Friday, April 28, 2006

Photos: The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal

From the Hyatt - Crop
Note: the image may look a little chunky because it's scaled down in your browser. Click on it to see it at a proper size

When I wrote about the Sharp Centre at OCAD a couple of days ago, I mentioned the Royal Ontario Museum Crystal, the new expansion to the ROM.

Street LevelThe structure's proper name is The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. The Crystal was designed by Daniel Libeskind to replace the previous ROM expansion, which had been build a few decades ago between the two north wings of the H-shaped ROM building.

Old and NewThe old expansion was function, though a little dull -- a terraced structure set back from Bloor Street with tan walls and dark windows. The Crystal is certainly a major departure -- instead of sloping back from the road, it will stick out over it, looming over pedestrians. No-one's quite sure what to make of it yet -- it's completely different in style from the building it's expanding (a serious Victorian structure, very academic-ivy in flavour). Some people hate it already, though personally I'm hopeful. I think it could work quite well, though I'm a little worried about the final effect the mix of aluminum sheathing and windows is going to have -- I would have preferred all-glass.

DomeUnfortunately, there's been no talk of reviving the planetarium. I wonder what they'll end up doing with it.

The Crystal's supposed to open this fall. I'm looking forward to seeing it finished -- I'll be posting more photos of it as it gets closer to completion. Read more!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Books (Science): Struck By Lightning

I haven't posted much about books lately, except for the bit on Tezuka's Buddha. Recently my reading has been rather scattered -- until yesterday I had four books on the go, jumping between them, not really able to stay focused on any one for long.

But yesterday I finished the most recent of the four, Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities by Jeffrey Rosenthal, a University of Toronto professor of statistics. It's a plain-language guide to common sense about probabilities (what Rosenthal calls "the Probability Perspective"), something that is often lacking in the general public, written in a light-hearted tone. It doesn't go as deep into the math as, say, Larry Gonick's Cartoon Guide to Statistics (which is not damning with faint praise: the Cartoon Guide gets right into the details!), but it covers its material in an accessible and friendly manner that makes it very approachable, with lots of examples from everyday life and popular entertainment (including The Simpsons and Monty Python).

Sometimes Rosenthal goes a little overboard. His sidebar examples get a little too cutesy at times, especially the "Ace Space, Probability Perspective Investigator" interlude chapter in the middle. Colin Bruce did that schtick better in Conned Again, Watson!, another common-sense guide to stats presented as Sherlock Holmes stories. Though, to be fair, Rosenthal does warn you at the beginning of the Ace Diamond story that "Serious, sober-minded readers may wish to skip this chapter".

Probably the biggest gripe I have about the book is in the first section of the chapter "Evolution, Genes, and Viruses". Rosenthal's explanation of evolution has a serious flaw:

The process [of natural selection] ensures that less fit offspring do not survive and reproduce. Thus, surviving offspring are weighted towards being more fit, more advanced, better able to live and flourish. In practical terms, this means that surviving offspring are weighted towards being more intelligent, more adaptable, and more cunning -- in short, more like humans.

The problem here is that there is no necessary weighting towards being "more intelligent", "more advanced", "more cunning", or "more like humans" in evolution. The only weighting is towards being "better able to reproduce in the current environment". Amoebas today are evolutionary descendants of amoebas from three billion years ago. Their evolution has not made them "more like humans" -- they're perfectly capable of reproducing in their modern environment.

This is one of the biggest misconceptions about evolution in the general public -- that it's goal-oriented, and that we are the goal. Rosenthal hedges a little with a parenthetical "or some other sophisticated, intelligent life form", but even that isn't the case. Sure, intelligence seems to be a pretty good survival trait, so if there's a chance for it to show up, it'll probably flourish. But if there were to turn out to be microscopic life on Mars, for instance, it will be the end-product of billions of years of evolution that never even got close to a "sophisticated, intelligent life form".

That's more of a pet peeve than a real problem with the book, though these days, with the creationist scientist-wannabes of the Intelligent Design movement muddying the waters in the US, it's something of a disservice to the public to muddy the waters about evolution. Or, more accurately, to fail to help clear the waters -- this is an already well-established misunderstanding. Rosenthal isn't making anything worse, he's just missing an opportunity to help make things better.

With luck, I'll soon get a chance to post about the last two Miles Verkosigan books I've finished (I'm a little bogged down in the latest I've started -- I'll explain later) and the most recent popular book about a very narrow aspect of science book I've started.

I'll also be doing more photo posts like the Sharp Sentre For Design one yesterday between book posts. Read more!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Photos: The Sharp Centre for Design

OCAD Panorama
Toronto's undergoing a building boom. Well, it has been for a while, with just about every old warehouse and vacant lot being turned into loft condos, but most recently there have been a lot of new "non-standard" building project: unique structures, as opposed to the usual apartment towers and loft reconstructions.

At the moment, the Art Gallery of Ontario is undergoing renovations designed by Frank Gehry (and is hosting a show of Gehry's designs); the Royal Ontario Museum is being radically overhauled, its old extention being completely replaced with a "crystal" designed by Daniel Libeskind; even the Gardiner Ceramics Museum is undergoing renovation and expansion.

