Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Fanboys vs George Lucas.

Jean-Luc didn't like the opening scenes of 'The Phantom Menace' either...

The at times wonderful, at times strange, and at times completely dysfunctional relationship between the legacy of Star Wars, it's fans, and it's creator was one of the main themes of a documentary I saw on the weekend, "The People vs George Lucas":

It was fun. The documentary is squarely aimed at fans rather than casual viewers not quite as intimately knowledgeable of the franchise, and uses the fan relationship to examine in a wider sense just what Star Wars is now, and how many fans feel miffed about what happened to their favourite franchise and George Lucas himself (although in the documentary he only appears in clips from archival interviews, contributing to a noticeable lack of input or commentary from anyone involved in the current Lucasfilm hierarchy).

For many if not most fans the six film Star Wars saga can generally be seen one of two ways; as a complete epic work, or as two quite different trilogies, separate in time, space and vision. There is the 'original' (although just what constitutes 'original', and how it has seemingly been redefined is another key theme of the doco) 1976-1983 trilogy, and then there is, umm, the other one, of pre-sequels that some love, some hate, and many love to hate.

My interaction as a Star Wars fan centres around the classic first three movies that have been influencing pop culture ever since they were released three decades ago. I am aware of the other stuff in the canon, read a few of the novels, know a lot of the lore, but haven't really kept up with the non-movie based stuff that is out there.

I feel a bit privileged to be a part of the generation that saw the original originals on that first cinematic release. I was born in 1976, so missed the first one, but definitely saw 'The Empire Strikes Back' in 1980 or so, and remember seeing 'Return of the Jedi' twice in 1983 (at the St James when it was a cinema, and at a long defunct cinema in Naenae). I was perfectly placed to catch what was left of the merchandising wave as it ebbed into the mid 80's, and perfectly placed again to participate in the mid 90's revival of interest in the franchise, now armed with some spending power to grab some of the things I would have lusted after but couldn't have a decade before. Like T-shirts for one...

Like a lot of others, the universe realised on screen wasn't one I merely wanted to watch, it was one I wanted to live in. I particularly wanted a speederbike I could ride to school. I also perfected the art of lightsabreing Agapanthis stalks with a bamboo stick, to my mum's horror. I instantly, and forevermore preferred it to the Star Trek alternative in its various incarnations, which always looked just a little too clean and perfect. Star Wars on the other hand looked like it was filmed on location in a grungy, scruffy, lived in and imperfect series of worlds and vehicles.

When the films were re-released in the intended-at-the-time-to-be definitive Special Editions I was so happy to see them on the big screen again I overlooked the worst of the tinkerings, and enjoyed the best. It was a good time to be a fan.

The pre LOTR makeover Embassy, Wellington 1997

As time passed though, a few of the 'improvements' quickly became a bit less appreciated, and a few became downright cringeworthy. In this imperfect atmosphere the new films were eagerly awaited (I remember downloading the 'Phantom Menace' trailer on a painfully slow, overloaded dial-up connection, and being very excited to finally see it after an hour or so of hoping the connection didn't crash), with the fervent hope and expectation that they be great, only to be slightly underwhelmed when they arrived.

In hindsight living up to their predecessors was an impossible task, but the prequels wound up feeling a bit adequate and a bit perfunctory, not terrible but missing the opportunity to be awesome (and with not that many tweaks, they could have been awesome). Some great moments and scenes, great technical achievements, some great action sequences (and for all his charges, I think he is still a great and under-rated action director), but little heart, thrill, or immersion, terrible dialogue, canon-derailing plot devices, character and plot miscues, good actors looking like amateurs, and overall feeling only special because they were Star Wars movies. A lot of people were left wondering where it all went wrong. And to an extent I think, missing the point.

Putting aside the arguments over creative direction, actual direction-direction of the new films and the continued tinkering with, and mysterious unavailability on a licenced modern format of the first-release cuts of the original films (and on the case presented I am inclined to think Lucas is probably guilty of the various things the documentary makers charge here), we fell in love with the originals as children. Relating to the re-imagined original trilogy, and the new films in the same way was always going to be impossible as adults. And here's the thing; if I was seven years old again, I would probably love the prequels just as much as I do their older siblings, which aren't without their flaws either if I am honest.

