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”.


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.

Exhaustion and toddlers

Not entirely sure what to write about today. Feeling rather exhausted. A certain little two year old hasn’t been dealing well with darkness and shadows in her room, and hasn’t been sleeping well.

Of course, we find this out at 10PM of the third night, after four hours of fighting to get her to stay in her room. Usually, the threat of closing the door is enough to quiet her down, and get her to stay in bed. Not so much this week. Put her to bed, start trying to get something accomplished, turn around, and there she is, two floors away from her bed. Awesome.

So last night I managed five hours of sleep, the previous night, three hours. Yay! Needless to say, I don’t drink decaf. I expect that by 3PM, I’ll either be in the corner sleeping, or wired with caffeine. Either way, it should be entertaining.

So, here’s the question. How do you convince a 2 year old that monsters don’t lurk behind every shadow, and that their bedroom is safe? So far, we’ve removed her night light, which was a small light source, casting sharp shadows, and instead are using the light in her humidifier, which is more dim, but also much more diffuse. It glows more than it shines.

Omnidirectional light seemed to help last night, here’s hoping it works tonight as well.

News Radio and MMR

I have a love/hate relationship with my local news radio station, 570 News.

The traffic and weather reports are great, although I tend to avoid the major routes in town. Instead of taking Homer Watson to the expressway, I follow Trussler and Ira Needles up the other side of Kitchener and Waterloo.

Their news coverage can be hit or miss. All too often, a breaking news alert is aired, detailing the next iteration of some celebrity scandal. When so little time can be spent on individual stories between breaks, it’s sad to see such brief coverage of events that truly matter.

I suppose this is where I differ with the general public about what is newsworthy. I would much rather hear about the return and subsequent arrest of previous dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Haiti, than any news about Lindsay Lohan’s stay in rehab.

The news reports also tend to gloss over all but the most basic elements of a story, which is unfortunate. Again, I blame the format it’s presented in. It’s difficult to provide in depth coverage on more than one item in eight minutes before the next weather and traffic update. It’s unfortunate though that the 570 News website doesn’t provide any additional details. Their 570 News email alerts are useful ways to notify me that something potentially newsworthy has occurred, but I generally have to go elsewhere for specifics.

Next up, the talk shows. I love Gary Doyle’s show in the afternoon. He has a nice, laid back manner, and while he usually covers lighter features, he always sounds interested in what his guests have to say. Then there’s the Jeff Allan <strike>show</stroke> circus. His show is best when he is covering a political event, and has sitting members of parliament on the show. At the worst of times, Jeff loses control of a call, and starts a yelling match with a caller too intent on following their own agenda, before he cuts their call off. It’s obviously frustrating for the talk show host, but his own combative attitude is often part of the problem. Probably the one thing that most disturbs me about the Jeff Allan show, is when he riles up the audience about a particular issue, such as the MMR vaccine.

As reported in various respectable media outlets, former British medical researcher Andrew Wakefield’s was found by the British General Medical Council to have acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in his research. A further report in the British Medical Journal, upon examination of the 12 children in Wakefield’s original report, found not only that “patients were recruited through anti-MMR campaigners, and the study was commissioned and funded for planned litigation”, but that the autistic diagnosis of the children was severely misrepresented. Only one child has regressive autism, while three of the children had no autistic diagnosis whatsoever. The time-frames of the diagnoses were also grossly misrepresented, even to the extent that some of the children “had developmental delays, and also facial dysmorphisms, noted before MMR vaccination.” Essentially, the original Lancet article was a carefully fabricated fraud, based on what Wakefield’s financial backers believed would win lawsuits.

570 News even carried an article by the Associated Press, with the headline “‘Hard to unscare’: Experts doubt latest debunking of vaccine link to autism will change minds” the day before. During Jeff’s commentary, brings this whole commentary, after noting the evidence against Wakefield and his research, Jeff asks “Is Dr. Wakefield’s research a fraud or fraudulent, or is big pharma trying to discredit him?”

One of the interesting things about this statement is that it isn’t even “big pharma” that was responsible for the BMJ article. Brian Deer is an investigative journalist who looked deeper into the original research reports, obtained through the British Freedom of Information Act. This isn’t something written up by other medical researchers. It’s been researched by the media itself. Jeff’s opening commentary is completely leading the listener to think that it’s a big coverup. If someone continues to listen to the interview, all this information comes out, but Jeff still leaves the question open for debate.

While it’s important for journalists to present a balanced view, when something is this cut and dry, does it really merit a discussion? Should we allow hypothetical flat-earthers equal time to dispute that the Earth is roughly spherical, despite the fact that circumnavigation of the globe by sail and by air has proven without a doubt that the earth is round?