Friday, December 31, 2004

How I Spent My Holiday Making a Toon

I've been remiss in my blogging this holiday season. Of course, everyone takes a little time off, but it's why I haven't been blogging that I'd like to explain.

I've been training as an animation artist, and the past week or so I've been preparing a major push on a project -- a competition entry for the 10 Second Club. This is a monthly competition for animators: you take 10 seconds of soundtrack dialogue and create an animated scene to fit it. It's a good way to keep your skills up and stay interested.

If you go to the site and have a look at past entries, you'll see there's a lot of 3-D computer animation. That's to be expected; with videogames exploding and computer power becoming cheaper, 3-D's a popular trend. Me, I was trained in 2-D, so my stuff is Flash- and tradition oriented. And there are quite a few 2-D entries out there.

I had an entry in July. As you can guess, I was shocked by my score of zero. Then I had a look at the other entries, and I realized that scores could go into negative numbers. Some of the commentary can be pretty tough (particularly on the negative numbers) but the point of this competition is to learn how to do your craft better.

If you have time during the New Year's weekend, check out this site. Even if you're not in the animation industry, the variety of interpretations of one single soundtrack can be quite an entertainment.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Merry Christmas!

Yes, I know, bloggers should be taking a holiday today. And it's never a good idea to spend Christmas alone.

But in my case, I have a project to catch up with, and I wouldn't have been able to get out of town before Christmas Eve anyway. And once I'm done with the projects I have some major housekeeping to do. (Hey, I'm a bachelor with an aversion to housework. What can I say?)

It won't be too bad. I'm planning on calling my sister and our folks later on this afternoon, to wish the family a good Christmas greeting. And I'm making good progress on this project.

Yes, it's nice that Christmas is a time for family. But I would argue that it's not the most important Christian holiday, even though there's a lot of blogging down south about it.

When you get right down to it, it's Easter, not Christmas, that's the most important Christian festival. Birthdays happen all the time. Resurrections don't. If Christmas is about faith, then Easter is about hope.

But of course, they're both about love. Which is pretty much the point about Christianity.

Have a happy Christmas, everyone.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

When Doctors Talk of Poohsticks, Gollum, Pundit Birds and Meeting Madness

The British Medical Journal, usually a staid research publication (albeit a standard reference in medicine), does something a little different with the issues published round Christmas time. Research articles published at this time invoke the soul of wit and levity. Sort of like April Fool's Day arriving four months early.

This year, four articles pop up to catch the eye of the educated layman. (Sorry, but I can't guarantee that the article hyperlinks I'm posting will stay free of charge after the holidays are over.)

First, there's the attempt by retire doctor Robert Knight to demonstrate a theory of strokes. The theory he describes is that emboli (blood clots) released into the carotid artery at the same point, but at different times, may congregate at the same destination. How does he demonstrate his theory? By playing "Poohsticks." Using pine cones to represent blood clots, and a stream below Pooh Bridge in Ashdown Park to represent the artery, they ... well, you can read the article yourself.

Next, a group of student psychiatrists diagnose a particularly difficult patient. Whom do they analyze? Gollum, from The Lord of the Rings. And if you think their diagnosis is clever, check out the various responses from other physicians and students.

Then there's the satiric field guide to experts. We've all seen them 'round the Web, except that we call them "pundits" out here. They've even gotten so far as to give the science of "expert watching" a name: artifexology. Holiday game: see if you can match the "expert" bird description with a well-known pundit. (There's one, for example, that's a nice fit for Tucker Carlson.)

Finally, there's Canadian doctor Daniel Goldbloom's essay on "meeting mania." This is actually an update of a New England Journal of Medicine article by Dr. Abraham Bergman. Anyone who's ever worked in an office environment will appreciate the points made here, particularly with the advent of new technology such as Palm Pilots, e-mail, cellphones, etc.

It's nice to know that even the stuffy researchers such as those at the BMJ have a semblance of humour. It's a good way for physicians to connect with the rest of us.

Monday, December 20, 2004

A Good Reason for American Democrats Not to Move to Canada

No kidding, it's cold up here!

New York City doesn't get this weather. Boston doesn't get this weather. Heck, even L.L. Bean country doesn't get this weather!

No, it's just us lucky residents of the Laurentian Region that get "blessed" (HAH!) with this sort of limb-numbing wind chill.

It's one of the reasons why environmentalists aren't more beloved. If they tried to argue against global warming in Ottawa today (assuming their tongues didn't freeze) they'd be laughed out of town. ("Global warming? Hey, we're all for global warming today!")

