Sunday, August 22, 2010

Kittenlick (January 8, 2010)

There is really no excuse for this slice of gratuitous cuteness. I use it as the background picture on my iPod Touch.

Having these two around actually had me wonder why some cats clean each other. After all, cats have the capacity to clean themselves, and usually they don't need help (from people or from other cats).

One person I asked mentioned that it was a behaviour signalling the "dominance" of one cat over the other (i.e. the one doing the cleaning was expressing dominance over the one being cleaned). Some cursory Internet research tells me that in fact mutual grooming is usually a form of bonding between cats, where there is already close relationship; one site stated that "many times, if there is an age difference between the two cats, the older one will "mother" the younger one (even if the older is a male), and groom it as a protection tool. If they are the same age, it's more directly related to bonding". So grooming is seen as a form of "cat communication" that tells us the cats are getting along (no surprises there).

These two big babies were born in the same litter. Bingley's been cleaning Darcy since they were quite small, as the video below demonstrates--they were under three months old when it was recorded.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Michigan (March, 2004)

These are some fleeting impressions from the first trip I ever took across the land border between the United States and Canada. I actually haven't done it since, that's how keen I am (though I've had to pass through a lot of U.S. airports--never fun). I wasn't able to take many photos on this trip, equipped only with my somewhat bulky Minolta, and 400-speed film (which was more limited than my current digital camera in terms of what it could "capture").

I've written before about the weirdness of crossing a border where obvious boundaries are missing. The US-Canada border is odd because it's used by citizens on both sides for casual, evening long trips as well as for longer stays or journeys through the U.S. to some other destination. So it feels like a slightly scruffy bus station, except for the cubicles and the questioning, the fingerprinting and photographing. "Security" also takes time; our entire bus had to empty, and everyone went through the same procedure with variations--including being asked the same set of questions by two border cops standing about 10 feet apart. Hopefully that wasn't supposed to be a "grilling"; if so, they were slacking a bit.

To me, Michigan looked a lot like Ontario--but as John Travolta notes in "Pulp Fiction", "it's the little differences" that suddenly jolt you with the reminder that you're not in Canada. And when you didn't grow up with the "Elephant Next Door", including shopping trips across the border (in Canada this is taken for granted), it's surreal even just visiting. Some of the things I failed to photograph include the roadside billboards replete with crazy advertisments for Christianity, and America. I expected those--but only in the sense that I had an unreasonable expectation of the U.S. living up to the naive impression I had of it at the time. It did and it didn't, as usual.

Sometimes I wonder if I could even have a "normal" view of this place, the image of which has been repeated or echoed around the world for so long and in so many ways (yet always, somehow, the same way). The further you are from it, the more exaggerated that image becomes--but you have an image, no matter where you are: everyone knows what America looks like. I think of it this way because of having grown up in a place quite isolated from anything other than the inflated-by-distance, TV-show/movie world that was projected out to us, quite distinct from "real" life and "real" place as we experienced it in our small corner of the globe.

All my pictures of Detroit were taken from the windows of moving vehicles (you can see the flecks of dust on the windscreen, like little chunks of debris floating in the sky). It seems appropriate somehow. The pictures from previous posts are more interesting, but these ones reflect other aspects the impression I formed of the place, showing the glimpses of mundane things that caught my interest. Lots of highways, endless highways cutting across all the things that stand still and don't move and creating a kind of alternate, parallel dimension (things that move--the very space of movement itself, with no other purpose--and things that don't). I remember thinking about that as I watched the houses and farms and trees and small, low-quality local back-country restaurants flick by.

In the picture above you can see the sign directing drivers to downtown Flint, Michigan. That's another of those places that I've heard of but never visited (thanks, Michael Moore). The novelty of this kind of thing never wears off for me, perhaps because I don't do a huge amount of travelling. There's just something interesting about seeing mundane road signs pointing you to locations with names as familiar as that of your own town or city. In fact Saginaw also falls into that category for me--the name can never be separated from this fantastic song, which is probably one of my all-time favourites. I remember having it stuck in my head for hours during this trip.

Speaking of travelling--I'm moving in about a week, and finding the organising is tiring me out. Please excuse the uninspired quality of today's commentary! Writing this post also makes me wish I had taken a lot more pictures on the Michigan trip (it was only a few days and I was working with films--so I suppose it makes sense). Sadface.

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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Waterfall (August, 2004)

One of many things not widely known about the city of Hamilton, Ontario, is that is sits snugly in the curve of a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, the Niagara Escarpment. An escarpment is a geographic feature involving a sharp drop in the elevation of relatively flat land, forming a kind of "step" that can look like a cliff extending over a long distance. The Niagara Escarpment is very lengthy, winding its way through four U.S. states and through Ontario between (and also through) the Great Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Huron.

