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Star Trek Beyond: A mostly non-spoilerish review

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I don't normally get out to see movies in theatres these days, except for two cases: the film is aimed at kids, or it's either Star Trek or Star Wars. I'm kind of predictable that way. Well, a new Star Trek movie has hit theatres, and I got a chance to see one of the 3D showings. With Fast and the Furious director Justin Lin at the helm, did this still feel like Trek? Read on to find more. The only spoilers refer to the official trailers.

Movie Star Trek vs TV Star Trek

Like the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, and the hot mess that was Star Trek Into Darkness (Khaaaaaaaan!), Star Trek Beyond is clearly an action film. This shouldn't really come as a big surprise, as the TNG films were also heavily shifted into action movies. TV Picard was the anti-Kirk, being a philosophical diplomat. Encountering Q, he quoted Shakespeare at him. Sisko punched Q in the face, and never met him again, but Picard, he needed to debate philosophy, at least in the TV series. In the films, Picard was an action hero, doffing his command jacket to pick up a phaser rifle.

TV Trek probably relied more on dialogue because dialogue is much cheaper to film on a TV budget than special effects heavy action sequences. This is clearly not an issue with Star Trek Beyond.

I am Kirk's angst

From the second trailer, we hear Kirk talk about how his father joined Starfleet because he believed in it, Kirk pretty much just joined on a dare. The implication is that Kirk isn't really sure he belongs in space, possibly because he's been kicked out of all the female crew quarters by that time.

There is some, albeit minor, philosophizing about the nature of being a captain in Starfleet. The comparison is to submarine crews, where people endure long isolation from the rest of the world.

Character Driven

All things considered, this film is really quite character driven. I suspect that it's nearly impossible to write a film with these characters that isn't to a large extent character driven. Kirk, Spock, and Bones have become archetypal characters. The trick is to write scenes that feel right, without mirroring scenes that happened on the show, or in earlier movies. There's a moment where Kirk and McCoy meet for a drink that felt like vintage Deforest Kelley.

Most of the best quotable moments in the film involve the witty repartee between McCoy and Spock, although Scotty holds his own against anyone he's talking to.

Progressive Trek

The 2009 reboot and Star Trek Into Darkness took some well-deserved flak for their gratuitous shots of scantily clad women, in scenes which do not advance the plot. That has clearly changed in Star Trek Beyond. As part of a montage sequence, there is a shirtless Kirk being kicked out into the ship's corridors.

When the ship arrives at a starbase, there is a simple shot of Sulu meeting his partner and their child. It's simple, and powerful, but raises more social questions. In TNG, Miles and Keiko O'Brien raise their small child Molly on the Enterprise. Why can Sulu not have his child on board? Oh, well, from the trailers, it should come as no surprise that the Enterprise is catastrophically destroyed. So I suppose having children on board might cause some problems there.

Star Trek Beyond in 3D and musical choices

Once again, the reboot brings in some modern music, and once again, that music is the Beastie Boys in Sabotage. It seemed a bit gimmicky in the 2009 reboot, but in Beyond, I think they worked it deeper into the plot, at a crucial point. It helps of course, that I'm a fan of the Beastie Boys.

I've not seen a lot of movies in 3D. It usually seems gimmicky, especially when you can pick out the parts of a film which were aimed at a 3D audience. In Star Trek Beyond, nothing reached this level of gimmick, although the flyovers around the Enterprise seemed almost pornographic, caressing the curves of the starship in various flyover scenes. Other scenes use the concept of screen distance rather effectively, in the major climax of the film. The most disturbing parts of the 3D experience were actually some of the rotational drift in the zero gravity sequences.

Is it worth seeing?

Yes, yes it is. It's clearly better than Into Darkness, and has the distinct advantage of being able to skip the introductions that the reboot needed to do. The Enterprise enters battle at the 30 minute mark, leaving lots of time to develop the story. For movie Star Trek, this is one of the good ones.

https://youtu.be/Tvq3y8BhZ2s

Star Wars: Jedi, Racism, and the Force Awakens

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Three trailers have now dropped for the upcoming Star Wars film, and there has been some controversy about racial politics, with some "fans" threatening a boycott because one of the main characters is black. Boo hoo hoo. It's about time that we see the racial diversity of the films expanded to a primary cast member. Sure, Lando Calrissian was black, but he's very much a supporting cast member. https://youtu.be/sGbxmsDFVnE

In Kevin Smith's film Chasing Amy, there's some biting commentary on racial prejudice in the original trilogy. While Lando's name launches us into the subject, he's essentially ignored in the main argument.

https://youtu.be/I0VZj-85E5o

I've started watching the original films with my kids, and this is likely the first time I've watched any of the films in a few years. My old VHS collection gathers dust, as my old VCR had died some time ago. I had resisted upgrading my childhood memories to George Lucas' most recent revision, but gave out at last.

There are a number of disturbing elements in the films, even in the parts which he didn't try to rewrite. His attempts at whitewashing the universe, and making his characters more "heroic" is not that successful. Han shot first, and to suggest otherwise diminishes his status as a smuggler and a scoundrel. I can understand why Lucas would want to redeem this flaw in his hero, but I don't have to agree with it.

The "heroic" Jedi however, have always failed in one rather critical aspect of the films: the treatment of droids. R2D2 and C3P) are our primary characters from the very first scene of the films. Through them, we are introduced to Luke Skywalker. We see C3PO relax in a luxurious oil bath. They are, in some ways, more human than some of the other characters. But all the characters treat them as slaves, even the Jedi.

The Jawas are "scavengers", but in reality are slave traders, capturing unprotected droids. The droids are held captive by restraining bolts. When R2D2 escapes, there will be "hell to pay". Because escaped slaves need to be dealt with harshly.

I think the scene that does the most damage is the Mos Eisley Cantina, where the bartender says that they "don't serve their kind here". Rather than standing up for droid rights, Luke tells the droids to wait outside, so as not to cause trouble. But when someone raises some trouble with Luke, its lightsaber time, and before you can say "these are not the droids you're looking for", some alien creature has been disarmed and dis-armed.