I suppose there's a bright side to this sort of temperature. Trouble is, I'm too busy shivering to think of it.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Michael Kinsley is Shocked -- Shocked! -- at the Blogosphere

If you haven't had a look at Michael Kinsley's opinion piece at the Washington Post, take a good and thoughtful read. You don't need to understand about social security to get the main message: the mainstream media still hasn't quite figured out the true power of the blogosphere.

Note Kinsley's self-definition as a pundit-columnist. His description of his job can pretty much fit every pundit from both sides of the border, from Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail to Paul Krugman of the New York Times. And this makes what he has to say all the more poignant to those commentators who are paid to air their views in public, including the Internet sites of their media organizations.

We should expect some disingenuity from Kinsley, of course -- he did edit, after all, so it's not as if he wasn't aware of the blogosphere. It was only when he threw in a challenge to a couple of blogs to refute his positions on Social Security that he got to appreciate its full power.

"What floored me was not just the volume and speed of the feedback but its seriousness and sophistication. Sure, there were some simpletons and some name-calling nasties echoing rote-learned propa- ganda. But we get those in letters to the editor. What we don't get, nearly as much, is smart and sincere intellectual engagement -- mostly from people who are not intellectuals by profession -- with obscure and tedious, but important, issues ...

"Most interesting, though, is how the Web enables people who are scattered physically around the globe, who share an interest in a topic as naturally uninteresting as the economic theory behind Social Security privatization, to find one another and enjoy a gabfest. Webheads like to call this phenomenon "community." I used to think that was a little grand and a little misleading. Populist electronic conversation mechanisms like blogs and Web bulletin boards are more about the opportunity to talk than about the opportunity to listen. But that may be true of physical communities as well."

Kinsley, who has a more intimate knowledge of the blogosphere than most MSMers, is stopped dead in his tracks by the sheer volume and intellectual capacity of people who maintain blogs on the topic. His analysis of these responses is also worthy of note, pointing out two factors that give blogs an edge over a letter to the editor when reacting to a pundit: no limit on space or word count, and certainty of publication. Implied in this is the advantage of self-editing: the blogger's opinion is most purely his or her own because no one else can edit what is posted.

And if a blog-savvy fellow like Kinsley can be overwhelmed by the blogosphere's power, what about those poor non-blogging pundits like Maureen Dowd, or Nick Coleman in Minneapolis? There is, alas for them, only one lesson that can be drawn: if you challenge a blogger, prepare for an avalanche.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Return of King Peter

This afternoon I received my copy of the Extended Version of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

It brought back some good memories. I saw it in Coquitlam last Christmas season when I was visiting my folks. At the time I was finally doing something I'd been meaning to get round to: reading the actual book. (I'd finished up The Fellowship of the Ring on the plane.) I was impressed by it so much, I got the Extended Editions of the first two movies. I concluded from watching these that Peter Jackson was one heck of a good filmmaker.

With RotK EE, the first thing I did was pop in Disc 3. The Extended Edition Appendices follow a pattern: the first feature talks about Tolkien, the second talks about the issues involved in adapting Tolkien to the screen. The first is good if you're a big fan of the books; the second is a must-see if you're interested in the filmmaking process. They have a good use of graphics to show how they used pieces of the book The Two Towers to flesh out the storyline used for the third film, and they have a reasonable explanation for taking out the "Scouring of the Shire" chapter.

I also watched the movie with commentary by Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. It's nice stuff--you get the idea of a half-crazed filmmaker being barely restrained by his wife and her best friend. (A running joke has Peter talking about doing a George Lucas on the film for the "25th Anniversary Edition," and Fran and Philippa trying to talk him out of it.)

One interesting bit of trivia: Jackson was shooting extra footage for the Extended Edition of the film--a scene of skulls rolling down a hill, which appears in the cut--three weeks AFTER the Academy Awards ceremony when Return won Best Picture. One does get the impression of overkill here.

This a definite Buy recommendation, not just for Tolkienites but for fans of good cinema. This is a much better film than that thing about the sinking ship that James Cameron did--what was its name again?

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

How to Persuade a Social Conservative to Support Same-Sex Marriage

I think it was the Apostle Paul, writing his first Epistle to the Corinthians, who said, "It is good for a man not to marry." It's advice I've always taken to heart, which is why I don't really have strong feelings either way about same-sex marriage. (Or about regular marriage, for that matter.)

My father is a different story. He's a lay deacon for his church, and the last time I visited my parents, he suddenly went into a rant against gay marriage while I accompanied him on his morning exercise walk. (I don't know why; I never said anything to encourage him. Maybe it was something he read in the paper.) Anyway, he's against the idea, not because of the merits of the argument but because he finds homosexuality to be immoral.

