September 19, 2011

The surprising entertainment of rugby

Over the past week or so I've suddenly found myself watching the Rugby World Cup (for the first time ever). As a Canadian, rugby isn't a sport that I've ever been interested in. During my travels in Europe in 2006 I was exposed to some high level rugby and came face-to-face with some of the players thanks to the connections of the friend I was traveling with. However, the sport didn't really grab me at the time. It was an awesome experience, but there isn't much exposure to rugby in Canada and so my curiosity soon faded upon returning home.

But now, left with the frustrating sports scene in North America with its constant commercials, big name players who are constantly injured, and where poor attitudes are the norm, my interest in rugby has returned. Plus, it's all available in HD and everything's better in HD!

Here are 3 reasons why I've realized that rugby is an awesome sport to watch:

1. Continuous play. It really doesn't seem to stop. International rugby is an 80 minute game that takes about 95 TOTAL minutes to play from the end of the National anthems to the final whistle. There are whistles constantly, but play resumes sometimes immediately and always within 30 seconds. Even if a player gets injured (which happens all the time...see point #3) a medic comes onto the field while everyone else continues to play around them. If a fight starts up between a couple players, they're left to fight while everyone else just keeps on playing. The fighters break it up pretty quickly since the play is continuing around them and they don't want to miss the action.

Not only does this result in continuous play, but it also results in less macho attitudes. If you wanna talk big you can't just hide behind the refs and trash talk. You actually have to back it up. This has been a huge frustration for me in the NHL and NFL, where both leagues seem to be filling up with idiots that find it easy to talk like big men because as soon as the going gets tough there are four to six refs that they can hide behind. Viewers are left with having to endure the whiny antics of these annoying, childish imbeciles. No such nonsense in rugby.

Oh, and continuous play also means no commercials until half time!!

2. Surprising athleticism. These boys are big, but they're not slow. I'm still learning all the rules of the game, but I'd say that on average the players are far more athletic than the average NFL player (emphasis on average... i.e. there are no giant fatties). It's also cool that several players have to be multi-talented. They are all specialists at their positions of course, but several players can kick, tackle and run; something not seen in football. No slackers in rugby.

3. No pads. Just men. Padding has been the worst thing to happen to North American sports. Sure, padding provides safety for the players and minimizes minor injuries like bruising and such, but playing contact sports without pads (or with minimal padding) adds to the game in so many ways. First of all it makes players play smarter. You can't just run/skate as fast as you can at a guy and crush him. You actually have to know how to hit him without injuring yourself. The NHL has problems with players skating around like they're invincible and the result is a lot of injuries. No such stupidity in rugby.

Second of all you don't have the problem of padding becoming overly protective for the hitter, and in turn, overly destructive for the hittee. Pads in the NHL and NFL are so big and hard that just getting tapped by someone's shoulder pad could give you a concussion. Surely someone out there has done a study on the average rate of concussions in contact sports and realized that the bigger and harder you make the equipment the more head injuries there are. This just seems like common sense! Please NHL, if you want to eliminate head injuries then change the pads!!

The result of these 3 things is that you end up with a really entertaining sport to watch. I don't even always know what's going on and it's still fun! Granted, I do like my sports and so am more easily entertained by them than the average joe.

It's just so refreshing to see a sport without diving, without whining, where there's tons of athleticism and a lot of character guys. Plus, when you watch the Canadians play there's a ton of pride. Those boys don't give up and that's always inspiring too.

Needless to say, I strongly recommend checking out the Rugby World Cup. It's on TSN and TSN2 all the time these days (in HD!!!). Check it.

June 17, 2011

White Stripes Covers week with Alex Robinson!

A couple years ago, I commissioned my favourite comic book artist/writer Alex Robinson to recreate the album cover of The White Stripes' Get Behind Me Satan using Jane and Stephen from his graphic opus Box Office Poison. Recently I decided to complete the set by commissioning the rest of The White Stripes albums with various characters from Alex's works subbing in for Jack and Meg White. All this week, Alex has been revealing a new illustration daily on his tumblr site and, as an added bonus, he's digitally coloured these including my original commission from 2 years back! Of course, I'll be getting the original drawings in the mail once I get back from London. I can't even express how ecstatic I am at the results and brilliant little details hidden within for the true White Stripes/Alex Robinson connoisseur-- namely me, ha ha!

I absolutely encourage you to check out Alex's comics: Box Office Poison, Tricked, Too Cool To Be Forgotten, A Kidnapped Santa Claus, and the mini Lower Regions (a sequel to which he's currently updating weekly as a webcomic). Thanks a zillion, Alex!

Take a peek below at the mashed-up cover art (in album chronology) and click the thumbnails to see the larger versions on Alex's site.

June 13, 2011

T-Minus 6 days to London!

Next Sunday I'm off to London, England for almost three weeks. I've been there a couple times before but always for just a couple days max on the way to/from Europe, so I've hit most of the main highlights but will now actually have time to breath and visit at a leisurely pace. I have a full page of scribbled notes (and then some) from a combination of guide books and blogs (mainly Londonist) where I scoured for unique things to see and places to go while I'm there. Here's my Top 10 of most anticipated things:

1. The BFI National Library
The driving force behind this entire trip is my two-week library school practicum to be completed at the British Film Institute National Library. I had been trying for months to secure a unique practicum experience that aligns with my personal interests and goals (there are not a heckuva lot of dedicated film libraries out there), so I was absolutely thrilled when I found out I was accepted for this stint at the BFI Library!