The arm of an alien who tried to cause trouble with Luke Skywalker.

Look, I realize that Obi-Wan Kenobi may not be the best of Jedi: he did kind of raise and teach Anakin, who ended up murdering all the other Jedi, including a temple full of children. Kenobi must have been a great role model.

But surely once Luke becomes a Jedi, he will become a little more enlightened, and accept these droids as friends, and not property, right? Whats that? I can't hear you over the sound of Jabba the Hutt's booming laughter as he accepts the gift of two droids, without the knowledge or consent of at least one of them. Its quite possible that R2D2 was in on Luke's plan, but its clear that C3PO wasn't consulted in his fate as protocol droid to a major crime boss.

So much for the Jedi being a force of good. Its just a different form of slavery, very much modelled on American history. Non-humans weren't really treated equal either. At the end of A New Hope, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo get these cool medals, but Chewbacca just gets to stand nearby.

Han Solo and Luke Skywalker receive medals while Chewbacca looks on

So that brings us back to the new episode, where it was revealed that John Boyega is going to play a major role as Finn.

John Boyega is a black actor who plays the role of Finn, standing in a desert with stormtrooper armour.

I really hope he lives up to the role, and that maybe his character even treats droids with a little more respect. He looks pretty badass with a lightsaber. May the Force be with him.

Finn ignites a lightsaber in the third Force Awakens trailer

The Dandelion Perspective

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Where I see a field of green marred by malignant yellow weeds, my daughters see flowers growing in the meadow. A bouquet of flowers, or of weeds?

I've told them they're allowed to pick as many dandelions from the lawn as they like. Like many things they do, their enthusiasm is endearing. Their perspective on the problem is limited to what they can see: a flower.

I see a little farther, where the weeds will spread through the lawn, and steal the water from the grass during the hottest parts of the summer. I see hours of pulling them up from the roots, to slow down their growth.

A shift in perspective can be a powerful change. Even when you recognize an obstacle, sometimes it can be quite refreshing to consider other perspectives, and other objectives to judge merit. The world is not black and white, but shades of all colours. Sometimes the green may be covered in yellow, but that's not always a bad thing.

First aid

For two days, I've watched videos featuring bloodshed, knife attacks, punctured lungs, objects embedded in eyes, and amputations. This wasn't a slasher film marathon, but first aid training. I've had first aid training many times over the years, probably starting with some training with Scouts Canada. First aid skills were far more likely to be required in scouting than in today's modern office environment, but as the Scouts motto said: Be Prepared. So once again, I took the first aid, CPR and AED training.

Small hand injury

The training materials have changed over the years, most clearly showing the change are the instructional videos. The production quality has dramatically improved. They're quite effective at showing the first aid techniques, and in drilling the basic components of giving first aid, such as assessing vital signs. They're also obviously not likely to win any acting awards. While the makeup is quite realistic, showing increasingly pale and sweaty skin for those suffering from shock, and perhaps more closeups on the injuries than is entirely comfortable, all the actors remain remarkably calm during all the scenarios.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing for instructional videos. The focus is appropriately placed on the treatment of injuries, rather than on the reactions of those involved. This is likely more effective for training purposes, than a more realistic response.

There are also a few amusing moments in the videos, in particular when they show the first upper arm open fracture. The casualty in question is in a stable with a small pony named Killer, as seen on a sign outside the stall. It's a small touch, appreciated by this audience. Most amusingly, the pony is far shorter than the casualty's arms. In truth, having some humour in the material seems to be pretty important, especially when dealing with painful subject matter.

There are also a series of skits involving a construction site. In the last video involving the construction site, the workers create their own triangular bandage to form an arm sling out of other materials. It serves a good purpose in reminding the audience that you can make do with whatever you have access to, but it also raises questions about the safety of this fake construction site, if they've exhausted their supply of triangular bandages. Surely the Ministry of Labour would have shut the site down.

My hope, as always, is that the training remains unused and unneeded. But in the case of a freak espresso machine accident, I once again stand prepared to assist.

Lest we forget our freedom

On November 11th, 1918, in a train carriage outside Compiègne, France, an Armistice was signed, bringing an end to the war between Germany and the Allies, to be ratified January 10th, 1920 in the Treaty of Versailles. For 4 years, 3 months and 2 weeks before, 16 million people died, with another 20 million people wounded in battle. Poppies in a field.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow       Between the crosses, row on row,    That mark our place; and in the sky    The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,    Loved and were loved, and now we lie          In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw    The torch; be yours to hold it high.    If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow          In Flanders fields

So goes the poem by Canadian physician John McCrae in the Great War. McCrae was born in 1872 in Guelph, Ontario, some 30 kilometers from where I write this. On January 28, 1918 he died in Boulange, France.

At the time, it was the Great War, the War to end all wars. Yet war is still waged, on a daily basis. Different weapons are used, and certainly different language describes it. Surgical strikes, aerial suppression. Armed insurgents. Drone strikes.

How well have we done in carrying the torch for the dead? What freedoms do we protect, to keep faith with those from the past? Despite so much shared suffering in the past century, I think one of the greatest tragedies today is humanity's inhumanity.

We still live in a world where we are not judged solely by the strength of our character. The colour of our skin, our sex or sexual orientation, our national ancestry, where we live, our religion or lack thereof are still all used as justification for some of the worst forms of discrimination.

What gives me hope is that when a mosque is spray-painted with graffiti reading "go home", when a woman speaks up against sexual violence from a media personality, that there are those in the community who help clean the vandalism, those who will speak up for those suffering from acts of violence, saying that "I believe you".

This Remembrance Day, let us not forget the veterans who died on foreign soil, far from home. But let us not forget our ability to care for others who are different from us. Let us remember that we are all human.

Remembering Jay Lake

Last week, Jay Lake passed away. 20140602-094136-34896858.jpg

I met him briefly at the 2009 Worldcon in Montreal. He was always a very colourful person, and a very prolific writer.

