Sunday, January 26, 2014

Almost Human - A Little Cyber, A Little Punk

I'm enjoying Fox's sci-fi cop show Almost Human far more than I thought I would.

The pilot gave us a fairly paint-by-numbers dystopian, crime-ridden future where police are required to be paired with android partners.  We are introduced to Det. John Kennex, played by Karl Urban (Eomer, Dr. McCoy, Judge Dredd), a trauma-stricken cop whose last bad day on the job put him into a coma and cost him his flesh-and-blood partner as well as his leg.  Fixed up with a synthetic leg he resents and paired up with a pedantic and calculating para-military MX android that rubs him the wrong way,  it isn't long before he pushes it out of his moving car into highway traffic, with predictable results.

Kennex is given the opportunity to partner up with a discontinued DRN model android, designed to simulate emotional responses through a protocol called 'synthetic soul'.  Dorian, we learn, is observant, humorous and passionate, but must pit his extraordinary abilities against the prejudices of almost everyone around him, from his own partner's distrust of machines to those who consider the DRN series to be an unpredictable liability, 'one of the crazy ones'.

Like a lot of shows, the pilot has a lot of backstory and motivation to get out of the way, which doesn't leave a lot of room for actual storytelling or even worldbuilding, but later episodes have explored a setting with an assortment of near-future sci-fi ideas, from lovebots wearing stolen skin (!), through the dark side of social media, to someone trying to immortalize themselves through cloning.

Still, even with intriguing ideas in the mix, Almost Human is really just another police procedural, with an unfortunately common buddy-cop motif that isn't even new to science fiction (Alien Nation anyone?)... until Kennex and Dorian have to drive someplace.

Almost all the best interaction of Almost Human comes not from interrogations or gunfights (although they tend to be pretty entertaining), but from the patter in the front seat of their electric police cruiser.  We learn the depth of Dorian's 'artificial' personality, and the limitations of Kennex's bigotry.  For instance, there is some great discourse after Kennex wanders into the charging area to pick up Dorian, but ends up seeing a naked MX (which they could show on prime time since they are completely featureless below the belt):

To be fair, the show is not without its flaws; in addition to a lacklustre pilot, there is the surprising lack of arrests on the program.  I'm guessing that future prisons must be fairly, since almost everyone would rather go down in a hail of gunfire than be incarcerated.  Some of the tech they use is inconsistent: if a pocket-sized gizmo can generate a force-field strong enough to contain a bomb blast, why bother with body armour? And since Dorian is completely networked, he can access police files, employee records and darned near anything else, which is great if your job is to be the exposition and not a detective.  Thankfully they have found a couple of imaginative ways to limit his abilities, including an inability to recharge due to rolling blackouts...

Almost Human has been on an upward trend in terms of the quality of its writing, and its lively dialogue and engaging characters are enough to keep me checking out the series for the time being.  Everyone in the house enjoys it, and there is very little happening in the way of a larger arc, which is actually kind of a relief, given how many of the shows I enjoy (Agents of SHIELD, Arrow) really depend on it; as a result, it shouldn't prove too difficult to jump in mid-season if you are so inclined.  The series is only 9 episodes in, and well worth checking out if you like action, comedy, or science-fiction, despite Fox's terrible track record with sci-fi.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Giving, Receiving

One of the coolest gifts we received this Christmas came from Island Mike, and it was a $50 gift card from  Unlike most gift cards though, it didn't allow us to receive anything, but permitted us to give something.

 Kiva is a charitable organization devoted to microfinancing in the developing world; a $1000 loan can be given to a woman in Uganda to help her start a tailoring business.  This money is raised in $25 bites, loaned out to whoever the donator chooses, and eventually gets re-paid so it can be loaned out again.  It isn't a one-shot stop against endemic poverty, but it has the potential to give some people in impoverished areas a fighting chance at independence.  We gave $25 each to two female applicants in Guatemala, one on a farm and another selling traditional clothing, and I have to tell you, it felt pretty good. I hope we end up back with Kiva even before these first two tiny loans get repaid.

Speaking of giving, though, as I have mentioned previously, Audrey works as an Educational Assistant at an elementary school in a, let's call it 'economically disadvantaged' area.  A couple of years back she was working almost exclusively with a young fellow from Africa named Yom, who is autistic.  In addition to the challenges of dealing with an autistic teen, his single father also has had a difficult time finding decent work that can accommodate the child care situation for Yom and his two siblings.

