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Canadian Newspapers on the iPad

With the media writing course I'm taking this semester, I've been reading more newspapers, instead of just relying on Google News to present me with stories of interest. When I realized that a number of newspapers have iPad apps, I thought I would see how they compare. In this review, I will be primarily covering the aesthetics, ease of use, and availability of the online content when compared to the print content. I will not be evaluating the content of the newspaper itself. The national papers for Canada are the National Post, The Globe and Mail, and The Star. Of these three, the National Post is perhaps the cleanest in terms of style and ease of use. The available articles are presented in a vertical list, with headings for the different sections. To see all of the articles, you just scroll downwards. Selecting an article will switch screens to a full screen view of the article, as expected. The amount of content available is severely limited. I assume the National Post likes to direct readers to their full website. This is somewhat disappointing, as there is more content available on the website that isn't hidden behind a paywall.

The Globe and Mail is close behind the National Post in terms of use. While the sections are listed vertically, the Globe made the bizarre decision to require you to scroll the sections horizontally to list the articles. I've seen some other apps that do this as well, and it doesn't really seem to work very well. You have to think about the app in two dimensions, and it just seems bizarre.

What is even more strange is the app for The Star. I can only conclude that it was submitted to the App Store without anyone actually testing it. The application layout appears incomplete, with a sizeable gap at the bottom which is not used for displaying content. While there are toolbars above and below the app, they don't appear to accept input. I can sometimes click on one of the articles headlines to view the article, but the transition is awkward. Essentially, The Star is completely unusable, from my perspective.

The true gems of the Canadian newspapers are the regional papers. The Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Windsor Star, Regina Leader-Post, Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Edmonton Journal, Calgary Herald, Victoria Times Colonist, Vancouver Sun, and the Vancouver Province are all owned by Postmedia Network, the parent company of the National Post. They are in all cases, the same application, with only the actual content changing to reflect that of each individual paper. I'm really impressed by these apps. They are presented in a format which actually resembles a traditional newspaper, with large images, headlines and lead paragraphs from the different stories in each section. Selecting any story will bring you to the full article. Horizontal swipes will go to the next page of an article, or to the next page of the section view. When swiping to the end of a section, a full screen advertisement is displayed. This isn't really that much of an inconvenience, as the applications appear to be providing most - if not all - of the newspaper content. Postmedia Network has done a fantastic job in building these apps, and it really makes their National Post app look useless for its general lack of content.

According to an article in the National Post, Postmedia Networks took control of these papers in July 2010, with a plan to "transform a collection of newspaper and online assets" by engaging in a "digital first" business model. From the look at these applications, they are succeeding.

The main disadvantage these regional papers have is just that: they're regional papers. They do not attempt to provide the national perspective, or as much international news as the three national papers do.

 

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation

Ray Bradbury's classic tale of firemen who burn books has become an emblem for those who oppose censorship. I was quite intrigued when I saw the graphic novel adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, illustrated by Tim Hamilton.

Like George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 is a science fiction classic, recognizable to fans of science fiction, as well as the general population. Bradbury's book is not as widely read as Orwell and Huxley's novels, which is a shame, as the fear of creating an illiterate society seeking hedonistic pleasures in electronic entertainment appears as relevant today as it did in 1953.

What can be said about Tim Hamilton's illustrated adaptation of Bradbury's classic work? It's a sharp looking graphic novel, at 149 illustrated pages, in addition to Bradbury's new introduction. Hamilton's artwork is a good backdrop for the story of Guy Montag. Individual pages are confined to several shades of similar colours. Much of the story is shown in shades of browns and blues, evoking the drab dreariness of Montag's life. The fire hall is shown in slightly brighter colours, but the spark of energy explodes in the yellows and reds of the scenes where the firemen set fire to books.

A graphic adaptation for this work seems quite appropriate. Just as in the story, where Montag and the other outlaw academics memorize works of literature, holding new versions in their minds, Hamilton still presents the key features of Bradbury's original. Like most graphic novels, most of the text is dialogue, while most of the description is now visual in nature. This again seems quite fitting for a story where literature is banned. However, this also presents a form of hope, as the images in this adaptation are equally capable of evoking pathos.

Bradbury's tale is still relevant today, and this new adaptation is a good reminder. It would be nice to think that it might see use in some high schools, as the subject matter becomes much more accessible than the original text. Sadly, I suspect that it will not be deemed "Literature" by many school administrators and educators.

The Sweet Scent of Wood Smoke

While driving to work this week I was stopped at a red light, where the sweet aroma of wood smoke arrived. This got me thinking about the different forms of heating, and what they mean to me. The idea of central heating started with the Romans and their hypocausts. A large furnace would heat the air underneath the floors of their villas, providing central warmth. In contrast, the dark ages were dark indeed, and cold. Large stone castles and keeps would be cold, with the area around the hearth being the main sources of heat. In some ways, this mirrors the internal withdrawal from the rest of the world.