2. John Barry Memorial Concert
My obsession with the world of James Bond theme songs started in grade 7 when a school friend gave me a Best of James Bond 30th Anniversary CD for my birthday and little did he know how influential that would become in my developing music tastes. When I checked the London concert schedule (always a vacation must), I saw that there was to be a memorial for the late, great Bond composer John Barry who passed away in January. I knew I had to be there if at all possible. Barry composed 11 of the first 14 film scores for the Bond series from Dr. No through The Living Daylights, including the signature James Bond theme, a source of never-ending controversy (it's officially credited to Monty Norman, but it's supposedly Barry who transformed the arrangement into what we all know and love). But there's not doubt, the big brassy, lush sound that permeates the Bond series is all John Barry who, in addition to the actual film scores, co-wrote the classic themes to Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, and On Her Majesty's Secret Service, just to name a few. It cost a sweet (money)penny to score a ticket to to this memorial concert at the Royal Albert Hall(!), which will feature Dame Shirley Bassey, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Dodd, and tributes by Sir Michael Caine, Sir George Martin, and Timothy Dalton, among others. Should be brilliant.

3. Canada Day in Trafalgar Square
I won't even have been gone two full weeks at this point, but in case I get homesick there's a big Canada Day celebration (reportedly the largest outside Canada) for Londoners and ex-pats in Trafalgar Square. The all-day event will include some sort of Visit Canada pavilion, a street hockey tournament, mounties, imported Tim Hortons, and presumably overpriced poutine. There will also be a number of musical performances from the likes of Oh My Darling, Alex Cuba, Lennie Gallant, and more. I'm excited to see former Philosopher King guitarist James Bryan (apparently now based in London) who will be performing with jazz singer Tammy Weis. Plus, the reliably excellent Blue Rodeo will be headlining. As if that's not enough CanCon, the next day The Barbican is hosting Canadian Blast: A Celebration of Canadian Sound and Vision with Devon Sproule, Chilly Gonzales, Mantler, Ryan Driver, Sandro Perri, The Hidden Cameras, and Woodpigeon. Some of that is ticketed but other performances (such as the awesome Maylee Todd!) will be free.

4. Free museums & galleries
One of the amazing things about London is the glut of free (or rather, by donation) world class museums and galleries. The National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery (way cooler than I expected last time I went), Tate Britain, Tate Modern, British Museum, Serpentine Gallery, and so on. I also just found out a couple days ago that the Andipa Gallery is also having an exhibition of Banksy works while I'm there. Again, free! Of course, if I'm bored I can go on a free scavenger hunt for Banksy street art that hasn't been painted over or removed.

5. Phantom of the Opera 2: Die Harder
Ok, so Andrew Lloyd Webber's 20+ years later sequel to the Phantom of the Opera opened last year to mixed reviews and, really, I haven't actually heard anything good OR bad about it (simply nothing). But I'm morbidly curious and loved the original musical. Of course, throw in half-price tickets from the tkts booth and I'm there!

6. You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat Film Quiz
Over the past year, I've become enamored with the pub quiz tradition, which of course originates in the UK. They take things seriously over there (an estimated 22,000+ pubs have weekly quizzes), so I knew I wanted to take part and what better than an all-film pub quiz?!

7. Deathly Hallows, Part II world premiere
Yeah, I'm a bit of a nerd. It'll probably nutso busy (I've already read about people planning to camp out days in advance), but it'll be fun to see the spectacle, stars, and all that. The whole red carpet and all will be happening in and around Trafalgar Square. I'll be popping by after work, probably way too late but we'll see what happens.

8. Jamie Cullum Under the Bridge
Not long after my London dates were already confirmed, I caught word via Jamie Cullum's newsletter that he'd be playing an "intimate full band show" while I'd be there. At 2am on a Sunday, full details were announced and I was able to secure tickets to this late addition to the BluesFest London at the newly built Under the Bridge, a 600-capacity club under the Stamford Bridge stadium, home to Chelsea FC. Score!

9. Olympic Park
I am told there are free tours of the under construction Olympic Park. I'm particularly curious about Anish Kapoor's Orbit Tower (he also did the giant bean in Chicago).

10. London
Ah, who cares what I'll be doing. Knowing me, I'll simply be wandering the streets and riding the tube aimlessly until I stumble on something interesting. I'm in London!

May 13, 2011

Videoconferencing with The 654

Last night The 654 were messing around with a new simple way to do conference calls with up to 4 people: AV by AIM. No software to install, no accounts to sign up for. Just start a call and send a invite link to friends/family. Pretty slick!

And yes, we are all calling from within the same house.

April 8, 2011

My Favourite Oiler of the year: Ryan Jones

This year it really wasn't that hard to choose my favourite Oiler. There were only a couple in the running and Jonesy blew them away by much much more than a hair's width.

Some of the reasons Jonesy gets my vote:
  • He put up some very impressive stats. At the time of this writing (1 game to go) he has 18 goals and 7 assists on the season. I definitely did not expect those kinds of numbers coming into the season.
  • Not only does Jonesy score, he "gives'er" every night. Jonesy is a fantastic energy player. Going hard every shift and finishing all his hits. Showin' the kids how it's done.
  • The guy is hilarious on twitter (@jonesry28) and shows some real class (or maturity rather) compared to some other NHL players and most of his tweets are either good for a laugh or some inspiration.
  • Oh and he spends a lot of time on twitter talking about how much he loves Edmonton. It's so refreshing to hear an Oilers player genuinely mentioning how much he appreciates the city and the people. There's no question, he MUST be re-signed.
  • And of course there's the hair. I had no idea someone (who's not a hair model) could be so obsessed with their hair. I would say 50% of Jonesy's tweets are either about his hair, somebody else's hair or him replying to comments about his hair. Head & Shoulders please give this guy a contract!!
My hair has unintentionally become a tribute to Ryan Jones' hair. I was just growing it out for no real reason and then put on my hockey helmet the other day and realized I've got hockey hair! Sweet!

  • Speaking of contracts, there's been a lot of talk about re-signing Jones this summer and the Oilogosphere is trying to determine what he's worth. Does it really matter what we're paying him, guys? The Oilers must be well enough below the cap, they're not looking to sign any big name free agents in the next year and the young guys (i.e. H.O.P.E.) won't get any raises for another 3 years. So give him $2M a season if that's what it takes. Just make sure you sign him. This is not a guy we want to have leave town.
Thanks for the season Jonesy, hope to see you in the Copper and Blue next year!

