Thursday, July 29, 2010

The art of location

I just finished reading Dave Eggers' mostly-non-fictional autobiographical account A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (AHWOSG). I have been meaning to read it for a few years, but I only found a paperback copy a month ago in a thrift store and decided to purchase it. I thoroughly enjoyed Eggers' almost obsessive self-referential meta-narrative, and I appreciated the ways in which he framed his stories. Because of his deconstructionist, often non-linear style, a story that may have otherwise seemed un-significant became much more meaningful, and its success helped launch the career of one of the more interesting authors writing in America today. But what I found serendipitously interesting was the fact that I read this book, most of which chronicles how he, his older sister, and his younger brother moved to the Bay Area after their parents' deaths, as I have been staying in the area. I did not realize this beforehand (though I recognize that it would be like me to try to manufacture such a meta-reading experience), but I realized that I was better able to connect with the events of the book because I knew a bit more about the area about which he was writing. I know that it should seem obvious - of course location affects the writer - but I do not know that I had realized it so clearly as now. It is interesting how much, in some ways, location can affect the narrative, and how much richer the experience becomes when one understands the creator's home. Donald Miller has made me want to spend time in Portland; similarly, U2's work is a primary reason I'd like to visit Ireland. There is a certain kinship that the reader is able to develop with the author when that barrier of physical location is breached, and a new level of understanding can be gained. It's not necessarily true that meaning is lost without the familiarity with the author's location (although it can be), but, like understanding increasingly complex layers of metaphor and allegory, more can be taken from (and consequently put into) the story. In the same way, I find it more and more interesting how location affects musical artists, and how that emerges in music. I know this realization is not earth-shattering - on the contrary, it's arguably one of the most obvious realizations I've had and thus not even worthy of being called a "realization" - but it just made me think a little more. And, of course, it has given me a new list of locations to explore in order to fully appreciate some artists' works. Middle-earth, or True Narnia, perhaps?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Saskatchewan's literary tradition

The more I think about it, the more I realize that Saskatchewan is a very unique place to have grown up as a writer. Trevor Herriot's recent reflection in the National Post captures the essence of why the literary community in Saskatchewan is so strong. As I have spent more time away from the prairies, I have really begun to realize what makes it special for cultivating writers, and I almost always enjoy re-experiencing "home" through the words of others. I think there may be something to add to his thoughts with the evolution of the online community, and I for one am glad to be part of a rich literary heritage.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Review: Inception

Christopher Nolan had one of the most interesting last decades of any filmmaker: Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight. He has positioned himself as the heir apparent for cerebral filmmaking in the sci-fi/psychological/thriller genres, in the tradition of Hitchcock, Kubrick, and early Ridley Scott. He is almost fanatically driven in his attention to detail in his films, as evidenced by his eschewing a second unit director, preferring instead to capture the scenes himself. He has had critical acclaim, as well as one of the biggest money-making movies of all time. This has all led to one of the most hotly anticipated films of the year and one of the only original summer blockbusters, Inception, which has had one of the highest level of expectations of any new movie this year. And it delivers.
The concept is well known by now: a team of high-functioning thieves attempt to steal secrets from the brain of one of the world's most significant energy moguls. Nolan faces the difficult task of not only establishing this alternate reality, but ensuring its integrity throughout and explaining it to the viewer. He has to create new jargon and have it catch on, in addition to maintaining the expectation of a heist movie. He does it incredibly well, and that is largely why the film succeeds. The film continues in the tradition of classic SF films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and The Matrix in addressing the question of what is real and how we know it's real, of perception and illusion, and of imagination and creation. It is a journey through the mind and psyche, and Nolan deftly guides the viewer through an ever-deepening world of complexity. He helps direct his actors, as always, to exact performances. DiCaprio, Cotillard, Gordon-Levitt, Murphy, and Page each perform their roles with intelligence and elegance, and it is clear that Nolan has given them very clear missives as to how to bring their characters across.
At the core of Inception is an idea that festers like a virus. It is planted, like a seed, in the viewer's brain, and it continues to grow throughout the film. Nolan is the master gardener of his idea, tending carefully to all of its ramifications, and he brings it to a near-perfect fruition with the conclusion. It is a film not only worth watching, but re-watching, and appreciating for every little detail. Including that last scene.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Freeways and dollar bills

I have now been in the US for over a week - my longest stay south of the border - and I have been collecting some random observations I have made in that time. There's nothing particularly poignant here - just a list of curiosities and oddities that have struck me, in no particular order.