During the industrial age, the move from the pleasant aroma of wood shifted to the noxious fumes of coal, and later natural gas. While these forms of heating are more consistent over longer periods of time, they still don't provide the same level of comfort as a nice wood stove.

A gas fireplace can provide many of the positive characteristics of a wood stove, and is certainly safer, but doesn't provide me with the same level of perceived comfort. I don't know if it's from watching the wood crackle and spark, or watching the flames dance in ways which gas fireplaces do not, but wood fires seem more animate.

I also associate campfires with family time. At the cottage, we would often roast hot dogs and marshmallows over the bed of coals, while listening to loon songs echoing over the lake.

I'm not surprised when I'm told that scents are closely associated with memories. Even the slight whiff of wood smoke can release some pleasant memories.

Why Isn't This Available In Canada?

I was browsing some free, public domain science fiction ebooks on Amazon. While I don't have a Kindle ereader, the Kindle app is available for the Mac, the iPad, and the BlackBerry. To my surprise, a number of these titles are not available for customers from Canada. Seriously? Get with it, Amazon. Books of interest that are unavailable in Canada include, but are certainly not limited to:

A Journey to the Centre of the Earth [Kindle Edition]. Jules Verne.

Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea [Kindle Edition]. Jules Verne.

The War of the Worlds [Kindle Edition]. H.G. Wells.

The Time Machine [Kindle Edition]. H.G. Wells.

A Princess of Mars [Kindle Edition]. Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions [Kindle Edition]. Edwin Abbott Abbott.

All of these are available free of charge to American readers, and are in the public domain in the USA and in Canada. While it's understandable (although extremely frustrating) for books still under the original copyright protection to be unavailable in Canada in electronic form, such as Robert Fagles' translation of Homer's Odyssey, it's simply baffling as to why these works are unavailable in Canada. I would suspect that the party responsible for formatting the text in the kindle file format has added an extra layer of red tape. Perhaps someone forgot to check a box. Either way, it's an inconvenience.

Perhaps there is far more involved in properly typesetting these works for the Kindle format than I realize. However, the text has already been completely digitized, and included in multiple formats already on the Gutenberg site, in multiple formats which also include kindle-ready files. I'm suspicious of any moral rights to these "official" kindle editions over and above any work done on the Gutenberg site. I recognize that Gutenberg does not assert any copyright over the text of the works, even going so far as to say that "If you strip the Project Gutenberg license and all references to Project Gutenberg from the ebook, you are left with a public domain ebook. You can do anything you want with that."

When republished with new material, such as a new introduction or forward, placing the work in context, the work can be protected again under copyright. Perhaps this is what is being done here. Interestingly, the publisher on record for at least some of these Kindle editions is "Public Domain Books".

Basically, it comes down to this: Why aren't these available in Canada, and in other parts of the world where they are public domain?

Weekend Reading and Gardening

I haven't had nearly as much time to read as I would like to this weekend. I finally finished up the last chapter of Harperland, so I could return it to the library. Again, if you're interested in politics, you really should give it a shot. I've primarily been focusing on my course readings. I've been giving chapter 7 "Phaeacia's Halls and Gardens" in The Odyssey a close reading, in particular the hospitality scene as Odysseus becomes a guest of the mythic Phaeacians. There's a lot going on in this scene, but I won't be posting it right now, as I plan to write an essay on this chapter. I'm continually amazed by how layered this book is, and in particular the non-linear plot progression.

I've also been reading more of Batty and Cain's Media Writing, particularly the chapter on magazine writing. It's brought to mind some of the techniques used in some of the magazines I've picked up recently. Magazines have a much longer lead time than newspaper writing, which is certainly exhibited in Volume 22 number 1. Anuual 2011 issue of Canadian Gardening. The article "Seasons of Love" written by Yvonne Cunnington clearly shows the long term nature of some of these articles. The author of this article shows how landscapes and gardens can be planted in order to best suit the varying seasons. Along with the text, photographs (taken by Donna Griffith) show several locations through the four seasons, so the choice of plants can be seen through the seasons, providing interest year round. It's an effective article, especially for publication during the winter months. As I look to my snowy backyard, then back to the pages of the magazine, I can't help but draw some bleak conclusions. These gardeners spend a lot more time and effort on their gardens than I do.

 

Photo Management Surprises

Well, my 1TB external drive filled up over the weekend. Apple's Time Machine software promptly cleared out some old backups, which was fine by me. I took it as a sign that I should perhaps clear out some of my files. With digital photography, it's easy to take hundreds of photos a day, hoping for the good shot. With small children, this is even more important. You can almost never anticipate when a child is going to do something amusing. Often by the time the shutter is released, they've stopped doing something cute.

As I shoot a Nikon D50, I tend to shoot in RAW mode. Each photo I take is roughly 5-6MB. When I'm actively shooting, it's not hard to take from 150-200 shots in an afternoon, which is somewhere around 1GB of photos. Transferring these to my computer doesn't take very long. What I haven't been very diligent is in reviewing my photos, and deleting the ones which -- let's be honest -- suck. It's certainly not the fault of my models. It's not their fault that someone blinked, or looked away or yawned when I was taking shots 23-50. It's definitely not their fault that my white-balance was set to fluorescent while shooting outdoors in daylight for frames 1-22. Some of the white balance can be "fixed in post", but it might not always look so great.

