Archive for January, 2012

South America Diary: Day 12

Sunday, 29 January, 2012

Tuesday, 26 April, 2011. 22:45

Grand view of Sacsayhuamán We rose at 08:00. I hadn’t slept at all, tossing and turning all night and simply unable to fall asleep. I felt extremely tired, but the headache had gone. A breakfast of cereal with yoghurt, bread roll with ham and cheese, a couple of small croissants, and fresh mango, watermelon, honeydew melon, and a small banana made me feel better.

The first order of business was getting some laundry done so we could have clean clothes again. There were several places in the street where our hotel was located with signs advertising laundry service. With no real means to pick from them, we decided semi-randomly to skip the one closest to our hotel and go to the next one we found. It was a small, dark hole-in-the-wall, in which sat a man at a computer, who never once looked away from the screen and at us. Instead, a boy about 8 years old assessed in a pidgin of Spanish and English what we were after, hung our laundry bag from a hook scale to determine the weight, wrote out a receipt, and gave us a time to come back and pick it up this afternoon. There were a few other bags of laundry in there, but we didn’t see any washing machines. When we walked back to the hotel we poked our nose in the other laundry place, and saw a woman in there standing in front of a row of three machines.

Walls of Sacsayhuamán Then we readied ourselves for a day of exploring Inca ruins around Cusco, or “ancient Inca buildings” as Ale told us to refer to them, as the Inca descendents consider calling them “ruins” insulting. The group met at 09:30, with everyone present. Kim was looking a bit perkier, but still not 100%. Gary looked okay, and didn’t seem in any difficulty, but had been visited by a doctor and prescribed something. Phan looked a bit pale, but was cheerful and determined to have fun, despite still feeling a bit nauseous. Lyn seemed subdued and if not happy to follow Ale, at least doing so without comment.

The Intern Menace

Thursday, 19 January, 2012

Spent a fun lunchtime today with our group of a dozen or so summer interns at work, helping Andrew S. show them how to swede a movie. We’re running a short film competition for the interns, with fabulous prizes for the best film. The idea is to get them to use cool Canon equipment and have some fun.

So today we gave them a lesson in how to make a short film. And to do so, we recreated Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. From the collective memory of the interns (without help from Andrew and me, and without any reference to a script or other material). And we shot the whole thing in one lunchtime.

We did a total of 16 scenes. Jar Jar died in the third scene. Palpatine became President of the Galaxy by winning a “Ben Hur” race, when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s ship crashed into R2-D2 just before the finish line. But the people weren’t happy and attacked Palpatine in a mass fight scene. And in the final scene, Jar Jar came back to life, but Qui-Gon and Mace Windu killed him again.

We filmed it on the lawn in front of our building. Several onlookers were eating lunch nearby – I hope we kept them entertained!

Wikipedia’s protest shutdown

Wednesday, 18 January, 2012

Does nobody else see the irony in this?
English Wikipedia anti-SOPA blackout
Do not disrupt Wikipedia to illustrate a point

Sure, protest. But to do it by flouting one of Wikipedia’s own strong principles is undermining their credibility. And annoying. Organise a protest march, petition people, whatever. But to deliberately make things inconvenient for millions of people just to make a point is childish.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Sunday, 15 January, 2012

Star Trek 3, 1Star Trek III: The Search for Spock picks up where Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan left off, after the defeat of Khan and the creation of the Genesis planet. In fact, the film opens by repeating the death of Spock scene. It also recycles the Genesis effect computer graphics from the previous film, mostly because in 1984 this was still an amazing piece of graphics.

The movie proper opens with the Enterprise limping back to Earth after the events of the previous film. On the way, McCoy is caught breaking into Spock’s quarters and acting bizarrely. We cut to a space rendezvous between a merchant ship and a Klingon Bird-of-Prey warship. Valkris, a Klingon woman aboard the merchant ship, transmits data on Genesis to Kruge, the captain of the Bird-of-Prey, who then promptly blows the other ship out of the sky, with a bittersweet adieu to Valkris for her spy work. Kruge decides to go to Genesis to learn the secret of this planet-destroying weapon. Kruge is played by Christopher “one point twenty-one jiggawatts” Lloyd, which adds touches of both coolness and oddity to the character.