His novels and stories were fun and imaginative. But where his wit truly showed through was in his blog. He was openly critical of anti-science rhetoric, especially where it involved affordable access to medical care.

Throughout his battle with cancer, he was open about the process, both in dealing with the medical and insurance systems, as well as dealing with the process itself.

Science fiction authors are often asked to imagine the future. Jay could see his future, and how brief a time it would be.

The future is now, and while Jay has shuffled off this mortal coil, his words remain to us, his final legacy.

Rest in peace Jay.

Crowd funding Second Contacts

There are many great stories about First Contact: when humanity first meets alien life. Bundoran Press, a small publisher in Ottawa, is currently in the last days of a fundraising campaign for a science fiction anthology of Second Contacts. The premise is interesting, as it allows the stories to explore the very real social changes that would occur during the fifty years after contact with an alien race. Second Contacts promo image

Their fundraising will allow them to offer pro rates for the authors in the anthology. Please consider contributing to the campaign. Bundoran's two previous anthologies were Blood and Water, and Strange Bedfellows, which also focused on very social issues with resource starvation, and political issues respectively.

There are also some great perks, should the project receive the funding it needs, including story critiques without going through a slush pile.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/second-contacts

Second Contacts promo image

Joining Google

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A few weeks ago, I received an offer of employment from Google. I'll be working in the Google Waterloo office, currently located in the Tannery building in downtown Kitchener. It's a pretty cool office, which I've visited several times now for various interviews and meetings. I've worked for small and medium-sized companies before, but before this, the largest company I've worked for was Research in Motion (since renamed to BlackBerry), although they're not as big as they were at their zenith. Google will easily surpass that, but it seems that the culture is in many ways, more like some of the smaller companies that I've worked for.

Yesterday was the last day at my current job. While it's sad to see it go, new opportunities await. Automation control software can be quite challenging, but there isn't as much emphasis on user interface and user experience as I would like. Still, in the end, it's a big change.

Here's to the next chapter! I'm rather excited.

A LEGO android

Forecasting Storm Strength: Stormageddon and the Snowpocalypse

How many times in the past few years have you heard news reports about the oncoming storm that will shut down all roads and highways, and keep everyone inside until the plows can finally dig you out? How many times has the promise of a day home from work and school been left unfulfilled, with only some light snow in place?

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These days, the news reports gleefully foretell the oncoming Snowpocalypse, or a weather front about to bring Stormageddon unto us all. It seems all the weather channels want to talk about, and it carries over to radio morning shows. In some areas of North America, this is sometimes taken to ludicrous lengths:

[youtube=http://youtu.be/iBlDU8e7om0&rel=0]

Obviously, media coverage isn't a sure sign of snow, just as the lack of this coverage isn't necessarily a sign that it isn't coming. So what's the best way to decide if it's really worth going out on the roads, or if it's time to batten the hatches and stay at home? There are a few good resources that can help you judge for yourself.

  1. Try looking outside at the street. If you live on a side street which isn't yet plowed, it may not indicate what the major roads are like, but if it looks like your car isn't getting down the street, it's best to stay put.
  2. Radar maps. This shows what kind of snowfall is currently happening in your region. Most weather sites provide a forecast, where the track of the storm is extrapolated, so you can see where the storm is likely to hit. What kind of intensity is it? Light, steady snow for hours and hours, or a short but intense dumping over just a few hours? Is it a widespread system, or narrow?
  3. Twitter. Hashtags such as #onstorm can give general information on the storm, but it's likely that people you follow are also talking about it. They may provide useful advice as to current road conditions. Local news and traffic radio stations also post information regarding accidents and road closures.
  4. Remember that it's not just snow to be concerned about. Extreme icy conditions can occur without vast quantities of snow.

If you are out and about in dangerous road conditions, try slowing down a bit. It's extremely likely that all those cars in ditches weren't taking the conditions into account with their driving. Give yourself lots of space to stop.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go clear the snow from my driveway. Again.

Socialist Snowplows and the Minimum Standards of Capitalism

There have been a few amusing images circling on the internet, with captions along the lines of "A socialist snowplow just went past my house. When will this tyranny end?" Or "Evil socialism at work".

Evil Socialism at Work

The idea is cute, and the phrase "socialist snowplows" is certainly memorable. But while this cheekily aimed at "small government" supporters, most snow removal services are very much an example of contract services with more of a focus on the bottom line, rather than the public good.

In Ontario, different levels of government are responsible for different levels of roads, and different minimum standards apply. Provincial highways are handled by the provincial government, while municipal roads are handled by the municipalities. While some cities and municipalities may own and run their own fleet, other areas, including many provincial areas are contracted out to third party contractors.

A socialist snowplow just went past my house. When will this tyranny end?

There are primarily two ways in which snow removal contracts can be negotiated.

  1. Variable cost, where the contractor would issue an invoice for every time the roads receive maintenance.
  2. Fixed cost contract, where the contractor performs all maintenance necessary.

In reality, there may be some mixture of the two. It's a means of assigning the risk associated with winter weather. On a snowy year, the fixed cost contracts protect the governing body from excess costs, at the expense of the contractor. In a relatively snow-free year, a fixed cost contract provides a bonus to the contractor, while the budget of the governing body remains fixed in advance.

While this can control costs, it does affect service. Only when road conditions are to a certain point, usually defined by snow depth, will the snow plows need to be sent out. The ministry of Transportation has posted their MTO Winter Maintenance plans, which shows that there are different time standards to each bare pavement.

MTO sets performance targets for snow and ice control to achieve the bare pavement standard after the end of the storm. The bare pavement standard for each class of highway is:

  1. Eight hours for freeways and multi-lane highways, e.g. Highway 401, Queen Elizabeth Way, Highway 11 and four-lane sections (Class 1).
  2. Sixteen hours for high traffic volume, two-lane highways, e.g. Highway 17 Trans-Canada (Class 2).
  3. Twenty-four hours for medium traffic volume, two-lane highways, eg. Highway 35 (Class 3).
  4. Twenty-four hours to centre bare for low volume, two-lane highways, e.g. Highway 516 (Class 4).
  5. Some highways with low traffic remain snow packed for most of the winter (Class 5). On Class 5 highways, excess snow is plowed off and sand is applied to improve friction.

