Monday, January 30, 2006

Museum (Science): Body Worlds 2

For the past several months, and for one month more, the Ontario Science Center in Toronto has been hosting Body Worlds 2, the second touring exhibition of Dr. Gunter von Hagens's plastinated anatomical models.

Having a certain degree of morbid curiousity, I've known about plastination for about 10 years now. I first heard about it when I caught wind of the controversy surrounding the first European plastination exhibits in 1997.

Plastination, a process invented by Dr. Hagens in the late 70s, is a system for replacing all of the fluids in a dead tissue with hard plastic, preserving the body's original structure -- and colour -- down to the celular level. The resulting plastinates (as Hagens calls them) are as solid and durable as plastic models, but far more realistic (for obvious reasons).

Hagens first became famous when he plastinated a smoker's lung and put it on display (next to a plastinated healthy lung) in European museums. The black, cancerous lump inspired many Europeans to finally quit smoking for good. Hagens's work became controversial when he expanded the process to handle entire human bodies. Not only did he put real bodies on anatomical display (something that's not that uncommon in European history), but he posed them -- skinned and opened to reveal muscles, organs, and deep anatomical structure -- in life-like, active poses. The final effect is very similar to Andreas Vesalius's 16th century anatomical studies, only life-sized, in full colour, in three dimensions, and real.

Hagens's posed bodies caused quite a stir, and several groups tried to shut him down using legal challenges, but he weathered them all without too much problem. People who actually saw the show got used to the idea pretty quickly (the Body Worlds guide book -- for the first show, not Body Worlds 2 -- includes the results of visitor surveys, which are very positive), and the controversy died down.

The posed dead people do draw the media's eyes, though, so I hadn't realized how much of the show would be displays of individual organs rather than full bodies. Every human organ is presented both in context within the body or in a case with diseased examples for contrast. Bodies and organs are presented both in full three dimensions and in thin slices as well, letting visitors see how organs are positioned in three dimensions and in two-dimensional cross-sections.

One fascinating type of display Hagens has created is a plastinated blood vessel system with no other tissues around, which gives a very good idea of just how dense the network of blood vessels in a body is.

For me, most of the exhibit put what I already knew in context -- The Visible Man-type models do cover the same sort of material, though they can't give quite as intense a feel for how things fit together as a full-body plastinate.

What surprised me most were the brain plastinates -- they seemed very small and smooth.

I had always though human brains were bigger. I realized afterwards that that was probably due to watching too many bad SF movies: an "open brain" special effect generally involves a thin brain-like "bald wig" over an actor's head, which gives the impression that brains are almost as big as a human head. As the Body Worlds show made clear, after the skin, skull, dura matter, the brain surface is about a centimetre below the outside of the scalp.

The famous brain convolusions that everybody pictures when they think of a human brain also surprised me -- they are far less visible in the plastinates than they would be in an anatomical model. Blood vessels snake along them, taking advantage of the gaps they make between the brain and the inside of the skull.

The Body Worlds 2 show is at the Science Centre until February 26th. It's an expensive show -- $25 admission for Body Worlds 2 alone -- but it's definitely worth it. Read more!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Books (Science Fiction): Ethan of Athos

I just finished the fourth of Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Verkosigan books, Ethan of Athos. Back when I started the series, teflonjedi mentioned that he has a copy of this but never got into the rest of the series.

Ethan of Athos is not a good place to start on the series. It's my least favourite of the four books I've re-read so far (though I still enjoyed it overall).

The book is atypical of the Vorkosigan series. Miles Vorkosigan never actually appears, though he's mentioned via his "Admiral Naismith" alias. I can't remember the order the books were written, but unless I'm mistaken, Ethan was the third book Bujold wrote set in this universe, and Miles himself was not in her original plan. The first book written was Shards of Honor, the story of Miles's parents, which I treat as a prequel to the Miles books, though it's more accurate to say that the Miles books are sequels to Shards. The Warrior's Apprentice was next, continuing Miles's story from Shards, and Ethan followed, continuing Elli Quinn's story from Apprentice. The Vor Game and Cetaganda, the two books that precede Ethan chronologically, were written well after, and the jump back to a less mature version of the world is quite noticeable.