Of course he's not going to be happy about the recent Supreme Court decision that says Parliament can, if it wants to, enact legislation allowing same-sex marriages to be recognized. (I can't say for sure because I don't discuss politics with him; I just call on him and Mom to make sure he's in good health and that he's doing okay.)

About the one thing that he can take some comfort in is the fact that the decision did make it clear that churches don't have to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies if they don't want to. That's something I agree with. Frankly, I don't think any gay-rights activist is arrogant or stupid enough to try to force a gay wedding ceremony inside a cathedral of an anti-gay congregation. (Now watch, of course, as someone tries to prove me wrong.)

When the eventual bill recognizing same-sex marriage arrives on the order paper, the Liberals are going to have one hell of a selling job, particularly to the social conservatives in Canada -- and there are a lot more of them out there than our national media seem to think.

The gay lobby may counsel Ottawa to ignore them, or at the very most dismiss them as being part of a dying fringe movement. That would be a mistake. There is enough of the Social Right in Canada to guarantee massive public unrest (and the electoral downfall of the Liberals in the west) if the Liberals try to ram a bill through without at least some form of accommodation.

And at the same time, the gay community cannot ignore the "hearts and minds" phase of any legislation as significant as this. It must make an attempt, and a strong one, to convince the Right that this is a good idea -- because if you reach for the Right, you'll cover the political/social Center as well.

So how should such a campaign go? I could make a few suggestions:

1. Don't mention the sex. Most people who object to gay marriage object because they find homosexuality to be immoral and wrong, which leads to the idea that perverts are trying to hijack a sacred societal institution. This idea has its roots in the societal norms which people grew up with in the 20th century and still have resonance today.
People should remember that, in social conservative conventions, marriage is pretty much the accepted license for having sex. This idea is still strong despite 40 years of the Sexual Revolution, and the advent of teen pregnancies, STDs and predatory abuse gives it a certain amount of resonance in families with children on the verge of adulthood.
Mainstream society is only now at the point where sexual orientation is a minor (if not inconsequential) characteristic of how we judge a person; it's "none of our business." The marraige issue needs to be approached in this sort of attitude: that sexual relations has nothing to do with what is wanted here.
If the Liberals want to redefine marriage, then they have to do so in such a way that the implication of sexual relations does not form part of the definition.
And that's only the half of it. The other half is trying to convince everyone, right and left, gay and straight, that the definition is a fair one.
2. Don't make it personal. This morning on the radio, I heard a lesbian freelance writer talk about her marriage. as well as her support for legalizing marriage. It was sweet. It was sympathetic. It was also wrongheaded.
The writer was trying to imply that she was a typical example of a gay person in society ("I am not a threat to you"), and because she and her partner were happy, why should society spoil it be declaring their relationship to be informal?
The trouble with that approach is that it's the idea, not the person, that's the issue.
If you try to personify this issue, you run the risk of creating real schisms in society; if one part rejects an idea held by another, it's as if the other him/herself has been rejected.
3. DO use the money talk. Marriage does convey certain benefits on both spouses automatically. You need look no further than your income tax return to understand that.
This is the part that is a proponent's strongest argument. Families need certain breaks in the law and in the tax code in order to prosper and create good citizens (which is what we want our children to be). Why should it matter that both parents in a family are of the same gender?
This is an idea that has resonance with social conservatives because they raise families too, and they know how hard it is. They recognize fairness when they see it.
4. DO be prepared to accept a compromise. It may be true that the difference between a "marriage" and a "civil union" is one of semantics. But if so, so what?
Let's say that a socially conservative MP is prepared to support a bill publicly if it grants to any gay couple, who undertakes a public ceremony of commitment, all the legal status and rights of a straight marriage, but calls it a "civil union" instead of "marriage." However, the MP will actively campaign against the bill if it refers to the same thing as a "marriage." If you want the bill to pass, and be accepted as law by Canadian society as a whole, do you still seek the MP's support by agreeing to the weakened wording? Remember that the legal status is the same, it's only the terminology that's different.

I'm going to be watching this one on the sidelines. Frankly, the way this issue plays out in Parliament is going to tell us a lot about Canadian society. Whether we're prepared to accept the implications is another matter.

Monday, December 13, 2004

A Half-Good Idea is Better Than None

So our federal government, taking an idea from the Americans, is establishing a "do-not-call" registry for people bugged by telemarketers.