On Earth, McCoy continues acting weird, making out-of-context references to Vulcan and collapsing. Spock’s father Sarek visits Kirk and engages in a cross-purposes berating of Kirk for failing Spock. The confusion is only cleared up when Sarek mind melds with Kirk, then explains that Spock would have tried to meld with someone before he died, to transfer his consciousness, or katra, to them so it could live on in their body. Kirk points out Spock was isolated in the radiation chamber, then reviews log tapes of the incident, spotting Spock touching McCoy and whispering the word, “Remember.” Sarek tells Kirk they have to get McCoy and Spock’s body to Vulcan as fast as possible or he will die.

Star Trek 3, 2And here’s the plot hole in the film. Kirk appeals to Admiral Morrow to get back Enterprise, but Morrow refuses because Genesis is a “political hot potato”. It looks like Kirk never explained that McCoy’s life was in danger, and there was no diplomatic word from Sarek to assist in the request. And the USS Grissom is out there surveying Genesis anyway, what’s one more ship going to do?! On board the Grissom are Saavik and David. Saavik is very disappointingly not played by Kirstie Alley, but by wooden newcomer Robin Curtis. Kruge appears and unceremoniously blows the Grissom out of the sky, with only Saavik and David surviving, doing a survey on the planet and its incredibly fake cacti and snow. They find it’s unstable, because David cut corners in the research (remind anyone of his father and the Kobayashi Maru?). They also find Spock’s torpedo tube, distressingly empty except for some giant mutated rubber worm things, which David says must have been mutated by the Genesis effect.

Back on Earth, Kirk decides to screw the rules and do what’s right, arranging with Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, and Scotty to steal the Enterprise and take McCoy to Genesis then Vulcan. This is a cool sequence in which they sneak around and outsmart an unlikeable smug captain in charge of the new, faster Excelsior by having Scotty steal the space-spark-plugs. At Genesis, David and Saavik have found Spock’s body, regenerated by the Genesis effect into a mind-blanked young boy, who ages rapidly. He goes thorough pon-farr and Saavik tries to ease this by stroking his fingers in the same way that Sarek and Amanda did to demonstrate their love back in “Journey To Babel”. Hmmm. A Klingon landing party soon find them and take them prisoner.

The Enterprise arrives and there is a brief space battle in which both ships are damaged. Kruge demands Kirk surrender and hand over the Genesis device, or he will kill prisoners. Kirk tries to delay, but Kruge has one of this flunkies kill a prisoner. David interferes and gets the knife himself, sending Kirk into a rage. He says he’s surrendering, sets the Enterprise to self-destruct, and beams down to Genesis. The Klingon boarding party are blown up as the Enterprise destructs. I always figured the Enterprise would self-destruct by breaching the antimatter containment thingy, resulting in an enormous explosion that vapourises the entire ship instantly. But no, the front half of the saucer sort of blows up, leaving the rest of the ship – including the engines and the engineering section – intact. (Supposedly canon says there are two different self-destruct modes: this one, and the full-on antimatter explosion. Kirk happened to choose the milder version, so as not to destroy the Klingon ship and their only potential means of escape.) It then forms a fireball as it falls from orbit, watched by the stunned crew. It’s an emotional moment, and I vividly recall watching this scene in horror in the cinema when the film was first released.

Star Trek 3, 3They find the Klingons and Saavik and Spock. Kruge beams down to engage Kirk in a clifftop fistfight, in which Kirk kicks Kruge off the cliff and he falls into lava as the planet breaks up. Kirk tricks the last Klingon crew member into beaming him up and takes control of the Klingon ship. They fly it to Vulcan, where a ceremony restores Spock’s consciousness from McCoy into the regenerated body of Spock. Spock is naturally a bit shaken by being split in half, killed, regenerated, and recombined, but the film ends in a feel-good scene when he recognises his friends. And the adventure continues…

EDIT: Oh, I suppose I should add my opinions on this film. Well, it’s not terrible, but it’s not great either. The biggest emotional impact comes from the destruction of the Enterprise (by which time it’s pretty clear that Spock would be coming back to life). Lloyd as Kruge is good. The sets and props are not great, particularly the fake looking scenery on the Genesis planet and the rubber worms which Kruge strangles. Curtis as Saavik is disappointing and stiff. The stealing of the Enterprise sequence is very cool. Overall… eh… middling.