1. The infrastructure of US cities is amazing. The freeway system, especially in the Bay Area where I have spent most of my time, is at times unbelievable. The criscrossing of concrete pillars and clover leaf exits and interstates is at times spectacular, although it is simultaneously a symbol of the madness of American capitalism. I have also surprisingly enjoyed my time driving on freeways here, despite the amount of driving I have had to do; maybe it's because I never get to drive on freeways at home, but it's still fun.

2. U-turns are legal here in some places, but not all. I almost got a very expensive ticket yesterday, but I think my (legitimate) defense of "I'm from Canada" helped me out. Note to self: if the U-turn will impede traffic, it's illegal.

3. Gas is very very cheap, and so is liquor (which is also available everywhere!), which may explain why there are so many drunk driving-related deaths in the US. It also indicates that the government typically adds 25% to the price of the goods in Canada.

4. I have occasionally been surprised by the foods both available and not available here. I did not know that tiger tiger ice cream was Canadian. And I'm disappointed that I have been here over a week and have still not had a pint of Stephen Colbert's Americone Dream! Other great discoveries include that both Cherry and Vanilla Coke are going strong here, and that In-N-Out burgers are really good.

5. I don't like American money. I don't like the way it looks, the way it feels, or the one dollar bill. I far prefer Canadian money and our one- and two- dollar coins. Maybe it's because I'm used to Canadian money, but I'm just not a fan of the currency here.

I still feel like I haven't experienced much in the past week because of the amount of work I've had to do. I estimate that I spent between 70 and 75 hours on work from Monday to Friday (for those keeping track at home, that's approximately 75% of all hours in that time period, including sleeping). Much of that time has been spent driving and riding the rapid transit, but a significant portion has also been spent figuring out logistics and hosting the Chinese teachers. I am looking forward to a more relaxed week ahead (I hope), and eventually really getting into the heart of San Francisco. It's a fun place, but I'm really looking forward to spending a few days getting past the tourist highlights and into the city.

Wires crossed

For the last week, I have been teaching students and teachers from China in a total immersion program in San Francisco. It has been fascinating to learn a lot more about Chinese culture and language, but it has also been exhausting. I have had the opportunity to talk closely with several of the teachers, and it has been very interesting for me to try to understand and overcome the linguistic barrier between us. Today, I taught them the phrase "wires crossed" to signify a miscommunication. But this week really - even more so than last summer in Taiwan - has made me consider how ambiguous, irrelevant, useless, and undecipherable much of the English language is. So much of what we speak is pointless - meaningless metaphors, cliches, and figures of speech - that it is difficult to sort out what is really the core of what should be said. I have been learning to simplify my sentence constructions, especially the verbs I use - "go" is very useful in many situations. It almost feels like Orwellian doublespeak to continually reduce my linguistic output because so much of the richness of English is lost in simplistic communication, but I also think that I am continually refining my speech through these exercises. Of course [how's that for a phrase that is almost devoid of at least its initial meaning?], I also occasionally turn to French when Chinese is spoken around me, because I think my brain goes automatically to the next language in its repertoire when it hears something unfamiliar. And that makes me think of how little communication I would make in a French speaking environment; I would be confined to very simple phrases and constructions, much like these Chinese teachers are in English. So I will keep to think about how to speak more clear, and how to make understanding to people from speak different language.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Thoughts on "The Decision"