The North Bay Nippissing News talks about these bare minimum standards as well. talking specifically about the frequency that the roads are plowed during a snow event. They quote a Ministry of Transportation source as follows:

The circuit time for a Class 3 highway is 3.3 hours; therefore, once the contractor commences plowing upon the accumulation of two centimetres of snow, the plow continuously services its defined plow route every 3.3 hours until the winter event ends and roads conditions have been restored.

Note that it doesn't matter at what rate the snow is falling. While the snow event continues, those plows are on a 3.3 hour rotation. If the snow event continues for many hours, there can be significant snow accumulation on the roads until the next plow goes through. But if that's what the regulations state is required, that's what those roads will get. As the North Bay Nippissing News says:

A 60 km stretch of provincial highway gets plowed once every three-and-a-half hours – that’s the standard. Not the patrol yard will decide how to respond to weather conditions or the ministry expects every effort will be made to make sure there doesn’t become more than two inches of snow on the road or that actual road conditions have any connection to response. In other words, it’s not about safety. It’s about minimum standards – bare minimum standards.

When the road contracts are awarded to companies based outside of the community, on a for-profit basis, why should we assume that these companies would go beyond the minimum standards set out in the contracts? With no ties to the community, but with a real impact on their bottom line, there is no real incentive to maintain the roads to a higher standard.

So while you may joke about the socialist snowplows from the comfort of your home or office, for those who need to travel during adverse conditions, public safety plays second fiddle to economics. So while those snow plows are provided for the benefit of the public, paid for by public tax dollars, even here, capitalist economics is very much at play.

Lest We Forget: Internment Camps in North America

Every year in November, I make an effort to watch at least some of the Band of Brothers series. It's not a perfect series, but it stands as a reminder of the human cost paid by those serving in the war.

This year, I watched episode 9, "Why We Fight". In this episode, Easy Company liberates one of the satellite work camps around the Dachau concentration camp. There is some artistic license in place: Easy Company did not liberate any of the camps, although they did see Dachau after it was liberated. It's a very emotional episode.

Jews at the gates

That this is offered as the reason as to why the US entered the war, however, is a fiction. The subtext offered is that America went to war to fight tyranny, to stop evil like Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. In reality, America declared war on Japan after Pearl Harbour. Germany declared war on America four days after Pearl Harbour. There's a good article by On Violence which discusses this issue, including the broad feelings of antisemitism in America throughout the 1930s. It's easy to understand why Spielberg wants to promote this as one of the reasons for the war, but sadly, the "Final Solution" was not a primary concern of other nations, until after the concentration camps were liberated.

At the gates of the concentration camp

But despite this, the episode is a powerful reminder of these concentration camps, and the horrors that were inflicted on the Jews, and other undesirables.

Earlier this year, I also re-watched some war films, including a BBC mini-series on the concentration camps. "Auschwitz: The Nazis and the 'Final Solution'" was also called "Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State" when aired by PBS in the United States. With documentary precision, this documentary builds up our understanding of how organized and widespread the whole extermination program was, and the mentality of the people keeping it going.

In "Why We Fight", we don't get any real sense of scale. It's a smaller camp, but the focus remains on the reactions from the soldiers. It's a TV series about these soldiers, and it is through their eyes that we learn about the camps. Through their eyes, we get a glimpse inside one of the buildings in which men were piled like lumber.

Prisoners stacked in the hovels

The Jews weren't the only ones persecuted in the war. After the bombing of Pearl Harbour, internment camps in the United States and Canada were opened, with a number of Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians were segregated. In Canada, the [Japanese Canadian Interment] detained over 27,000 people of Japanese descent. In the United States, the number of Japanese American Internment detainees was in excess of 110,000. While these camps were not labour camps as in Russia, or extermination camps as in Germany, nonetheless, some of the same principles guided their creation: racial discrimination. In addition to removing all people of Japanese heritage to internment camps, their properties were also seized and sold below market prices. Similar camps held recent German immigrants. Jews who managed to escape Europe and fled to North America were likewise kept in prison camps, often alongside German prisoners. In World War I, Canada held 8,579 prisoners, mostly of Ukranian heritage, in a series of concentration camps from 1915-1920.

Castle Mountain Internment Camp

Families uprooted, brought from their homes by armed soldiers, because their parents came from a particular country. While North American internment camps didn't result in mass executions, they uprooted thousands upon thousands of families. Is "at least we didn't kill them all" a good enough excuse? The basic liberties we take for granted, the ones which we say that our soldiers fought and died for, were being broken at home while they fought and bled.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UxOqJ2QwtA

In America, the family of George Takei was relocated to the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas, before being transferred to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California. In Canada, David Suzuki's family was relocated to a facility in Slocan in British Colombia.

George Takei at Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas

While it's popular to imagine that only the "bad guys" would strip away the rights of their citizens, it's clear that this is not something that only Nazi Germany is guilty of. While they carried out mass executions, with little to no outcry, Americans and Canadians evicted and sold the properties of their own citizens, again with little to no outcry. As Takei notes in his post on Why we must remember Rohwer, almost nothing remains of these internment camps. While the existence of the extermination camps in Germany are well documented, there is an active attempt to disremember the failure of our own democratic principles in North America.

Burying the dead

This is why it matters. I haven't seen Allegiance, the musical inspired by George Takei's time at Rohwer, but shows like this are important, to tell the other stories from the war. Because the phrase "Lest we forget" shouldn't be one sided.

The Ethics of Prison Architect: A Case Study

Simulation games have a long history in computing. From SimCity to the Sims, gamers have dragged and dropped trees, houses, streets and street lamps rebuilding their own utopia.