Tropes: Face Death With Dignity, Our Souls Are Different, Sharing A Body, Obstructive Bureaucrat, The Other Darrin, Screw the Rules, I’m Doing What’s Right, Smug Snake, Vehicular Sabotage, Stolen MacGufin Reveal, Back From The Dead, Rapid Aging, Heroic Sacrifice, Self-Destruct Mechanism, Disney Villain Death, Lethal Lava Land, And The Adventure Continues.
Body count: Valkris and all on board merchant ship (destroyed by Klingon Bird-of-Prey), All hands on board USS Grissom, Klingon gunner (shot by Kruge), David (stabbed by a Klingon), various Klingon crew (blown up on board Enterprise), Klingon crewman (shot by Kirk), Kruge (falls off cliff), USS Enterprise (self destruct).

Imagination in adults

Wednesday, 11 January, 2012

I recently read this question and answers in “The Last Word” column in New Scientist. I had to type it out and share it. This is a selected extract of the answers, with my emphasis added.

Question: Why are adults and teenagers less imaginative than children?

Answer 1:
I’m assuming that by “imaginative”, the questioner is thinking of such things as “if you plant budgie seed, do budgies grow?” If an extra-terrestrial asked such a question, you wouldn’t think they were imaginative, you would think they had limited understanding and experience of life on Earth, or perhaps the strangeness of the English language.
If imagination is what produces inventive, speculative fiction, and then turns that fiction into a reality, then it is a quality that is not lost as people get older.

Answer 2:
The answer is that they are not. Children are happy to imagine a fat gentleman can make a single sledge pulled by reindeer fly and become capable of delivering presents to half the world’s children, that the said gentleman is capable of stuffing himself and these presents down chimneys far too restrictive to accommodate either him or the presents, and all this in the space of 24 hours. Adults can still imagine this, but are more sceptical.
Children show no inhibition in putting their imagination into words because even if their propositions are outrageous, they will be indulged by adults. Adults keep theirs to themselves because they know they will be either exploited, challenged, laughed at, or arrested.

Answer 3:
Many young children’s imaginative observations and questions are to do with not understanding how such things as behaviours, objects, and processes are categorised. As we grow we learn a staggering array of social and physical facts: trees cannot walk, fish do not arrange birthday parties, and so on.
Asking “imaginative” questions that are across categories is critical for learning about how the world works and is, fortunately, seen as charming in small children. However, in older children similar observations may be seen as “proof” that basic understanding about how objects, animals, or processes work or are categorised hasn’t been learned. As a result, the child may be teased or told off for being babyish or silly.
Our socio-cultural system values logical, rational, linear thinking higher than intuitive, divergent, imaginative thinking – unless someone has made a lot of money from being imaginative with a novel, film, or invention. People who think “sideways” or in imaginative ways are frequently dismissed or admonished by peers, parents, and teachers for trivialising, daydreaming, or messing about. They are not being s sensible, serious, or responsible grown-up. As no-one likes to be a social outcast, most people censor and inhibit their “silly” or imaginative thoughts.
Imaginative thinking like any other kind of thinking is a skill and it atrophies with lack of use. This is why so many adolescents and adults are perceived as being less imaginative than children.
Those of us who continue to work with imaginative thinking throughout our lives can comfortably give 5-year-olds a run for their money. Real creative thinking – whether in art, literatures, science, or engineering – demands we play with and deliberately mix up categories and types to come up with new ways of seeing existing situations or problems.

To this I add:
Revel in your imagination. Revel in the fact that it is more mature and knowledgeable than the imagination of a child, and thus can come up with far more interesting flights of fancy and can lead to creative output of high quality. Exercise it. Imagine something weird, strange, or amazing every day.

And, at least occasionally, do something with those imaginings. Turn them into projects, or artworks, or writing.

You don’t have the excuse that you’re not as imaginative as a child.

South America Diary: Day 11

Saturday, 7 January, 2012

Monday, 25 April, 2011. 09:40. On the boat to Puerto Maldonado.

Big Wing We got up at 06:50 for breakfast at 07:00. The only people who showed up were us, Lyn and Gary, and Phan, almost exactly the people who didn’t stay up in the bar last night. Breakfast was again fresh fruit, followed by eggs.

