Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Much To Be Proud Of

Of course, I'm proud of my boys any time of the day, but they've both managed some special moments for themselves these past few days.

Aidan was sick last week, and so was away from school on the week they had their science fair. This year the school made participation mandatory for grades four through seven. Teachers marked each project for part of their class science mark, and then chose the top five to go on to a school-wide event. Because Aidan wasn't there, he wasn't able to do the oral presentation for his teacher, but she was so impressed with his project (more on that in a moment) that she moved him on. On Friday I showed up at the school to pick up the project and was met by one of the judges out in the parking lot (some of the parents are scientists/researchers, and so were judges). She told me she was monumentally impressed with his project, and so were the other judges, and felt that if he did a good oral presentation the next week, he should go on. Kids were excitedly telling me the same in the hallway, and the principal confirmed this. And so on Monday a still-tied Aidan attended school and did his oral presentation twice, once for class and once for a judge. And wouldn't you know it, he moves on to the regional science fair up at UNBC, one of six from his school.

The project was on greenhouse gases. He took a terrarium and built a small city on a landform on one side and another landform on the other, using Lego and clay. In between was the "ocean," and on the second landform was a "glacier," a large block of ice. The terrarium was lidded, with a thermometer probe inside, and then a fairly hot work lammp was shone from the outside. Temperatures were taken every fifteen minutes, and the time the glacier finished melting was marked. Then it was done a second time, with CO2 added by mixing baking soda and vinegar, and then it was done a third time, with CO2 also added midway through. Interestingly, that third test sped up the melting and brought the temperature up higher at the end. All this came to Aidan because he recently watched An Inconvenient Truth. I'll update after the regional event.

As for Brennan, he turned 8 last week, and for his party this past weekend he decided he didn't want his friends to bring presents. Instead, he asked them to bring the approximate equal amount of money, and is donating that money to the African Wildlife Foundation to adopt some animals and now, because he received so much money, he'll adopt a polar bear as well. With the money he kicked in himself, he received over $300, which means he'll be doing several adoptions.

I had talked with Aidan about doing something like this, since he's soon going to be 11, but I hadn't intended to broach the subject yet with Bren. But he overheard us talking, and decided he would do it himself. And so we put our heads together and searched for a good place for the money to go. It was a big decision for a little guy, and he handled himself with aplomb the whole time. Not even cranky after the fact when it might have hit home that he wouldn't be getting the usual haul of presents.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

3 More Weeks at Moore's Meadow

Posted now on Flickr, which means I'm caught up with 7 weeks shot. One week is in the camera, but there's still film, likely good for 2 more weeks of shooting before I get it developed.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Ghost Country Update 3

Up to 12,800 words. Aidan's still sick at home, which is slowing me down. But it's going places, and I'm pleased.


Monday, February 19, 2007

My Own Take on the Aughts

Bill Shunn has taken a run at naming his best music of the young century, and it got me thinking about what I would add to the list. I certainly can't question his own judgement: being that he has no pint-sized versions of humanity running around the house and siphoning off all his money, he seems better equipped than I to keep up with what the Cool Kids are listening to these days. But I do have a few opinions on albums I would add.






I have nothing yet for 2007, although a few are of interest to me, including the new Arcade Fire. In the meantime, I've deliberately not mentioned my very favorite of each year, a trait that drives my boys crazy. I'm teaching them the very meaning of the word "equivocate."


The Week From Hell

Brennan didn't have pneumonia, thankfully, but his fever was bad enough to keep him out of school all week. As noted previously, I went skiing with Aidan's class on Thursday. Had a fall, slammed my head, and the resulting whiplash was enough so that I couldn't lift my head for a couple of days if I was lying down. Getting out of bed meant rolling over to fall off. And chewing an apple was next to impossible, since I couldn't get any action from my jaw.

On the weekend we worked together on Aidan's science fair project, and then he went and got sick with what Brenn had, so Sunday was a panic day as Jo tried to put the finishing touches on the write-ups and the display. The fact that the computer chose Sunday morning to have difficulties (for a time I was afraid I'd be gouging out my eyes at the thought of all that lost data, but it turned out to be a loose power connection, which will have to be fixed) only added to the fun. Oh, and as I backed out of my driveway that morning to take a CD to Staples to be printed, I backed into a giant block of ice that the city had deposited while cleaning the roads. Crunched the bumper, and the insurance company tells me I can't chase after the city for it.

Aidan's home sick today, of course. Last night he did some very weird sleep walking and talking. He's already prone to that (as I was as a kid), but the fever has brought it on something fierce.