Yom is in junior high now, and the vice-principal at his current school entered his family's name into the local Virgin Radio station's Christmas promotion, and they ended up winning.  Having worked closely with Yom, Audrey was asked to be on hand when the prize was revealed, and it turned out to be quite the experience.

Clearly, Yom's dad is the very picture of a grateful man completely overwhelmed.  On top of coming home to a Santa Claus, a fully decorated tree and a house full of Christmas gifts that this family could never have afforded, including not only toys and electronics but actual factual beds and furniture and the like, Mr. Yom becomes very emotional when told that his landlord with Boardwalk Rentals is moving him to a different residence where they will live rent-free for one year.

It's hard to imagine just what kind of situation that bit of relief may springboard this family into, but I don't think it is wrong to hope that it might be the tipping point to a better life for all of them.

Despite how good all of this is though, my absolute favourite part of the entire affair is Yom's brother, who, after coming into a house full of people and stuff, the very first words out of his mouth are not "Cool, a big television!" or "Which stuff is mine!", but  "Yom, you got your own guitar!"

Hang on, there's a ninja somewhere in the basement cutting up onions...(sniff)  There, that's better.

There was a quite a bit of eye-sweat going on at the reveal and back at the radio station as well.

We hear a lot of talk around Christmastime about how much better it is to give than to receive, and I think we all know the truth of it, even if we struggle to believe it sometimes.  It's encouraging to see the benefits of such gifts, both overseas, and in our own backyards.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A Smile Worth Waiting For

From a very young age, we knew Fenya's smile was trouble, and not just in the way all fathers fear what boys will see in it; no, her teeth were large and her mouth a bit small, so before she was 8 years old we knew full well that orthodonture was in her future.


When she turned 12, we started seeking out someone to look after this, and even with Audrey and I both having jobs with good benefits, we braced ourselves for what it might take to get that smile back. Thank heavens someone suggested contacting the University of Alberta's Graduate Student Clinic; since Fenya fit their profile of a good teaching case, a student would treat her while an experienced teacher supervised, and the resulting difference in price meant our benefits covered the entire expense.


The service there has been attentive and good, and there can be no arguing with the results since the braces were removed this morning:


Obviously I was looking forward to this moment, but I was unprepared for the effect the difference made when Fenya got into the Flex and finally unpursed her lips; it was overwhelming, but that's hardly a surprise for someone as sentimental as I am.


Looking at the 'before' picture I took in a dimly-lit doorway this morning, the contrast is profound. It's still the same great kid, but....something fundamental about the face has changed.


The before and after scans are even more amazing, and show just how much work has been done by the clinic in two short years. (Caution: they are a little grim looking.)



There is still a lot of work to be done: a retainer gets installed later this afternoon, there is a follow-up with a periodontist in February and so on, but after two years with a tin grin, the original smile is back, and better than ever!


Unfortunately, this will probably make it even easier for her to manipulate me, but I'll get over it. In the meantime though, now it's Glory's turn for a smile adjustment, and she goes in next week to see if she is a good case. Wish us luck!


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Affirming, and a Seat at the Table

Our church is undertaking the process to become what is known as an affirming ministry. It is similar in some ways to a certification, in that there is a process we need to follow with a third party in order to substantiate our claims to be a truly welcoming and inclusive place, regardless of the attendee's age, race, culture, physical ability, gender identity or sexual orientation. Obviously it is the last couple of points that have the greatest potential for differences in opinion, but all of them need to addressed, and not just during this process, but on an ongoing basis.


As a member of the Affirming Committee, I was asked to address the inclusivity portion, while others looked at our history with regard to inclusivity, the process itself, and the scriptural elements that can sometimes arise when people of faith deal with human sexuality. (In the end, the two best things I thought our minister brought up was, first, that there are 9 verses out of 66 entire books in the Bible that address what we would call homosexuality, and of these, exactly zero are said by Jesus. The second is the fact that the most often quoted admonitions are from the 'holiness code' in Leviticus, which also contains prohibitions against wearing clothing made from two different materials, dietary restrictions, not trimming one's beard, and a host of other regulations we regularly ignore in much of the modern world. This is a contradiction familiar to many of us who are fans of The West Wing.)


