project curiousity.

  5. Things Are Looking Bad for Santa
    The Arrogant Worms
    Christmas Turkey

    Lori hates the Christmas season, for a variety of reasons, so one tradition around our place is satirical Christmas songs (or "unChristmas Carols", as we call them). Her all-time favourite is Weird Al's The Night Santa Went Crazy (the live version, where Santa doesn't survive). We also have lots of Bob Rivers Christmas albums and we just picked up the Howard Philip Lovecraft Historical Society's A Very Scary Solstice. The Arrogant Worms' Christmas Turkey has some good songs, but (again) this isn't one of the better ones on the album.

  6. Shine On You Crazy Diamond
    Pink Floyd

    This, however, is one of the best Pink Floyd songs. I'm not a big fan of their Syd Barrett period, but their post-Barrett tribute to Barrett is an amazing piece of music. Doug Gilmore's four-note guitar entry always sends shivers up my spine.

  7. New Orleans
    The Residents
    Stranger Than Supper

    A short instrumental from the first CD released by the Residents fan club, "Uncle Willie's Eyeball Buddies".

  8. It's No Game (Part 1)
    David Bowie
    Scary Monsters

    Many of my favourite Bowie songs are the ones where he starts going off into weird harmonies and rhythms, and this one qualifies.

  9. Time
    Pink Floyd
    Delicate Sound of Thunder

    Another great live Floyd track.

A bit of a mixed bag this week. A lot of so-so tracks in the first half, but some really good ones in the second. Read more!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Books (Science): The Ancestor's Tale (Preview)

I just picked up a book that's rather thicker than the other ones I've been reading lately: The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life by Richard Dawkins. At about 630 pages before the bibliography and index, it's around twice as long as most of the other books I've talked about here. So I'm going to do a little preview post now, and follow up later when I finish.

One of the images that says "evolution" more than any other to the average person is the much-spoofed drawing of a sequence of species running from fish to humans. This image bothers many scientists because it embraces a long-discredited notion that evolution is directed forward towards something (namely, us), when it is, in fact, purely driven by contingency -- what happens in evolution is completely dependent on the past and the present, with no looking forward.

In The Ancestor's Tale, Dawkins reverses things and runs the sequence back from us through the 40 major branchings that have happened in our family tree, towards the common ancestor to all modern life -- sort of like the recent Guiness commercial that made it's rounds on the Web (though the ad has some major mistakes in the species used). Since one can look back without suggesting predestination, this makes for a less misleading perspective on evolution.

As you might have guessed from the title's form and its reference to a pilgramage, The Ancestor's Tale's structure is based loosely on Chaucer's Cantebury Tales. Dawkins tells the tales of the modern descendants from each of the 40 branch nodes in our evolutionary history (for some nodes, he tells tales for many different descendants), just as the pilgrims in Chaucer's stories told their own.

For those who are curious, the 40 cousins of ours (actually, 39 cousins plus ourselves) whose tales are told are:

  1. Humans
  2. Chimpanzees
  3. Gorillas
  4. Orang Utans
  5. Gibbons
  6. Old World Monkeys
  7. New World Monkeys
  8. Tarsiers
  9. Lemurs & Bushbabies
  10. Colugos & Tree Shrews
  11. Rodents & Rabbits
  12. Laurasiatheres (hippos, seals, etc)
  13. Xenarthrans (armadillos, etc)
  14. Afrotheres
  15. Marsupials
  16. Monotremes
  17. Sauropsids (ancestors to birds)
  18. Amphibians
  19. Lungfish
  20. Coelacanths
  21. Ray-finned Fish
  22. Sharks
  23. Lampreys & Hagfish
  24. Lancelets
  25. Sea Squirts
  26. Ambulacrarians
  27. Protostomes
  28. Acoelomorph Flatworms
  29. Cnidarians (jellyfish)
  30. Ctenophores
  31. Placozoans
  32. Sponges
  33. Choanoflagellates
  34. DRIPs
  35. Fungi
  36. Amoebozoans
  37. Plants
  38. Uncertain
  39. Archaea
  40. Eubacteria

This list is just from the table of contents, so I don't yet know what "DRIPs" are (other than that they're on page 507) or why #37 is "Uncertain". Those details will have to wait until the next post. Read more!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Music (Album): Aerial by Kate Bush

1977 was a retroactively important year in the music I enjoy.

Growing up, I never listened to popular music. We had seasons tickets to the local orchestra and the Canadian Opera Company every year, with the occasional trip to Detroit to see the Met perform at the Masonic Temple. By the time I headed off to university, I had about 60 operas under my belt. I don't know how many times I'd seen Carmen (it seems like every opera company (except Bayreuth) puts on a production of Carmen every other year).

What popular music I heard growing up (this was during the '70s and early '80s) was (I suppose) mainly the Top 40 stuff that permeates everything. Nothing really interesting going on there.

In 1986 I was in my first year at U of T, living on my own and enjoying Toronto's ecclectic art scene. I spent many evenings at Reg Hartt's Sex and Violence Cartoon Film Festival (classic Warner Bros., MGM, and other cartoons) and hitting the Toronto International Film Festival (where I encountered Zippy the Pinhead on an escalator while running to make the premiere of Comic Book Confidential).

One evening I was feeling board, and noticed an odd movie poster, and decided to watch the film. I enjoyed it enough that I went out to find some Talking Head albums (Stop Making Sense and More Songs About Buildings And Food, if I remember rightly), which (along with David Byrne's appearance on Philip Glass's Songs from Liquid Days) to Laurie Anderson, and then to Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Devo, Kate Bush, and so on.

One curiousity I noticed about many of the bands I'd developed a taste for -- specifically, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, Devo, and Kate Bush -- is that they all released (or at least recorded) their debut albums in 1977 (Peter Gabriel, of course, had had previous albums with Genesis, but 1977 was his solo debut).