Lucas says the prequels were aimed at kids, and thus a new generation of fans (and/or merchandising opportunities if you are cynical), and while some could see this as a backpedalling cop-out, the appeal of the newer films to a younger audience is undeniable. I hate Jar-Jar Binks as much as any other fan, and I cringe these days whenever the similarly roled Ewoks from 'Return of the Jedi' are on screen. In 1983 though, I loved the Ewoks. Somewhat tragically/fortunately though I never got around to seeing 'Caravan of Courage' (as an aside the Ewok battle in ROTJ reminds me of just how casually ultraviolent-in-a-sanitised-way the Star Wars universe really is, a theme continued in the non-movie canon and lore as well). I wonder if in ten or twenty years time the prequels will be critically reassessed and held in slightly higher regard than they are now. I haven't tried it, but according to some they apparently they work better if watched in an epic Ep I through VI back to back session.

I can see the point of view of some that the revisions and additions have despoiled their relationship with the movies (including the absurd and slightly offensive 'George Lucas raped my childhood' song seen in the trailer), but can't agree with it for myself. Whatever the films represent now doesn't affect my memories of letting my enthralled imagination run wild with George Lucas' ideas in the slightest, which one interviewee in the movie rightly points out. The fun I had then, and still have with it is untouchable.

This ramble has turned out to be more about my relationship with the movies than the documentary, but that just goes to show that even after all that has gone on, there is still some magic to be had. The documentary while not without it's own flaws, works well at reminding the viewer of this, and in my mind while ostensibly hostile to Lucas, goes a long way towards at least illustrating his position if not partially exonerating him (even if perhaps unintentionally). That it even exists is a reminder of just how powerful, influential and inspirational cinema, and this franchise in particular can be. There might be a lot of rabid passion and hatred from the fans out there, but it is rooted in a kind of love.

And for the record, Han will always shoot first.

PS: Fi, Kate and Rich saw the documentary with me, and the latter has composed a much more considered and insightful review post than mine here.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Queen(s) Cometh

Listening to: I believe you are a Star - Dimmer (2001). So the day before I did the Tongariro Crossing I was up at an unseemly hour for a Saturday to catch the Cunard Line's Queen Elizabeth entering Wellington Harbour at daybreak on her maiden voyage. It was a weekend of long days and little sleep. I like ships (for a bunch of reasons, although the classic guy fascination with large moving objects might have something to do with it), and ones this classy aren't in Wellington that often. The usual array of cruise liners that visit over the summer just don't have the same air of history and sheer presence that something with 'Cunard' written on the side of it in big red letters does. Plus they aren't here that often or regularly, so are worth checking out.
On a calm morning she caught the rising sun perfectly.

Since the visit coincided with an open day at the port, we hopped on a harbour tug for a joy-ride, mainly because it is something you don't get to do very often.
Charlotte found a perch on the enclosed bridge, and seemed quite at ease with the novelty.

While the Queen Elizabeth was one of the bigger ships to have visited Wellington, any records she may have set were eclipsed a week later when her truly gargantuan cousin (they can't technically be called sisters) and fellow Cundarder the Queen Mary 2 arrived on the 26th of Feb, after being diverted from her original destination of Christchurch due to the earthquake. Compared to a week before the weather wasn't quite so good as she made her entrance, although arriving an hour later it wasn't quite as unseemly.
At 1100 feet long, and weighing in at over 150,000 gross tons, she is quite comfortably the biggest passenger ship to have visited Wellington (by comparison the biggest Cook Strait ferry, the Kaitaki, only measures 595 feet long and 22,300 gross tons), and definitely in the running for biggest ship ever seen in the harbour.