But what about simulations of dystopias? Enter Prison Architect, where you build and manage a prison facility. It's for profit, of course, because that's how you get money to expand your prison. Prison Architect

Simulation Games

In SimCity, the most difficult ethical decisions tend to be things like where to place polluting industries, whether you should use nuclear power, or if you should build a casino. No one loses sleep on these issues. You might lose sleep because you can't stop playing, but that's a different issue.

You can do a little more evil in the Sims. Locking sims in enclosed spaces to their deaths, or denying access to bathrooms. For the most part, these are conscious choices.

Prison Architect is far more insidious. Do you really need to splurge on cell windows? How much do you really need to spend on higher quality food? After all, it's not like these prisoners are real people, is it? It's particularly easy to disassociate yourself from this reality, looking just at the statistics: X prisoners, Y staff, net daily balance: $$$. This seems to be precisely the kind of mindset that appeals to hands-off administrators and legislators involved in the decision making processes around real prisons.

Prison Design

I recently read an article about real prison architects, Prison Design and its Consequences: the Architects Dilemma. This article argues that architects should consider the ethical implications of the prisons they design, because they can directly affect the lives of real people.

There's always political rhetoric around prisons. Whether social conservatives want a hard line stance on punishment, or the more liberal minded are speaking about rehabilitation, these are at best, abstract qualities in the minds of the public at large. The average citizen wants criminals removed from society, although whether this is for punishment, rehabilitation, or just to remove a risk to the public differs on the individual citizen.

Grand Valley Institution and Ashley Smith

The Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener is a Canadian federal prison for women, located in Kitchener, Ontario. This is the prison where 19 year old Ashley Smith died by strangulation while guards were instructed not to interfere. I drive past this prison often, but very rarely have I given it much thought.

Ashley Smith died at Grand River Institution

I think most people in Waterloo Region know this much, and it may have coloured their perception of the whole institution. It's not all segregation cells like the one in which Smith died. Regional Council member Jane Mitchell wrote about her visit to GVI in 2010. At the time, the prison only held 127 inmates, 8 of which were high security. There were only 4 segregation cells. Currently, the facility is rated for 177 inmates, with construction ongoing to accommodate 44 more by next year, bringing the institution's capacity to 221 inmates, according to the Correctional Service of Canada page on GVI.

Grand River Institution for Women

The Canadian Prison System

I didn't know that in Canada, criminal sentences of less than 2 years are served in Provincial jails, while those of more than 2 are served in Federal institutes. For women, Grand Valley is the only federal facility in Ontario since Kingston's Prison for Women shut down in 2000. With an increasing prison population, this facility is seeing some of the same pressures explored in Prison Architect: they have limited space to expand, but must accommodate more inmates. They have no direct control over how many inmates are transferring in, as that depends on sentences handed down by the courts. As this article in the Waterloo Region Record notes, these changes have impacted access to services, as well as space for recreation and visitation.

Are the impact of these changes what we want for our society? Are they directed changes, to align with society's goals, or are they accidents of happenstance? These changes seem to align with the Conservative government's "tough on crime" image, which apparently focuses more on punishment than on rehabilitation.

These changes are concerning, in part because they are out of the public's eye, until tragedy occurs. The inquest into Ashley Smith's death seeks to shed light on some of the dehumanizing aspects of long term solitary confinement, and frequent transfers between provinces.

What about Prison Architect? Does it desensitize gamers to the prison system, or does it raise critical issues in the public's eye? As I play the game, the issue drifts in and out of consciousness. It's an uncomfortable feeling.

Two hard things

Two Hard Things

There are only two hard things in computer science. Cache invalidation, naming things, and off-by-one errors.

I was reminded of this quote recently, as I had a wrapper object which exposed a property with the same name as a property in the contained object, but which is slightly different. It's actually the value contained in a different property.

Foo.Bar.Magic -> 'abcd12' Foo.Bar.Xyzzy -> 'abcd123' Foo.Xyzzy -> 'abcd12'

I'm sure that whoever wrote this had a very good reason for doing so, but I spent far too much time debugging a subtle error.

The Pathos of Superheroes

I've always been more of a fan of the Batman, than of Superman. Even the angst teenaged Spider-man seems more engaging than Supes. I'm by no means a comic geek. Most of my exposure to these franchises has been through film and television. Admittedly, it's been many years since I actually watched one of the Superman films, and I don't think that I've made much effort to watch Superman Returns.

As a kid, I think the only Superman comics I read were the Death of Superman series, back in 1993. The fall of Superman made him more than just vulnerable. At the time, this seemed shocking, that the impervious hero could be brought down.

The Death of Superman. Superman Vol 2 Issue 75 cover

Setting aside for the moment, whether the back story of Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents' murder, or Peter Parker feeling responsible for the murder of his uncle, is felt deeper than the destruction of some distant homeland, lets consider some of the attributes of these heroes.

Superman is an alien being. Outwardly human, and with an all-American heartland upbringing, there is little about his appearance to set him aside as someone different. Yet he is stronger and faster than mere mortals. Generally invulnerable to anything, except Kryptonite. Superman's defence of Truth, Justice, and the American Way has a saccharine quality, too good to be true.

There's no fundamental conflict in his character. There are no moral choices that define his character. In the first Superman movie, when Lois Lane dies because Superman fails to stop a missile from setting off an earthquake, he goes back in time to save her. Talk about a missed opportunity for character development. Why should I feel for any of his choices when he can apparently just call for a do-over?

This is in fact the exact choice they made in The Dark Knight film. Batman is offered a choice: save District Attorney Harvey Dent, or save his love interest Rachel Dawes. Batman makes the opposite choice that Superman made: save the girl. The twist is that the Joker switched the locations: in choosing to save Rachel, he instead saves Dent. This is what character development is made of. Even though he made the arguably selfish choice, he still loses. More to the point, he also loses the moral high ground.