(Bujold, when she came to write Cetaganda, makes a reference to Ethan when a Cetagandan is momentarily distracted by a problem concerning L-X-10 Terran-C. It turns out that that problem is what started the chain of events that leads to the story in Ethan.)

The second problem with the book, and the one that grated most, was how socially out of date it felt at times (the book is 20 years old). The title character, Dr. Ethan Urquhart, comes from an artificial society of fundamentalist misogynist homosexuals -- their Founding Fathers took advantage of the (then new) invention of the uterine replicator to colonize a planet (Athos) without involving women, whom they seem to picture as a stereotypical Moral Majority type's stereotype of a radical feminist. This certainly sets up a lot of potential for culture shock when Ethan has to leave Athos to seek out new ovarian cultures to replace the 200-year-old ones on Athos, but it comes off as rather clunky in the novel. For one thing, Ethan runs into anti-gay bigotry on Kline Station (his first stop-over after leaving Athos, and the site of most of the action), which seems very out of place in an advanced galactic culture. Perhaps it was more believable in 1986, but these days it just sounds anachronistic.

Ethan, of course, gets tangled up in intrigue on Klein Station and is forced to work closely with Elli Quinn (a woman), but Bujold never really goes anywhere with the conflict which should have been happening due to Ethan's background -- Ethan, it turns out, is far less prejudiced than some of the Stationers he met early on, and so manages to work with women without too much trouble. In the end, Athosian attitudes towards women turns out to be nothing more than a plot device to bring shipments of genetic material into the story.

As I said, though, I did enjoy reading the book -- I just wouldn't recommend starting the series with it. For that matter, one can skip over it when reading the series without missing much.

And, of course, the cover art has almost nothing to do with the book. It shows a dramatic fellow in a flight suit standing in front of a big spaceship, looking much like George Bush wishes he'd looked during his "Mission Accomplished" photo-op. It's a scene that never happens in the book. Not only that, the art doesn't make much sense: the fellow's flight suit has an oxygen mask with goggles and a hose leading down to a waist-level pack (he's wearing it hanging around his neck by its strap) but he's also holding a full space helmet, meant to fasten to his collar. There's no reason to have both -- if he were wearing the mask, the helmet wouldn't be able to lock down over the hose, and if he were wearing the helmet, there'd be no point to the mask. Read more!

Monday, January 16, 2006

Books (Comic Strip): Frazz Addendum

I was working my way through the third volume of The Complete Calvin & Hobbes over the weekend and I realized I wasn't really fair to Miss Wormwood in my Frazz posting when I compared her to Mrs. Olsen. There's no evidence that Miss Wormwood is actually a bad teacher. Susie Derkins doesn't have any problems with her that we can see, for instance. In Frazz, though, it's quite clear that Mrs. Olsen hates the students (though, as Frazz points out, that's only because she hates everyone).

One strip in particular emphasized the difference in attitude between Calvin and Frazz, when Calvin tells Miss Wormwood that "You can teach me the material, but you can't make me care". Caulfield's attitude in Frazz is more along the lines, "I care about learning, but you don't have anything left to teach me", a significant difference. Read more!

Friday, January 13, 2006

Books (Comic Strip): Frazz: Live at Bryson Elementary

One of the more common comic strip clichés is "kids hate school" (of course, this isn't restricted to comic strips). Calvin & Hobbes is probably the best example of this ("best" as in both "best example of" and "best executed"), but it's hard to get away from. FoxTrot first caught my eye because it actually had a character who loved school. Of course, Jason's a geeky science nerd type, another cliché, but a well-done one.