Personally I think it's a good idea, if maybe a little late. With the advent of the Net and e-mail spam, the phone calls I get from telemarketers has dropped in the past few years. Nonetheless it's still a little irritating to yank myself away from watching my latest DVD purchase to tell the Ottawa Sun telemarketer that "yes, I've seen your paper, and no, I won't subscribe."

What bothers me are the proposed exemptions: charities and non-profit groups. I'd estimate that the most irritating calls I get are from these guys, who almost always launch into a pseudo-patriotic spiel about their work before I can tell them "no." (And frankly, I don't feel any guilt saying so--no matter how worthy their cause.)

If it were up to me, I'd forego any exemptions to this list. I'd tell the telemarketers to stick with direct mail and Webvertising to get their message across. If I want to help a charity, I'll find them, not the other way around.

Friday, December 10, 2004

For Patriotic Canadian Bloggers ...

Red Ensign Brigade banner (courtesy Hello) Posted by Hello

... there's the Red Ensign Brigade, for which I'm applying for membership.

Perhaps I'm an optimist. I believe that, as Watchers of the Watchmen, Canadians have a role to play in this World Order. There's just as much need for a beaver's tooth as an eagle's talon.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

When Eagles Try to Wear Beaver Tails ...

Sigh. I really hope people on both sides of the border realize that this is a joke, and one that ranks up there with lava lamps and pet rocks.

However, I can certainly imagine Jeremy Hinzman buying one out of desperation. Mr. Hinzman is a former Airborne paratrooper trying to get refugee status here in Canada.

Michelle Malkin's column pretty much sums up my opinion of Mr. Hinzman, but if you don't like the amped-up rhetoric try Peter Worthington, for a view from across the border. Unlike Michelle, Peter's been under small-arms fire before, and he's a bit more generous to Hinzman's character. (But only a bit.)

Naturally I think Mr. Hinzman's claim should be rejected. There is a big difference between public humiliation and public persecution--just ask women in Taliban-era Afghanistan. Furthermore, the circumstances of Mr. Hinzman's Army career and subsequent parting have a whiff of "rip-off."

An army has soldiers, and soldiers are trained to kill people in battle. Yes, the U.S. Army offers some nice benefits, but so do other organizations. By joining the Army you're implicitly accepting the possibility that you may have to kill people, or get killed yourself. That's the bargain you made, and if you consider yourself honorable it's a bargain you have to keep.

Monday, December 06, 2004

On Reading At 40,000 Feet

Yesterday I returned from a trip to Halifax. Typical working weekend for me; I usually do this sort of thing twice a year.

Whenever I fly, I usually buy a book to read while on the plane. This time around, flying to Halifax I got ... Ulysses by James Joyce, the Penguin Books Centenary edition. I honestly thought I'd be able to get through it by the time the weekend finished up.

All it did was remind me why I scored a B- in first-year English. They'd given us Dubliners, and to be honest I can't remember a dang thing about that book.

I got through a fair chunk of it on Sunday, while washing up my clothes prior to packing. I suspect that the problem I have with Joyce is that his storytelling voice isn't consistent. That, and his refusal to use quotation marks, makes him a challenge to read. Some of the book even reads like they're transcribed from rough notes, with no refinement; that's really a tough one to get over.

It could be that Joyce isn't meant to be read in the winter. It could be that what you need to tackle Joyce is lots of sunshine, a lounge chair, a nearby place to swim (either the ocean or a swimming pool), sunglasses and sunscreen, and a bikini babe beside you. Or maybe that's just the onset of my winter blahs.

In any case, I found myself buying another book for the return flight rather than continue with Joyce: To Rule The Waves: How the Royal Navy Changed the World by Arthur Herman. This one had me spellbound, and not just because I have an interest in naval lore. The best historians are also generally the best storytellers, because people pay attention to a good story.

And the British Royal Navy is full of good stories, from the Elizabethan Age and the Spanish Armada to the Age of Nelson to even the Falklands War, which is the scope of this volume. It's a pity that Herman didn't see fit to look at the British Royal Navy in the 21st Century, but actually that's pretty sensible; it lessens the change of the book becoming dated.

Herman's prose is well thought out and his footnotes aren't arduous. He manages to take a hard look at the Navy's heroes without getting a mad-on for them as a lot of contemporary academics do; a balance between hero-worship and demonization is always desirable in a history book, and Herman meets this standard very well.

Hey, if a book's good enough to get me through 2 hours in coach just in front of a smelly head, plus a 1-hour layover in Toronto plus a final 1-hour flight, it's certainly good enough to recommend for Christmas reading.