Curiously, each of these four bands also only had two more song albums come out after I discovered them -- at least until recently. Talking Heads had True Stories and Naked before breaking up; Peter Gabriel had So and Us before a 10-year drought that ended with Up (though he had soundtracks & such coming out); Devo broke up after Total Devo and Smooth Noodle Maps, and Kate Bush put out The Sensual World and The Red Shoes before going on a hiatus that only ended this year with Aerial (finally got to it!).

That was a long, rambling way of getting to the subject of this post. Unfortunately, the reason for that is that I don't really have a lot to say about Aerial. I've listened to it a couple of times now, and very little of it is sticking in my head. Aerial is a two CD album (the two halves are called A Sea of Honey and A Sky of Honey), but through the whole length only a couple of songs really caught my attention -- Pi, a song about mathematical obsession (which I can relate to) during which Bush sings the digits of pi (incorrectly, as it turns out); and Aerial Tal, which features Bush mimicing birdsong with her unique voice. Pi, however, wasn't all that memorable melodically, and Aerial Tal is all of 61 seconds long.

Don't get me wrong, the album is very well performed by Bush and her musicians. But the songs are almost all the slow, meandering type that never catch my attention. I had a similar problem with The Red Shoes, but it had songs like Rubberband Girl and The Red Shoes to liven things up from time to time. And it's not just that the snogs aren't quick and lively: Breathing is very langorous but also extremely memorable (both for the melody and the subject -- breathing in the ashes of people vapourized by an atomic blast). Army Dreamers and Infant Kiss also keep my attention in spite of their slow pace.

My favourite Kate Bush songs have always been the lively ones, though, like Sat In Your Lap, The Dreaming, Get Out Of My House, The Big Sky, Hammer Horror, etc, and the musically unusual ones, like Under Ice or Waking the Witch (or Sat in your Lap again, with it's almost purely percussive band and Bush's voice jumping all over the place). Unfortunately, except for Aerial Tal, there's nothing on Aerial that falls into these categories.

All that said, if you like Bush's slower, more sensuous songs, then you should enjoy Aerial. But I'm hoping she works something a little more sprightly into her next album. Read more!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Music: Monday Random One

Just a little big of synchronicity: the first song to come up on my iPod after I wrote the post on Soul Made Flesh was Grey Matter by Oingo Boingo. Read more!

Books (Science): Soul Made Flesh

Carl Zimmer's Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain -- And How It Changed The World tells the story of Thomas Willis, a physician and anatomist in 17th Century England and the first scientist to study the brain systematically. Willis was largely responsible for doing in the Aristotelian notion of multiple kinds of souls living in various organs (the liver, the heart, etc), and was the first to demonstrate that the mind's experiences are mediated completely by the brain. He was known as the "William Harvey of the Brain" (Harvey, a friend, colleague, and inspiration of Willis's, discovered the circulation of the blood), though he faded from history compared to some of his famous philosophical contemporaries, such as Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Thomas Hobbes, and Rene Descartes (how do I get an e-acute on this thing?), who all appear and participate in Soul Made Flesh.

Zimmer writes science history the way I enjoy reading it: with lots of historical context and insights into thepersonalitiess of the people involved. All too often, science histories amount to lists of experiments, publications, and discoveries, but with little comment given to how political or social forces -- either large-scale or small -- affected the work. Zimmer does an excellent job of putting the reader into Willis's time. One of the biggest non-scientific influences on Willis's work was the Civil War and thesuppressionn of the Church of England by Oliver Cromwell, who pushed for a degree of freedom of religionunprecedentedd in England, which allowed Willis (for all he was a Loyalist) much more leeway in his research than he might have had otherwise.

Zimmer also does a great job of covering the outdated knowledge that Willis's work grew out of. At the time the idea of a gas as a state of matter was not well understood. It was Robert Boyle who discovered that there was something in air that was necessary for life (up until that point, the whole purpose of breathing was not understood), though Willis missed out on a chance to prove that air changes blood -- he did anexperimentt which showed this, but misinterpreted the results.

One of the down sides of this excellent insight into the science of the 17th Century is that you get to read about all the fun researchers had vivisecting animals. Zimmer has a detailed description of an experiment Robert Boyle and Christopher Wren did on a dog, to try to find out what the spleen is for. Not something PETA would approve of, to be sure.

The last chapter of Soul Made Flesh relates Willis's work to more modern research on how the brain functions --specificallyy, Joshua Greene's MRI research at Princeton into how the brain behaves when given moral quandaries to sort out. Reading about using the MRI to trace what parts of the brain are activated by different concepts made had me curious about what the machine would have seen while I was reading the book -- one of the problems with a good memory for comedy is that certain words and names will trigger memories of skits and sketches, and all through Soul Made Flesh I was beset by repetitions of Monty Python's Philosopher Song and Oliver Cromwell. Funny, but very distracting.

The last book on the brain that I started was Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error, which I bogged down in because Damasio's writing gets very dry and jargon-heavy at times. Soul Made Flesh is much more enjoyable to read, largely because of how Zimmer personifies the people he's writing about. A common problem with science writing is that authors don't want go deeper into the personalities or motivations of the scientists they are writing about than they can strictly justify. Zimmer, however, dives right in -- though he does have a note at the end about the limitations of the sources he had to work from, and how new historical research is always turning up more insight into these people.

Another nice touch of Zimmer's is that he includes a Dramatis Personae at the end, so that you don't get too lost trying to keep track of the many people involved in the discovery of the brain.

Given how enjoyable this book was, I'm going to have to grab a copy of Zimmer's Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea and go through that very soon. Read more!

Friday, November 11, 2005

Music (Album): The Way We Were by The Residents

Once again, The Residents have swivled their eyeball heads around and are looking back at themselves. Between re-working Santa Dog, their first single, whenever they reach a milestone in their history (four or five times now), the collection albums, the retrospective albums, the anniversary shows, and so on, they end up spending a lot of time on their history. Which makes sense if you consider them to be not just a strange band, but a continuous performance piece poking fun at the whole "music industry".