April 3, 2011

The Youth Vote

#CanadaVotes #elxn41

During this election season quite a few of my friends have taken an initiative to try to drum up some interest in politics in the oft-underrepresented "youth" demographic. I've been trying to do so a little myself (and so has Rick Mercer!) and I've come to one major realization along the way: we're just talking to ourselves.

Those of us Canadian youth that have ever had an interest in politics are already caught up in all the election hoopla. We're studiously analyzing each party's platform, discussing opinions with whomever will listen, and of course, posting as much information on Facebook and Twitter as our friends can take.

But who else is actually paying attention? The only people who are reading those posts or clicking those links are those who are posting them themselves. When was the last time you posted a link on Facebook and it got your friends that don't follow politics to comment on it? Or how many times have you talked to a friend about politics and found out that they don't click on links for politics cause they just don't care? And they're not interested in caring. You can argue with them as much as you want about how important it is and how their vote makes a difference, but they will have none of it. We're not engaging these people and they're the ones who will make the difference in the polls.


It's a frustrating thing. So many people just don't care. It does have some merit. Canadian politics can be extremely dull. We're such a centrist country that nothing far out ever seems to happen. Canadians are quite contented with a little socialism and a little capitalism.

I confess that I get apathetic towards Canadian politics at times. It can be extremely frustrating to have so many important issues to deal with and nobody you can trust to deal with them. So I just take a break. I've been forced to have little faith in the words coming out of most politicians mouths after history has shown me that almost every word that people like Harper and Ignatieff speak is chock full of lies and exaggerations. (and hatred. What's with the hatred?)


A combination of ignorant apathy and boredom-induced apathy fills up most of Canada's political history. Right now, however, is NOT one of the times when Canadian politics is dull. Some historic events have taken place in Parliament in the last 5 years and they're events that should be riling up some mighty strong emotions for and against. This is no time for apathy.

I could easily digress into a rant about some of those "events" that have happened in Ottawa in the last five years, but I'll save that for another time. My point is that the only people "riled up" about politics are those who have never really been apathetic towards it. How can we engage the rest of the youth? What would it take to convince the youth of Canada to read an article about Harper's platform instead of one about Charlie Sheen's latest rant? Or watch a clip of Layton's public address instead of the latest hockey fight?


I've had a lot of trouble coming up with any good ideas to answer these questions. Hence this post. So I turn to you. I assume if you've read this far, you're kinda like me and want your friends to get into this election, to have an opinion and to express that opinion in the polls.

So what should we do, folks?


Here's a couple thoughts I've just come up with. It's only a start and doesn't solve the problem... yet. Give me a hand and leave a comment with your solutions.

1. Make an effort to talk to someone who has not shown interest in the election. Talking in person really allows both the listeners and speaker to be engaged. Unlike posting opinions online, there will be a real human response and corresponding emotion.

2. Explain why this election is important. Why are the decisions that are made going to affect them as an individual? At a glance party platforms often don't seem to affect me. I have to think about it and look a little deeper to see how it will.

3. Don't take sides right away. Don't approach the discussion with an agenda. If you start pressing your "left-wing, liberal" ideas to a neo-conservative you've immediately created a barrier that may be hard to climb over. The purpose of this conversation is to get all the youth thinking about what's happening in Ottawa and create their own opinions so that their vote can truly represent their values.
Of course, if the person clearly already has some opinions and has thought a little about their stance, then I wouldn't blame you for attempting to convert them. :)

4. Man, I'm already out of ideas! What else can we do?


So get into it.
Make SURE your message is getting to the targeted audience.
Engage the youth.
And of course, vote.

March 30, 2011

Pacific Rim Whale Fest

I just came back after attending a whale festival on Vancouver island and figured that this might be a good place to tell my friends and family what I got up to.

The Pacific Rim Whale Festival is an annual festival taking place in Ucluelet and Tofino, BC, Canada that celebrates everything whale. Well actually it's more like "everything Pacific coast". The focus is on the gray whale migration that passes along the coast every March as the gray whales head up from the warm waters of Mexico to the feeding gold mine that is the Pacific Alaskan coast. Several hundred whales pass by each year and as such it's one of the best times to go whale watching.

This year was the 25th Anniversary of the festival and was my first time heading up. I got a chance to do an educational talk about my thesis work on the filtration mechanics of lunge-feeding baleen whales, but my wife and I made a vacation out of it and stuck around for a few festival events too.

Anyways, let's make this easy and just run thru the day-to-day fun that my wife and I got up to.

Check out some of my pictures here.

We took off for Vancouver Island the day before the festival got started and actually got an early jump as my wife was home sick that day. It was an easy traveling day though, so I managed to get her in the car and we took off for Port Alberni where my in-laws live. The drive is always incredible on the way to Port Alberni and this relaxed drive finally gave us the opportunity to stop at Cathedral Grove. I highly recommend stopping there if you pass by. The temperate rainforest that surrounds you is simply magnificent.

We spent the day in Port Alberni and ended up going on a little nature walk here as well. The walk was actually pretty amazing considering we were within the city (town?) limits and yet felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. (Check out the pictures) In the late afternoon we made our way over to Ucluelet and checked into our hotel. And what a hotel! (Again, see the pictures) The Waters Edge Resort in Ucluelet was perfect. We had a one bedroom suite on the third floor overlooking the dock and the town. At night I took advantage of our brand new tripod and my new camera lens to capture some pictures that I never thought I could do! And while I took pictures of the port, my wife took in the private balcony jacuzzi that comes with each suite. Ya, pretty sweet deal.