No, the real fault is mine, for failing to actually delete photos on my computer. I'm trying to go through them now. Theres a lot of very similar photos. Some series I'm deleting entirely, as the shot as a whole just isn't that interesting. For others, I'm keeping a few. But the main problem is that it's going to take much longer to sort through now, after several years of shooting, than it would have If I had properly managed my photos from the beginning. In the past ten minutes, I just cleared 4 GB of disk space.

As I manage my photos in Aperture, I'm also re-evaluating my organization. I think I need to make smaller projects, but then group them in a way where similar photos are kept together. Going through some of my folders of images is surprising. I wasn't expecting 900 photos of my dog in "Untitled Project (3)" for example. Guess who moves around even more than small children? Yup. My blurry, partially out of frame dog.

Anyways, back to clearing out my photo archives. Maybe I'll find a few really good shots in here that I've previously overlooked.

Keeping Your Audience Awake With Powerful Presentations

While I have great respect for the written word, there are places where they are inappropriate. One great example is in presentation slides. I've seen some horrible presentations in the past. Thankfully, I haven't inflicted many on others. The presentations I'm referring to are the ones where several paragraphs of text are on the screen, allowing those attending the presentation to quickly scan ahead before the presenter gets around to reading them verbatim. I wish I was exaggerating. I wish this would come as a shock to others. I've been a fan of Presentation Zen for some time, where the emphasis is not on presenting data or text, but to engage with the material in a much more immediate way.

In presenting as little text as possible on the slides, with a focus on images and simple graphs, a natural narrative emerges, so the presenter can narrate a much more interesting presentation. Think about Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. While Gore's status and the controversial subject matter helped win audiences, this film would not have been made, nor would it have won an Academy Award were it not for Gore's style of presentation.

When I enrolled in English 320 "The History and Theory of Media - 2", one of the assignments was a class presentation that engaged with the theories. I took some of the ideas of Presentation Zen, and Nancy Duarte's book slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations to heart. My presentation was media-intensive. It included numerous photographs, and embedded videos from news reports. What information I did present on the slides, I revealed point by point, as I expanded upon the bare essentials.

I think the presentation worked quite well, there was certainly some good discussion in the class afterwards. I can't claim to have fully engaged with the style of presentation that Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte advocate. This style of presentation is a great deal more effort than dumping a document into presentation software, but I felt more engaged with the subject matter. As I wasn't regurgitating long textual quotes, I feel that the other students in the room weren't as likely to drift off.

If you try to pass off documents as presentations, or have in the past, how effective do you think they really are? I challenge you to try something different next time. Your audience will thank you.

Federations: The Shoulders of Giants by Robert J. Sawyer

As I've already reviewed one of the other stories in the Federations anthology, I thought I would review "The Shoulders of Giants" written by Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer. This story was the lead story in Star Colonies, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers, of DAW books, which was published in June 2000. It was a finalist for the Aurora Award, as the Best English-Language Short Story for 2000. It has since been reprinted in Federations (2009), edited by John Joseph Adams. The text for the story is also available on Sawyer's website, and has also been included in Robert J. Sawyer's short story collection Iterations, published by Red Deer Press in 2002.

The title of this story is an allusion to the words most famously written by Sir Isaac Newton: "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants" in a letter to Robert Hooke in 1676. The phrase can be attributed even earlier, as in 1159, John of Salisbury attributed this phrase to Bernard, a scholar in Chartes.

When one reads science fiction, it's often easy to see only the future, without considering the impact of the past. Science fiction actually has more of a claim on tradition, as it pays homage to many great scientific theories and figures.

Sawyer's story was not quite what I had first expected. There are no physical confrontations. When the people of earth aboard the Pioneer Spirit arrive at their destination in Tau Ceti after 1200 years in cyrogenic transport, they do not find alien beings, but instead other humans. As Sawyer notes, "while the colonists aboard the Pioneer Spirit had slept, some dreaming at an indolent pace, other ships had zipped past them, arriving at Tau Ceti decades, if not centuries, earlier -- Long enough ago that they'd already built human cities on Soror."

The theme that Sawyer presents is both ambitious and modest. The pioneers reached for the stars when they were first within grasp. They reached their objective, only to find their achievements eclipsed by the ones who follow. Sawyer pays homage to the greats authors of science fiction who came before, "Asimov, Clarke, Clement, Herbert, Niven, and all the others upon whose shoulders the SF writers of my generation are fortunate enough to stand."  More than just paying respects to the past, it's an acknowledgement of the importance of reaching for the stars. Without those few giants among us, there would be no stepping stones for future generations.

It's an appropriate story for this anthology, which John Joseph Adams notes in his introduction to the anthology that writers such as Sawyer "are keeping the tradition alive, building on what the generations before have laid out, innovating to keep the sub-genre fresh and vital".