I'm taking the week off of work and will hopefully still get some writing in. As it was, even with all the fun I managed another 900 words on Ghost Country, which is now up to 10,600.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

First Ghost Country Update #1

So I've barely done a lick of writing for the past few months, but as noted not long ago, I seem to be back on top of my life. Of course, I'm ready to write and Brennan is home sick (possibly a minor case of pneumonia), and so that has interfered a bit. But still and all, I managed over a thousand words today, on a manuscript that hasn't been touched since early November.

Current word count: 9700.

Tomorrow I'm a chaperone for Aidan's class on a ski trip, so it's unlikely I'll get anything done again until Friday. Later if I break something.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

52 Weeks of Moore's Meadow

At the beginning of the year I started a photo project with my Holga, with the intention of getting one good shot a week down in Moore's Meadow, a city park where I often go to clear my mind. As of this moment, the first four weeks are up at my Flickr site, and as more are developed I promise to get them up and put up a notice here.

As a reminder (or as a tutorial to those who may not have read about it before), the Holga is a Chinese-made toy camera, all plastic lens, that uses 120 (medium) format film. The negatives are 6X6 cm, which means that this toy camera uses film normally only used by pros and serious amateurs (or at least, used to, since digital has taken over). There are only four focus settings, and two exposure settings. I also have to tape up the camera to try to fend off light leaks (not always successful, as you can see), and sometimes the corners of the film will bend a little, resulting in a falling-off of focus at the edges.

In short, it's a marvelous camera, and has become very popular. The very hit-and-miss nature of it has added some joy to the process of shooting again, something I've been missing for some years. And getting out to the Meadow each week hasn't hurt, either.

Coming up: three weeks of shots, about to be developed.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

A Piece of the Missing Novel (Napier's Bones Visits the Forest)

For reasons I can't go into here, my novel Napier's Bones has disappeared into a black pit. I may yet pull it from said pit and try to find another home for it, but in the meantime my friend Bill Shunn has given me a good kick in the butt by working with (and over) me to finish a novella that we had been writing, off and on, for something like three years. It's called "Cast a Cold Eye," and I hope I'll be able to spread good news about its imminent release to the wild very soon. In the meantime, I thought I'd throw a piece of Napier up here for your perusal. The reason for doing so is in hope that it will be included in the upcoming Festival of Trees, something I first heard about via Roundrock Journal. What I've written here comes out of the trip Jo and I took to Scotland in 2003. Leading up to the trip, which was primarily for research for the book, I had emailed a whole spectrum of experts on an equally wide variety of topics. One thing I was looking for was a location where trees displayed flagging, caused by an essentially constant wind pushing the branches so that they face one direction. The tree ends up looking like it's pointing inland, away from the source of the wind. One response that came did not lead me to anything like that, but was of the serendipitous variety that insisted on thrusting itself into the book. The location is the Ballachuan Hazelwood on Seil Island, and everything written is how it appeared to us. Getting there was something of a minor adventure, seeing how not even the girl at the tourist booth just on the other side of the bridge knew about the place; we eventually found a small shop that had a cheaply-made brochure about the place. Getting out was something of an adventure, too, since as soon as you leave the hazelwood it becomes a tad more confused, and we ended up wandering aimlessly for some time. Mind you, wandering aimlessly is many times the best way to see and discover. So, to set you up: two numerates (think of them as magicians who use numbers instead of "magic"), Dom (who is currently carrying another personality - an adjunct - inside him, named Billy) and Jenna, have run from North America to Scotland, trying to get away from another numerate who carries two adjuncts. They are currently accompanied by Arithmos, a sentient mass of numbers. All of which doesn't really tell you much about the book, of course. Eventually it'll see the light of day. Anyhow, onwards:

Dom and Jenna followed the road down, passed one driveway into one farm, kept going until they were near to another. "We turn right here,” said Arithmos.

Dom looked. To their right was a barbed wire fence, several cows standing on the other side, watching them with the mild disinterest of domestic farm animals.

He turned around and looked to their approach. The car sat below the bluff, the three stained glass windows of the church sparkling, the sun finally having broken through completely. Sheep sat further up the hill, behind a fence towards the car, most of them calmly grazing, but one big ram, with immense curled horns and testicles hanging down practically to the ground, stood on a rock and watched them, keen eyes seeming to study every move Dom made. "I don't like the way he's watching me," said Dom, staring back.

"It's not you," said Arithmos. "It's me. The old fellow isn’t like what most folk expect of domestic sheep; he can sense my presence, and wants to protect his harem. Let's move on before he gets so anxious he keels over from a heart attack."