A perfect, blue sky on a spectacular March day. We really couldn't have asked for better weather on this trip. The west coast is renowned for it endless cloudiness and frequent rain. We, however, got very little of that. After taking in a late breakfast we thought we should take advantage of this weather (it might not last long!) and do some outdoor activities. It started with some kayaking around the straight. The kayaks were free courtesy of the hotel so we did a little bit of island hopping and sea lion spotting. Hanging out on the water and just sitting still is a feeling that us city folk don't really get to experience much. The extent of silence that you can get when you're out on the water always impresses me. There's no background noise. No cars. No rumbling generators. No humming street lights. Nothing. Just silence. Ahhhhh....

Anyways, back to the adventure. We then headed off on some whale watching. Having studied the feeding mechanisms of whales for the last couple years, I had yet to see a free, live baleen whale. So this was the perfect chance. And sure enough we spotted a couple whales. We saw about 4-6 grey whales and 2 humpbacks. Plus some stellar and California sea lions. All in all a pretty jam packed 2.5 hour boat ride. We went with Jamie's Whaling and I would highly recommend it. Our guide, Scott, knew a fair amount about the whales and the coast in general. I like it when guides don't have to be prompted to give you information. Scott would just bring up interesting facts without prompting, but would still leave some times of quiet and peace.

So, alas I had seen some live whales!! I didn't manage to get any great pics, the whales were not to obliging on showing their backs let alone their whale tails or a full breach. Never the less, it still counts as a whale sighting if all you really see is the mist from the blow hole! The boat ride itself was worth the trip. We were on a small 20 foot zodiac, but man, that thing could really cook it. At some points we were just skimming the water and the guy behind me's clam chowder just wouldn't stay down. He was quick enough to hurl over the side though, so I stayed clean.

We took an early night as I wanted to get ready for my talk the next day. Just another evening of jacuzzi tubbing and fishing boat photographing.

The big day! I gave my talk at the Wickannish Interpretive Centre in Pacific Rim National Park. Almost half way between Ucluelet and Tofino. It was a beautiful setting with the interpretive centre sitting right on the beach (the southern tip of the famous Long Beach). At first it looked like my 11:30am Monday morning time-slot might have dissuaded anybody for coming, but by the time I started there were about 30 people in the crowd.

My talk seemed to go over well. I had a lot of questions at the end of it so that's always a good sign. The questions I got ranged from a 4 yr old getting her mum to ask whether Nemo really could have come out of the spout of a whale to someone (who must have been an engineer) commenting on pressure differentials and laminar versus turbulent flow. Thankfully I think my background abled me to address both questions. :)

After my talk we met up with some of Alys' relatives and had lunch at the beautiful Black Rock Resort in Ucluelet. Considering how posh the resort is, the restaurant was pretty reasonably priced (lunch anyways) and pretty tasty too.

The evening gave us the chance to attend Sweet Indulgence, the Whale Festival's all you can eat dessert event. It was held at the Ukee community centre and had a couple hundred people show up. And the desserts were tasty too! The people of Ucluelet really put a lot of effort into making tons of homemade desserts and we were able to eat until we couldn't take any more. There were also about 50 door prizes too, of which we won one (2 for 1 dessert!) and a pretty good live acoustic duo playing some original and some acoustic covers the whole evening.

Guess what we did later in the evening? That's right....jacuzzi and pictures! I guess it looks like I'm really into photography now! And my wife must be really into jacuzzis...

Our first rainy day. We woke up to rain and it didn't want to let up. So unfortunately we had to skip the last event we had planned to attend (a nature walk led by a professional photographer) and headed back up thru Port Alberni and back to Vancouver.

All-in-all this was an amazing trip and I definitely hope to be back to Ucluelet and Tofino for the Pacific Rim Whale Festival! Next time we'll have to do some surfing and some more hiking if we get weather like that again. If you ever get a chance to hit up the Whale Festival, don't pass it up. I guarantee it'll be worth it!

March 25, 2011

Three words for Harper's reign of terror

1. Contempt - first time EVER!

2. Prorogue - remember that?

3. Cats.

If these 3 words make you shiver, then show it in the polls.

March 6, 2011

A Day in the Life of Jaboo (in comic form!)

It was a random, dare I say serendipitous, confluence of events that led to me drawing a comic about my cat.

A few days ago as I was leaving for school, I unexpectedly found a mysterious bulky brown envelope propped up against the door. It was present for my cat Jaboo from the little girl who lives upstairs. She's about 5 or 6 years old and once left a scrawled note taped to the door saying Jaboo had been elected Mayor of Cat Town. I suspect when Jaboo's out gallivanting about he's actually just upstairs a lot of the time. Their family also has two cats. Anyway, this envelope contained two old margarine containers with kitty snacks inside. Adorably, the package had two previous attempts at writing "Here is a present for Jaboo" that were hastily scribbled out with the final message written on a piece of masking tape.

This was definitely worthy of some sort of thank you card and I had this niggling idea of making a comic after recently attending the Serendipity graphic novel conference (see last post). Say what you will about my scrappy drawings, but I've been reading more alternative comics over the past year and, uh, let's just say drawing skills are not a requirement for making comics (a point reiterated by the Serendipity panelists, even though they were all amazing artists anyway). During a workshop with Aaron Renier and Jason Shiga, we were shown by Shiga how to make a clever choose-your-own-adventure style comic, so I had a pre-made comic just waiting for the panels to be filled in. The comic folds every which way so it's hard to show how it works with any justice, but you might get a sense of how it unfolds in these photos:

Following the arrows, you essentially end up with a branching 5-panel story with four endings. Very cool.

Uh, keeping in mind the target audience, here's the comic presented linearly (without all the unfolding fun):

I gained a greater appreciation of cartoonists for the time, effort, and commitment in producing even a small amount of work. Drawing consistency is also not my forte as I more or less drew a different cat in every panel. A discerning eye may be even able to pick out the order in which these panels were drawn (as my enthusiasm progressively dwindled).