Cold

Ah, winter. The magical time of year when tiny crystals of water shimmer in the sky as they fall glistening to the ground. When ice and snow covers the silver branches of trees, catching the sunlight in silent splendor. The wicked time of year when winter covers the streets with glare ice, as cars slip and slide in a deadly dance through the intersections, while snow drifts blow across the highways. Where a toque, mitts and a scarf are not just a good idea, but necessities in warding off frostbite. The frustrating time of year when glasses fog up on entering any building, and coffee never seems to dispel the dread chill from one's bones. Winter in Canada tends to take on mythic qualities at times. While the Spring Olympics of 2010 might have suggested that we don't always live in a land of ice and snow, when winter's chill winds grip the nation, it's certain to be a topic of conversation. But why the heck does it have to be so cold inside, too?

Maybe as I'm a sedentary software developer, and LCD monitors no longer radiate heat like the behemoth CRT monitors of the past, I feel the cold more. But I am getting more daily activity now, as I walk fifteen minutes to and from class each weekday. Mind you, some of that is outside in the cold. While I can make my way through the interior when I get to UW campus, I still have to get to the Davis Centre first.

Sadly, part of the problem is the difference in temperatures through the house. During the day, the temperature in the basement falls to four or five degrees below the temperature on the main floor. The temperature upstairs falls two or three degrees below the main floor. While I can close the heat vents on the main floor, this seems to persist. In the evening, I can get the temperature in the basement to rise a few degrees, but it still seems cold. Meanwhile, in doing so, the temperature on the main floor rises too drastically. I think I need a ceramic heater down here. I miss the gas fireplace in the basement at my previous home. It really allowed the basement to heat up. In the meantime, I'll pull on another sweater, and think about how nice it's going to be down here in the summer.

Writing with the iPad

The iPad can be one of the most frustrating devices to write with. It also has the potential to be one of the best, under certain circumstances. I've had the device for a few months, and in this time, it has been used primarily to consume media. It's quite easy to load TV and movies from my MacBook, and there are a number of addictive games, such as Plants vs. Zombies, and Angry Birds available. The web browsing experience is a little lacking. Pages take longer to load than expected, and the cache is small. Switching tabs in the mobile browser often results in a fresh request to the server, adding extra delays. I've found that on some websites, scrolling just doesn't work.

As the iPad doesn't support flash, many of the richer web experiences, as well as numerous flash games, don't work. While I can certainly appreciate the processing requirements of flash -- I often disable flash on the desktop -- the fact remains that there is a great deal of content, including puzzle games, only available in flash.

The on-screen virtual keyboard is functional, though awkward to use. I believe that there is a special place in hell reserved for those brilliant engineers who inflicted the iPad with the horrendous auto-replace functionality. Without tactile feedback, one is forced to watch where your fingers are typing. Because I'm watching my fingers, I'm often not watching the little popup dialog elsewhere on the screen, warning me that the system is going to replace the awesome word I just typed with nonsense. Maybe it actually corrects far more than it wrecks, but the experience can be frustrating.

Still, the keyboard is functional, especially for short notes and emails. Where it is entirely unsuitable is for longer writing sessions, or for speed. Forget about using the virtual keyboard for in depth course notes. Try and type as little as possible in these situations. You're lucky if you can get down meaningful point form notes.

Until the iOS 4.2 update, I had been able to connect a USB keyboard to the iPad using the camera connection kit. While the system claimed that the device was unsupported, it still performed admirably. With iOS 4.2 however, the hardware handling has changed, and the iPad no longer recognizes USB keyboards. I suspect Apple has adjusted the USB voltage, or something else of that sort.

As such, I purchased an Apple Wireless Keyboard, which uses bluetooth. Thankfully, this keyboard is much smaller than the older USB keyboard I had been using, and better still, the bluetooth functionality allows me to charge the iPad while typing. Pairing the keyboard with the iPad is simple, and the keyboard is only slightly wider than the iPad itself. With the keyboard, my typing speed should be about the same speed as on a desktop system. Also with the keyboard is the quick ability to cancel an autocorrect suggestion by using the escape key. As such, it becomes much easier to allow the autocorrect to fix words you misspell, while avoiding any undesired changes.

One clear advantage the iPad provides when writing, is the single-task nature of the iPad. As the iPad only presents a single window, it enforces a single-track mentality. There are no bouncing dock icons, no web browser or twitter to distract you. Just you and your text editor, unfiltered. Much better for concentrating on writing.

Bookstores and Customer Service

The other day, I was surprised as I was going through the drive through at a local fast food restaurant. The person taking my order was happy and cheerful, and the service was prompt and accurate. It's a sad sign for the food service industry when I take note of cheerful service as something exceptional. After considering some of the terrible service I've gotten recently at some other local establishments, this lead me to consider other aspects of our consumer-oriented economy. When book shopping, there is often a large price difference between buying a book in a local chain store, such as Chapters, and online stores, such as Amazon or even chapters.ca.