Batman The Dark Knight Returns cover

I'm reading The Dark Knight Returns, written and drawn by Frank Miller. This series is highly influential, and when published in 1986, reshaped the perception of Batman, probably in ways which colour my view of superheroes today. But the seeds of Batman's character were planted long before.

Batman is driven by his obsession: avenging his parent's death. He's a crime fighter, but it's driven by vengeance. Superman is a crime fighter too, I suppose, but he stands for virtue and cultural values. Superman fights for what is right. Batman fights because it feels right.

The origin stories of our heroes are all different, and this is where the current controversy comes from. The earlier versions of Superman's origins are that his home world of Krypton was destroyed, and he was the last survivor, sent as an infant to Earth.

There are rumoured changes to Superman's origin story in the new film, where Krypton still exists, and that Superman's exile to Earth is for some other reason. Some folks at io9 suggest that this will alter Superman's character in a rather fundamental way. I would tend to agree with the pageofreviews which instead suggests that this actually makes his character more interesting.

Finally, we get a choice. Why does Superman stay on Earth, when he could return to Krypton? Why should Krypton matter? Is Superman in exile any more interesting than Superman the infant refugee? Can we sow some seeds of discord into Superman's origin? Can Superman still inspire us if he has internal conflict? I think so, and it might just restore some humanity to the Man of Steel.

Ad Astra 2013

Ad Astra is a speculative fiction convention in the outskirts of Toronto (specifically Markham) that I've attended now for several years. (2012 and 2009 recaps). Last year they moved to a new hotel for the convention, and it looks like they've started to fix some of the problems with last year's event. There were fewer tracks of programming this year, which was helpful. This reduced the heavy load on the elevators from last year, and made panel decisions easier.

Panels scheduled in the smaller rooms on the lower level were a real problem for me, as the rooms seem designed to devour sound. There are no microphones or speakers, and the panelists tend to be soft spoken. I had to bail on one panel because the sounds of people in the hall were far louder than the people at the front of the room.

Book launches and readings

Book launches are always fun to attend. This year, I attended a reading by Kitchener author Suzanne Church. Suzanne read a piece from her upcoming anthology Elements, as well as a few chicken stories that the anthology editor decided didn't fit with the anthology. They were amusing, but don't match the tone of the rest of her work. They would probably fit in with an anthology of Derek Künsken's stories though... He's written about monkey assassins and clown farts lately. Which, now that I've mentioned it, is going to draw some strange searches to my site.

Speaking of Derek, there was also a Bundoran Press launch party for the digital editions of the Blood and Water anthology (review forthcoming), as well as one of Matthew Johnson's stories. A number of authors read selections from their stories in Blood and Water, including Stephanie Bedwell-Grime, Ryan McFadden, Kate Heartfield, Douglas Smith, Derek Kunsken and Julie E. Czerneda.

Julie E. Czerneda also had a reading from her new novel A Turn of Light. Something which I will have to pick up the ebook for shortly.

I didn't attend the reading from Robert J Sawyer's Red Planet Blues. He will be in Kitchener later this month, when he's not competing against other panels.

Doctor Who

A Dalek in the halls of Ad Astra

Wandering the floors of the convention, I turned a corner and almost ran into a life-size Dalek. Thankfully, it did not try and exterminate me. Later in the night, there was a group showing of the night's episode of Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten. A number of Whovians were in costume (mainly the fourth and seventh Doctors), and sonic screwdrivers were waved at the projector to resolve technical issues.

The Dealer's Room

I spent more time in the dealer's room this year, as I was helping out at the Bundoran Press table. Sitting next to the ChiZine table was fun. Brett Savory has a sharp wit, as does the rest of the CZP posse.

This was also the first year where I didn't walk out of the dealer's room with a backpack full of books. Since I started using my Kobo Glo at Christmas, I have read mostly ebooks. This decision was difficult at the con. Some new releases from authors for whom I have their entire backlist signed. This was a struggle between the collector, and the reader. For now, the reader has won.

Panels

I did manage to attend a number of panels, although not as many as previous years. Ad Astra has become more of a social event for me, catching up with friends from the Internet.

Alternate realities

This was a fun panel, and I wish that I had taken more comprehensive notes. There was some good advice, including suggestions to look outside the traditional Western European history. Post colonialism at work.

Building an audience

This was a solo lecture featuring Rob Sawyer. A few people bailed when they realized it wasn't a discussion between multiple panelists. There is of course a difference between a discussion and a lecture.

For the most part, Rob's advice makes sense. You're not trying to sell a particular book or story to everyone. Just like a particular story won't be right for a given editor, a story can also not be right for a particular reader.

Rob instead advised the audience to sell a brand: yourself. It's more of a soft-sale technique, where through exposure to your brand, and a continues, personal interaction, fans will buy your books. Some of the folks in the dealer's room should have been here. Some vendors were trying the hard-sale.

How to write high fantasy

While I'm not trying to write high fantasy, I found the panel on this topic entertaining. Some good perspectives by K.W. Ramsey, Catherine Fitzsimmons, Gregory A. Wilson, and Marie Bilodeau. It did end up going a little off topic, when the panelists started discussing ways to create believable female characters with real motivations.

How do you know it's done

This panel included Stephanie Bedwell-Grime, Gabrielle Harbowy, Marie Bilodeau, and Douglas Smith. It was a really good discussion of the merits an limitations of Heinlein's third rule of writing, limiting the endless editing of finished work. It was really quite fun to see Gabrielle and Marie joking with each other. This is what a really good editor/author relationship is like.

I'm going to come back to this topic in a later post, after I've had time to organize my notes.

Space propulsion

As interesting as this topic is, without a story driving particular research on my part, I really didn't get much from this panel. Escape velocity requires expensive thrust, and can't be nuclear. When in orbit, interplanetary transfers can be fast and expensive (major talk about nuclear options) or slow and efficient for non-human transport. Some interesting facts about solar sails. The guys on this panel would be great people to query with particular story questions. It's all really great information, it's just not very useful to me now.