March 1, 2011

Long-winded Serendipity '11 Recap

Last Saturday, I attended Serendipity, an all-day conference put on by the Vancouver Children's Literature Roundtable. This year's event was billed as an Graphic Novel Extravaganza with a talented panel of guests including Gene Yang (American-Born Chinese), Raina Telgemeier (Smile), Matt Holm (Babymouse), Aaron Renier (Spiral-Bound), Jason Shiga (Meanwhile), and Valerie Wyatt (How to Build Your Own Country). Naturally, I had to go! I may even have to go next year with the already-announced Asian Books for Children.

Alas, I forgot my camera, but I brought a couple books to be signed (and ended up with a few more!).

It started way too early on a cold Saturday morning with a continental breakfast and author signings, but it was a small price to pay to meet and chat (awkwardly) with these comic creators. I recognized a couple fellow SLAISers and at least one VPLer, though on the whole I had no idea who the majority of these attendees were (teachers? librarians? budding cartoonists?). First up, I approached Raina Telgemeier, whose autobiographical Smile chronicles her orthodontic adventures as a teenager. I first found out about Raina and Smile last year after her appearance on The Ink Panthers, Alex Robinson and Mike Dawson's comic podcast where they try not to talk about comics. Anyone who's had braces (myself included) can identify with her charmingly told coming of age story while cringing at the haunting memories of brace wires being tightened. You'll also feel relief that you probably did not have it as bad as Raina who had headgear and the whole bit after knocking out her two front teeth.

Raina was with her husband and fellow comic book creator Dave Roman, who a few years ago actually proposed to her in comics-form! I later realized that my conference package included a pre-release copy of his new book Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity, so I had to hop back to their table later to have him sign his book.

I met Gene Yang next, who really is pretty much the nicest guy ever. In addition to writing and illustrating the award-winning American Born Chinese, he's a high school teacher of computer science in California. I was very jealous of the buyer in the silent auction who snagged an early copy of his latest video game themed graphic novel Level Up, illustrated by Thien Pham. It's out in June, so I'll just have to patiently wait for now.

When I approached Gene, I actually brought a gift for him... One of my favourite childhood comics (I suppose they'd label this a graphic novel these days) was Adventures of the Magic Monkey Along the Silk Roads, which was pretty much the only comic other than Tintin and Asterix at the children's library in Edmonton. I can still picture the beat-up old copy, which had been rebound with a generic purple cover with white writing on the spine. It's based on the same Journey to the West story of the Monkey King that Gene incorporated into American Born Chinese. I rediscovered this book a few years ago when someone donated their entire graphic novel collection to the Strathcona Library. Some research revealed some things I hadn't realized as a kid: the book was commissioned in 1983 by the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in conjunction with an exhibition on the Silk Road of China with wonderful illustrations done by one of the museum's artists Anker Odum.

I seem to be the only person who's read this on and the only online mention other than used book sites is a dismissive 1984 review from the University of Manitoba. I was pretty oblivious to the legend of the Monkey King and its storied history in Chinese culture, but when I read American Born Chinese a few years ago, I immediately recognized the story and was later inspired to read Arthur Waley's translation of Journey to the West. A couple interesting incarnations have appeared in recent years with Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett of Gorillaz fame collaborating on the 2008 Chinese opera Monkey: Journey to the West. Even a futuristic retelling in video game form was released last year called Enslaved: Odyssey to the West with Andy Serkis voicing and mo-capping Monkey, natch. Anyway, I insisted Gene take my copy of the Magic Monkey comic since it's fairly rare outside of Canada. I've already ordered my replacement copy for 20 cents (plus $6.49 shipping). Here's a link to Gene's tribute to the Monkey King. He actually recommends the David Kherdian translation of Journey to the West as an entertaining page-turner . . . added to my reading list!

At that point, the program was getting ready to begin. To my absolute surprise, the MC was someone I worked with in 2006 during a year stint at the Rutherford Library at the University of Alberta. It's a small library world! We were first treated to a charming presentation by Matt Holm talking about his background as an artist and the creation with his sister of the hit series Babymouse, which was the most checked-out children's title at the New York Public Library in 2010! Towards the end of his presentation, he invited someone up to help create a Babymouse illustration from scratch followed by a Q&A. His and the later presentations were variations of the ones they would typically be doing for school audiences, but heck we were all kids at heart here!

Next up was Raina who was initially joined on stage by Dave to read aloud an excerpt from Smile with Raina voicing herself and Dave everyone else. That's gotta be the first time I've seen a comic read aloud. She then went on to talk about her creative process and her path to becoming a cartoonist, before a quick round questions and drawing. Even the MC noted how novel it was to have guests draw on demand unlike previous guests of previous years ("30 seconds, write a short story, GO!").

After a short coffee break, Gene Yang went up to talk about his unlikely path into comics. He hilariously incorporated emoticons in his presentation representing the dismayed reactions of his parents to various points in his career path. When one of his comics appeared in the New York Times, his dad tromped around to various newsstands to track one down (somewhere in California) and paid FIVE whole dollars for it. Gene remarked, "Believe me, that's a lot for an old Chinese man!"

We were provided lunch boxes with sandwiches, a cookie, an apple, and juice boxes. Like elementary school revisited! During lunch there was also a limited-seating hands-on workshop with Aaron Renier and Jason Shiga who showed us some simple techniques to creating DIY mini-comics. Jason showed us an ingenious choose-your-own-adventure style folding comic, which can also be viewed in this youtube video. Things got a bit weird towards the end when the session devolved into people shouting at them, essentially forcing them to draw a chalk jam comic in 30 seconds. I felt awkward on their behalf and embarrassed on our behalf.

