I certainly haven’t been a lifelong Leonardo DiCaprio fan. Apparently he played a role on the TV show Growing Pains. The first role I can recall him playing was Titanic, which I grew to hate as my sister watched it repeatedly.
While I do recall his role in The Quick and the Dead, it didn’t really strike me as being spectacular. Romeo + Juliet was… Interesting. Again, Leo played more of a teen heart throb than serious actor.

Since his role in Gangs of New York, he’s chosen roles much more to my liking. From the lighthearted Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can, to Billy in The Departed, Leo has starred in a number of high profile, dynamic roles.

I’ve just recently seen Inception, and DiCaprio’s casting worked wonders. He brings a certain intensity to the screen, mixed with guilt and loss. When you look at his filmography, even his lighter roles have been marked by tragedy. He seems almost Odyssean in his ability to sustain loss and pain.

Maybe my perceptions have changed due to the increase in facial hair? His pretty boy image was pretty much destroyed when Cobb undergoes the first kick in Inception. Slow motion shots of him being pushed into a tub doesn’t really present a pleasant view. Regardless of the cause, any project with his name attached seems to be a safe bet for the studios. I’m sure he has his choice in projects, and I’m hopeful that he continues to make good choices.

The question I’m now pondering, is whether Leonardo DiCaprio has matured as an actor, or have I merely matured as a viewer?

Choosing Electronic or Print Books for Academic Research

As someone with 200 books within arms reach of my desk, without counting those in the bookshelf behind me, I obviously have a fondness for the written word. When reading a particular text closely however, what advantages are there to an electronic format over a physical format?

While portability of an electronic text is often cited as an advantage, as the ereader can hold multiple books in a relatively small space, I believe that the true strength of an electronic text is the search functionality. With proper bookmarking, one can quickly refer to key sections of the text, and search for other similar passages.

This isn’t really a new technique. Many popular academic texts have comprehensive indices and supplementary notes, and with a little work, one can mark passages in any physical book for later reference. In some ways, this actually helps one understand the text at a deeper level, as it requires a deeper engagement with the text.

Ulysses notes

Another key aspect of using an electronic text is an easy way to mark up the text, and make meaningful notes. While I don’t usually mark up fiction I’m reading for fun, my academic texts have lines underlined, words circled and squared, and margin notes. This is something I’ve started recently, especially for passages I’m trying to more deeply understand.

If I was studying a book with an electronic edition, it would be great if I could highlight, or otherwise mark up the text, and have my selections exported to my word processor for essay writing, with full citation support in whatever format I require (MLA is the citation format I most often use for writing in the humanities). I would love for the pagination of the online version to reflect a print version, even if it is displayed in a different format on the device. Sadly, not all texts are available in ebook format, and when they are, there are often regional restrictions on availability. Robert Fagles’ contemporary translation of The Odyssey is available on Amazon.ca in print, but the Kindle edition on Amazon.com is unavailable to Canadians. A sad state of affairs, and not likely Amazon’s fault, as there are licensing restrictions put in place by the rights holders.

I’m pleased that a number of scholarly presses and consortiums are planning changes and advances in etext publishing, as reported on sites such as Library Journal. I’m generally pleased by what I’ve heard about these initiatives, I only wish they were available now.

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.


The Human Costs of Space Exploration

25 years ago today, the Challenger shuttle exploded on takeoff, 73 seconds into flight, killing all seven crew. 25 years ago today, Francis “Dick” Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, and Gregory Jarvis were killed in this tragic accident.

I was just a kid when the Challenger accident happened, and I have no real memories of what occurred, unlike the Columbia disaster of 2003. The Challenger flight, STS-51-L would have marked the beginning of the Teacher in Space Project, as Christa McAuliffe was to teach lessons from space.

This project was to inspire students, and the public at large. It was hoped to increase public interest in the space program. Sadly, the loss of the Challenger crew meant the eventual cancellation of the project.

From each of the three major disasters leading to loss of life in NASA history: The Apollo 1 fire on 27 January 1967, the Challenger break up on 28 January 1986, and the Columbia breakup on 1 February 2003, all led to significant changes in safety procedures.

Today, we remember not only those who died on the Challenger, but the three men who died in the Apollo 1 command capsule: Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II,  and Roger B. Chaffee. We also remember the crew of the Columbia on it’s final flight: Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, David M. Brown, Kaplana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, Laurel B. Clark, and Ilan Ramon.

The risks of space exploration are immense. The costs can be greater still. The spirit of exploration lives on today. We should continue to reach for the stars, to strive for excellence. We should not forget those who have paid the price for past successes. Just as the voices from World War 1 have fallen silent one by one, we must not forget the sacrifices of the past. There are astronauts today who were born after the last moon landing, yet they have not forgotten the lessons learned from the past.

The hope is for the future, for advances not yet known. When humanity takes the next giant leap by taking the first steps on Mars, we will do so in memory of those who have given their lives towards this noble quest for knowledge.

NASA’s memorial site for Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia can be found here.

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?