During the night, Kim had fallen ill with what Ale said was a stomach infection. She had her on electrolyte replacement and said she would take her to a doctor once we get to Cusco.

After breakfast, we packed for the trip again, throwing all our damp stuff into a laundry bag until we got to Cusco. A lot of our stuff has dirt on it from yesterday’s mud, including bits of my camera gear. Clean it all off later, I guess!

We were half an hour early for the boat, so M. looked at the shop in the lodge and bought a souvenir sleeveless T-shirt with monkeys on it, while I wandered the garden, taking some photos of the lodge. I managed to get some great shots of an owl butterfly – huge! Saay said one of the biggest in the jungle, with great eye spots on the wings. He said they eat nectar, fruit juice, and even lick from carcasses of animals for the salts.

Then it was on to the boat for the 50-minute ride upriver to Puerto Maldonado. Kim appeared, looking a bit pale, and nursing a large bottle of water, which she keeps sipping from. Hope she’ll be okay.

Next stop is the markets in Puerto Maldonado, and then on to the airport for the flight to Cusco.

Paris accommodation

Saturday, 7 January, 2012

Planning a holiday trip to Paris. We’ll be staying 7 nights. Anyone have any opinions or experience on hotels versus short-hire apartments for this purpose. I like the idea of having a place with a kitchen where we can buy from markets and cook our own food for at least some of the time. And some of the apartments I’m finding on the web have weekly rates under what we’d pay for 7 nights in a hotel. I’m just a bit worried about level of cleanliness and so on.

Cricket commentary du jour

Wednesday, 4 January, 2012

From today’s radio commentary of the Second Test, Australia v India, from the Sydney Cricket Ground. Guest commentators Harsha Bhogle (from India) and Danny Morrison (from New Zealand, specifically Wellington) were sharing the microphone.

Danny: And back home everyone talks about my hobbit feet.
Harsha: Hobbit feet? That’s a curious expression. What do you mean?
Danny: You know, hobbit feet. Big and hairy.
Harsha: The only hobbit I know is this book I studied back when I was in school… Bilbo Baggins, was that him?
Danny: Yeah, that’s the one.
Harsha: And there were dwarves… Ori, Dori, Nori… Oin, Gloin… and some others I can’t remember.
Danny: Yeah yeah, that’s it!
Harsha: So… hobbit feet??
Danny: Feet like a hobbit. All big and hairy.
Harsha: I remember that book because we had to study it for months.
Danny: They’re making the film of it. In Wellington.
Harsha: Really?! I must keep an eye out for that.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Tuesday, 3 January, 2012

Star Trek II, 1Ah, now here we have something. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is what really drove me to continue this series of reviews into the films. It is widely regarded as the best of the original cast Star Trek films. Watching it again, I am reminded forcefully why this is the case.

Although, the music over the credits is nowhere near as memorable as the music from the first movie. Perhaps just because that music was later used for The Next Generation, whereas this one still sounds unfamiliar (despite me having seen the movie multiple times). The opening scene makes up for it though, with the new character Saavik apparently in command of the Enterprise, in the now-famous Kobayashi Maru simulation. The impressive 1980s computer graphics are no match for the young Kirstie Alley, who bravely orders the ship into the Klingon Neutral Zone (the lesser known cousin of the more famous Romulan Neutral Zone, which is probably why we haven’t ever heard of it before now). In the simulated attack, Spock “dies”, prompting Kirk’s witty, “Aren’t you dead?” line a bit later when they meet. That’s an interesting bit of foreshadowing I hadn’t really noticed before.

We then get to see Kirk’s apartment, with a gorgeous view overlooking San Francisco Bay. The crew arrive to celebrate his birthday, and we learn that Kirk apparently has a fondness for antiques – something that somehow eluded our perception in three years of episodes. McCoy gives him a pair of eyeglasses, which Kirk has to amusingly ask what they are. Spock gives Kirk an antique edition of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, from which Kirk reads the opening lines.