Dom and Jenna walked over to the fence. There were small wooden steps built into a fencepost to make passage over the wire easier. "Aren't we trespassing?"

As soon as they'd crossed into the pasture the cows had spooked and run to the most distant point they could find. "Private property is a little different here than you might be used to, Dom. And we have had an agreement with the landholders for centuries, now. I also understand that this place has become something like a park, although the amount of visitors is kept down, numbers that stay and help make it a little less visible. Even if you have a map, those that are laid out here mean it's an easy place to get lost in."

“Numbers have an agreement with the people who live here?” asked Jenna.

The mass of numbers shifted, a shrug. “We work through others when needed.”

They crossed the pasture, then over another fence where they followed a path, the road still in view to the right. It wasn't too hardscrabble, but there were a few rocks and holes to avoid. By now the clouds had been banished from horizon to horizon, and Dom paused for a moment, took off his jacket and tied it around his waist. Jenna did the same.

"No traffic," said Jenna, as she pulled the knot tight. She was right; the road had been without a single car since they had gotten past the bridge.

"There are other reasons tourists come here besides the bridge," said Arithmos. "But that's the main one. Perhaps today the storm and the numbers that accompanied it convinced many to do other things. Here," it said, thrusting an appendage to the left. "Follow the path into these trees."

The change was almost immediate. Where they had been in a farmer's field that could have passed for one almost anywhere in
North America, now they were in a woods that looked like every magical forest from fairy tales. It was old, so very old, and it seemed to breathe on its own. The numbers here were flat and low to the ground, dwellers of the forest floor that somehow couldn't reach up and escape from the branches of the trees that bent over to look down on them.

"Welcome to the Ballachuan Hazelwood," said Arithmos, voice barely a whisper.

The trees were low, stunted, and gnarled, branches spreading out like slender fingers of an arthritic, many-handed giant. Branches and trunks alike were covered by mosses and lichens, and it seemed to Dom's eye to be a different species not only for each tree but even for each branch. Like elderly spinsters at a society ball, each tree wore its jacket of lichen proudly, unashamed of the tattered look of their coats, each fiercely proud of the latest fashion it could muster and acutely aware that its glory days had long since passed.

Billy gently cleared his throat, then spoke:

“Hear the voice of the Bard!

“Who Present, Past, & Future sees;

“Whose ears have heard

“The Holy Word

“That walk’d among the ancient trees!”

“That’s a poem,” whispered Dom, feeling the meter as Billy spoke it. “What’s it from?”

His shoulders shrugged. “I don’t know. A distant memory, one that somehow felt right for the moment.”

“Well, if we get a chance, when we’re all done we’ll try and find it. Maybe it’s a clue as to who you really are.”

Jenna grabbed Dom's arm and pointed. A small animal was walking through the undergrowth, but at best Dom could only see a dim shadow as it moved, more aware of its progress by how the trees seemed to defer to it than by its actual presence. The last two trees seemed to bow down, blocking Dom's and Jenna's view of whatever was approaching them, and then they slowly stood, swept their weathered branches out of the way. "Jesus," whispered Dom.

In front of them stood a badger, staring calmly into Dom’s eyes. Leaves on the trees trembled for a moment, even without a breeze, and then settled.

“This animal is a familiar for this part of your journey while in the land of Napier,” said Arithmos. “The numbers that live here are old, senile, and therefore ill-equipped to carry the memory of what has been placed here. And before we were placed in the package that went to America, we were given only enough information to take you to your first stop.”

“So this badger is to help us?” asked Billy.

“The numbers here may be ancient and tired,” replied Arithmos. “But they are more than enough to hide something if needed, completely unable to be enticed or forced to reveal that same item, or to work in any way with a numerate.”

“Ancient and tired?” Jenna knelt down and touched some numbers poking out from beneath the undergrowth. They made a feeble effort to slide away from her, but unlike other numbers couldn’t get away, although all bent and warped in odd fashions.

As she did this, Dom again found himself looking through her eyes. Just as quickly, he was back in his own body, but before he could say anything, Arithmos spoke again.

“You might say they’re senile. A good numerate can still call upon them, but we doubt even Napier would be able to compel them to do what he wants.”

“So how does the badger fit in?” asked Dom.

As if in answer, the animal walked past them and, with one glance over its shoulder to make sure they followed, picked a path through the raggedy ancient forest. Dom and Jenna both had to duck low many times, dodging limbs and lichens and pale numbers all.

After only two or three minutes they arrived at a copse of trees that, if anything, looked older than all the others. The badger nosed at the base of one tree, then sat back on its haunches.