When she was launched in 2004 she was the largest passenger ship ever built. Bigger cruise liners have since been launched, but she remains the largest true ocean liner ever constructed. Putting it another way, the Titanic could almost fit entirely inside her, with room for a Cook Strait ferry or two as well. She isn't quite in the same league as the true supertanker style biggest ships in the world, but is quite big enough to appear out of scale to anything you can put next to her, like say Westpac Stadium.
One of the things I like about living in Wellington is the way passing ships occasionally loom over the end of Waterloo Quay. The Queen Mary 2 loomed more than most.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Catching the Moon III, Super edition

Listening to: Recollection - Concrete Blonde (1996)

Installments I and II here and here respectively.

After weather messed up the last couple, I finally got a chance to catch the Full Moon last night. Fortunately it coincided with the Supermoon (link explaining why it is super and also debunking its suggested earthquake causing ability here ). To be honest though, any increase in apparent size or brightness wasn't too obvious from here.

I even contrived to catch the moonrise over the Rimutaka ranges as the day ended. As mostly usual, click to embiggen:

Nearly Full Moon, 19 March 2011. Interesting to note when the shot is enlarged you can see lunar mountains and craters roughing up the horizon around its edges. Also just noted the camera was somewhat tilted when I took this, so the orientation is screwed up.
Full Moon, 20 March 2011, correctly oriented (albeit upside down if you are from the northern hemisphere...).

Will try again next month, I can probably do better at this with practice.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hospi Bike Ride

Just a quick aside: Our friend in Japan has checked in, house destroyed but staying at a shelter with his family. Relieved :)

The Bike the Trail ride last week was fun, but being 99.9% flat, and generally downhill, not particularly strenuous. The annual Hospi Bike Ride fundraiser for Wellington Children's Hospital (and this year Canterbury earthquake relief as well) is something of a different beast. Twice as long at 50 kilometres, uphills totalling about 700m of climbing, and not a lot of flat bits anywhere. On Bike the Trail my experience of riding into the wind was to come in handy, on this one my hill climbing experience was exploited.

My goals were not to come last, and not be forced to get off and walk at any point, both of which I managed. It was about as hard as I expected in terms of hills, and none of the climbs encountered were harder than what I have learned to cope with when I ride to and from my house (having an ambulance momentarily shadow me climbing up Makara hill was slightly disturbing though), even if they were completed not particularly quickly. Also every climb was rewarded with an immensely fun downhill, the best of which was a couple of K's worth from Brooklyn to Owhiro Bay, without pedalling. Not out of laziness, but because my mountain bike gearing makes pedalling ineffective above 40 or so KPH.

This being a road oriented event, and us riding on mountain and commuter bikes rather than road bikes meant it took us around three hours to do the 50K. The hard-core road cyclists on the other hand (including my nephew) started finishing after less than an hour and a half on the route. My nephew placed 10th. I placed 263rd (out of 277 finishers), so will happily bask in his reflected glory. He did it in almost exactly half the time we did. To be fair though, he is exactly half my age, his road rather than mountain bike probably weighs half as much as mine (definitely way less), is geared and rigged for way higher speed than mine and he is probably twice as fit :). That's my excuse anyway and I am sticking to it.

On to the pics. Fi acted as support crew, photographer and cheerer-oner, but couldn't follow us out onto the rural part of the route (we didn't think it would be smart to add to the bikes/cars/narrow windy road combo) so there aren't any pics from there. Speaking of cheerer-oners, all the marshals marking the course were really nice and encouraging at every turn, especially since we were slow and responsible for keeping them out on the course longer. I really enjoyed it. It struck me later on in the day that at no point on the ride did I think "this sucks, I want a break". I had fun the whole time.