Often, the selection of books I'm interested in purchasing is also extremely lacking in store. While the store employees assure me they can order the books in, or that I can even use the in-store computer kiosk to order them myself, the fact remains that the price is still significantly higher than what I can get online.

What the in-store experience does provide is personal recommendations from staff. This requires however, that the staff is knowledgeable about the genres of books (fiction or non-fiction) that you're interested in, and will give you suggestions within that genre, not just what they've read and liked. Sadly, I've not found this to be the case at my particular stores. While staff is perfectly capable of recommending the latest novel by a well-known author, they're less likely to be aware of the particular niche that I'm interested in, or in recommending newer, less known authors.

Another area in which the in-store experience excels is impulse buying. I can see something new, hold it in my hands, and walk out with it immediately. This is often a very good way of learning about new authors. Browsing the spines, evaluating cover artwork, reading cover blurbs, and skimming through several pages can be a great way to find someone new to read.

Something which I've started to do is to look up a book review using my smartphone. Has it been favourably reviewed? Has the author written anything else? However, these are searches that are much easier to accomplish from the comfort of my own home.

I realize that there are considerable costs which much be covered in the operation of a brick and mortar bookstore, which makes cost competitiveness with the online stores difficult, if not impossible. The area in which these stores can truly excel, compared to the online stores is in customer service, something that isn't easily achieved, except in smaller, independent bookstores. Stores like Bakka-Pheonix Books in Toronto, or Words Worth Books in Kitchener give great, personable customer service. Compared to big chain stores, they're better equipped to greet customers on their way into the store, and tend to be more involved with the success of the store as a whole. They want you to come back as a person, not just as a number with a wallet.

Ancient Writing and the Odyssey

How are texts passed down through history? In my English 301H class, we're studying a modern english translation of The Odyssey, by Homer. Interestingly, scholars believe that the Odyssey and the Iliad were both composed some five hundred years before the alphabet was developed and became used in ancient Greece. Five hundred years of oral recitation and recomposition passed before the poem was codified in writing. How are texts transmitted and recomposed through time? While I have mentioned the recent edition of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and how some of the language has changed, the question itself dates back much further, to the time of the Homeric epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Academic scholars today believe that the sack of Troy was a historical event, which took place around 1300BCE, roughly five hundred years before the Phoeneicians introduced the alphabet to ancient Greece.

There are several theories about how the version written down came to be. The Odyssey's complex structure was originally thought by scholars to have been formed during the recording of the poem into writing. Newer theories suggest instead that the complex structure would have aided the bards in the recitation of the poem, as a form of mnemonic. This theory suggests that the Odyssey was not recited word for word, but re-composed from a common template, every recitation a new work of art. As the recorded version contains over twelve thousand lines of poetry, I can easily see how the composition of the poem during recitation, based on a structured skeleton could be preferable to the rote memorization of a lengthy poem.

I don't know how many times it was edited after being first committed to written words, but there are signs that the Greek tyrant Peisistratus commissioned a revision of Homer's works, from 546-524 BCE. This is presumably the source of the "canonical" Greek text of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The further heritage of the text is interesting, when one looks at the number of texts which use Odysseus and his journeys as the source for further writings. The Romans called him Ulysses, and portrayed him as a villain. Odysseus appears in Dante's Inferno, and James Joyce's Ulysses has many things in common with the voyages of Odysseus.

Blogging software on the iPad

I was actually very surprised by the lack of good blogging software for the iPad. The Wordpress app isn't all that friendly, especially if you're trying to use it offline. Without a network connection, it pops up six or seven dialogs in a row complaining about the lack of connectivity. Really quite frustrating. The interface is clumsy, which is frustrating. And of course, now that I've finished reading all of this, a new release of the WordPress app is available. It still shows the same XMLRPC error dialog I saw before. Perhaps it is more stable in other areas, but I'm not that impressed. It's also awkward to select the scheduling for a given post. Every time I push a post to WordPress, either as an online draft, or a post scheduled in the future, I always get the impression that it is being posted immediately. Not a good feeling.

The other contender is BlogPress, which I have to admit, seems to be much more polished. It clearly separates local drafts, online drafts, and published posts. The interface for selecting tags for the post is a little awkward, but it's there. Selecting the save button will provide you with a popup dialog showing how you want to save the post (ie, publish, save as online draft, etc). Now, unlike the WordPress app, BlogPress does not provide any ability to see or moderate comments on your blog. Not really a big deal, but something that would be nice. Another difference is that BlogPress doesn't cache your online content. If you disconnect from the internet, you will be unable to read or edit anything that is stored online, even in draft form. I've also encountered several crashes while attempting to post entries as online drafts. Thankfully, there does not appear to be any data loss, as the posts do appear online, but it doesn't reflect well on the app.

There is also MacJournal, from Mariner software. From the reviews I've read, it lacks considerable functionality from the desktop, and it eats whitespace.