“Your turn now, Dom,” said Arithmos.

Dom raised an eyebrow. “What? I’m supposed to sniff the tree?”

“Just touch it.” Arithmos said this with a hint of impatience. “That’s the tree the badger has picked out, so the next move is yours.”

Dom stepped around the unmoving badger and reached down, touched the same spot where the animal’s nose had touched. The trees all around shifted at contact, and now as Dom looked up he saw the last shred of blue sky covered by green. The trees were no longer shrunken and low, instead stretched as high as they possibly could, creating a green vault with reaching, arthritic limbs. He could hear their groans as they did so, could see numbers the likes of which he'd never seen drifting from the branches and falling to the ground like a gentle shower of leaves in an autumn breeze.

The ground spoke then, a chorus from the roots of every tree around them, a cacophony of voices climbing into the air, most of them speaking languages or dialects unrecognizable to Dom. He jumped back and looked at Jenna, but she shrugged and shook her head, and in response Billy shook his head as well. Even the scraps of words he could make out as English did nothing to tell him what was happening, what was being said.

After no more than a minute, the voices quieted. Everything was still and silent for another few seconds, and then the tree Dom and the badger had both touched creaked and groaned, and then with a grinding and popping noise, its trunk split in two, from the ground or below, reaching up almost four feet high. The bark peeled back first, followed by the rest of the tree, and Dom instantly jumped back with a yelp, landed on his butt with Jenna’s hand suddenly and painfully clutching his shoulder. Inside the darkness of the tree several pairs of eyes peered back out at him, curious, insistent and unblinking, reflecting green from the surrounding light, with just a hint of yellow flashing through the green for the briefest of moments. The weight of their gaze was heavy, but he couldn't turn his eyes away, scared as he was right now.

The badger stepped forward then, burrowed its way into the open tree and came out with something in its jaws. The trunk stood open for a moment more, and then the attention of the eyes turned from Dom and were cast downward, and with more noise, rustling of leaves and snapping and clacking of wood, the tree sealed itself whole again. Dom felt himself relax, tense shoulders finally easing down, and sensed the entire forest do the same. Sunlight returned to dapple the leaves and ground, and the branches of the trees no longer seemed bent into unnatural positions.

The badger shuffled across fallen leaves and dropped the item from its jaws to the ground in front of Dom, and with one last glance back, turned and disappeared back into the forest. With a look up at Jenna and Arithmos, Dom reached down and delicately picked it up, thumb and one finger only.

Whatever it was, it was covered in dirt and the detritus of generations worth of forest floor, even though it had quite plainly been stored inside the tree. Inside, something long and thin rattled. Dom went to wipe away the gunk as best he could, but Arithmos stopped him with a soft but firm touch of numerical limb.

“It stays safe from Napier’s eye as long as it remains covered, so don’t clean or open it yet,” said the numbers. “Pocket it safely and keep it until we gather the other two parts.”

Dom tucked the cloth away as he stood up, and then he wiped off the seat of his pants. Jenna reached out and stopped him, then proceeded to slap the dirt off his rear. He smiled at her and said, “We have to do this two more times?”

“One is close by, one a little further. We’ll leave the wood now.”

Dom and Jenna stood still for a moment longer, just listening to the quiet of the wood. Finally, Billy said, "I suppose we should go."

Jenna nodded her head, reached over and took Dom's hand, and they walked back the way they'd come. Back on the road, Arithmos pointed up above their car. “Your next stop is the kirk.”


“Church,” said Billy. “Is that where the next package is?”

The numbers nodded. “We can’t go in; it’s consecrated territory, and we would dissipate before we set foot in the door, completely unable to retain this form. But there will be another familiar waiting for you inside.”

“Consecrated?” asked Dom.

“Not like you’d imagine. It’s a rite that uses numbers in order to keep certain types of numbers out. Numbers that once upon a time were considered demons.”

“Like yourself?”

“Like myself.” With that, Arithmos faded from sight.

(ps: here's a photo of the ram and the church)

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Brilliant Review of 300

Neil Cumpston is rude, wonderfully so, and he doesn't review enough films for AICN. Happily, he does have some things to say about 300, including:

"I can’t spoil the plot because THANK GOD THERE ISN’T ONE. Just ass kicking that kicks ass that, while said ass is getting kicked, is kicking yet more ass that’s hitting someone’s balls with a hammer made of ice but the ice is frozen whiskey."

He also warns us that the movie contains plenty of "Dude-ity."