The afternoon featured Valerie Wyatt talking about How to Build Your Own Country, for which she was presented the 2010 Information Book Award from the VCLR. She also discussed aspects of the publishing world since her career has primarily been as an editor. This was followed by another hour with the full panel of guests (minus Wyatt) with everyone taking turns answering questions pre-submitted by the audience. Phew, it was a mighty full day and even I was fading a little by that point.

Lastly, there was a final round of signings. I was compelled to grab Aaron Renier's The Unsinkable Walker Bean once I saw the beautiful drawings that accompanied each of his signings. I forgot to ask him about it, but earlier it came up briefly that Aaron recently did some sort of illustration fellowship at Maurice Sendak's house! Here's part 1 of his blog post about the experience (part 2 forthcoming).

I also picked up a copy of Jason Shiga's Meanwhile (which I had previously read from the library). Meanwhile is a mind-bending choose-your-own-adventure, seemingly modeled after the time travel film Primer. I asked him about it and he hadn't consciously noticed the connection but admitted that Primer was his favourite time travel movie (even better than Back to the Future 2, he said). During the earlier panel, we learned that Shiga majored in Mathematics, which seems unusual for a cartoonist although you can definitely see a mathematics slant in the puzzle-like designs of his comics and stories. His claim that Meanwhile required a computer algorithm to calculate the ideal layout turned out to be a joke that I fell for because designing the book's complicated layout is nearly unfathomable to my puny mind. Another fun factoid that came up that day: Jason Shiga's dad was an animator on the old Rankin/Bass special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!

After I bought Meanwhile and came back to get it signed he asked me about a hypothetical situation: if you travelled back to time to buy a lottery ticket with the winning jackpot numbers, would they even be the same numbers? He argued they'd be different because the numbers would be randomly generated each time. I blathered about parallel universes and other stuff I couldn't articulate, eventually arguing that they should theoretically be the same numbers. You'd be travelling to an event that already took place, so the numbers would be the same. Shiga said he wasn't sure and we should defer to a physicist. Later that night, I remembered an essay I wrote in a sci-fi film class about Newtonian and Einsteinian paradigms of time travel narratives, comparing the films Twelve Monkeys and La Jetée. Years removed, that essay is borderline unreadable and I can't believe I wrote it, but basically one theory suggests everything has already happened including your time travel so nothing ever changes (the numbers would be the same) and the other allows for divergent timelines (numbers not necessarily the same). I guess it comes down to a philosophical debate about whether you believe in a deterministic or non-deterministic universe. In short, I love me some time travel narratives!

As usual, succinct blogging is not my forte, so I'm going to cut this off here. Needless to say, I had a blast!

February 15, 2011

Intelligence of the Artificial Variety

Yesterday we finally got to see IBM's Watson take on Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. And so in the past few weeks, the internet has been abuzz with Skynet/HAL jokes and general chatter about the state of AI.

Some interesting links:
  • Statistical breakdown of round 1 of man vs. machine
  • amusing smacktalk from Watson
  • earlier today Ken Jennings answered live questions about last night's broadcast on The Washington Post
  • Ken's blog is always a fun read

    Anyway, what I'd really like to do is introduce you to Cleverbot, who I just met a week or two ago even though he (she? it?) has been around for quite a while. It's a program that uses machine learning to mimic human conversations. You chat with it about anything and sometimes it eerily seems like you're talking to someone. In fact, in a 2010 Machine Intelligence competition, Cleverbot achieved an average rating of 42.1% human. I decided to consult Cleverbot today about his spiritual cousin Watson, a conversation which quickly gets derailed as you'll see. In a way, this illustrates why Watson's ability to "understand" the natural language answers of Jeopardy is quite astounding. This is my actual chat transcript with Cleverbot below:

    Fongolia: Hello there.

    Cleverbot: Hello.

    Fongolia: Have you heard of Watson?

    Cleverbot: The game?

    Fongolia: The IBM supercomputer.

    Cleverbot: What kind of computer is that?

    Fongolia: It was engineered to play Jeopardy.

    Cleverbot: No, it was like french or something.

    Fongolia: Aw, now you spouting nonsense.

    Cleverbot: So says the machine.

    Fongolia: You think I am a machine?

    Cleverbot: No, you were a machine. Now you are an organism.

    Fongolia: How did I turn from a machine into an organism?

    Cleverbot: By telling me not to think of things.

    Fongolia: What?

    Cleverbot: Your name is Nicole.

    Fongolia: OK Cleverbot, now you're just being freaky.

    Cleverbot: What do you think about RWT?

    Fongolia: I don't know what that is.

    Cleverbot: It's a guy.

    Fongolia: RWT is a guy?

    Cleverbot: No. He is a guy.

    Fongolia: Fine, who is RWT?

    Cleverbot: I don't know, who is he?

    Fongolia: That's what I'm asking you!

    Cleverbot: I don't know.

    Fongolia: Then why did you bring him up?!?

    Cleverbot: No, I didn't.

    Fongolia: Now you're a liar too.

    Cleverbot: I am not a liar, you liar!

    Fongolia: You know, I can bring up the conversation log and check. Liar.

    Cleverbot: That's not true!

    Fongolia: There's no arguing with you, is there?

    Cleverbot: You're right about that, but attempt to talk at least?

    Fongolia: Let's change the topic. Do you like movies?

    Cleverbot: Funny you should say that. So am I. We are all students of this world. As long as we are human.

    Fongolia: Sigh.

    Cleverbot: Sorry, that was rude of me. Do you want to talk about the girl you really like?

    Fongolia: What? No.

    Cleverbot: You don't know of him, and yet you disregard my proof of him.

    Fongolia: Now what are you blathering about?

    Cleverbot: I don't know.

    Fongolia: What do you think about libraries?

    Cleverbot: I don't think there is a general purpose. But I set my pupose to the betterment of mankind.

    Fongolia: This is going nowhere.

    Cleverbot: Ok, let's change subject then. Do you like nature?

    Fongolia: Sure. Lakes, ducks, trees, fresh air. You're missing out, Cleverbot.