I was quite surprised that there weren't more blogging apps available for the iPad. In particular, I was hoping for MarsEdit, which is a really popular client on the Mac. The Red Sweater Software forum has posts indicating that other things keep coming up. I can appreciate the need to keep existing customers happy, by maintaining his existing software, but I am surprised that he hasn't made a port to the iPad yet. I obviously don't know what his codebase looks like, but I would hope that at least parts of it would be portable to the iPad. Opening up a whole new market would seem to be a worthwhile endeavor, especially while there is not much in the way of serious competition.

What I can say is that with the Apple Wireless Keyboard, or any other bluetooth keyboard, typing on the iPad is just as fast as using a laptop or desktop machine. The iPad is a serious contender for those who wish to write, although the web browser fails to impress when using the WordPress web interface. Scrolling... well, let's just say that the Mobile Safari kind of fails to scroll on pages where I seem to think that it should. Also, something about the WordPress editing page leaves the browser with some fairly serious rendering issues, as in completely failing to render text in the editing area.

For now, BlogPress seems to be the way to go, despite the glitches.

On Photography

I considered doing a 365 day photography project this year, but decided against doing so this year. While I'm currently on a good start for daily blogging, I suspect that adding daily photography would cause me to miss one, and likely both of these goals. I do plan on some photography projects as part of this blog, but instead of just posting some photos snapped during the day, I'm hoping to do a more in depth analysis of what I did, and go into more detail.

I would like to work at more at portraiture this year, and practice different lighting techniques.

Christmas Photo

Here's a Christmas photo of my primary photo subject. The lighting from this photo is coming from two locations. I have a Nikon SB-28 at camera left, shooting down through a white umbrella. To camera right is a Nikon SB-25 at a lower power, shooting through an Aurora max/mini soft box. If you examine the white ornaments closely, you can see the second specular highlights from the SB-25. Looking at this shot, I think I should have tried to even out her shadow on the wooden mantle behind her, but I had limited time in which to shoot. Little girls don't like to stand around too long while you fiddle with lighting.

I had a great deal of fun with this photo, although the trickiest part was getting my photo subject to stand still. Finally, it was suggested that she should ring the jingle bell ornament while her stuffed sheep toy "sang" Jingle Bells. Sometimes the simple tricks work the best I was quite pleased with how her hair caught the highlights from the flash.

Post a day

So far, I've managed a blog post every day this year. I've already posted more this month than I managed to post for all of last year. One of my goals this year is to have a blog post every day. Some days may have more (i.e. longer) content than others, but I aim to have something for every day this year. This is my version of the 365day photo projects others do. I should probably do one of those as well, as I'm certainly interested in photography, but I'm not going to start that in January. Maybe I'll start a 365 day photo project in the summer, or maybe I'll start a weekly photo posting soon.

So, what will I be blogging about? The most obvious concerns will be related to reading and writing, primarily science fiction. I will be commenting on interesting topics and concerns in my classes, and things of interest that come up in the news.

You can likely expect some posts in the next few months about Homer's Odyssey. Once I get things a little more organized, I may try to schedule certain topics for certain days. For example, I may review books on Thursdays, or something. Right now, the concern is to get words written, and published in a timely fashion.

One of the reasons for getting a regular blogging schedule in place will be to transition from blog writing to fiction writing. I have several story ideas floating around, with some outlines written down. I'd really like to get back to writing them. It's been said that writing is a muscle that needs to be exercised, and I have found that once I've started writing anything, it's much easier to keep going on other projects.

Feel free to stick around. There should be an RSS feed around here somewhere, for those who are inclined. Better yet, sound off in the comments. Discussion can be fun. Hopefully I'll be at least mildly entertaining or informative at least part of the time.

Tangled

As the parent of a two year old, I don't often get the chance to head out to the movies. Occasionally I get the chance when the little one is at Grandma and Grandpa's, but today we took her out to see Tangled. Tangled, as you're likely aware, returns back to the Disney Fairy Tale stories, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and Beauty and the Beast (1991). As such, Tangled tells the story of Rapunzel, most famously collected in the Grimm Fairy Tales.

While Disney has certainly left its mouse-prints on the story, I was pleased to see so much of the original fairy tale remaining. The tale as told by the Grimm brothers certainly emphasizes the overprotectiveness of the parental figure, keeping the girl locked away in a tower. When the male lead of Tangled, Flynn climbs the tower a second time to rescue her near the climax of the film, he finds Rapunzel held captive by the witch Gothel. While the magical powers of Rapunzel's hair are not in the original source material, the healing powers they possess was originally found in Rapunzel's tears.

While there was some controversy in changing the film's title from Rapunzel to Tangled, I think it works quite well. As Disney spokespeople have noted, this is an adaptation of the source material, and the film does prominently feature Flynn Rider in addition to Rapunzel. While the original tale does include a male prince, the role has been significantly expanded in this retelling, and changed from that of a prince to a thief. This change works quite well for the movie, especially as it reverses the trend of earlier Disney films, where a prince comes to rescue the helpless female. While Rapunzel appears to be a helpless girl, and this is certainly the reason her "mother" claims that she needs to stay in the tower, she ends up rescuing Flynn more often than the reverse.