On a satellite image of Hamilton the Escarpment is clearly visible as a dark green thread that snakes from Grimsby in the east, through Stoney Creek and the centre of Hamilton (dividing the "mountain" area from downtown), then west into the valley that separates Ancaster and Dundas. It then travels north toward Georgian Bay on Lake Huron, eventually turning south and ending up on the east side of Lake Michigan.

Close to this conservation area, Hamilton is linked in to the walking and hiking trails that follow the Escarpment, most notably the Bruce Trail and the Rail Trails; the nearby Dundas Valley is also easily accessible (via the trails or by car). On the steep incline where the Escarpment drops off, a line of waterfalls marks its path--and a number of attractive falls are in the Hamilton-Ancaster-Dundas area.

I actually worked for the Hamilton Region Conservation Authority in August-September 2003, so I helped with some of the photography in their brochures. I also ended up unwittingly making an appearance in the "Waterfalls brochure" (which, by the way, took endless amounts of revision work for some reason), sitting at the bottom of Webster's Falls in my orange hat. Thankfully that little piece of PR doesn't seem to be in circulation now--on the web at least--though it was kicking around for quite a while.

It seems almost appropriate that I should have ended up in that brochure, since I've always loved waterfalls--all forms of moving or running water actually. Growing up in New Zealand, I always wanted to play in whatever creek or stream was nearby. Our house in Feilding had a small stream running just behind the fence marking the back edge of the garden; I used to make dams and other waterworks by piling up rocks in the stream-bed.

I'm not sure if the waterfall pictured here has been named. It wasn't readily accessible; I seem to remember something about climbing through a hole in a chain-link fence. I took these pictures with my Minolta SLR, so I must have had fun carrying it in there. Then there was no path, you had to walk alongside the stream and then into/across the water to reach the dry rocks over by the falls, and there was slippery green slime on the red streambed rocks (as you can see in the photos).

I was fascinated by the small boulder (below) that appears poised on the edge of the falls. I wondered what kept it in place--sheer weight, perhaps, or some nook in which it was perched securely? Was it leaning heavily against the rock behind it? At the time I wasn't willing to climb up the side of the waterfall with my camera hanging around my neck, which was probably a reasonable judgment. I could see it was possible though, since there were a few other people also nosing around the area and they had gone further up towards the head of the falls.

I remember crouching to take the picture below, thinking that the backlighting from the sky and trees would probably cause the (reflected-light, automatic) light meter to over-compensate and under-expose the shadowed areas on the right-hand side of the frame. I must have been lucky though--I have a "textured white" (technically a grey-blue) in the sky and visible detail in the shadows.

Remembering that moment makes me realise (again) how different it is to shoot with digital cameras vs. on film, since there was and is no "instant replay" feature. You have to take several shots at different exposure times and apertures and angles, with the number of shots determined by the importance of getting the photo right. Only after negatives and prints have been processed do the final results show up. But there can be equal amounts of serendipity both ways (digital or not) and that's one of the things I enjoy about photography.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Post-Storm (February 7, 2008)

Snow--it's a Canadian obsession. That sounds like a stereotype, and of course it is, but then again why not? Extreme winter weather of various kinds is a fact of life, and since I've lived in Canada--and I've lived in four different cities--snow's become an obsession for me, too, one of the organising themes in seasonal life. How much is it supposed to snow tonight? Have the roads been cleared this morning? What kinds of transit and traffic delays are there? Will I have to shovel three days in a row? How much ice is on the sidewalk? Will school be closed today? And so on. When I was in high school in Nova Scotia, the other kids knew almost nothing about New Zealand but their first question was often "does it snow there?" Ever since that time, snow--along with Tim Horton's, hockey, and a school year starting in September--has been a significantly "Canadian" thing to me.*

There's even an etiquette that goes along with Winter Weather, involving such details as who should step to the side when two people are walking toward each other on an un-shovelled footpath.

These pictures were taken in the early morning, which is why the light looks blue-ish and slightly dim. The snow had hardly stirred since it fell the night before. I always love going out right after a storm, whether in the middle of the night or as in this case, just after dawn (which of course comes later in the winter). The best snow is of the kind you can see here, the very fluffy and damp variety that sticks well to objects and to itself, forming piles perched on power lines, fences and other narrow areas (like the bike pictured above). This kind of snow is perfect for rolling into snowballs and for building snow-sculptures of all kinds, since it "packs" perfectly and stays in shape.

I think this is the kind of snow I always imagined as archetypal, as a child growing up in an area where snow falls only a couple of times in a century.