I opened by asking if anyone perhaps felt that, 'hey, we are a progressive spiritual entity with a history of social justice and progressive theology, of course we are welcoming and inclusive; why do we need to justify ourselves to a third party in order to get some sort of seal of approval?' No one spoke up, but I could see heads nodding around the room.


"Well," I said, "you may have heard about the Apollo Theater in New York City, in Harlem, actually. White artists were certainly 'welcome' to perform there [and Buddy Holly did, in the 60s], but decades passed before a white R&B act actually did, and that was Darryl Hall and John Oates. They were the first white musicians to successfully perform at the Apollo in years, and in addition to craft, skill and confidence, that took a lot of courage on their part. That's not really something we can ask of someone we want to come here in the spirit of open invitation.


"Bear in mind as well, that when we are talking about the oppression of sexual minorities, that a lot of that persecution came, and continues to come, at the hands of people who call themselves Christians. Without the assurance that we actively encourage the attendance of everyone, it is too much to ask people from that community to expect a loving, non-judgmental welcome."


James added, "Remember that the rainbow sticker [displayed by affirming ministries] saves lives." Everyone swivelled to look at him as he continued: "In Vancouver, a young man tired of bullying because he was gay had emptied his locker and was planning to end his own life when he spotted the rainbow sticker outside of an affirming hurch. He went in to talk to someone, found acceptance, and ended up changing his mind."


James' story was very powerful, but I had struggled to come up with an analogy a little closer to home than Hall & Oates to describe the difference between welcoming and affirming; to answer the question the 16 people in the room were going to hear from their friends who couldn't or wouldn't attend: "what is the point of going through all this rigamarole anyhow?" I said as much, and then made my attempt.


"It's like arriving late to a dinner party; everyone turns, and is glad you made it, but a little surprised. They tell you to bring in a chair from the other room, and immediately begin to re-position themselves so there is room to accommodate you. And that's pretty good.


"But how much better would it be to arrive to a room full of smiles and hear someone say, 'We are so glad you made it! Here, we saved you a seat.' That is the kind of difference we are talking about."


There were nods and murmurs of assent around the room.


We already have an inclusive marriage policy and an 'out' minister, but we have some work to do before that seat is ready. I really got the impression from that room though, that there are more than a couple of people who would like to get to that point, and that is pretty encouraging.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Blankets, Brews & True Love

As strange as it may seem to mention, sometimes it is good to be reminded that Christmas is not a competition. There are no prizes or even rankings for spending the most money, attending the most church services, eating the most turkey, attending the most concerts and recitals, setting up the most decorations or choosing the most thoughtful gift.

But if thoughtfulness at Christmas was a sport, there is no doubt in my mind that Audrey would not only be the champion, but she would be very likely to retire undefeated.

Just as an example, consider this year: since we visited Hudson's Bay this summer, and immersed ourselves in our country's history and that of the fur trade and the Hudson's Bay Company (an organization whose initials are reputed to stand for "Here Before Canada"), I thought this would be the year to bite the bullet and get Audrey the multi-stripe point blanket I know she has long desired.

Over the years I have seen many of my attempts to surprise Audrey with gifts thwarted by her keen insight, near-prescient abilities, and possibly witchcraft. This year, I got the enormous piece of fabric into the house, wrapped and secreted deeply behind the tree before she even knew it was there. (I really had no choice, as it was far too big to hide anywhere unwrapped. It wouldn't even fit under the bed.). As part of a promotion, the blanket came with a large coffee table book about the HBC (pictured), which successfully distracted her from thinking about what might be wrapped around it, so the look on her face when she realized what it was really made my day.

The Hudson's Bay blanket is a great fit: it addresses history, national pride, quality workmanship and references a geographically significant part of Canada that many of us will never see, and that we were very fortunate to experience this past summer with Parker and Belinda. Game, set and match for the husband, right?

The last gift I opened Christmas morning was a box about 18 inches square and extremely heavy. I peeled away the wrapping paper to reveal a cardboard box that had been repurposed but the lid was a bit bent from containing what was in it.

It turned out to be a dozen different beers, all wrapped in white paper to conceal their nature, and with that note resting on top of all of them. My darling bride had found a way to lengthen the experience of my beer Advent calendar for another dozen days; she had given me The Twelve Beers of Christmas!

