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Monthly Archives: February 2009

San Fran w/ Jan

SF cable car, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

(More photos on Flickr.)

Janelle’s flight back to Australia departed from San Francisco in the early morning hours of Wednesday, so I went down there with her for a few days beforehand.

Aside from a single day in 2001, and an airport transfer or two since then, I’d never been to SF, so it was pretty cool to see it. I think I had an image in my head from other west coast cities I’ve been to (Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, San Diego) but it’s actually very different. Older and more expensive, and less naturey — the downtown is definitely more Manhattan than West End.

We stayed in the downtown Hotel Des Arts, an “art hotel” like the Carlton Arms in New York, meaning that the rooms are small and basic, but painted with murals my local artists. Ours was done by Jeffrey Fish, and was really cool, with whimsical skulls (yes) everywhere.

We were only there a few days, and neither of us gets all excited about spending all day seeing the standard tourist sights, so aside from a trip to the SF Museum of Modern Art and the obligatory cable car rides, we mostly just wandered (always my preferred tourist activity in a new city). Highlights and random thoughts:

  • After a couple of expensive, mediocre meals, we basically gave up on restaurant dining in San Francisco. I simply couldn’t get past the feeling that unless you’re into fine dining (which we aren’t), you can get food in Vancouver just as good for a whole lot less, once you figure in the abysmal exchange rate. After coming to that conclusion, we mostly ate Subway and burritos.
  • SF burritos are yummy. Are they really all that? I’m not sure, since I didn’t get around to trying enough different places, but they are pretty good.
  • Being at the intersection of the Financial District and Chinatown makes for interesting bar hopping, as we decided to do one night. We started in upscale wine bars and rooftop patios and ended up in a dive bar with old Chinese dudes and trannies, arguing incoherently, and having walked a total of about four blocks.
  • I am too old to drink a lot. Never again.
  • Seriously, the cable cars are not to be missed. Not only are the views spectacular, but in this age of litigation and safety regulations, it’s great to be in a rickety open car open to the elements, with standees hanging off the sides and hopping on and off in the middle of traffic. Just don’t try to catch it at Powell station — it had dozens of people waiting a good hour to get on, while the other stations were almost empty. In fact, we took the California Street line and had the car to ourselves for most of it.
  • Seeing Milk and then going to The Castro was an experience. The place might have been gritty in the 1970s, but today, the place smells of money. Sweet, gay money.
  • The SF MoMA is cool, but what I really dug was the nearby Cartoon Art Museum, which had Coraline and Watchmen exhibits, and a huge room full of Gene Colon originals.
  • Probably my favourite neighbourhood was Valencia Avenue, which was like a cooler, slightly more upscale version of my beloved Main Street, with taquerías and bars instead of noodle houses and coffee shops. We spent an entertaining afternoon wandering the vintage shops, hipster art galleries and zine stores.

Coraline (2009)

bilde.jpegJanelle and I saw Coraline on Friday, but my reaction was conflicted enough that I needed a couple of days to process my thoughts.

One of my biggest cinematic pet peeves is that Tim Burton gets so much of the credit for Nightmare Before Christmas, which was written by other people and directed by Coraline director Henry Selick. Hopefully, with Coraline, Selick will start to get more appreciation, because it really is a brilliant piece of work.

Coraline is a 3-D stop-motion dark fairy tale based on a novel by the great Neil Gaiman. I haven’t read this novel, but I like everything I’ve ever read from him. The eponymous Coraline is a snarky girl, neglected by her parents, and stuck in an ancient rooming house in what looks like the middle of the Pacific Northwest wilderness. Finding a mysterious hidden doorway, she travels to a mirror-image of her life, where the apartment building is filled with wonders and her Other Mother and Other Father are waiting to dote on her. The only problem is, everyone here has black buttons sewn onto their eyes…

I love stop-motion animation. The intricacy and vividness is captivating, even more than CGI. Coraline probably has the best stop-motion I’ve ever seen. The motion is fluid, but not as perfect as CGI. Maybe I’m alone here, but I think seeing a hint of the figurative seams (in the way water is animated, for instance) makes animation more real, not less. Especially seen in 3D, this film has some absolutely breathtaking moments, even though wearing the 3D glasses over my regular glasses lead to a little eyestrain by the end. And my God, this movie has mood — long before we meet the button-eyed Other Mother, there’s an ominousness to Coraline’s adventures.

But the screenplay seemed really lopsided — a little too slow and exposition-y at the beginning, and then rushed at the end as Coraline has to deal with a series of puzzles and obstacles. In fact, during the last 30 minutes, I couldn’t help but think of old-school hunt-and-click computer adventure games (“You have found two of the three lost eyes! Find the last one to open the door!”). And yes, I know the reason for this is that both the movie and the old games were inspired by similar source material. It’s still distracting. Which is all really strange, because while I don’t think Neil Gaiman is a master of dialogue this kind of storytelling is his bread and butter. (The Sandman story where Lucifer abandons hell and all the gods and angels have to deal with it is one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read.) I’m really curious to see how it’s handled in the original novel.

So in the end, I didn’t love Coraline as much as I’d hoped I would. Maybe in my second viewing, I’ll be able to just ignore the story and enjoy the brilliantly imaginative world the movie lets us into. But for now, I find it oddly unsatisfying.

thigh-high fishnet stockings and rubber chickens

thigh-high fishnet stockings and rubber chickens, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

The iPhone camera is kind of crappy, but it’s nice to always have it when I come across boxes of leather bullwhips and lace petticoats.

In a fabric store.

January was a Month of Adjusting

18304270_78188350a8.jpgThe lovely Janelle has been visiting, so I’ve been neglecting the ol’ blog in favour of spending my free time doing things with her, like eating calf brains at Boneta (verdict: delicious) and watching Project Runway (verdict: hell of a lot better than I expected). But she’s in the spare room sewing and listening to Kevin Smith’s podcast at the moment, so I thought I’d give my as-promised report on how the thesis is going.

It’s been an interesting transition back to full-time PhD-dom. While working, I was much more focussed on productivity than creativity, meaning I went to Yaletown around 9 every morning and left around 6 or 7 every night, and worked on mostly fairly-immediate new features and bug fixes. When I did research, it was to find the solution to a problem, not to investigate something novel. While perhaps not entirely “creatively fulfilling”, I do get a lot of satisfaction just from the feeling of accomplishing and producing something pretty much every day.

The grad student lifestyle is a big a shift from that. For one thing, it’s a lot less structured. I am still working with Worio a couple of days a week, which forces me to manage my time a bit, but I generally work at different places and different times and decide day-to-day what needs to be done. This is not great for short-term productivity, but I find it very important for creativity. As an academic researcher in Machine Learning, there’s not usually a lot of payoff in incremental improvements and fixes — you need to take more chances and do something new. Which is why I spent a chunk of January working on a conference paper that ended up not being submitted. Most of the rest, I spent reading a couple of books and a stack of papers, some of which were interesting and some of which weren’t. I’m much more of an applied-science guy than a theorist, and much more of a doer than a reader, so the upshot is that I sometimes have to force myself to sit down and do the reading instead of diving in and doing the coding and experiments. But I think it paid off. I literally had one of those in-the-shower moments, where you have to get out of the shower, grab a notebook and write down a multi-page detailed description of your idea, complete with sketches of figures. It all felt very scientist-y. If it works, this is a publication and a chapter of my thesis. If it doesn’t, it’s a big chunk of lost time. I’ll know in a few weeks.