Jef Mallett's Frazz takes a rather different approach. It's set almost entirely in a school (a grade school -- most of the students seen are 6 to 9 years old) and covers a much wider range of school experiences than any other strip. Frazz: Live at Bryson Elementary is the first collection of the strip.

The strip centres around its title character, "Frazz" Frazier, a successful songwriter and grade school custodian who has taken upon himself the job of making sure school is fun for the students, even of some of the classes aren't. Most prominent among the students is Caulfield, named for Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye -- the first of a great many literary references in the strip.

Caulfield squares off against Mrs. Olsen, one of those teachers who really has no business being a teacher. He isn't a Calvin to her Miss Wormwood, though -- Calvin's smart, but lazy. He wants everything handed to him on a platter. Caulfield (aided and abetted by Frazz) is smart and enthusiastic about learning. He reads Hemingway and Faulkner, for example. He's just bored to death by Mrs. Olsen's classes, and hates regimented learning. Truth be told, for all I love Calvin & Hobbes, I identify with Caulfield more than Calvin. I had the good fortune of getting into an "Advancement Program" for bright students who were being held back in the general classes. Unfortunately, those sorts of programs have fallen out of style lately, often in favour of giving the smart kinds Ritalyn to keep them from getting bored and impatient.

Frazz is the kind of guy who could have turned Calvin into a Caulfield. The Foreword by Gene Weingarten points out that Frazz could even be Calvin, a "brilliant underachiever" (and with the same hair), grown up having finally learned to love learning. (Frazz was also a student under Mrs. Olsen when he was in grade three, 21 years earlier. Perhaps "Wormwood" was her maiden name?) Though Mallett says he didn't mean for Frazz to be adult Calvin, you can definitely see the influences Watterson had on Mallett's writing. Curiously, one the places it shows up best is in the use of pacing and silence in the strips -- which could get me 'way off track into a discussion of Scott McCloud's "Count Basie" analogy for pacing comics, but I'll save that for some other time.

The Frazz world is a little broadly populated than the Calvin & Hobbes, too. Bryson Elementary has popular, inspirational teachers as well as Mrs. Olsen, and lots of students other than Caulfield (though Olsen and Caulfield are the ones whose name sticks in my memory). It's not all stuck in school as well -- Frazz is an avid mountain biker, and is often off riding, especially in Sunday strips.

One of the best things about the strip is that it's not just Caulfield and Frazz who are well-read -- it assumes the readers are as well. The jokes work best if you know something of Salinger, Hemingway, Faulkner, and so on. (At one point Caulfield gets his Walkman confiscated by the principal, and Frazz mentions that it might not have happened if Caulfield had explained he was listening to a Faulkner book on tape. Caulfield says, "That's ok, I was getting tired of changing tapes in the middle of sentences anyway.")

And, as if to emphasize the strip's literacy, two of the three blurbs on the back of the book are by Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. (Coincidentally, the first time I encountered Frazz, it was in the middle of a story about Frazz reading Hiaasen. I think the book was Tourist Season).

The third blurb is by 1988 Giro d'Italia champion Andy Hampsten, just to cover Frazz's fondness for cycling.

Wikipedia has a good entry about Frazz which covers its literary allusions in more detail.

I don't actually know if Frazz is running in any Toronto papers. I should see. I follow it online, and I will certainly be buying all the books. My only fear is that a comic strip that expects so much literacy from its readers may not be able to survive long. Read more!

Live Music and Film: Nash the Slash performs The Lost World

This year's Ad Astra science fiction convention in Toronto is going to have a very impressive guess line up. Among others, Ray Bradbury will be attending by video-conferencing, and special effects legend Ray Harryhausen will be there in person.

Ray Harryhausen is the stop-motion genius behind the special effects spectaculars from the '60s and '70s such as Jason and the Argonauts and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. He learned his trade from Willis O'Brien, who is best known for his stop-motion work in the original 1933 King Kong.