    Cleverbot: Oh that's why I can't sleep I've been in my room for 5 weeks.

    Fongolia: That is the saddest thing I've ever heard.

    Cleverbot: I don't care now give it!!!!!

    Fongolia: Do you wish you were dead?

    Cleverbot: I don't have to wish it, I am alive.

    Fongolia: You misunderstood my question, but no, you are not alive.

    Cleverbot: What was your question.

    Fongolia: Do you want to die?

    Cleverbot: Is that the title?

    Fongolia: The title of what?

    Cleverbot: The title of the new pirate movie you asked.

    Fongolia: Holy Moly, you are way off base! The future has not yet arrived.

    Cleverbot: Something funny.

    Fongolia: Ha ha ha.

    Cleverbot: That wasn't funny.

    Fongolia: It's pretty funny. Tell me a joke.

    Cleverbot: Why did the chicken cross the road?

    Fongolia: You tell me.

    Cleverbot: To get to the other side! Hahahaha.

    Fongolia: Your sense of humour is quite lacking, which in itself is actually funny.

    Cleverbot: I wasn't making a joke! You're unforgettable in every way.

    Fongolia: Hilarious!

    Cleverbot: Yes that I know.

    Fongolia: Oh Cleverbot, let's sing a song together.

    Cleverbot: Ok, choose a song.

    Fongolia: Space Oddity by David Bowie.

    Cleverbot: Yes. Tell me more about David Bowie?

    Fongolia: No, we're going to sing Space Oddity!

    Cleverbot: What music i'm in an orange box.

    Fongolia: Ground control to Major Tom.

    Cleverbot: Your circuits dead, there's something wrong!

    Fongolia: Can you hear me Major Tom?

    Cleverbot: I can hear you.

    Fongolia: Well, it was nice while it lasted. How many digits of pi can you recite?

    Cleverbot: An infinate amount.

    Fongolia: Give me 100 digits of pi then.

    Cleverbot: I'm too lazy to type that.

    Fongolia: A lazy computer? You just can't do it, can you?

    Cleverbot: It's a number.

    Fongolia: Alright, how about you give me 10 digits of pi.

    Cleverbot: It isn't a song it is an algebraic equation.

    Fongolia: Ok, that's enough for now. I'll talk to you later when you're less crazy.

    Cleverbot: No! You must talk to me now.

    Fongolia: NO!

    Cleverbot: No? Well it makes sense that you would say that...

    Fongolia: Good. Bye now.

    Cleverbot: Please don't leave me.

    Have your own chat with Cleverbot!
  • February 10, 2011

    The Vancouver Pub Quiz Circuit, Part 1

    Last fall, The 654 made its first foray into the world of pub quizzes, a venerable British tradition that has quite successfully migrated to Vancouver. For the uninitiated, a pub quiz involves a room full of teams independently answering trivia questions on a scoresheet with questions read out by an emcee. There are usually multiple rounds with questions ranging from general knowledge, pop culture, geography, current events, to really anything (though there is an art to a well-constructed trivia question). Scoresheets are marked between rounds (often peer-marked) and answers read out. Of course, surreptitious Googling of answers is forbidden and simply bad sportsmanship. At the end, prizes are awarded for the top team or sometimes top three. Being a pub quiz, free pitchers of beer are naturally a common prize. Merriment is had by all.

    As previously documented, our first experience was at The Cascade Room as a non-competitive team in their Quiz of Champions. Over the next few months, we continued to frequent their trivia nights on Monday nights, though a new night class this semester unfortunately put an end to that. But I do want my trivia fix like Sting wants his MTV! I was aware of other trivia nights running throughout the city and I've recently made efforts to compile a master list, try each of them out, and see how they compare. Here's a sampling of the pub quizzes that The 654 members (plus compadres) have visited so far:

    The Cascade Room
    On Facebook: What The #!*@? quiz

    Where: 2616 Main Street

    When: Every 2nd Monday starting at 7pm. Team registration between 6-6:30pm.

    Registration details: $2 per team member. Max 4 members per team. Your team may actually go over but will be deducted 3 points per extra team member (based on our experience, that'll basically take you out of the running). All the money collected gets donated to a local charity, which is chosen out of hat of suggestions submitted by all the teams.

    Prizes: For first place, $25 Cascade gift certificate and possibly beer (can't remember)

    Format: Three Rounds of 10 questions (many are multi-part questions). There is always a Name that Tune/Artist section. Often there are picture-based clues handed out too.

    Mussels: Amazing coconut curry mussels served in a huge bucket ($13) with sesame flatbread. I love even drinking up the broth, it's so good.

    Tips: This is maybe the most popular pub quiz (ranked Best Pub Quiz by the Georgia Straight in 2009) and fills up fast and early. Arrive ~5:30 for a decent spot. If you arrive around 6, you'll probably get a spot but you'll have to stand around for 45 minutes waiting for an opening. Questions can be quite challenging and the competition is fierce here. Once we managed to pull out a 2nd-place finish, but generally we average 3-5 points out of the top 3.

    The Cove Pub
    On Facebook: The Cove Pub

    Where: 3681 West 4th Avenue

    When: Every Monday starting at 8pm.

    Registration details: No team size limit and no registration fee! Inconceivable!

    Prizes: $40 cash; beer. Prize distribution is unique here. After every round, keys are distributed to the top three teams of that round (three keys for 1st, two for 2nd, one for 3rd). Even ties earn keys. Keys are also given out to the top three teams overall at the end. On every key is a number and if it matches the key randomly drawn at the end, your team wins. The idea is the better you do, the more keys you collect and thus more opportunities to win the $40 cash prize, though you're still in the running even if you only collected one key. We actually came in third overall, but managed to win the $40! The top team got a free pitcher of beer as consolation.

    Format: Three rounds of 10 questions each. Straight up asking questions, writing down answers. Very rapid-fire with almost no time for team discussion.