Who can resist a cuddly furry mascot? Not us.
Getting ready to go. We thought about attaching the seat and having Charlotte ride with me, but not having ridden the route before, and a lot of it being a long way from anywhere by bike, thought better of it. Charlotte wasn't entirely convinced she wasn't going riding with Dad this morning though. We sort of planned to put her on the back once we were back in the suburbs, but she was napping in the car by then.
Our intrepid trio of me, Rich and Maria, wearing possibly famous last smiles before the start. Snoopy along for the ride because I figured for something like this event a mascot was in order. It isn't like his drag was going to slow me down or anything. I'm built more for endurance than speed. I also happened to wear appropriate for the charity Canterbury colours, by accident rather than design. I was more focussed on the Greatest American Hero T being a good ironic thing to wear for a potentially tough physical activity than anything else :)
The front part of the pack assembling for the start, including the cycling advocate Mayor (Mayoress?) of Wellington ("So what did you get up to this morning?" "Oh nothing much, just went cycling with the mayor. Oh and 300 other people..").
Setting off, 50 K's to go, and about to be blitzed left, right and centre by passing road cyclists going a lot faster than us.
The first gentle climb of the route, warming up for the first hard climb literally around the corner. Was gratified to pass people on the climb (since I haven't often ridden hill climbs with others, I have little idea what my relative ability at this is).
Close to the rear of the pack, but progressing steadily through Karori having just climbed and descended Makara hill. Smiles from knowing that theoretically the hardest bit is now done, even if there are still 20 odd K to go.
Hooning down from Karori at something close to the legal speed limit. Another hard climb from Aro Valley to Brooklyn still to go (but still not as steep as part of my regular run home. Just longer).
We three tired but happy at the end, after three hours of cycling. I got a cramp in one of my legs with about five K to go, but managed to stave it off by quickly chopping about half a bottle of Powerade (thought process: "Ow, is that cramp? I think it is. Trying to massage it out isn't working, what fixes cramp? Hydration, and that electrolyte stuff all the advertising mentions might help. Wait I still have Powerade in the rack!" Gulp! Cramp abates). Nice to know that sports drinks are more than just fancy advertising and can be useful rather than just looking good. Also a reminder to keep my fluids up next time regardless of feeling thirsty or not.
On completion every rider was rewarded with a bottle of Powerade, and a little lion mascot. Charlotte quickly requisitioned the latter.
There is a write up from a cycling website with nice pics here (it makes me feel better about my ride that they describe the hill climbs as 'tough'). The pics are from the top of the first hard climb of the route in Johnsonville. My pic is in the red helmet group, while my nephew is the fourth picture in the blue helmet group. I take a bit of solace in the fact that while a heap faster, he looks like he is working a lot harder than I am :).

Monday, March 14, 2011


Coincidence can be a strange thing sometimes. On New Years Eve just past I met someone from a place I had never heard of before, the town of Gympie in Australia. A couple of weeks later Gympie was making headlines during the Queensland floods.

Similarly, a few years ago we took on a boarder in the form of a Japanese student teacher doing an exchange at the school Fi teaches at. When Moto heard of the earthquake in Christchurch a few weeks ago, he was quickly messaging us on facebook to see if we were okay. Now it is our turn to message him the other way. Unfortunately his facebook location is Iwaki in the Fukushima prefecture, right in the middle of a disaster that is almost defying comprehension from afar. He hasn't replied yet, and we and the others who have left messages for him are all hoping that he merely has more important things to do than check his social media at the moment.

I thought the Christchurch earthquake was bad, but has happened and is happening in Japan is something else. I don't mind admitting that the live images of one of the tsunami rolling in and overwhelming everything in it's path on Friday night was one of the scariest things I have ever seen on TV. I mean, just ponder for a minute the sort of force that can create a scene like this:

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

So much to say

Listening to Led Zeppelin IV/symbols/untitled - Led Zeppelin (1971). This album is way too good and unaged to be 40 years old (and only five years older than me).

Noted an interesting comment from an 'anonymous' on someone else's blog last night:

"My, my, Off-Black has a lot to say for her/him self."

Not sure if it is a compliment or criticism, (or if it was made after reading the comments I made on that blog, or reading this one) but to be fair, there are now 600+ posts of variable quality blather on this site, so it is true in a sense. It did elicit a quiet laugh though; they probably haven't met me in real life, since the off-line me is pretty much the opposite. I surprised people with my wedding speech, both for delivering it reasonably competently and eloquently, and because they had never heard me say so much at once :).