The parties

a shot of our Aliens game in action

While waiting for the parties to start up, I met up with Adam Shaftoe, James Bambury (who does not yet have telekinetic powers while drinking), Beverly Bambury and David Lamb for an Aliens board game. It was pretty epic. Shaftoe in particular had some awesome moments, even if the acid splash from the Alien caused someone else to fall down the elevator shaft.

The ChiZine party has an epic event. Just like the TARDIS, it must be bigger on the inside, judging by the number of people there. I bet the Doctor has stronger air conditioning though, although perhaps not as free-flowing of a bar.

Doctor Who: A Postscript from Rory

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the Doctor Who Series 7 episode The Angels Take Manhattan. River Song always has spoilers

The last several episodes of Doctor Who have really played up the departure of Amy Pond and Rory Williams from Doctor Who. We've all known their departure was imminent, which is one of the reasons why their arguments in the episode Asylum of the Daleks (a worthwhile review by Adam Shaftoe) seemed needlessly angsty. Since that particular low point in their relationship, we've been introduced to Rory's dad, Brian.

Parents of the Doctor's companions has become a staple in the series since it's reincarnation by Russel T Davies. Brian's very much like Wilfrid Mott, Donna's grandfather, in a number of ways. They're kind souls, who understand the sense of adventure the Doctor brings.

When the Angels Take Manhattan ended, Amy and Rory were sent back to the past, where they lived out their lives in New York. It's a bittersweet ending for them, and entirely appropriate for the way their relationship has been running over the past several episodes. The Power of Three really emphasized their dual life.

The ending of the episode included a letter from Amy to the Doctor, giving her final goodbyes, as through some sort of timey wimey mumbo jumbo, the Doctor is unable to travel back to save them in New York.

Afterword, by Amelia Williams. Hello, old friend, and here we are. You and me, on the last page. By the time you read these words, Rory and I will be long gone, so know that we lived well, and were very happy. And, above all else, know that we will love you, always. Sometimes, I do worry about you though; I think, once we're gone, you won't be coming back here for a long while, and you might be alone, which you should never be. Don't be alone, Doctor.

And do one more thing for me: there's a little girl, waiting in a garden; she's going to wait a long while, so she is going to need a lot of hope. Go to her. Tell her a story. Tell her that, if she's patient, the days are coming that she'll never forget. Tell her she'll go to sea and fight pirates, she'll fall in love with a man who'll wait two thousand years to keep her safe. Tell her she'll give hope to the greatest painter who ever lived, and save a whale in outer space.

Tell her: This is the story of Amelia Pond - and this, is how it ends.

While this is quite touching, and brings Amy's journey with the Doctor full-circle, we are now left with Rory's relationship with his father, Brian, a man recently introduced to viewers within the past several episodes. The official episode leaves him out in the cold, presumably watering the plants forever, waiting for Rory and Amy to come home to him.

Well, it turns out that the writers hadn't forgotten about Brian, as the BBC has recently released a scene where Rory's fate is revealed to his father. It was never shot, so is filled out by storyboard renders.

[youtube http://youtu.be/XWU6XL9xI4k]

Does this give closure for Rory's dad? I can understand the narrative desire to focus on Amy's story with the Doctor, but it seems rather callous to introduce a character, and then leave him in the dark about his family's ultimate fate.

The Angels Take Manhattan first aired September 29th, 2012. It was written by Steven Moffat, and directed by Nick Hurran. The episode was produced by Marcus Wilson. Rory's postscript was written by Chris Chibnall, who also wrote the other recent episodes with Brian Williams, including Power of Three and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.

Trudeau and the need for leadership

With news of Justin Trudeau's candidacy for leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, some polls are suggesting that Trudeaumania is about to descend on the country, enabling the Liberals to regain control of the government, draining support from the NDP. Justin Trudeau in 2010

How likely is a Liberal government now? Do they really stand a chance of winning back the support of voters who chose orange instead of red? The NDP had a strong showing in the last election, in no small part due to the efforts of the late Jack Layton. While Layton was clearly the catalyst for the so-called Orange Crush, I suspect the move towards the NDP was also due to a long-term frustration with the lack of credible Liberal policies. I'm not convinced that Trudeau can swing support back from orange to red.

The Liberals have faced a number of problems over the last few elections. Neither Ignatieff nor Dion had much in the way of charisma. In RPG terms, charisma was their dump stat. Their popularity was mainly as an alternative to Stephen Harper. Before Iggy and Dion, Paul Martin was beset by scandal, and the fallout from an internal power struggle in the party. The only Liberal leader in recent memory who had charisma was Chretien, and I'm still not entirely sure how he pulled that off.

Jack Layton, however, represented the spirit of change. He was a clear choice to the direction that Harper's Conservatives have taken, and he was a true parliamentarian. While many Canadians--particularly those who voted Conservative--may have disagreed with his policies, he was a popular figure. He was authentic, in a way that many politicians don't seem to manage.

Thomas Mulcair may not have the charisma of Trudeau or Layton, but he's certainly not the wet blanket that Dion or Ignatieff were. The NDP platform still resonates, in a way that the Liberal platform has failed to capture the attention of Canadians over the past several years.

Can Trudeau's charisma bring the Liberals back to prominence? I don't know. Trudeau as leader will revitalize the party, and attract new people. But why should Canadians put their trust back in the Liberal party now? Aside from Trudeau as a leader, what policies do the Liberals stand for, that differentiate themselves from the NDP? What policies does Trudeau himself hold?

This highlights the largest problem facing the Liberals. For Trudeau to win the leadership, and lead the Liberals back to form the government, he needs to start leading on policy, across the board. He has spoken a great deal about issues of social justice, but very rarely on matters of economic policy. In the current economic crisis, any leadership candidate needs to make their stance on economic policy clear. As journalist Andrew Coyne argues, Trudeau doesn't really have a public stand on many issues.

Will Trudeau's leadership of the Liberal Party bring them back to power? I rather doubt it. Until the Liberal Party can present a valid case, not just as an alternative to Stephen Harper's Conservatives, but also to the NDP, I think the Liberals will remain a secondary opposition party.