Abstract Expressionist Before any of these started, though, the Ontario College of Art (OCAD) underwent its own notable expansion with the Sharp Centre for Design. The Sharp Centre is a large, two storey tall white box covered in black squares, supported about ten stories above the ground on multicoloured stilts, and connected to the original OCAD building by a diagonal red staircase and a black elevator shaft. (Some of the silts and the staircase are visible in the panoramic photo above.)

OCAD I have a view of the place out of my window at work. The overall effect is striking and I really like the idea, but I can't look at it without wishing that they'd stuck something a little more interesting on top of those stilts. The overall effect is of a very big shoe box. The corrugated steel they clad the white box in doesn't help, either -- it reminds me of the siding on an old Quonset-hut style warehouse. I have similar concerns about the cladding of the ROM Crystal -- I think an all-glass enclosure would have been preferable, though that was probably not desirable for the exhibits.

OCAD Still, the Sharp Centre can make for some fun photos. The first photo above was made using Autostitch. I set the camera up on a tripod in the centre of the concrete circle under the Centre and took 118 photos: 24 in a circle with the camera level, then again aimed up 15°, then 30°, then 45°. At 60° I only took 12 photos, 8 at 75°, and 2 at 90° (perpendicular to each other).

These were probably more than necessary, but the Autostitch program had to trouble ensuring that they all overlapped properly, so it was worth the effort.

I didn't really realize at the time that I was catching the Sun just barely peeking around the edge of the building, but the effect does living up the shot a little.

The other shots in this post are just attempts to get a nice abstract expressionist feel from the building -- which is probably how it works best. The black-and-white checks aren't that attractive for a building, but they work as background in a geometric image. I particularly like the first of them, where I got one of the pillars to look like a rectangle instead of a cylinder.

The pillars are tapered at each end, and some OCAD-alumni friends of mine have suggested that someone really ought to sneak up to the place one night and stencil "LAURENTIEN" down each of them, after the famous Canadian pencil crayons. No-one's done it yet, though. Read more!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Music: The Rock Pile Legacy

I should have written this up last weekend... I've just helped Canadian musician Nash the Slash put a new addition on his website: The Rock Pile Legacy.

The Rock Pile LegacyBack in 1968, before becoming a rock musician himself, Nash would catch the shows at the Toronto concert hall, The Rock Pile (now the MTV Canada building).

He photographed the various acts, on stage and back stage. A few months ago he was cleaning his basement and found his old photos -- dozens of pictures of Rock legends that no-one has ever seen. Acts like Chuck Berry, The Mothers of Invention, The Who, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, The Nice, Alice Cooper, The Kinks, Cream, Led Zeppelin, and more. Over a hundred photos in all.

This photo is one of his: Keith Emerson of The Nice, attacking his keyboard with his trademark knife. He went on to found the prog-rock band Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Read more!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Books (Manga): Buddha

I'm not a religious person. I don't have a lot of time or patience for organized religion or supernaturalism. But I am fascinated by the history of religion and religiousness. You can't properly comprehend human history without knowing something of human religion, after all.

The three Abrahamic religions make the most news around here, of course. Western history makes no sense without taking those three into account. Since the 60s, though, there has also been a fascination with "Eastern religions" (though often in bastardized forms). The Beatles were a major source of that interest, with their involvement with the shyster Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Trancendental Meditation movement.

Naturally, the "Eastern religions" fad involved Buddhism as well (think of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for example). As with many religious fads, there's a lot of confusion and over-simplification of the Buddhism in the general public -- no doubt this makes it easier to convey through TV. Buddha's this serene-looking (or fat and jolly) guy with big earlobes who talked about one-handed clapping a lot, and so on.

Well, what better way to clear up popular cultural misconceptions about an ancient religious figure than a comic book?

Actually, it turns out that a comic book is a good way of doing this -- provided you do the book right. Which, among other things, means letting it run almost 3000 pages.

A year or two ago, I was browsing through Pages, an excellent book store in Toronto, when I came across the first volume of a new edition of Osamu Tezuka's magnum opus, Buddha. This weekend, I finally finished Volume 8. Originally written between 1974 and 1984, it has now been translated into English and released as a gorgeous series of hard-cover books, in eight volumes of about 350 pages each.

Osamu Tezuka is best known in North America as the creator of Astro Boy. Among general animation fans, he's also known for creating Kimba the White Lion, which is widely believed to have been a major influence on (or ripped off by, depending on how you look at it) Disney's The Lion King. (This lead to a great gag in the Simpsons episode Round Springfield, in which Bleeding Gums Murphy dies. He appears to Lisa in a cloud, and is joined by other characters voiced by James Earl Jones, including Mustafa from The Lion King, who says, "You must avenge my death, Kimba... I mean, Simba.")

Fans of Japanese animation and comics (anime and manga) know Tezuka as the father of manga. Influenced by early US animation (including Disney), Tezuka almost single-handedly created the Japanese animation and comics genres.