As a seems-appropriate-at-this-point aside I don't like totally anonymous commenting on general principle. The absence of an identifier makes conversation unnecessarily difficult, besides opening the door for consequence free trolling. You can still use the non-id'd 'anonymous' label, but at least put a pseudonym, initial or other handle on the comment text itself.

In other news, we three did the Bike The Trail ride on Sunday morning, in weather nothing like as nice as the pics from last year on the official site. It might be early autumn, but winter sent us a postcard in the form of an unseasonably wet and cold southerly.

As rides around here go, it is pretty easy for anyone who rides a reasonable distance regularly. Kudos though to the woman who completed it on a ten-speed on a mostly unsealed trail. Fi decided discretion was the better part of valour, (and being 7 and a half months pregnant doesn't really need an excuse anyway, I am impressed she did it at all) and opted to finish at the halfway station, so I took Charlotte the remaining distance to the river mouth. It was mostly sheltered if occasionally damp for most of the way, but the last couple of k's were straight into the strong and strengthening wind. It was interesting to note that while I wasn't racing, just trying to ride at my comfortable pace, I was still passing people even with Charlotte on the back, even into the wind. It got some fun occasional surprised looks from people realising they had just been passed by a guy carrying a passenger.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Two minutes of work

Listening to: Modern Fables - Julia Deans (2010)

NASA compilation video of various cameras on the Solid Rocket Boosters during Discovery's launch last week. I've posted a video from one of these cameras before, but as a compilation this just has some serene and surreal moments worth sharing (in my opinion anyway). The shot at 10:10 in particular is just made of pure wow:

The boosters burn for a little over two minutes. In that time the shuttle goes from motionless on the launch pad to roughly four and a half times the speed of sound at 150,000 feet / 45km high (roughly 5500kph/3400mph and about five times as high and nearly five times as fast as your average jet airliner cruises). If you want an idea of how fast Mach 4.5 is, watch the separation at about 2:25. 15 seconds later the shuttle re-appears as a white dot in the distance, still accelerating on its way to roughly 28100kph / 17500 mph and orbit.

The shot looking back at lift-off conveys the sheer power of this system in a way the the classic side on shot doesn't. Just before the one minute mark after launch a puff of vapour is briefly visible as the shuttle assembly goes supersonic. From a standing start, and initially climbing straight up...

Another cool thing is one of these cameras has sound. From about 14:46 you can hear what it sounds like inside the booster itself. It is almost eerie, at times sounding like the machine is catching its breath after finishing its work, before the wind noise returns and becomes a roar as the booster falls back into the atmosphere, at times with its companion booster visible in the distance.

While the video is sourced from NASA, I came across it at Bad Astronomy, a blog I only started routinely reading fairly recently, and which serves up nuggets of awesomeness on a regular basis. Like these:

The Stars Above, The Luminescence Below

Looking from one moon of Saturn to another across the rings

Family portrait of the Solar System

Ice swirling around a volcano

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Me vs the Volcano

A couple of weekends ago, Rich and I (and a few friends) did the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. For me and Rich, this was the third or fourth try, previous plans having been scuttled by the weather. On this day though, finally, the weather was near perfect, even if Ngauruhoe was wearing it's best "come on if you think you're hard enough" face at dawn when viewed from our lodge (click on all pics to embiggen):
Approaching the trail head there was still a sense of foreboding from Mt Doom. The cloud across the saddle to at left where we would be walking was still a slight cause of "will we get to do this or not" angst.
The start of the trail, already above the treeline at 1100m / 3600ft.. The small fuzzy thing is one of travelling menagerie of photo mascots. This one is a Wombat I picked up in Australia one time.
The first part of the trail up the Mangatepopo Valley is gentle ambling, even boardwalked in places.
At the end of the valley though there is this sign as a warning that you are entering a serious environment, and the trail is about to get a lot harder (note the 'you are here' pointer and where it is on the track profile).
The sign is there partly because of this bit, popularly known as 'The Devil's Staircase'. It has been civilised partly in the past few years with the introduction of a graded trail and actual stairs, but prior to that some clambering over lava flows and finding your own way was required. I wonder if the old way might have been slightly easier, since it might have given more chances for quick breaks. For whatever reason I found this bit easily the hardest part of the crossing. I remember lots of stopping to get my breath back, and sweat dripping off my fingers. It is basically a 1000ft high set of stairs and ramps, with few chances to rest without stopping completely.