Meanwhile, Chekov is on the USS Reliant, surveying planets to find a dead world for testing of the mysterious Genesis project. He and Captain Terrell check out Ceti Alpha VI, beaming down to check out some weird sensor readings. They find a shipwreck, sending Chekov into a panic when he discovers the nameplate Botany Bay. But it’s too late to escape, as one of the most awesome dramatic reveals in cinema history occurs. The cloth-swathed figure who captures them is slowly revealed (to the best music of the movie) to be none other than Khan, last seen in the episode “Space Seed“, in which Kirk stranded the genetic superman and his followers on Ceti Alpha V. It turns out there was a planetary catastrophe soon afterwards, disrupting the orbits and rendering Ceti Alpha V almost uninhabitable (and now apparently the 6th planet out). Khan’s wife died, and now he wants nothing but revenge on Kirk.

Khan sticks nasty parasites into Chekov and Terrell’s ears; the parasites’ mental influence gives him command over them. He uses this to capture the Reliant, go to and destroy the Genesis research base, and then ambush Kirk when he arrives to investigate what’s going on. Kirk is led there by a call from Genesis lead scientist (and old flame) Carol Marcus, when Khan makes her believe that Kirk ordered the civilian project turned over to Starfleet. To explain Genesis to Spock, McCoy, and the audience, Kirk plays a classified recording or Carol presenting the research proposal. We are treated to stunningly impressive computer graphics for 1982 (they look dated now, but it was genuinely mind-blowing then), showing the “Genesis effect” transforming a dead rocky planet at the molecular level into one primed to support life. As McCoy points out, it could also be used to wipe out an entire populated planet.

Star Trek II, 2When Kirk arrives at the research station, Khan is ready, and cripples the Enterprise with a pre-emptive attack. Kirk pulls a trick to deactivate Reliant‘s shields and get a shot in, and the two ships withdraw. Kirk, McCoy, and Saavik check the research station and find dead scientists, barely alive Chekov and Terrell, and a transporter recently set to beam inside the nearby asteroid. Spock on board the Enterprise reports the transporters have died and Kirk asks how long until they are repaired. In a transparent piece of codespeak, Spock tells Kirk “hours would seem like days” and that they will be ready in two days. It’s kind of clever, since they know Khan will be listening in, but it’s a bit of a plothole that Khan (a genius, remember) can’t decipher the real meaning of this message.

In the meantime, the landing party beams down inside the asteroid, finding a hollowed chamber. Carol’s son David attacks Kirk, thinking he’s behind the attack, but she calls him off. Chekov and Terrell reveal they are still under Khan’s mental command, and contact Khan, who beams up the Genesis device. Terrell kills a redshirt scientist who tries to jump him, then fights off the parasite’s influence and turns the phaser on himself. Chekov collapses and McCoy tends to him. Carol explains to Kirk that David is his son, and then they reveal an enormous cave in the asteroid, terraformed by Genesis. On cue, two hours later, Spock beams them aboard and the final showdown with Khan commences.

The Enterprise limps to the Mutara Nebula, which clouds ship’s sensors and gives them an even chance against the less damaged Reliant. Khan again plays against his alleged genius intellect by famously thinking “two dimensionally” as Spock points out. Kirk commands the recovered Chekov to pilot the Enterprise down, and they manage to get behind Khan this way and deliver a killing blow. Khan decides to take Kirk with him, activating the Genesis device in a ploy to convert the entire nebula and everything within it into a new planet. The Enterprise can’t get out without warp drive, and the engines can’t be fixed because of radiation flooding the engine chamber.

Unknown to Kirk, Spock races down the engineering. McCoy tries to stop him entering the chamber, but Spock nerve pinches him, then in an odd move grips the unconscious McCoy in the Vulcan mind meld grip and whispers, “Remember.” Spock then enters the chamber and performs the necessary repairs, allowing the ship to escape in the nick of time as the nebula implodes. Kirk breathes a sigh of relief, interrupted as he notices Spock is not on the bridge and by McCoy calling from engineering and saying to get down there. Kirk arrives in time for poignant last words as Spock dies on the other side of the clear radiation screen. After a moving funeral, they shoot his body into space in a torpedo casing over the new Genesis planet, presumably to burn up in re-entry.