Tezuka's Buddha starts with the birth of Prince Siddartha Gautama -- the man who would become the first Buddha -- and follows him through his entire life, from his growing up as a sickly but pampered prince, to the shock he received the first time he witnessed sickness and death, his departure to become an ascetic monk, his rejection of ascetism and his enlightenment, his teaching as the Buddha, and his death at the age of eighty.

The subject matter is pretty profound (the nature of human suffering, etc -- not exactly Saturday Morning Cartoon stuff!). Odd as it already seems that someone would write a comic book about it, it's even odder that that someone would be Tezuka. Tezuka's style (especially in his works known in North America) is very cartoony. Not to mention that 3000 pages of deep Buddhist sermonizing would get pretty tedious!

Tezuka, though, is a master of his craft. He tells the stories though an incredibly deft mixture of storytelling ranging from cartoonish slapstick to the profound. Scott McCloud, in his wonderful book Understanding Comics, uses several examples from Buddha to demonstrate some characteristically Japanese forms of graphic story telling.

Tezuka tells the stories not only of Buddha but of those who surround him: Tatta the theif, his first disciple; Ananda the murderer, whom he redeemed; Devadatta, the monk who wanted to follow Buddha as leader of the sect, who eventually tried to murder Buddha; and so on. Some of the characters (such as, I think, Tatta) are Tezuka's invention, but many are from the established Buddhist traditions. Tezuka also spends a lot of time on the political situation in India during Buddha's lifetime, as this affected Buddha strongly. His own people, the Shakya, were conquered by a neighbouring king after he left on his quest for enlightenment.

Tezuka's not afraid to mix humour, slaptstick, and anachronisms into his storytelling, either, which helps lighten the mood at times. Characters often make reference modern events, television, and even other Tezuka works. In one of the scenes in which Buddha heals someone, he suddenly transforms into Tezuka's fugitive-surgeon character, Black Jack for a couple of panels. Tezuka himself even appears for a couple of fouth-wall-breaking moments. Which is not to say that everything is fun and games -- many of the stories around Buddha are violent as well.

There are a number of example pages from the first two volumes at this Scandanavian review.

Tezuka also demonstrates that his drawing skill extends far beyond well-known cartoony style. His drawings of the mountains of northern India are breathtaking, incredibly detailed and beautifully rendered, while still meshing well with the much simpler character renderings.

Getting the complete set is expensive: each volume is around $22 CDN, which means that the whole Buddha set is even pricier than The Complete Calvin & Hobbes. But if you have an interest in the history behind Buddha, it's definitely worthwhile. Of course, I collected the eight volumes over a period of several months, rather than buying them all at once! Read more!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Stuff: News of Fresh Disasters

So, where have I been? I've been banging my head against various aspects of real life, and not finishing as many books as I'd like -- though I have several going at once right now. I must post soon about Jared Diamond's excellent Collapse, which I finished recently. I also intend to do more photoblogging as well.

For the moment, though, I have some News of a Fresh Disaster*.

You'll remember the rat adventure we had at Christmas. After that expensive experience, we stopped up all the rat holes we could find with steel wool and flooded the garage with mothballs. (We didn't want to put down poison, as many people in our neighbourhood let their cats out at night).

Unfortunately, we missed a rat hole that was behind some garage clutter. So a week ago Thursday we get into the car, turn the key, and GRRND GRRND GRRND GRRND -- that same not-good sound from Christmas Eve hits our ears again. It's quite a memorable sound, like walnuts in a blender.

So, we backed the car out and popped the hood. The first thing I spotted was a quarter of a bagel. Sliced, with cream cheese. On top of the engine. There was no doubt about it being rats again.

There was insulation missing from the battery cables again, but no other damage was visible. No blood on the floor this time, either. So we called CAA again, to get the car to the (now closed) dealership. I biked down to drop the keys off and fill out the problem form.

The car was ready the next day. Fortunately, the repairs were only about 10% as expensive as the Christmas ones, about $130. The invoice told the story quite well, we thought:


So we are now rat-proofing the garage. Whoever did the current landscaping in our backyard was not too bright -- they piled the soil in some raised gardens right up against the wooden siding, leading to serious rot. The rats didn't have to chew their way into the garage, they could just push the rotten wood out of the way.

We've razed the raised gardens and pulled out all the junk (rat-eaten or otherwise) out of the garage ($766 to get it hauled away by 1-800-Got-Junk). We've filled all the spaces between the studs in the garage walls with cement and sheet metal. After two weekends of work, we can finally put the car back where it belongs.

Interesting discoveries included a well-tunneled painting drop-cloth (the tunneling was interesting, the stench was not), and many bones -- too big to be rat bones. I think they're chicken bones, stolen from our garbage.

In the process of doing all this, we've also discovered that the somewhat shaky fences in our yard are shake because most of the fence posts have rotted away at ground level. They're basically supported by the garage at one end and the house at the other. Anyone know how much 25 metres of privacy fence costs to install?

* The "Tales of Fresh Disasters" line comes from an old Beyond the Fringe routine called "The Aftermyth of War", about life during WWII. "Every night the BBC would bring us news of fresh disasters." -- cut to BBC voice -- "This is Alvar Liddel with news of fresh disasters." Read more!