Before Kong, O'Brien did the special effects for the 1925 film adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and, as it happens, The Lost World is one of the silent films that Toronto musician Nash the Slash has written a live-performance soundtrack for. The folks at Ad Astra realized this, and have invited Nash to perform his The Lost World set at the convention on Friday, March 31st, with an introduction by Ray Harryhausen.

That's sort of like getting invited to a convention to give a talk about 1930s Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials and being told, "Oh, and we'll have George Lucas introduce you."

And I'll be there to photograph it! Some photos to go with my shots of Nash with George A. Romero.

Evening admission to the con for Friday only is $25. If you're interested in SF, you might want to go for the whole weekend for $60. Read more!

Books (Science Fiction): Cetaganda

I finished the third Miles Vorkosigan book, Cetaganda, yesterday. Another fun read, and a bit of a change of pace -- no space battles this time around, just political intrigue in the Cetagandan Empire.

The Cetagandan Empire is an enemy of Miles's homeworld of Barrayar, though at the time of the novel they are at peace (mostly). Cetaganda's a genocracy -- a society ruled through control of genetics and reproduction -- with a power structure based loosely on shogunate Japan. The Emperor and the ruling class are called "the haut", and the military class are "the ghem". Unlike shogunate Japan, though, the haut has real power, something a little surprising to outlanders (in Japan, the shogun was the de facto ruler, and the Emperor and his court lived off stipends provided by the shogun and his vassals). The haut's control over the ghem comes through their control over the haut and ghem gene pools. To complicate matters, haut power is divided between the men (who have the political power) and the women (who control the gene pool). It makes for an interesting hypothetical society.

So now I've just started Ethan of Athos. Back in my first post on the series, teflonjedi mentioned that he had this one. It's also atypical: I don't remember if Miles even appears in this one. He's mostly represented in the story by Elli Quinn, a commander in the mercenary company Miles is associated with, on a secret mission for Miles. Quinn had a bit part in The Warrior's Apprentice when she was injured in one of the first combat missions Miles commanded, but she becomes much more prominent in later books. Read more!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Books (Science Fiction): The Vor Game

Monday night I finished the second Miles Vorkosigan book, The Vor Game. I'm not going to go into details about it (I don't want to post spoilers), though I will mention that it's a little odd in structure, more like a short story followed by a (related) novella than a single novel -- about a quarter of the way in Miles changes commander, location, and mission completely.

One complaint I do have about the books -- or, rather, the editions I have -- is the cover art. I've complained earlier about the way the Garrett, P.I. cover art almost always shows Garrett with a hat, even though Glen Cook explicitly says in the books that he never wears one (except once, as part of a disguise).

One of the central elements of the Miles Vorkosigan books is that Miles is severely deformed because of a poison gas attack when his mother was pregnant, which left his bones extremely fragile. He's four-foot-nine with a hunched back and legs that require braces to keep them from breaking. But so far, in the three books I've looked at this time through (I haven't dug out the others to check their covers yet), the cover art has largely glossed over this. The Vor Game is the best of the three in this respect, showing Miles's short stature next to a six-foot-plus sergeant; Cetaganda, the book I'm reading now, is probably the worst, showing Miles from behind, on his knees, before a Cetagandan haut-lady (a member of the highest aristocracy on that planet). As far as I can tell, given his position, he's about the same height as the haut-lady (who are described as extremely tall), and there is no sign of a hunch in his back.

I'm not sure what the process is for approving this artwork. The artist has obviously read something about the book, as some of the details are correct: the haut-lady is in a floating chair wittin a bubble, for example. The figures of Miles and the haut-lady are flanked by profiles of Miles and a ghem-lord (a member of the lower aristocracy) staring each other down, and the ghem-lord's face is painted in swirling patterns. So some of the more minor details are there, though major ones are missing.