The Way We Were was a show The Residents put on in Australia as a 33rd anniversary show (or maybe a 20th Anniversary of the 13th Anniversary Show show), and it's just come out as a CD/DVD set.

I haven't watched the DVD yet. The notes say it's not the whole show, just 30 minutes plus some of the set projections. I'll post when I get a chance to watch it.

The CD covers the complete show, which consisted of a new versions of songs from all through The Residents' history. They start off diving right into the nostalgia by introducing the show with a mashup of Barbara Streisand's The Way We Were.

Many of the songs are ones which have shown up in previous retrospective shows -- Lizard Lady, Picnic in the Jungle, Coming of the Crow / Eva's Warning, Jelly Jack, etc. I was surprised not to see yet another reworking of Santa Dog, but was happy to find it hidden away in Ober. The Siging Resident sounds the same as always, making Leonard Cohen sound like Enrico Caruso. Molly Harvey is still performing the female vocals for the group, as she has on all of their recent albums and shows. All in all, it has a very familiar feel to it.

One thing they've done this time that I don't think they've done before is include one of the narrative pieces from God in 3 Persons. In the past, when they've used G3P music, it's just been the instrumental versions (released as God in 3 Persons Soundtrack).

Some of the songs are also too new to have appeared in many retrospectives yet -- some from Wormwood and Demons Dance Alone get their first reworking here.

The Way We Were has a somewhat thin sound. It's a live recording, and sounds under-miked. The orchestration was light as well -- a guitar, a synth, an emulator and drums, and not much else. It definitely sounds like The Residents were travelling light for this show. I saw their Icky Flix tour a few years ago -- another retrospective of sorts -- and the reworkings there were much richer and fuller, thanks to an Alesis AirFX The Residents were experimenting with for the show.

I'm going to have to sit down at some point and count how many different recordings of Hello Skinny I now have. Just on the iPod there are six, but those are each different versions, that doesn't count re-issues on collections. Read more!

Remembrance Day

[Pogo, Churchy, and Porkypine sit pensively in their punt]

[Long shot of them still siting, still thinking]

Porkypine: Y'know, it seems to me this is all backwards... We, ever'body, ought to keep our big mouths shut all the whole year long so's we'd have time to think of two minutes' worth of somethin' to say on the eleventh day of November.

-- Pogo

You can see a copy of the strip at the bottom of this page on Porkypine. Read more!

Monday, November 07, 2005

Photography: New Flickr Uploads

Lotsa new photos up on our Flickr site, mostly shots showing off the Big Goof (at right) and the Elegant Girl. Read more!

Friday, November 04, 2005

Music: Friday Random Ten

Another round of Friday music. Let's see how much The Residents dominate my life today.

  1. Yeti What Are You
    Manual of Errors

    Not quite another Residents tracks, but close -- Snakefinger collaborated with the Eyeball band quite often. This is one of my favourite of his songs, largely because of the lurching waltz rhythm and the overall dark tone.

  2. Thermonuclear Explosion
    The Frantics
    Frantic Times

    This is supposed to be a random music list, but I can't just skip this track. It's not one of the Frantics' better known skits, but it's a perfect example of their style. Two cops get a call to a "421" -- a thermonulcear explosion.

    That nuclear blast has really backed up the afternoon traffic. A lot of rubberneckers are slowing down to look at that five-mile crater. Then they get radiation sickness and drop dead at the wheel. Nuclear fallout is reducing visibility on the expressway, and the collector lanes are fused solid. Police advise that the lakeshore route is also slow due to construction and giant lizards that mutated when the radiation from the bomb reached the zoo. Garth Road might be a good alternate. Otherwise, traffic is fleeing well. There's anarchy, panic, and destruction this rush hour. For the good times, drink Harvest Malt Ale.

  3. The Perilous Night No. 4
    John Cage
    The Perilous Night

    One of John Cage's works for "prepared piano" -- a piano which has had various objects inserted between the strings to change the timbre of each note. It turns the piano from a melodic instrument into a more purely percussive one.

  4. Stormtrooper in Drag
    Gary Numan (covered by St. Etienne)
    Random: A Gary Numan Tribute

    Another cover from a tribute album. This is one of the best covers on the album, which (like many tribute collections) is pretty average overall. It's pretty un-Numan-esque, with a pop dance-club feel, and I tend to prefer covers that depart a lot from the originals.

  5. After All
    David Bowie
    The Man Who Sold The World

    I'm not a huge Bowie fan -- the Bowie on my iPod is mainly for my SO, so that when I'm DJing one of our drives somewhere, she's got at least some stuff she prefers in the mix. I started listening to Bowie around Black Tie White Noise, so I never had the "his older stuff is better" opinion, since I knew his newer stuff better (Earthling is probably my favourite of his albums). But this is one of my favourite Bowie songs, with its lilting, melancholy feel.

  6. Spam
    "Weird Al" Yankovic

    I grew up on classical music and classical music comedy -- Victor Borge, Anna Russell, and Spike Jones is Murdering the Classics. So it was natural that when I started listening to popular music, "Weird Al" would be included. Spam isn't one of his better spoofs, though. My favourites are the ones which play on a band's style without actually mimicking a particular song, like Dog Eat Dog (Talking Heads), Dare to be Stupid (Devo), or Bob (Bob Dylan).

  7. In the Flat Field
    In the Flat Field

    A lively little ditty. Bauhaus is always good as a pick-me-up.

  8. Immature
    Hamasaki Ayumi

    JPop dance music. I downloaded a few Hamasaki tracks from her website a couple of years back when the Molly Star Racer teaser trailer came out with her music. Nothing remarkable, just bright and bouncy.