I was pleasantly surprised by the calibre of the film's animation, especially when considering Rapunzel's long flowing hair. The film does not attempt photorealism, and instead aims for a very happy medium between CGI and traditional hand-drawn cell shading animation. Movement was more fluid and natural. This film has returned to Disney's roots, both in narrative capacity, and visual style, while continuing to innovate in new areas.

I was a little concerned about bringing my daughter to see the movie. The trailer is really action-oriented, and filled with suspense. Two year olds are impressionable, and she can get upset about Dora the Explorer getting stuck on an iceberg. Of course, it turns out that Disney cut the trailer out of all the high intensity action scenes, which are spread out through the movie, allowing us to ease through them. Tangled is far less dark than Disney's earlier movies, such as Snow White. You really can see the difference 73 years makes. Disney should be proud of Tangled. It hits all the right points, and maintains the classical traditions of their storytelling.

Harperland: The Politics of Control

While my selection of non-fiction is usually restricted to science-fiction, or philosophical literary texts, Lawrence Martin's book Harperland: The Politics of Controlwas far too intriguing to pass up, especially since I took a media theory course last term.

One thing made clear in the text: as Stephen Harper doesn't like positive books, written by close colleagues, Martin's critical text would clearly have drawn the ire of the Prime Minister's Office. This text also doesn't pull any punches. While Martin is newspaper columnist, this is not an impartial book. The language is slightly coloured at times, in describing Harper's actions. That said, everything is well documented, and Martin relies heavily on interviews with former insiders.

Harperland does take a clear stance: a great deal of Harper's success in Parliament is due to the strict control of information put in place when the Conservative minority government was formed. Despite having campaigned in terms of government reform and transparency, Martin shows how Harper's Conservative government has gone to greater lengths than any previous Canadian government, or even American governments, in controlling and restricting the flow of information, and controlling the flow of government committees.

In particular, Martin shows how Harper's form of leadership is particularly divisive. Through a numerous string of specific examples, Martin shows how Stephen Harper's inner circle attacked not only those in the Liberal Party, but any member of their own party who showed dissent. While promising Canadians parliamentary reform, Martin instead presents us with a prime minister who threatens Canada's democratic traditions, dividing and conquering.

These wedge politics were crucial in the 2008 elections. As Martin notes, Harper used the election to directly attack the leadership of Stephane Dion. Throughout the campaign, the Conservatives spent more time and energy attacking the policies of the other parties, then announcing any significant new policies of their own. The manner in which cuts to arts and culture was announced was seen as a direct attack against Quebec's language and culture, leading to serious drops in the polls in Quebec.

Martin also explains how Harper used wedge politics during the coalition crisis, painting it as an alliance between the Liberals, the socialists (NDP) and the separatists (Bloc Québécois). While this succeeded in buying Harper the time needed to defeat the coalition, it also seems to have caused future setbacks in Quebec. Wedge politics are aptly named. Rather than bridging together the differences between Quebec and western Canada, Harper has driven a further wedge between them. Whether this will continue in the future remains to be seen.

Martin's book suggests that Stephen Harper has a "dark, vindictive side of his character--a side that at times he could not subdue, and that on several occasions, such as the government's budget update in November 2008, threatened to bring him down" (175). This book is frightening in it's implications. While many Canadians may be aware of some of the broader elements in the book, especially those who keep a wary eye on our politicians, the depth and breadth of the secrecy implemented by the Harper government, and the scope of the changes occurring in the government bureaucracy is surprising even to those who already suspected as much. That Harper has made this many changes in a mere four years, while in control of a fragile minority government is telling, and leads this reader to wonder what further changes will occur if Harper receives the majority government he so clearly desires.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in politics, from either side of the political spectrum. While Martin's book does not present Stephen Harper in the best light, it clearly shows how Harper has been so effective during a minority government situation.

TV Review

Here's a brief listing of some of the television shows I watch, and ones in which I've lost all interest. Castle starring Nathan Fillion.

This is my current favourite show. I always get the feeling that not only do the actors have a blast with the show, but the writing staff is having an absolute hoot. There are so many writing jokes in place, and other geeky references, especially with the character of Rick Castle. I can't see anyone other than Fillion in this role.

Big Bang Theory

A bunch of extremely nerdy theoretical physicists and engineers, with many geek pop references. While some of the characters are more than a little out there, this is a refreshing show. Also, as this show is lacking in the blood and gore, unlike most crime shows, this is appropriate to watch while my toddler is still awake.  I love the reaction when Sheldon receives a napkin signed by Leonard Nimoy. Classic.

Doctor Who

I've recently started watching Doctor Who, starting with the 9th Doctor, and have now watched all of the released episodes. It's playful, fun and very entertaining. I really appreciate the ability for the lead actors to switch out when the Doctor regenerates, as it allows the show as a whole to remain the same, but shift significantly in tone. The latest season, with Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor is an excellent example, as the entire tone of the series shifted from David Tennant's seasons. Part of this was also due to the changeover of the writing staff, as Russell T Davies passed the reins over to Steven Moffat.