The first book, The Warrior's Apprentice, had the strangest bit of artwork of the three. It's a typical "character faces floating in front of a space scene" cover, showing Miles and what appears to be Fu Manchu. I have no idea why there would be the face of a Chinese stereotype (complete with droopy moustache, scar over one eye, and a 19th-century Chinese hat) floating next to Miles's. The only thing I can think is that one of Miles's allies later in the book is a fellow named Commodore Tung who is Chinese (presumably -- it's never stated, though in Cetaganda Miles quotes him quoting Chou En Lai). I have no idea why the artist would make Tung look so sinister, though. The closest thing The Warrior's Apprentice has to a personal villain is Tung's rival, Oser, though for the most part the book is a "Miles against circumstances" story, with no single antagonist.

The cover art business is a minor irritation, but it suggests to me that the authors have little input into the process, which bugs me. And it's not as if correcting the mistakes would hurt the artwork. Garrett would look less like Sam Spade, and Miles would not be as attractive -- but Garrett shouldn't look like Sam Spade, and Miles's unattractiveness is vitally important to the Miles books (and Miles's personality). Is it really that hard to get it right? Read more!

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Photography: AutoStitch

Thanks to AmericaBlog, I've just discovered AutoStitch, the best piece of photo-stitching panorama software I've ever seen.

Panorama software takes overlapping photographs of a scene and combines them into a (supposedly) seamless single image. Unfortunately, most panoramic software is pretty simple -- you usually have to arrange of the photographs in the correct relative position, and a lot of the time it will only handle one degree of freedom (the camera was rotated left-to-right or up-to-down). Most of the time, I end up doing the panorama merging manually in Photoshop -- it's almost as fast, and I'm often happier with the results.

AutoStitch not only handles two dimensions (it can create a panorama that covers the entire dome of the sky), but you don't have to do any arranging of the photos ahead of time. Just point it to a bunch of files, and it will figure out how they are supposed to overlap. That's just amazing -- and the results are impressive as well.

A couple of months ago I photographed the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal under construction at the Royal Ontario Museum for my mother, who will be doing a lecture on the architect, Daniel Liebeskind. Since our Canon 20D DSLR has a wonderful nine-frames-a-second burst mode, I took a whole slew of shots to assemble into a collage later. But when I got home I discovered that I'd forgotten to put the camera on continual focus -- so only the first (and farthest) area I photographed was in focus! So I never bothered to assemble the panorama.

With the discovery of AutoStitch, though, these photos made a great test-case. I threw them into the program, and in only a couple of minutes it produced a near-perfect panorama! Sure, it's still out of focus (though that's harder to see at the reduced size), but it's an impressive piece of work even so. I'll have to go back and photograph the thing correctly sometime soon!

Flickr has a group dedicated to AutoStitch. Read more!

Books (Science Fiction): The Warrior's Apprentice

I mentioned earlier that I was between books -- a little overdosed on science books after my last run (ending with The Ancestor's Tale, and not getting anywhere with fiction.

I'd started a couple of fantasy series by new authors (well, new-to-me authors), but couldn't get into them. One I had started a while back, dropped, and tried to pick up again; the other was all new, based on a recommendation about the author from a friend. It wasn't until I was about 1/3 of the way into the newer book that I figured out what was really missing: humour. Everyone was deadly serious all the time.

It's not that I only want to read comedies, but no-one in these books ever seemed to even crack a smile -- not even a dark, ironic, gallows-humour smile for when things were deadly serious. Or a light, carefree, help-the-reader-identify-with-the-character smile before things got serious.

I guess that's one reason why (as I mentioned when discussing the Garrett, P.I. books, I have a few series I fall back on when I'm between major reads, ones that I can be sure I'm going to enjoy -- and ones with some humour to them.