  9. Watching You Without Me
    Kate Bush
    Hounds of Love

    Hounds of Love has some of my favourite Kate Bush songs on it -- Under Ice, Waking the Witch -- but Watching You Without Me doesn't grab me quite as much. It has some of the same interesting production tricks that I like in those other two, but the overall song doesn't really grab me.

Not a bad set -- some favourite tracks in there. One of the problems with having a huge collection of stuff you've listened to for 20 years on your iPod is that a lot of it is so familiar you don't mind skipping over it, and a relatively small fraction of it is actually "favourite" tracks. So it's nice when they turn up as often as they have this time. Read more!

Live Music and Film: Nash the Slash Performs Caligari

Nash the Slash has another Caligari gig coming up this month: Saturday, November 26th at the Bloor Cinema. Showtime is 9:30, tickets are $8. Read more!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

DVD: Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 3

I've only watched a few of the Bugs Bunny cartoons from the first disk of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 3, but I'd just like to remind people, as I don't think I have here yet, that the team of Chuck Jones, Michael Maltese, Mel Blanc, and Maurice Noble is one of the most brilliant combination of talents in animation history. Read more!

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Movie (Horror): The Call of Cthulhu

One of the most interesting things happening in film these days is the proliferation of independent films being made -- and I don't mean "independent" as in "made by a minor studio", but as in "made by a bunch of friends for the fun of it". You can find films ranging from Flash animated shorts (such as the Homestar Runner or Weebl toons) to full-length features with special effects, such as the recent shot-for-shot Indiana Jones remake or a number of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Babylon 5 fan movies.

One that caught my attention recently was the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's recently released DVD of The Call of Cthulhu.

Lovecraft hasn't ever been really faithfully translated into feature films. Several movies have been made from his stories, the most famous of which is probably Stuart Gordon's Re-animator. Lovecraft is rather hard to film because a lot of the effect of his writing depends not so much on descriptions as their lack -- creatures are often explicitly described as indescribable. How do you film something whose appearance drives people insane?

The HPLHS made their film knowing that they would not be able to create incredible, mind-searing special effects, so they did the smartest thing they could: they moved the goalposts. Instead of making a 2005 version of The Call of Cthulhu, they decided to film it as a 1926-style silent movie, using 1926-style techniques. That way, they could work within their limitations and have it all look right.

The first example in the film is the dream-scenes of the lost city of R'lyeh, which Cthulhu sleeps. Lovecraft describes the city as "cylopedian", full of buildings created with "non-Euclidean" geometry. In the HPLHS film, the city is created using cardboard and colour separation, with wonderfully lopsided structures towering over the matted-in characters. The whole thing is very reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The 1926 silent film format also allows them to follow Lovecraft's story more faithfully than a more modern approach would allow. Lovecraft's stories are heavy on narration and very light on dialogue, not to mention paced very slowly. The structure is a little convoluted as well: at one point we are listening to a character retelling his great-uncle's account of a police inspecter describing a backwoodsman telling him about seeing the Cthulhu cult in the bayou.

By the time we get to the protagonist's account of a sailor's account of reaching R'lyeh, we're right in the 1926 movie mindset, and the fact that the ocean is a bedsheet, R'lyeh is cardboard, and Cthulhu himself is a stop-motion figurine don't matter anymore. Sure, the Great Old One's animation isn't up to Ray Harryhausen standards, but that doesn't matter. The puppet's very well designed, with a cross between an octopus, a bat, an insect, and a skull.

The other advantage to the 1926 format is that, to be honest, HPL stories are not scary to modern audiences. To Lovecraft, the mere existence of such a creature as Cthulhu -- immensely powerful, but completely indifferent to us humans, representing an uncaring universe in which we have no importance at all -- was frightening enough. Nowadays, we're used to the idea of being insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe, and modern horror doesn't even go for the cosmic dread angle at all anymore, preferring the much more personal horror you get from slasher films. When watching horror films like Nosferatu and Caligari these days, you aren't watching to get scared, you're watching to see what used to be scary, and The Call of Cthulhu deliberately makes use of that feeling. Read more!

Friday, October 28, 2005

Music: Friday Random Ten

Another run through to see what happens...

  1. All Of Us - Devo - Hardcore Devo 1974-1977
    I love Devo, but I'm not too fond of the Hardcore Devo collections. They collect live recordings that predate the band's first album, and the sound quality isn't great. A few of the songs which later showed up on albums are there, but mostly the songs just aren't that interesting yet.
  2. Bob - Primus - Pork Soda
    A nice bouncy, creepy little tune.
  3. Wanda Does Her Act - The Residents - Freak Show - 13th Anniversary Edition
    Freak Show was an interesting Residents album -- they made a comic book of it (with some big name artists), a CD-ROM game, a live show that ran several months in Prague, etc. This is a quick instrumental track from the live show.
  4. China Girl - A cover of the David Bowie song - Goth Oddity - A Tribute to David Bowie
    I enjoy covers of songs, so I grabbed this album from eMusic at one point. This isn't a particularly interesting cover, though. I didn't keep track of who's covering the song, either.
  5. Skat Radio - Terry S. Taylor - Neverhood Songs
    The Neverhood is a rather unusual computer game. The entire thing was animated in clay stop-motion instead of having computers do the work. It was a fun puzzle-adventure type game, and had a wonderfully nonsensical soundtrack.
  6. Minimum Wage - They Might Be Giants - Flood
    A very short (47 seconds) instrumental.
  7. Suburban Bathers - The Residents - The Commercial Album
    The Commercial Album is a disconcerting album, made up of forty one-minute-long songs. Putting it on as background music at a social gathering is pretty much guaranteed to confuse your guests.
  8. Small Voice (for speaker-in-mouth) - Laurie Anderson - United States Live
    One of Anderson's cute gimick-songs: she plays a recording of a short violin song through a pillow speaker (a small speaker meant to go under your pillow as you sleep to play soothing music), which she puts in her mouth. As she opens and closes her mouth, she changes the sound, with an effect like muting and unmuting a trumpet.
  9. In The Beginning - The Residents - Wormwood Live
    The Residents' Wormwood was a collection of songs about some of the more bizarre stories from the Bible, which they turned into a successful live tour.
  10. A Far Cry - Kanno Yoko - Escaflowne 2
    From the soundtrack to the anime series The Vision of Escaflowne (watch the DVDs, not the butchered US TV version!). Kanno's can write in just about any musical style, which makes for some enjoyable background listening.