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Journey of Mankind

Here is a wonderful graphic of 160,000 years of human migration, animated and annotated and full of all sorts of wondrous details.


Monday, February 05, 2007

More Ramblings From Steyn

Children of Men finally made it to the theatres in our little piece of wilderness this past weekend, and so we wangled a babysitter and headed out for a night at the movies on Saturday. I've heard many good things about the film, and one especially bad thing, and so I was looking forward to comparing the remarkably disparate points of view.

First of all, let me join the pile-on and point out that this is a great movie. Jo had some problems with the lack of any sign of an attempt to fix things, via cloning or some other technology, but my arguement with her was that this wasn't the point of the film, and that it can't be something for everyone. Indeed, somewhere else in this world that sort of thing could be happening, but it wasn't of concern to the director.

However, this is a marvelously realized future world, replete with all the little attendant details that impress on the viewer that attention was paid, that we were taken seriously enough to know that we were intended to believe this was happening. Additionally, the filmmaking itself is a wonder, with beathtaking single-take scenes (one involving a car chase, of sorts, and the other, more wondrous, of Theo dodging bullets to find his way back to Kee and her baby), a moving moment when they leave the shattered apartment building with the crying baby, and so much of the humanity that's willing to help, that wants things to work out for this woman and her miracle child.

The difficulty for some, I imagine, is that many of those who want to help and who are willing to do the right thing are the people who are being shat upon by those in power.

In a recent column in Maclean's, Mark Steyn claims that the film is "bad in an almost awe-inspiring way" and that it should be taught "in film school as the acme of adaptation." He didn't like it, obviously. Hell, even the subtitle of the column refers to it as a "shriekingly bad film." Now, ostensibly, Steyn's problem with the movie is that it is not a whole lot like the book. He's showing us that he's a purist, that his tastes are refined and literate and that only he (and, of course, his equally-refined readers, who apparently wrote to him complaining that they saw the film on his recommendation, when he had only recommended the novel) is therefore capable of judging how that story is translated to the big screen. Forget the 93% score on the Tomatometer and the fact that the film ranked 3rd overall for limited release films of 2006 on that same site. Yeah, that's an awful lot of critics who very much liked this movie (granted, some of them are pretty negligible in the scheme of things), but what the hell do they know?

"As one might expect from godless Hollywood," says Steyn, "he de-Christianizes the movie." This refers to the scene in the film where Theo is startled by a deer in an abandoned and decrepit schoolhouse, which apparently in the PD James novel was actually a deer in the chapel of Oxford's Magdalen College. This turns out to be a real issue for Steyn, who claims the movie's image is "sentimental," as opposed to the book's being "one of utter civilizational ruin -- of faith, knowledge, art and beauty, all lost to the beasts and the jungle."

This claim is surprising, to say the least. To think that only the church is capable of holding back the ruin of civilization is remarkably hubristic. No, it seems to me that if we are not producing children, then we are not producing our artists and scientists of the future. Even the amateurish mural on the outside of the school and the crayoned drawings inside the school are sufficient reminders of what is missed. And the beauty? It seems to me that's easily seen in the birth and life of such a miraculous baby, a beauty that could once be seen every day on that swingset in the abandoned schoolyard.

That said, the fact that the school also had sculptures of dinosaurs out front struck me as a nice dig at where "Christianizing" things may take us. Abandon reason and it all goes to hell.

Certainly Steyn says nothing of the sort, but I wonder just how much it set his teeth on edge to see that the people with the most to lose, those outsiders with the different skin colours and the funny accents, were the ones most willing to bend over backwards to help Theo and Kee and the baby. Willing to die, even.

The future of the movie is decidedly not the future of the book. But the book was written 15 years ago or more, and the movie has come out in a different world, one that is very much influenced by the events of September 11, 2001, and by the politicians who have made their decisions based on those events. Like it or not, we view this world through lenses coloured by such things as "homeland security," and the world some of us see coming is not one to like.

I think of one of the final scenes in the film, when Theo has rescued Kee and the baby and they are trying to escaped the apartment building while it is under siege from soldiers on the ground. Making their way down the hall, baby crying, everyone feels the need to reach out and touch the child, to see and to hear, even if it means they are felled by a bullet from below. And then even the soldiers stop what they are doing, some of them falling to their knees and crossing themselves because of the miracle they see (even though they're probably rabid atheists, all of them). Yes, as soo as they're clear, the battle starts anew, but we're shown a way to peace. A white man, a black, refugee woman, and a baby.

And even with the sadness of the last scene, when the movie goes to black, all around us we hear children laughing, and we feel good about the future of the race.

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