The nicest thing about snow before it's sullied is that it's easier to enjoy it: there's no slush yet, because the temperature may not have dropped low enough and because there's no salt on the roads and the footpaths. Not enough cars have driven by to create the churned, soupy and gritty muck that pools in the gutters after rush hour on mornings like the one pictured here. The footpaths are easily navigable because the snow hasn't yet been squashed into a slippery, lumpy sheet by the pressure of many feet taking the easiest path through. And everything looks somehow cleaner, and fresh, and there's an air of the fairytale-eque as if each house might be made of ginger-bread beneath its snowy mantle.

The other thing is that the weather is usually quite lovely right at this time, right before the snow melts or freezes to ice, when the air is just so--slightly damp and hovering around zero. There's often no wind, and it's the perfect time for a crunchy stroll after being cooped up during a storm.

This is snow showing some of its best effects, when it's fallen upon itself time and time again and slowly eroded the forms of what lies beneath it, creating mysterious lumps and bumps and also practical problems for the uninitiated--such as mis-guessing where the concrete edge of the gutter might be, and slipping or jolting forward onto the road. It brings a kind of equalising effect, bridging the fir tree and the power line, like the same batch of icing spread over many differently-shaped cookies.

*Yes, I'm well aware that snow does not play the same role in, say, Vancouver, as it does in Montreal. And yet there is still a kind of amusing regional dynamic that emerges, with those living on the West Coast always keen to announce the arrival of daffodils in March, knowing all the while that in Ottawa, an ice storm might have hit the night before. Another example of this is the way in which Toronto was mocked throughout the rest of the country for calling in the army to clear snow after a series of severe storms.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sidetracked: "Star Trek Plot" Taxonomy.

I recently decided it was time for a bit of 'cultural education' in the form of a "Star Trek: Original Series" marathon. While I'd seen snippets of various episodes, I realised I had never seen a whole lot of them in sequence, so I didn't actually have much sense of what the show was like back in the 60s--and I found myself curious.

[Below: The Pilot episode (later re-worked into "The Menagerie" Parts I & II) with Captain Christopher Pike instead of Kirk, was just dreadful--unless you like very silly, shiny costumes and terrible dialogue. Wait...]

One thing I've noticed so far is the quality of the show--given what else was on the Box in the 1960s, this is pretty good stuff. There's a reason it gained more than a 'cult' following; the show provides (particularly in retrospect) some rather interesting social commentary, and it was progressive for its time, something that shows up if you compare the Pilot first (all-white/anglo-American cast) and then the actual show (African-American and Asian characters, and later even Chekov, who is Soviet/Russian).

In spite of the overall sexism that echoes what was acceptable in the day, there are also more roles for women on the show (compare it to the sitcoms of the 50s and 60s, e.g.), and there are obvious references to race/racism in the dynamic between Spock as 'alien' and the rest of the 'human' crew.

I've also realised that in spite of the creativity of the writers, once you watch enough episodes, certain plot elements start to repeat themselves regularly. In fact after enough repetition they can be easily isolated, and a taxonomy created... and for 'fun', this is what I decided to do. Bear in mind that the result below can also be applied to Star Trek: The Next Generation and possibly other series of Star Trek. Now go ahead--plot your own episode!

[Below: Another shot from the Pilot episode, which features the 'seductive woman', 'SOS leads to trap' and 'aliens experiment on crew' plots.]

First up: plot elements involving 'outside' factors. Because where would we be without external (beyond the ship) 'stimulus' to jolt the plot into life? The list includes...

...Seductive [alien] woman/women [with green or otherwise strange-looking skin; see picture above].
...Mysterious SOS or summons from [distant] ship/planet.
...Uber-intelligent, unemotional aliens perform [psychological/physical] experiments on captive crew member/s.
...Political conflict [often involving the Neutral Zone].
...'Mad scientist' character.
...Conflict [with aliens] caused by communicative incompatibilities.
...Away team mission to unfamiliar planet or ship.
...Tricky strangers with [fake] Irish accents.
...Strange [contagious] substance/disease/creature brought on board by unwitting crew member/s.
...Death of a 'Red Shirt' [often combined with 'away mission to unfamiliar planet'].
...[Malicious] alien or force that can appear in any form.

[Below: A fruitful combination, 'Mad Scientist' plus 'Androids' in "What are Little Girls Made of".]

Plot elements involving/originating with 'insiders' or people on crew: these aspects of the storyline are drawn from and focus on the internal conflicts of the show's regular characters, their romances and dramas, their histories and the ongoing struggles they face within the context they're "written in to" on the show. These include...

...Something shady returns from a crew member's past to haunt him/her.
...Crew member/s suffer psychological/emotional tension or breakdown.
...Philosophical or psychological Dilemma involving Human Nature [includes instances where Logic falls short and Spock learns a lesson].

[Below: Spock experiences a logic FAIL in "The Galileo Seven", prompting the usual snarking disagreements from ship's doctor "Bones" McCoy.]