Still heavy on the Residents. I've got to start getting some more non-Residents stuff onto the 'Pod. Read more!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Books (Comic Strip): The Compelte Peanuts (1957-1958)

Linus: [Running past Charlie Brown, pointing his finger] BANG BANG

Charlie Brown: [Follows Linus] Cops and Robbers?
Linus: Nope!

Charlie Brown: Cowboys and Indians?
Linus: Nope!

Linus: Liberals and conservatives!!

Two things struck me about this strip from The Complete Peanuts (1957-1958). The first was that, even though it was published in May, 1958, nothing much has changed (you can buy Liberal Hunting Permits online these days). The second is that one doesn't think of Peanuts as a political comic. But going back through the early strips, I can now see that there was more going on than I thought when I read the old paperback collections when I was 10.

In the last years of the strip, Charles Schultz was often criticized for coasting on his success. It didn't really bother me -- I figured he'd earned it, and I didn't really notice it that much. I still enjoyed the strip, after all. I still had all my dog-eared copies of the paperback collections that I'd read growing up, but I rarely went back to them, so I never compared the late strips to the early strips.

Now that Fantagraphics is putting out The Complete Peanuts, I'm going back to the beginning, and catching a lot of stuff I missed when I first read them. Everyone knows Charlie Brown as the lovable loser -- but it's really striking just how seriously depressed he often was (and how unloved he felt!). Consider this strip:

Charlie Brown: Tomorrow is our first game.

Charlie Brown: So far in practice we have a team batting average of .002 and a fielding average of .001.

Charlie Brown: [Throws away his stats sheet, staring off into the distance]

Charlie Brown: [Point of view jumps back until CB is a quarter is usual size, surrounded by an empty field] Suddenly my stomach hurts and I feel all alone.

That's a very depressing strip for a comics page -- especially for a comics page in the 50s! Even now, you'll rarely see any character truely depressed in a comic strip, let alone a child. That sort of thing only happens in the "serious" strips like Doonesbury or For Better or For Worse, and even those wouldn't use the character's depression as a punchline -- Doonesbury would throw in a zinger, and For Better or For Worse would have some words of wisdom or consolation. Calvin and Hobbes is the only other strip I can think of which would come close to doing this, and even then, Calvin's misery would often be the result of his own greed or misbehaviour.

The day after that last strip, Charlie Brown had made himself sick with worry and missed the first game. On the third day, the team comes running up to his sick bed to let them know that they'd won the game, and they didn't even miss him as a manager (this is the very first time the history of the strip that team wins any game). The last panel of this strip is probably the most miserable I've ever seen a comic strip character (Calvin included) look as depressed as Charlie Brown looks as he rolls onto his side, three sets of curvy "worry lines" on either side of his eyes, and says "I'm very happy" in small letters in a large, black word balloon.

Schultz is considered one of -- if not the -- all time greats of the comic strip world, and going back to the beginning really shows just why that is. If he coasted in the last few years of his 50 year run of writing and drawing the strip, I think he earned the right.

One more strip transcription, a Sunday strip:

Shermy: [As Charlie Brown walks by] Hi, Charlie Brown... How's the friend of all mankind?
Pig-Pen: HA HA HA

Charlie Brown: [Walking away] Good grief!
Shermy & Pig-Pen: HA HA HA HA!

Patty: Will, if it isn't Charlie Brown!

Violet: Good ol' wishy-washy Charlie Brown!

Patty & Violet: HA HA HA HA
Charlie Brown: [Clutches his chest]

Lucy: Hi, Charlie Brown... Is that your head or are you hiding behind a balloon?

Charlie Brown: [Grimaces]

Charlie Brown: [Goes home, takes off his coat]

Charlie Brown: [Turns on the radio]

Radio: "...And what in all this world, is more delightful than the gay wonderful laughter of little children?"

Charlie Brown: [Kicks the radio across the room]

You know, back before my teens I used to identify Charlie Brown. Being a proto-nerd, I was on the receiving end of a lot of "gay wonderful laughter". I can point out dozens of strips in this volume that strike home, which is probably why I loved Peanuts so much. But I don't think I ever had it as miserable as good ol' Charlie Brown. Read more!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Stuff: It's A Good Day

Just did a little lunchtime shopping. Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 3 is out today, with some of my favourite cartoons:
  • Homeless Hare
    One of the great construction site cartoons
  • Hillbilly Hare
    With the famous square dancing scene
  • Duck! Rabbit! Duck!
    One of the two Rabbit Season cartoons
  • Robin Hood Daffy
    "Ho! Ha ha! Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge! Spin! Ha! Thrust!"
  • Claws for Alarm
    I always liked the Porky & Sylvester ones better than the Tweety ones
  • Birds Anonymous
    Watch for the quick tribute to Un Chien Andalou
This volume contains sixty cartoons in all, plus a whole whack of extras, including some World War II vintage Private Snafu cartoons, documentaries, commentaries, and so on. I love DVDs.

On top of that, I finally found the fourth volume (1957-1958) in Fantagraphics's great The Complete Peanuts series. These are every bit as gorgeous as The Complete Far Side and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes (both published by United Media), but instead of being huge boxed sets, they're coming out as separate hardcovers, two years in each, in a 6" x 8" format.