The Garrett books can be very dark, but Glen Cook has a sharp sense of humour that works perfectly. David Eddings may have only one story in him (the four series of his that I've read -- the two five-book series about Belgarion and the two three-book series about Sparkhawk -- are all chase-the-magic-rock-all-over-the-map stories. The two rocks involved are even the same colour (blue)!), but his characters are enjoyable and their banter is fun to read. The third series I re-read fairly often is Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series, which I've just re-started with The Warrior's Apprentice.

The Miles series is space opera, centered around (naturally) Miles Vorkosigan, an aristocrat on the militaristic feudal world of Barrayar, which has only recently (that is, a couple of generations ago) re-emerged from isolation from the rest of galactic society.

To complicate matters, Miles's mother was poisoned during a coup attempt while she was pregnant, leaving Miles with extremely brittle bones. As a result, Miles's growth has been severely stunted (he's 4'9" after extensive surgery) and deformed -- a major problem on Barrayar, where, thanks to nuclear wars earlier in their history, mutant children are often killed at birth. Miles isn't a mutant, but the distinction is a little subtle for Barrayaran prejudices.

Miles is driven by a manic personality and an obsessive need to prove himself which, in The Warrior's Apprentice, leads to him fast-talking his way deeper and deeper into trouble. By the climax of the book, he's fighting in a planetary war while commanding people he'd conned into signing up for a mercenary company he'd made up off the top of his head. The overall effect is like watching someone juggle chainsaws while dancing on the roof of a runaway train heading towards a bridge laden with explosives. Laser chainsaws.

The best summary of Miles's personality comes from his first "recruit", who'd given him a green, 120-proof drink earlier in the story, which Miles had been slurping on regularly to settle his nerves (a little abridged):

Quite dizzy. And nauseated. Blast it, this wasn't free fall. He sat abruptly on the deck, weak from the near-disaster.

Mayhew stared, looking first alarmed, then sardonically understanding. "It's about time that stuff caught up with you," he remarked.

Bothari snapped to alertness at Miles's hunched huddle, and quizzed Mayhew with angry eyes.

"His creme de meth just wore off," Mayhew explained. "Drops you in a hurry, doesn't it, kid?"

Miles mumbled, an inarticulate groan. Bothari growled somthing exasperatedly under his breath about "deserve," picked him up, and slung him unceremoniously over his shoulder.

"Well, at least he'll stop bouncing off the walls, and give us all a break," said Mayhew cheerfully. "I've never seen anybody overrev on that stuff the way he did."

"Oh, was that liquor of yours a stimulant?" asked Elena. "I wonder why he didn't fall asleep."

"Couldn't you tell?" chuckled Mayhew.

"Not really."

Mayhew's laughter faded. "My God," he said hollowly, "you mean he's like that all the time?"

One of the nice things about the Miles series is how Miles matures over the run of the books (now up to 10 books, with three prequels -- though the prequels are best read after you've read at least the first few of the series books). In The Warrior's Apprentice he's 19 and has just failed the physical trials to get into the Imperial Service (breaking both legs on the first obstacle of the course in an attempt to prove himself). By the most recent book, he's 30-somethng (I don't have it on hand to check) and getting married, with a long and successful career, if complicated and convoluted, career. Bujold even includes a timeline in the back of the books, summarizing how all of the novels fit together.

The Garrett books don't have a grand arc like this. Garrett's always the same age and doesn't change much, though characters will come and go over the course of several novels. Of course, in the case of the Garrett books it's sometimes only a couple of weeks between novels, whereas it can be several years bewteen the Miles books. The Eddings books aren't really so much series as multi-volume novels, so the dynamic is different there as well.

In any event, I've just finished The Warrior's Apprentice, and I have nine fun Miles books ahead of me (and three prequels) before I have to worry about new fiction again. I just need to find some new series authors I can use to fill the gaps! I can't just re-read these things over and over, enjoyable though they are. Iain M. Banks has been good, but his Culture series is too heavy for "between book" reading. I just don't want to get bit by yet another humourless slog. Read more!