It's almost three days after LeBron James announced his decision to join his buddies Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, and there are still commentators all a-Twitter about it. It is being condemned almost universally as one of the most disloyal, backstabbing, selfish, egotistical, narcissistic moves in sports, and the vitriol coming not only from Cavaliers fans but also their owner (read his letter to fans) is unsurprising, if not overwrought. Yes, Cleveland has had a tortured history of sports, and yes, those memories should even be wired into LeBron's Ohio-bred DNA, but why should he be doomed to repeat them? There is some sense of loyalty that is expected of him to keep losing? The Cavs have had at least three years to build a team around the beginning of his prime, and they could not. The time to drastically change was this year, and the best they did was a very washed-up Shaq. The team, even if they wanted to win, didn't, and I cannot blame LeBron for leaving. He doesn't need to be their saviour, and he's a 25-year-old male who had a choice: hang out with two of his best friends in Miami or spend all winter in an ice-cold town knowing that he wouldn't be able to live up to the Messianic complex assigned to him by his fans. (By the way, it's fascinating how Wade and Bosh fare in this transaction: Wade is seen as loyal after his seven years with Miami, and Bosh left a bad situation in Toronto, a cold-weather small-time NBA market in which he could not possibly bring a championship without serious help, which likely caused him to decide to leave months ago. It's almost exactly the same as LeBron, but Bosh is mostly forgiven and excused; is that because the agony of TO fans is focused on the Leafs? Hard to tell.) How many people pick loyalty to Cleveland out of that mess? It still seems as if Miami may end up being the poor choice - after all, now he is second banana in his prime, and all possibility of his being considered as the best all-time is gone - and it wasn't even one of Bill Simmons' options in his column on LeBron's choice in mid-June. He will win at least one championship, but it probably won't be in 2011; it will likely take a year or two for the trio to gel fully, and there are still two big competitors in the East (Boston, Orlando) for Miami to overtake. But what is really interesting is how this has gone from a sports decision to a life-changing event and a PR killer. He has undergone the second-most rapid negative transformation of a celebrity athlete (Tiger set the standard for that one), and his defection will likely be cited as the cause of suicides in the Cleveland area (I'm unfortunately not joking about that - I think it legitimately might). Is that fair to LeBron? Of course not. He's a celebrity, an athlete, a young male - he owes no loyalty to a franchise and fanbase that might not currently exist were it not for his presence there. He did owe them more than what he gave them: a nationally-aired special that featured the backstabbing after months of Cav fans trying vainly to convince themselves that he had not made up his mind months ago and a summer (or lifetime) of wondering what could have been. But, Cav fans, never fear - the Cavs may make the historic drop from best in the league to worst - a legitimate possibility, even in the weak Eastern Conference - and, in so doing, be able to draft the next LeBron James. Because if one thing has been proven in all of this, LeBron is not one of a kind - he's just like any other athlete who only kind of cares about winning. And I do hope that ESPN films the new series "Nine Men Out": a look at the no-names who make up the rest of Miami's roster.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Review: Super Mario Galaxy 2