It's interesting that Fantagraphics is putting out The Complete Peanuts -- I just realized that United Media owns Peanuts as well as The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. I wonder why they aren't the ones doing The Complete Peanuts.

All I need now is a nice, hard bound The Complete Pogo, and I'll be set. Read more!

Games (MMORPG): City of Villains

Lori & I have been playing MMORPGs -- "Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games" -- for a little over a year now. Maybe we're enjoying them so much because we met in a Dungeons & Dragons group.

We'd avoided the MMORPGs for a long time. Mostly when we played computer games together, it would be locally-networked ones like Diablo/Diablo II or Dungeon Siege. We suspected that MMORPGs would be huge time sinks, and Lori wasn't too keen on being hit on by hordes of 16-year-old gamers (a not uncommon problem in online games).

We eventually gave in when one of Lori's colleagues injured his back and had to spend a couple of months away from work. He got her into City of Heroes, a super-hero RPG. We played CoH for few months, including a very fun Halloween weekend last year. It did turn into a time sink, but a managable one (especially over the winter, when Lori doesn't want to go out much anyway), and the 16-year-olds weren't too bad.

City of Heroes is a very well designed and executed game, but a little limited. Missions were of two basic types: "Go to X district and kill N bad guys of type Y" and "Go to X district and clear out a cave/warehouse/office building of bad guys of type Y and their boss". We also found that levelling your character up was very slow once you got past level 15 -- downright tedious when there's just two of you. A lot of CoH requires teams of at least four. When Lori's colleague maxed out his character at Level 50 -- we were still down around 20 -- he moved on to Everquest 2 and we followed. There, we teamed up with some friends of Lori's colleague in a guild, and played together for a few months, but eventually had to leave the game because one of the guild members started making life miserable for everyone.

So we moved to World of Warcraft. So far, this has been my favourite of the games. The game mechanics are simpler than EQ2's (especially in crafting -- making things out of material found in the game), but the game is more involving than CoH. It looks better, to my mind, as well. WoW has been criticized for the simple, cartoony character designs -- EQ2's designs are much more realistic looking -- but the animation is much better in WoW, and I think that makes all the difference. A photo-realistic rendering that moves like Mr. Roboto just isn't as convincing as a cartoon that moves naturally.

Lori & I have just passed Level 40 in WoW, the highest we've ever gotten any of our MMORPG characters (2/3 of the way to the limit), and we're still enjoying the game a lot, but we may be slowing down there soon because City of Villains is coming out next week.

While I was griping about CoH above, we did enjoy the game a lot, and probably would have enjoyed it more had we had a team to play with. (We both prefer playing with people we've known for a while, rather than any random player who happens by when we need a team.) Now that we have an established circle of gaming friends, we're thinking CoV could make the comic book adventures interesting again.

One of our WoW guildmates got us in on the beta, which finishes tomorrow, and we've had a fun couple of days playing around with it. One of the things that made CoH famous was its character design system -- it's so good at making superheroes that Marvel Comics sued over people making up heroes that look like Marvel characters. The CoV system adds a whole bunch of new elements, to the point that I was able to create the ultimate in web cliche super villainy: a Robot Ninja Pirate Zombie! Unfortunately, I couldn't work monkeys into him, but still, that's not bad!

So far the game is a lot like CoH. The original superheroes were divided into "Archtypes" (character classes), with each Archetype having a choice of Primary and Secondary powers suitable to that type. For example, "Scrappers" (think Wolverine or Batman) had things like "Claws" or "Martial Arts" for primaries and "Super Reflexes" or "Regeneration" as secondaries. Once players had gotten comfortable in the game, the various flavours of hero became known by the mix of powers they had: A Wolverine-like hero would be a Claw/Regen Scrapper; Superman would be an Invulnerability/Super Strength Tanker (tankers stand their ground and hold the bad guys' attention while the more fragile heroes take them out).

City of Villains stirs things up a bit by mixing and matching the sets available. The CoV "Brute" has access to primary sets similar to the CoH Tanker, but the secondary set choices are more like the CoH Scrappers.

For now, I'm mainly interested in the Mastermind, which lets you summon minions to do your fighting for you. My favourite so far are the robot drones, which drop out of the sky in steel packing crates when you call for them. Other choices include mercenaries, ninjas, and zombies.

Tomorrow is the big beta finale. With City of Heroes, they finished the beta with an alien invasion which set up several of the story lines for the released game. With CoV, the invasion will be by the (non-player) superheroes from CoH. I'm looking forward to watching the chaos unfold. Read more!

Books (Engineering): Pushing the Limits

I picked up Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering by Henry Petroski because I've enjoyed books like Why Buildings Fall Down and Why Buildings Stay Up by Matthys Levy and Mario Salvadori or Why Things Break by Mark Eberhart. These books had fascinating stories of successes and failures in engineering, and some interesting insights into how the smallest mistake can have huge consequences.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get into Pushing the Limits. Petroski's early chapters have been fast and shallow surveys of structures in the US. Chapter 2 is an overview of bridges, and rarely dedicates more than a single paragraph to each bridge -- and with only one of them shown in any illustration (in fact, there's a serious lack of photographs for a book on famous structures!).

Later chapters get better, focusing on specific examples (I skipped ahead and read the one about the Confederation Bridge between Prince Edward Island and the mainland), but I'm just not finding Petroski's writing very engaging -- it reads like newspaper articles, rather than the engaging first-person stories Eberhart tells in Why Things Break or the detailed histories in Why Buildings Fall Down.

I've decided that I'm not going to read Pushing the Limits straight through. I am going to keep by my bed and read the chapters at random when I'm tired of comic strips. There are some chapters which I'm definitely interested in, in spite of not enjoying the writing: Petroski covers the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao (which also appears on the cover), the collapse of the WTC, the Three Gorges Dam, etc. I may post more comments if I hit any particularly interesting bits. Read more!