Star Trek II, 3In the denouement, David and Kirk come to terms with their relationship. Then on the bridge, Kirk quotes the ending lines of A Tale of Two Cities, bookending this literary reference to Spock’s sacrifice to save his friends. The final shot is of the Genesis planet, on which we see Spock’s torpedo tube, apparently soft-landed. The famous “Space, the final frontier” speech is then delivered for the first time in the franchise by Leonard Nimoy.

The revenge theme is what drives this film. And despite the more obvious use of A Tale of Two Cities, it is another book that forms the core of the film. As Chekov and Terrell are surveying the wreck of the Botany bay, we see a copy of Moby-Dick on a shelf. Khan is Captain Ahab, and Kirk is his white whale. The parallels are deliberately played up, including the final showdown game of cat and mouse in the Mutara Nebula between the Enterprise and Khan’s captured Reliant that echoes battle on the high seas. Khan’s last words are even a direct quote of Ahab’s. And in a piece of coincidence that couldn’t have been better if it was engineered, Ceti Alpha is the brightest star in the constellation of Cetus – the whale.

This film is so much better than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, in so many ways. The villain is more accessible, more real, more threatening, more of an actual villain. There’s real conflict. There’s more emotionally involving backstory, as Kirk faces up to old age, and to his past. There’s a young Kirstie Alley. There’s more quotable dialogue. There’s more intense drama and tension. There’s Starfleet uniforms that actually look good. I’ve seen some reports floating around the net that this used to be generally considered the best original cast Star Trek film, but that nowadays many people prefer VI: The Undiscovered Country. I went into this viewing open-minded, knowing I’d be reviewing both films eventually. But watching it again just makes me more certain that this one is the best. By far.

Tropes: Naive Newcomer, Unwinnable Training Simulation, Sealed Evil In A Can, Bus Crash, Best Served Cold, Orifice Invasion, Puppeteer Parasite, Technology Porn, Genesis Effect, Creating Life, Doomsday Device, Cryptic Conversation, Luke, You Are My Father, Ham To Ham Combat, Space Clouds, 2-D Space, Taking You With Me, Heroic Sacrifice, Outrun The Fireball, Anyone Can Die, Whole Plot Reference, Space Is An Ocean.
Body count: Peter Preston (killed in initial attack on Enterprise), 5+ scientists (killed by Khan’s mob), 1 scientist (phasered by Captain Terrell), Captain Terrell (phasers self), Joachim (victim of Kirk’s attack on Reliant), Khan (Genesis explosion), all Khan’s followers (Genesis explosion or final attack), Spock (selfless sacrifice).

South America Diary: Day 10

Sunday, 1 January, 2012

Sunday, 24 April, 2011. 09:15. In a hammock.

Into the jungleThe lights go off at 22:30 so I have to finish off yesterday’s events now, during a rest break in today’s activities.

After our walk yesterday afternoon, we gathered after dark at 19:00 for a ride in the covered boat a little upriver to see if we could spot any caimans. Their eyes glow red when illuminated in the dark. The boat began by going straight across the river to the far bank, where Saay picked out a caiman pretty quickly. It was tricky to see in the spotlit darkness, but we got a decent close look at its head for a minute or so before it dived under the water. It was small compared to a crocodile, and Saay said they fled from humans rather than attacked. We then combed the bank towards Puerto Maldonado for about half an hour, spotting nothing but native fishermen – out hunting giant catfish according to Saay. There was wood smoke drifting over the river from the cooking fires of the villagers. The moon was in the last quarter, so didn’t rise until later, and the sky was a huge velvet curtain over the jungle, spangled with stars. We could see the Big Dipper low on the northern horizon, Orion over Puerto Maldonado to the west, and the Southern Cross, Centuarus, and the swathe of the Milky Way to the south. It was gorgeous.

We crossed to the southern bank of the river to head back to the lodge, but still had no luck spotting any more caimans. Apparently they are flighty creatures, difficult to spot sometimes. We didn’t see a single other one and Saay even directed the boat operator to take us a bit past the pier in an attempt to spot one at the last minute, but no luck.

Clay eating parrotsBack in the lodge we had dinner, which began with a pumpkin soup, followed by a tandoori beef skewer with green beans and fried potato cubes. Then dessert of pears in a chocolate sauce with flaked brazil nuts. All yummy. Saay then told us about the next day’s activities, after which we went to bed early because we were to be woken at 05:00 for an early morning walk in the jungle.