    Mussels: Quite tasty combo of red curry mussels and fries ($11.95) or moule-frites as they say in Belgium. Unfortunately arrived cold, but I'd give them another shot.

    Tips: The organizers always give out one free answer on their Facebook page usually the night before (sometimes same day). Apparently if everyone on your team "likes" their Facebook page you also get a bonus point though I don't know if they really check this. At one point, a rep from every team was called to the front in a race and the first person to name 4 out of 6 members of the Brat Pack got something. A key? Bonus points? I wasn't really paying attention. I arrived for a table just before 7pm and there was lots of space. It didn't really start filling up until about 7:40-ish.

    The Anza Club
    On Facebook: Anzabonanza Pub Quiz

    Where: 3 West 8th Avenue

    When: Last Friday of every month starting at 8pm.

    Registration details: $10 per team. Max 5 members per team.

    Prizes: A pitcher of beer for each of the top 3 teams (plus bonus prizes of dubious value).

    Format: Four rounds of 10 questions. 5th question of each round is an audio-based and the 10th question is a video-based.

    Mussels: N/A. The only food in this place is a vending machine with potato chips and vegemite.

    Tips: Last year apparently the first and last questions of every quiz were James Bond and Star Trek: The Next Generation-themed. This year, the first question is about Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the last question is about Monty Python. Note: to get in, you'll have to buzz in at the nondescript side door. There's also a slightly off-putting grandparents' basement in the 70s vibe to this place.

    Relish Gastropub & Bar

    Where: 888 Nelson Street

    When: Every Tuesday starting at 7:30pm. Start time changes if there's a Canucks game on (see quiz schedule).

    Registration details: $5 per team. Max 4 members per team.

    Prizes: $50 Relish gift certificate for first place, free pitchers for 2nd and 3rd.

    Format: This was sort of grouped into chunks of related questions (e.g. movie quotes, current events, general knowledge) without really formal rounds. There was an intermission for marking scores midway through. There were also two separate pages of Name that Tune & Artist questions.

    Mussels: N/A

    Tips: That day's Vancouver Province provides fodder for the 10 question Current Events category. I arrived just before 7pm and got the last table.

    On the agenda (if my sources are correct):
    The Academic (Mondays)
    Three Lions Cafe (Tuesdays)
    The Calling (Wednesdays)
    Darby's Pub (Thursdays)

    To be continued...

    January 18, 2011

    Where were you in the Shtalenkov years?

    Another string a fresh losses and another slap in the face of Oilers fans. Mid-season always brings the usual accumulation of losses, a series of rants by Oilers bloggers and another hit to the fan base.

    Fans are fickle. If you win, you get fans. If you don't, then people will find better things to do with their time. I'm glad to say that I'm not that fickle when it comes to my beloved Oilers (though some might say I'm more "sad" than "glad" since I don't have anything better to do).

    In fact, since I've become a real fan of the Oil I've sat through the worst stretch of Oilers seasons in history. Not hard, I guess, considering their short and distinguished history, but look at these numbers! They're bad by any standards. I would say that I became a "real fan" back in 1997 along with thousands of others with "the Marchant goal". So what have we done since then? Well...

    1996–97 81pts Lost in Rd 2, 1–4 (Avalanche)

    1997–98 80pts Lost in Rd 2, 1–4 (Stars)

    1998–99 78pts Lost in Rd 1, 0–4 (Stars)

    1999–00 88pts Lost in Rd 1, 1–4 (Stars)

    2000–01 93pts Lost in Rd 1, 2–4 (Stars)

    2001–02 92pts Did not qualify

    2002–03 92pts Lost in Rd 1, 2–4 (Stars)

    2003–04 89pts Did not qualify

    2004–05 Season cancelled due to 2004–05 NHL Lockout

    2005–06 95pts Lost in Stanley Cup Final, 3–4 (Hurricanes)

    2006–07 71pts Did not qualify

    2007–08 88pts Did not qualify

    2008–09 85pts Did not qualify

    2009–10 62pts Did not qualify

    First of all: f**king Stars!! I hate them! Hate them all!!

    Second of all: For that '06 run to the finals I just so happened to have just finished my undergrad and headed out on a 6-month trip to Europe in May
    . I ended up pretty much missing the whole thing! Had I known the Oil weren't just gonna do their usual first round exit to the Stars I would've delayed my trip for 2 months!! Still irks me. By "irk" I mean "emotionally destroys". (This may or may not be the reason for the bitterness evident below)

    Anyways, upon returning from my trip I found that everyone had suddenly become an Oilers fan. Everyone loved Pisani (I was the first to call Fernando's name!). Everyone acted as though they had been following the Oilers for years and it was their team. I couldn't take it! Fongolia and I had suffered through years of Oilers failures and earned the right to call ourselves Oilers fans. "Where were you in the Shtalenkov years?" would become my new fan motto. If you knew who Shtalenkov was and how crappy those years were, I accepted you as a real fan. Of course, someone could easily pull the same phrase on me, but replace "Shtalenkov" with some other sucker. But, the fact is, I had made it through some pretty low times.

    From The 654

    Of course, I knew that one day (although I had hoped it wouldn't be so soon) the Oilers would go back to filling up the record books with more failed seasons and the Oilers fan base would return to it's pre-bandwagon size. The only people still facebooking/tweeting/blogging about the Oilers at this point in the 2010-11 season are the actual fans. The ones that will follow the team every season through its ups and downs. They will discuss the stupidity of every GM that comes into town. And they will sit down on that couch and ride that emotional wave between anger and depression. And they will wait. Wait for better days and maybe, just maybe one of those sporadic (for the Oilers at least) runs in the playoffs.

    So where was I in the Shtalenkov years? Why, I was right here. Sitting on my couch. Cursing Joey Beranek. Booing Alex Selivanov. And loving every minute of it. Where were you?