Mario is one of the most recognizable figures on earth. Despite his beginnings as a lowly plumber and some ill-advised forays into Saturday morning television and the silver screen, he has persevered and bears what is perhaps the most famous mustache other than Hitler. He has made his way through around seven dozen games for every Nintendo system, and his adventures are singlehandedly responsible for lost weeks of my childhood. But despite his near-ubiquity, if you put aside the puzzlers and games and just consider the platformers (as I did for this postwhen I first played the first Super Mario Galaxy), it is easy to just how versatile Mario has been. Almost each game has revolutionized not only the Mario series, but the system for which it was released, and almost each one has become the benchmark for games to follow. So in attempting to recreate the genius of Super Mario Galaxy, Nintendo was setting a high task for itself in using the same game engine for the same system for a Mario platform sequel - a first in almost three decades. But not surprisingly, they came through with flying colours, and somehow managed to improve on a game that was perfect. I should note that I played only about a quarter of the game, but it was certainly enough to get a strong sense of its features.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 does not attempt to pick up storywise from its predecessor - perhaps the most welcome change of all - but it does not dispense with story completely. Mario has to use a starship shaped like him to travel through the universe and collect stars from different galaxies. The basic gameplay and controls are much the same, making the learning curve almost non-existent for fans of Galaxy; of course, like Galaxy, these controls are almost flawless (there are very occasional issues with camera angles, but that's about it.) The first edition was so expansive and featured so many new powers and abilities that most of them seemed to get short attention, but they're almost all back this time (Bee, Boo, Fire, Spring, but not Ice Mario) to get a second try, along with a few new additions: Cloud Mario (Mario can create and walk on clouds), Rock Mario (Mario rolls around demolishing anything in his path), and the Spin Drill (Mario can drill through to the other side of a planet). But, of course, the biggest game-changer is Yoshi, the beloved green dinosaur. Not only does he revolutionize much of the game by himself, but he can gain different powers (superspeed, floating like a blimp, glowing and lighting hidden platforms) by eating different fruit. With the existing powers and the new powers, Mario has roughly a dozen different abilities to use. It's on the verge of too many, but they are balanced well, and they seem to stay fresh throughout the game. It helps that the game designers have crafted new galaxies that are fun and expansive and still draw the player in with rich environments and stunning graphics. There have also been improvements in the 2P Co-op mode (it's much better for the companion player now), the comets (now you collect medals in each level to activate them) and the role of coins in the game. Perhaps the only complaint I could register - if it could be called a complaint - is that some of the galaxies seem too short; of course, this means that there are more galaxies to play, which is not a bad feature. In short, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is another perfect game, and has set the standard high again. Furthermore, it is rich enough to allow for a third entry into the series, if the developers so choose to accommodate us. Maybe the next game can feature multiple playable characters, like Peach or even Bowser. But I'm sure I'll be playing this one, trying to get those final stars, until the next one is released. Well done, Nintendo.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Big HeiST

The gouging is on, and the people are pissed off. The HST - Harmonized Sales Tax - became effective July 1, which means that the PST has been eliminated and that many products which were previously only charged GST (currently 5%) are now charged HST (12%). It has been debated since its announcement last summer, and there has been a public movement that has culminated in the first successful Citizen Initiatives Petition to the Legislative Assembly by former premier Bill Vander Zalm, as well as a constitutional challenge from his organization and a corresponding spike for the opposition NDP and a drop in the polls for the Liberals. It has been argued (I think appropriately) that the Liberals misled the public about the possibility of instituting the HST when they were running for re-election last May, and that they scuttled the announcement until summer so that it would make less of an impact. It is interesting to note that the government conveniently made changes to organizations like Tourism BC shortly after they publicly spoke out against the HST, and that even cabinet ministers within the party have resigned (Energy Minister Blair Lekstrom) in opposition to the tax. In short, it has not been popular, and it's not done yet - between the constitutional challenge and the petition, the tax may yet be repealed before the end of the year. It has been interesting to watch the dynamic as politicians, economists, business people, and consumers have all engaged in the debate, and the styles of rhetoric each have used. The government has focused on the fact that, according to their stats, over 11,000 jobs will be created in the province by the HST in the next decade; of course, they neglect to mention that they likely could have pursued initiatives to create that many jobs without putting the onus on the consumer. Economists assert that consumers only bear the brunt of the cost for the first year or two, and that prices fall afterward; however, I am skeptical that prices will drop across the board by 7% - is the price of eating out or a movie really going to go down that much? (The answer is no.) This is partially an economic debate, partially political (which has been very poorly managed by the government), but also an ideological debate: who should bear the cost of running the province? Pure capitalism agrees with the HST, but we do not have a purely capitalist system; we have a hybrid system in which the government is supposed to be responsible for the good of the people, including the consumer. A value-added tax like this, it seems to me, passes the buck from the government to the consumer, and that's not a good thing. The heist is on, and it will be interesting to see what happens next.


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