Torchwood

After watching Doctor Who, I started watching Torchwood. Far more adult content than Doctor Who has nightmares of. I'll say this: If Joss Whedon and Russell T Davies ever collaborate on a project, kiss your favourite characters goodbye, because guess what? They're going to die. If they're like Captain Jack Harkness, they're going to keep dying again and again.

The Mentalist starring Simon Baker

This is another show which has a prominent lead actor. Baker puts forth a strong performance, and it's always interesting to watch his antics. It does get a little formulaic though, and there isn't near the amount of comedy.

Lie to Me starring Tim Roth

This bears some similarity to The Mentalist, as the lead character in both shows has an uncanny ability to read others. Lie to Me seems more gritty and grounded in reality. Perhaps this is due to the setting in Washington, rather than Mentalist's California setting.

NCIS

This is more of an ensemble show than most of the others, although Mark Harmon's Gibbs is a fantastic lead. The show would be severely lacking if any of the main actors were to depart. Abby, the goth lab tech fills me with glee.

CSI

CSI used to be one of my favourite shows, and while I appreciate Laurence Fishburne's character, the show is not the same without William Peterson.

Another show I love to watch is PBS' Nova. A great deal of very interesting science. The different specials often have great interviews with leading scientists, such as the wonderfully amusing Neil deGrasse Tyson. Thankfully, he's in a number of them.

I used to watch House, with Hugh Laurie, but it became less interesting as the seasons developed. Too often, it devolved into strange disease of the week, without enough character development. Also, when it focused on characters, House is just a jerk. It's part of what makes the show what it is, and the attempts to actually change his character just ruined the show for me.

Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy

This short story by Catherynne M. Valente is the final story of the Federations science fiction anthology, edited by John Joseph Adams. The anthology contains a diverse set of stories, but for me, Valente's story is the most memorable. While many of the other stories in the anthology focus on interstellar warfare, or diplomatic relations, Valente begins with "the difficulties of transporting wine over interstellar distances," which I found to be an intriguing hook. It took me off guard from the outset, especially as Valente reveals that the wines in question are "wholly, thoroughly, enthusiastically illegal".

The story unfolds as seven glasses of illicit wine are tasted, and their individual stories told, revealing a rich backdrop of corporate intrigue, and blockade running. The feeling is reminiscent of the rum runners from the prohibition era in North America, only instead of running up against the government, Valente presents a vicious corporate embargo. Valente's lyrical language matches the subject perfectly, like a fine wine of its own.

Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy is an excellent piece to finish off the Federations anthology, and has left me quite interested in tracking down more of Catherynne Valente's stories.

Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel first published by Mark Twain in 1884, is no stranger to controversy. It has been frequently challenged for it's place in school curriculums, and public libraries. This book appears in several of the top ten most frequently challenged books of the year, as tracked by the American Library Association. It also appears in the top lists for each of the past two decades. The most frequent reason given for challenging Twain's book is racism. Can we therefore be surprised that a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being announced by NewSouth Books, where all instances of the word "nigger" are being replaced with "slave"? Does this proposed new edition really provide a solution to these charges of racism, or is this merely whitewashing the issue?

Does replacing this racist term with "slave" address the charges of racism, or does it merely hide them? Is not one of the important aspects of this book, the reminder that for much of early American history, those of African descent were treated as subhuman, owned as livestock?

While this new edition will still depict slavery, will the reminder that being a slave was determined by the hue of one's skin be forgotten?

What impact can we foresee about this new edition of Huckleberry Finn? While the cofounders of NewSouth have stated that there is "a market for a book in which the n-word was switched out for something less hurtful, less controversial," they acknowledge that there are claims of censorship. To this, they argue that "there are plenty of other books out there -- all of them, in fact -- that faithfully replicate the text" (Publisher Weekly).

How difficult is it now going to be, however, for a school to choose one of these more traditional texts, when those who challenge the original text can point to this edition as being less controversial? How many opportunities to address the issue of Huck's racist statements in a classroom setting will be lost, in order that others may read this watered down edition?

While I do appreciate the editor's introduction, which attempts to explain these editorial changes to the reader, Alan Gribbens fails to show in this new edition how the casual usage of this term by an otherwise innocent boy shows how entrenched the racial slavery was in the lower States in the 1850s. Gribbens even notes how the change to "slave" loses the "caustic sting" of the original word.

When reading the novel in it's full context, one can see how Twain is challenging the traditional values towards the enslavement and ownership of African Americans, as Huckleberry Finn's views towards "his" Jim change from an owned slave, to a friend whom he must break free. While the ending of the novel does tend to go over the top with Tom Sawyer's ludicrous attempts at freeing Jim, it is Huck's earnest desire to free his friend that shows how Twain sought to bring social justice to those enslaved.