Friday, October 21, 2005

Music: Friday Random Ten

Of all of the "memes" (not really the right word, but there it is) that have been floating around the weblogs, the two that I could best participate in would be Friday Cat Blogging (which seems to have faded) and the Friday Random Ten. I've been kind of curious as to how my iPod would randomize, because I tend to put my complete collections of anyone I'm interested in on mine, rather than just favourite selections. So let's see how it turns out.

1. Hello Skinny Medley - The Residents (covered by Primus) - Eyesore: A Stab At The Residents
2. Dead or Alive - Oingo Boingo - The Best of Oingo Boingo
3. Bruces' Philosophers Song - Monty Python - Monty Python Sings
4. Parking Spaces - Bob Rivers - More Twisted Christmas
5. Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out - Shel Silverstein - Dr. Demento 20th Anniversary Collection
6. Creeping Dread - The Residents - The Census Taker
7. Cocoricci (Le Tango des Voleurs) - Men Without Hats - Rhythm of Youth
8. Round and Round - David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust (30th Anniversary release bonus track)
9. Peter and the Wolf - Serge Prokofiev
10. Make Me Moo - The Residents - Demons Dance Alone

Probably about a -5 on the Internet Music Snob's coolness scale, but that works for me. Lots of Residents -- no surprise, since I used to run the official Residents website and have about 850 Residents tunes on the iPod (6770 tracks total).

If I were just playing to listen to, I'd've probably skipped Parking Spaces (pretty nondescript as a Bob Rivers Christmas spoof song goes) and Round and Round (the sound quality isn't very good). Had I done that, that would have added:

11. Perpetual Motion - Philip Glass - Anima Mundi
12. Down in the Park (Piano Version) - Gary Numan - Telekon (Bonus Track) Read more!

Books (Science): Eclipse

I think I've commented before on the recent trend of popular science books that focus on one very narrow aspect of science (or science history), such as the quest for an accurate way to measure longitude, or the development of the magnetic compass, or the science of shadows. Duncan Steel's Eclipse: The Celestial Phenomenon Which Has Changed The Course of History is the latest one of these that I've picked up. After finishing Use of Weapons I wanted another non-fiction book, and Paul Davies' name on the Forward caught my eye. I picked up the paperback second edition, in which Steel updated text which had referred to the 2000 solar eclipse in the future to referring to it in the past.

The book isn't quite as narrowly focused as the title suggests: Steel actually covers not only solar and lunar eclipses, but occultations (eclipses of stars or planets by the Moon or nearer planets), transits (passages of Mercury, Venus, or various astroids in front of the sun), and other, more exotic sorts (Pluto and Charon eclipsing each other, binary star eclipses, etc).

Steel's main interest is on how the study of ecilpses has us knowledge far beyond just the ability to predict eclipses. The set of circumstances necessary for a solar or lunar eclipse to happen depends on the relative lengths of months and years as measured in several ways, and by studying eclipses to determine these lengths, people were able to discover the length of the equinox-to-equinox year very precisely -- precisely enough to know that a leap year every four years (as in the Julian calendar) is one too many every four hundred years, a problem that the current Gregorian calendar fixes.

The book also covers such eclipse-related science as the discovery of helium in the solar corona (only observable during a solar eclipse), the discovery of the Martian atmosphere and Uranian rings during occultations of stars, and of course Sir Arthur Eddington's famous expedition to photograph star displacement during the 1919 eclipse as evidence in support of General Relativity.

My enjoyment of the book was very slightly marred by having read Tony Rothman's Everything's Relative a few months back, though. Rothman's book takes on many traditional stories in science -- such as Eddington's expedition -- and demonstrates how the standard tellings are often very misleading, simplifying matters to the point of distortion and making science look much tidier than it really is.

In the case of the Eddington eclipse, the traditional story tells how Eddington photographed stars around the during the 1919 solar eclipse and measured their displacement against their normal positions, finding it to be 1.75 seconds of arc -- exactly as Einstein had predicted. In actual fact things weren't quite that clean: Eddington only got one or two usable photographs, not enough to be sure of the value. Newton's theory of gravity predicted a deflection as well, of about 0.8 seconds of arc, and Eddington's photographs were not good enough to exclude the possibility that the deflection was closer to Newton's value than Einsteins.

In Eclipse, Steel uses the traditional, simplified versions of a number of stories, and Rothman's book kept intruding in my mind, pointing out that it didn't really happen that way. Nevertheless, the book is fun and engaging, and pretty informative.

One odd thing that bothered me about the paperback edition was in the typesetting -- not something you usually bring up in a discussion of books, but ever since reading Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst I've paid a lot more attention to such things.

The book is set in a slightly antique-feeling font (I don't know the name), which is very nice to read, but the numbers were a problem. First of all, the fact that I noticed antyhing odd about them means that they weren't blending into the rest of the font properly!

The first problem was that the numbers were fixed-width -- the "1" took as much horizontal space as the "8", which means that all the "1"s looked like they were spaced away from the other digits. Fixed-width numbers are essential when typesetting columns of numbers, but there aren't any in the book. The "1"s also looked very similar to the "I"s -- instead of a single beak on the top left, they had serifs on each side, with only a slight lower-left to upper-right slope distinguishing them from the "I"s.

Lastly, the antique feel of the book font really suggests the use of lower-case numerals rather than full-height ones. This weblog uses lower-case numerals, which have ascenders and descenders and generally have the same visual weight as lower-case letters: 1234567890. When you have a page full of dates and measurements in the text, full-height numerals can be very distracting, like BLOCK CAPS scattered through the text; lower-case numerals help keep the overall colour of the page even.

Of cousre, the typesetting probably has very little to do with Steel, and doesn't matter to the quality of the book! It gave me another nice few days spent reading interesting stuff about the universe. Read more!

Web: 404 Fun

It's been a while since I've laughed out loud to a 404 error notice. I found this one while trying to download a stupid video game tricks video. Read more!