...Romance--between crew members or between one of the crew and an 'outsider'.
...Ethical dilemma re: violation of the Prime Directive.
...Major alteration to crew member/s' character [can happen to one person or to everyone on the ship/a planet].

[Below--Sulu gets Wild'n'Crazy in "The Naked Time", after an infection spreads through the ship causing personality changes to the crew.]

'Scientific' or technical plot elements: I thought it was fair to present these as a separate category; Star Trek is all about the 'science' in 'science fiction' (the Enterprise is on an exploratory mission, after all), and many books have been written about the "physics of Star Trek" and so on. Some examples of how this works in the plot...

...Urgent technical issue/s with the ship [e.g. something involving lithium/dilithium crystals].
...Transporter malfunction.
...Mysterious loss of power or one of the ship's crucial functions.
..Pick up or drop-off of scientific crew [science mission].
...Time travel [including plots where crew members find themselves stuck in some version of an era in Earth's past].
...Asteroid belt or other zone of mysterious/anomalous Space Effects.
...Androids, robots or other intelligent [and often Evil] machines.

[Below: The show's first Pissy Romulan, in the excellent episode "Balance of Terror". The character is played by Mark Lenard, who ironically goes on to play Spock's Vulcan father Sarek, a role he reprised many times in the decades that followed.]

Most of these themes carry over quite a bit into ST:TNG--for instance, there is a whole series of episodes involving Troi being taken over or manipulated somehow by a mysterious force or magnetic character, a variation on a theme described above; and Will "Action Man" Riker takes over the 'womaniser' role previously occupied by Kirk, while Data replaces Spock as logician and there are lots of 'Human Nature vs. Machine' plots there.

[Below: Part of the charm of the Original Series was the amusing chemistry between Captain Kirk (Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Nimoy)--a dynamic totally absent from the relationship between Spock and Captain Pike in the Pilot episode, but immediately noticeable in the first episodes of the actual show.]

There--that's my nerd-out humour moment of the month... grin. Back to ST:OS; what with about 25 episodes in each of the three seasons, I have quite a bit to get through; we'll have to see if the taxonomy holds up.

Post-Script: After watching a full season, I think I'd have to add two more plot options to this mix. One is "someone other than Kirk has control of the ship." Another could be "new alien friends are not what they seem".

Saturday, August 7, 2010

King's Demonstration (January 27, 1998)

These pictures were taken at a Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) protest in Halifax, Nova Scotia (here is another from the same set). I'm not sure what paper I used, but they were all scanned in from 8x10" prints I made myself. This was during my second semester at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), my first-ever year at university. Yes--this makes me feel...old.

I think this was the first occasion on which I was able to walk into a crowd of people and take as many pictures as I wanted without worrying about whether people would be annoyed or angered by it. Since it was an "event" and the crowd was the spectacle, photography was natural as a part of things (there were also many art students). This was in the days before everyone had a digicam the size of a packet of cigarettes, but there were still a lot of cameras. I would have been shooting with 35mm black and white film, probably my old friend Agfapan APX 400 (judging by the graininess), a film that has apparently been discontinued now. Sniff.

Below is a picture of several friends from NSCAD enjoying the scene in the courtyard at King's--I recall that our ceramics professor, Walter Ostrom, came to the demonstration (we were all skipping his class that afternoon, so it was just as well). I did get one picture of him but I over-exposed it and couldn't get prints to turn out. A number of us were taking photography as well, conveniently enough. That's Jason on the left, Carrie in the middle with the camera, and Christine to her right. I like the composition in this one, though it was probably mostly accidental.

Below is a great shot of Juliet--who was living in the King's residences--with her home-made sign, suggesting that 100% tax might cover all the costs of free tertiary education for Canadian students. I appreciate the sentiment, but unfortunately we'll need to find some other ways of covering it (and hopefully they won't involve massive tuition increases; therein lies the dilemma, and the issue that prompted this protest).

I really enjoyed shooting pictures at this demonstration, and since that time these kinds of events have always my favourite way of getting interesting shots of people without them noticing. Almost all the pictures I took during Gerard Kennedy's last campaign were of the same kind, and they are some of the best pictures I've taken. It's not about 'catching' people off-guard; I'm more concerned with showing the 'feeling' of a context, conveying the engagement of people with their surroundings and with whatever they happen to be doing at the time. Then you end up with a completely different kind of 'portrait', one that's almost impossible to achieve when someone sees a camera and turns to respond to it in some way.

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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Horse on the River (April, 2000)

There's really no reason to post this; it could have been one of those moments when I "saw" something that wasn't really there, but when I look again now I can still see a leaping white horse in this foam floating down the Ottawa river. It doesn't have a tail, but--it's there, honest.

This was taken on the bridge from Ottawa over to Hull, Quebec.

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