About a week before Christmas she had been struck by the idea around 1:00 in the morning, and had quickly emailed the gist of it to Sherbrooke Liquor, the beer Mecca in these parts. The next morning they had responded that their best guy was on the job, and had chosen a likely beer for each verse of the famous carol and slotted it into one of the 12 compartments of the box, in the appropriate order, by the time she arrived three days later. All she needed to do was wrap them and replace them, and she was all set.

So much thought, effort and insight that even my spot-on blanket paled in comparison! Like I said, it is a good thing Christmas isn't a competition, or I would have to surrender the court and move on to Easter. As it is, I defer to her gifting ability and imagination in reverence and gratitude, and thank all the stars, Christmas and otherwise, that she is my wife.

As to the beers themselves, well, the good folks at Sherbrooke had to admit that some of the selections had very tenuous associations to the subject matter of the song, but I think it shows a tremendous effort, especially given the timelines they had to work with. I present the complete list here in reverse order, as you would hear in the final verse: The Twelve Beers of Christmas!

"On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
12 drummers drumming,
(True, no drummer appears on the label, but they were a staple of the both the period depicted and the band behind the label.)

11 pipers piping,
(Again, no instrument visible, but the outfit is impeccable, as is the beer itself.)

10 lords a-leaping,
(Audrey's suggestion was to find something either lordly or 'hoppy' (for the leaping), which I thought was decidedly clever on her part (since she readily admits to not being entirely sure what hops are or do), and absolutely brilliant on Sherbrooke's!)

9 ladies dancing,
(It could be yoga, but given the dress, I think she's dancing.)

8 maids a-milking,
(This is the only one I predicted, and had the privilege of having it on tap at The Underground a couple of night's prior.)

7 swans a-swimming,
(Not only a perfect fit for day 7, but the prettiest label of the lot.)

6 geese a-laying,
("I don't get this one," I said, "Bock means 'goat', but even a double-goat doesn't get you a goose..." "Isn't there an 'egg' on there somewhere?" Audrey suggested helpfully...)

(The Celts knew a thing or two about golden rings...)

4 calling birds,
("Sorry, I thought you said, 'for cawing birds'; who's a bird got to call?")

3 French hens,
(Three French hills? Darned close! And a delightful strong beer to boot!)

2 turtle doves,
(The biggest stretch; it was thought that the label shape closely resembled a turtle, some of which must surely live in Fiji, where the beer originated. Who are we to say otherwise?)

And a partridge in a pear tree."
(Not technically a beer, you say? Find someone who cares, you nit-picking killjoy, is my response.)

I unwrapped beer 12, The Trooper, this morning and drank it today at lunch; a brilliant finish to a wonderful holiday that still leaves me shaking my head wondering what I could have possibly done in order to deserve such delight in my life. It's like living inside The Princess Bride: "This is true love; do you think this happens every day?"

Only if you are very, very lucky, my friend, as I appear to be.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Holiday Games

One of the best things about having a little extra time away from work or school is the opportunity to play somewhat more involved board games. Getting a quick round of Blokus or Tsuro in is no great challenge, and can be done after supper during the week, but the opportunity to do something a little grander should not be squandered.


The girls and I got in a game of the Aliens movie game one afternoon, which let me dust off some older miniatures and put on the soundtrack. If you've never played, it is a neat little cooperative game, full of tension and surprises, and there is a great web version of it here. We played using the beginner rules since it was the first time out for the girls, and managed to escape with 8 marines! Poor Wierzbowski...


We enjoyed playing Anomia with the cousins, and were happy to get the party edition with six new decks for Christmas from Tara. Still a game that brings frustration and entertainment in equal measure, but is easy to teach and rounds go very quickly.


Today we got to break out Risk 2210, which is still my favourite iteration of the 4 different versions I own. The game still ran for hours, despite having a five turn limit, but the various cards and the addition of lunar and undersea colonies to the classic map makes for a much more unpredictable game. And Glory's new pyjamas make for much more unpredictable pictures, too.


I am really looking forward to trying Space Cadets: Dice Duel, a real time, team-based, head-to-head spaceship matchup. Players frantically roll custom dice for each station like shields, helm and weapons, only pausing play when the Captain shouts "Fire!" In order to resolve the effects. I have the first Space Cadets game, a cooperative game based on a similar principle but without as many dice. Dice Duel allows 8 people to play against each other in teams of 4, with games taking about a half hour apiece, allegedly.

Hopefully 2014 will have many more opportunities to roll dice, throw cards, curse and laugh, regardless of whether we win or lose.