Photography: More New Flickr Uploads

Yet again more new photos are up on Flickr. Read more!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Live Music and Film: Nash the Slash Performs Caligari

Nash the Slash, for those who don't know him, is a Toronto-area musician who was most active in the early 80s, first in FM and then solo.

Most recently he's been teamed up with Toronto artist Robert Vanderhosrt for a series of shows setting Robert's paintings to Nash's music.

I've photographed Nash in concert several times.

For fans of classic German Expressionist silent film, Nash the Slash is doing two Halloween shows of his live soundtrack to the wonderful 1920 film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari:

Friday October 28th
Camera Bar
1028 Queen St.W. Toronto
Midnight performance of Caligari
$10 admission
This is a VERY SMALL room (70 people)
for an intimate performance of Caligari.
Get there early.

Saturday October 29th
The Speakeasy
120 Church St. (s. of Queen)
Nash performs Caligari at 10 pm.
The Wet Spots perform from 11:30 until 12:30
Admission $10 Read more!

Monday, October 17, 2005

Photography: New Flickr uploads

I've just added some new cat photos to our Flickr account, JnL. Read more!

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Movie (Animated): Wallace & Grommit -- Going to the Theatre

We really enjoyed Wallace and Grommit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, as I described in the previous post, but I did not enjoy the whole theatre-going experience that surrounded it. It was a very good reminder of just why we have 600-odd DVDs in the basement! If you don't mind, I'm going to rant a bit about it.

We left for the film about 30 minutes early -- 10 minutes to get there, 10 minutes to get tickets & popcorn, and 10 minutes to spare. It usually works.

We got the car parked an hour and a half later. The Toronto Marathon was in town, and it was between us an the theatre! We had to go back past our house, around the north edge of downtown (along with everyone else), and down the other side to get there. By which time, of course, the film was almost done -- we had decided, once we realized how bad things were, to catch the next showing.

So, a nice dinner at a Korean restaurant nearby and a stop at the bookstore, then off to the threatre with 20 minutes to go.

First problem: a gaggle of schoolgirls whose keepers were lining them up for counting across the base of the escalators! It was impossible to get past them until someone clued in and shuffled them off elsewhere.

Second problem: I got in line at the snack counter with 15 minutes to go. Unfortunately, all 15 minutes were taken up by the people in front of me -- so no snacks.

Third problem: The gaggle of schoolgirls ended up surrounding us in the theatre, constantly asking questions or reading on-screen text out loud.


Thanks for letting me vent. In any case, I'm thankful again for the setup in the basement. Sure, the screen isn't quite as big, but the parking is easier and the crowd is quieter! Read more!

Movie (Animated): Wallace & Grommit

We finally got a chance to get out to see Wallace & Grommit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. We'd been meaning to since the movie came out, but work kept interfering.

Unfortunately, today turned out not a good day for going. It was a great movie, but an awful movie-going experience. I'll cover the movie here, and the experience in the next post.

I've been a Nick Park / Aardman Animation fan since Creature Comforts hit the International Festival of Animation, sometime back around 1990. The Wallace & Grommit shorts which came after were amazing pieces of animation, and hilarious to boot. Park and Aardman did a great job with their first feature film, Chicken Run, so I was eager to see if they could do the same with their signature characters.

One of the problems with The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is that every reviewer who enjoyed it insists on working Wallace's favourite compliment, "cracking", into a review, so I promise not to do that. But I did enjoy the film immensely. All the W&G stuff you'd expect is in there, starting (of course) with the Rube Goldberg-esque inventions down to the silly background gags (such as a photo of Grommit graduating from "Dogworts"). Moreover, Park & company have worked in a number of fun tributes to horror films -- and not just the old black-and-white standards you'd expect . For example, a were-rabbit transformation scene has a direct steal of the "stretching hand" bit from An American Werewolf in London; not a film any of the kids in the "intended" audience age range will have seen!

The Curse of the Were-Rabbit isn't quite as successful a feature-length film as Chicken Run was, though. The Wallace & Grommit gag rhythm works perfectly with a 30-minute run time, but stretches a little thin at three times that. By the end of the film even the characters in the film are rolling their eyes at the puns. Nevertheless, I have no doubts that Were-Rabbit will be many times better than either of the computer-animated films in the Coming Attractions lineup!

Before the film, we caught the trailers for Disney's upcoming Chicken Little -- the film they abandoned cell animation for -- and Dreamworks' Over the Hedge. So I'm going to take this opportunity to rant about them for a bit.

Disney's been an embarassment these last few years. Their most successful and most acclaimed animated releases have been films they've merely been distributing: the computer animated work of Pixar, and the North American releases of Miyasaki Hayao's Japanese films. Their own films have been tanking left and right.

Michael Eisner, in his brilliance, has decided that the thing that makes Pixar's films more successful than Disney's is the fact that Pixar animates their films with computers. Thus Home on the Range was Disney's last cell-animated film (and from what I hear, what a low note that was to go out on!). Never mind matters like storytelling, character creation, and so on.

But then, the fact that Disney has decided that their problem was in the superficial level of the animation techinque used tells us a great deal about how deep the real problem is...

I'm not planning on seeing Chicken Little, but then I haven't seen any Disney animated film since The Lion King. I've never really been a fan, and I'm rather annoyed that Disney seems to have completely ripped off their main character's design from Egghead Junior -- the brainy young chicken who was always perplexing Foghorn Leghorn in the old (and wonderful) Looney Tunes.

The Over the Hedge trailer was just unremarkable. There doesn't seem to be very much overlap between the movie and the comic strip it's based on. Even the characters in common between the two were only vaguely similar to their original forms in the movie trailer. The comic strip is largely about suburban life, the "disposable society", and the rediculousness of it all; the movie appears to be about burping your ABCs. Read more!

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