The Perils of Selling Stuff Online

There's a strange mentality at play when trying to sell items online. Several sites on the Internet have become a virtual garage sale. While eBay is the most successful, it's often easier to use sites which focus on local sales, such as Craigslist or Kijiji. Shipping items is a hassle, and it's often easier to receive payment when meeting around town. There may be fewer people interested in your product though, and there are also very obviously those who will try to lowball your asking price.

I recently sold a Nikon SB-400 flash online. Ken Rockwell may love this flash, but it's not flexible enough for my use. I listed it for just over a hundred dollars, which is what a rough look at successfully completed eBay auctions closed for. Within a day, I had two offers for my asking price, as well as this gem:

Hi si i offer 50 dolar cash, if you think let me come and get it

Brilliant! I'll sell it to you immediately... Wait, no I won't. Your offer is ridiculous. If you're trying to get a deal, here's a few tips:

  1. Look for items more than a few days old.
  2. Use relatively correct language. Try using a spellchecker.
  3. Try to explain why you should get a deal.

Try actually being persuasive. If you're lucky, it will work. If not, at least you're not like to be fodder for blog posts.

Nonfiction Book Review: Getting Started with D3 by Mike Dewar; O'Reilly Media

For the past several weeks, I've been working with some visualization libraries in JavaScript. There are a number of different options available, from using the bitmap graphics in the HTML 5 canvas, to writing vector graphics with SVG output. One of the more popular libraries at the moment is D3, which provides a flexible framework for visualizing large datasets in SVG. While the examples and API documentation available on the D3 website are helpful,  I have also found Mike Dewar's book, "Getting Started with D3" to be a helpful resource.

Cover for "Getting Started with D3"

Dewar uses a publicly available resource, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority Data Set, to demonstrate how the library can be used to present data in a number of ways. The book covers all the basics with D3, from the selection model, to interactive graphs, and specialized layouts, such as force-directed graphs. While it covers some of these concepts, it never goes into great detail about anything in particular. While this is a "getting started" book, it's very much an introductory title.

Still, this is a relatively short book. It's a good introduction to D3, but leaves a great deal about the library to be explored. In chapter 3, the author notes that the standard D3 visualizations are rendered in SVG, which limits the usage to modern browsers. While it is noted that Internet Explorer 9 (March 2011) provides SVG support, the book fails to explain exactly what that means today. As I've mentioned before, IE 8 is the most recent version of Internet Explorer that can run on Windows XP, which still has a sizeable market share. While there are workarounds, such as using d34raphael to render VML output in earlier versions of IE, or using svgweb to render the SVG output in Flash, these problems are glossed over with a simple aside.

In the end, D3 is a very useful tool, and Mike Dewar's book does a decent job of explaining how to go about using it. It's unfortunate that the book doesn't go into greater detail, especially since the book is so short to begin with.

This book was reviewed as part of O'Reilly's Blogger Review program. The book itself can be found on the O'Reilly website here

Ad Astra 2012

I've attended Ad Astra, a Toronto science fiction convention, for several years now. As the Don Valley Parkway was closed for maintenance this weekend, the change of venue from the hotel used over the last few years was welcome.The convention floor was much more accessible, without the insane number of stairs everywhere, like at the previous convention centre. However, the venue space for vendors was insufficient. The main vendors room had four or five booksellers, including Bakka Phoenix and Chizine Publications. Other vendors had tables lining the hallways. When customers stood outside their tables, walking down the halls became difficult.

Steampunk cosplayers at Ad Astra

In addition to the Steampunk cosplayers, this year a number of vendors were selling Steampunk accessories.

The convention seemed a little emptier this year. Toronto Comicon was this weekend as well, which certainly didn't help. The programming on Saturday appeared to be hit or miss. At some times, three panels of interest were scheduled at the same time, while at others, nothing of interest was going on. Those were the times where I like to circle the vendors room, but it didn't take nearly as long this year.

Perhaps the most engaging panel was one on criticism, moderated by Adam Shaftoe. It was nice to meet him in person for the first time. It's always interesting to see who has twitter notifications enabled in a panel. After I mentioned him in a tweet, I could see him scanning the room to find me. The panelists had a good discussion, about the advantages and disadvantages of ARCs and blog monetization. The best advice was from Ryan Oakley. No, not this, but rather that reviewers shouldn't worry about the feelings of the author. Consider the work alone. Assume a certain level of professionalism on the part of all parties, and follow Wheaton's Rule: Don't be a dick.

I really enjoyed attending a few readings. Suzanne Church read from her Aurora nominated story The Needle's Eye, which was really moving. Marcy Italiano read her short story Dance at my Funeral, a great story about a final farewell. Where S

Later I attended a reading by Matt Moore, Derek Kunsken, and Marie Bilodeau, who read to an engaged audience. Matt had the other authors help read parts of his story Ascension, a story about telepathic zombies. Marie read her Aurora nominated short story The Legend of Gluck, in which a rotten skull is dragged around. Not to be outdone, Derek read from his Aurora nominated story To Live and Die in Gibbontown, which was published in Asimov's. Matt then finished off with a Lovecraft inspired story Delta Pi. The East Block Irregulars writing group is well represented by these authors.

I'm not sure which story I enjoyed best. The reading of Ascension was spectacular, and any story where the characters are monkeys will have my attention. Despite his disclaimer that this was his first public reading, Derek was funny and engaging. Finally, of you've not attended a reading by Marie, you're really missing out. A French accent and rotting sorcerer brains? A winning combination!

To wrap up the night, I attended the start of the Chizine party, where Michael Rowe graciously signed the copy of Enter, Night I picked up in the dealer's room. Chizine made out like the piratical bandits they are in the Aurora nominations, and this modern vampire novel, set in northern Ontario in the 1970s, was one of them. All too soon, I had to depart. It was a good day, and it was nice to see everyone again.