Lava, Devil's Staircase

About halfway up the staircase is this sign reminding exactly what sort of country you are in. the bit of lava flow it is placed on only dates from 1975. It was kind of cool knowing I was walking across ground that was only months older than me rather than the usual millenia.
Hikers ascending Mt Ngauruhoe. Being a very young (2500 years, it's just a baby) and almost perfectly symmetrical cone, there isn't an easy way up.
After topping the staircase, South Crater at about 1660m / 5450ft is blessedly, sweetly flat, although another steep climb looms beyond. Also note the numbers on the trail. This isn't exactly a solitudinal thing.
Looking out over the Oturere Valley at an old lava flow.
View of the trail during the climb out of South crater showing how well trodden it is. Since this was also another sloggy and hard ascent this was mostly my view of the trail at the time as well.
Distant figures visible on the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe (2287m / 7500ft). The secondary cone they are standing on only dates from the 1950's.
Following the ridge between South and Central craters to head toward the Tongariro summit. the landscape is barren and almost alien, as well as being obviously young and violently formed.
The Wombat triumphant near the Tongariro summit.
The summit of Red Cone, the highest part of the main crossing route at 1868m / 6128ft. Looking down on it from the ridge above was the highest I have ever hiked.
Looking into Red Crater at a lava tube exposed by erosion. It is technically called a lava dike, but we quickly came up with a slightly less scientific description for what it looked like...
Steam rising from the ground atop Red Cone.
The crazy steep scree slope descent from Red Cone to the Emerald Lakes.
The scoria and lava flow littered floor of Central Crater looking across to the North Crater cone.
Looking back across Central Crater at Red Cone, with Ngauruhoe behind.
Blue Lake Crater, 1725m / 5660ft.
Looking across Central Crater at the lava flow that spread across it from Red Crater about 1800 years ago.
Rounding a corner leading away from the Central Crater rim you suddenly get an epic lake vista. Lake Rotoaira in the foreground with Lake Taupo behind.
You can even see the road marking the end of the trail.
Which is a bit of a tease since there are still 8 K to go.
After descending past the tree line, the trail passes through native bush. This bit takes forever, since you know you are near the finish, but can't see it, combined with lots of hard packed earth, steps and drop offs for weary feet and legs. Only a little bit of it is boardwalked.
The shelter at the end of the trail littered with tired people waiting for their rides.
And my own tired dusty feet.
Team photo post crossing, still smiling, but looking forward to a cold beer.
Finally getting to take my boots off back at the lodge. Note the gravel that had travelled all the way from the scree at Red Crater.

Some post crossing thoughts:

-It was awesome, and a great experience. I like volcanoes and getting to play around and explore in one was a buzz. I will never look at Ngauruhoe and Tongariro in quite the same way again.
-We were very lucky in getting near perfect weather for the day. The weather in NZ is notoriously changeable, and even more so in the mountains. It can go from great to greivous in the space of minutes.
-With the weather in mind I had a heavy pack full of things I wound up not needing, but wouldn't consider going into that environment without. The trail was busy though, and even though I was expecting it, the lack of appropriate clothing or gear among many of the others on the trail, mostly tourists was still head-shake inducing. There were many who were well prepared looking as well, but a lot seemed to have no idea of how potentially hazardous the place is. Which isn't to say it is implicitly dangerous, but you do need to be a bit thoughtful and prepared.
-I wonder how many tourists in particular are surprised not only by the weather changing, but by how difficult parts of the crossing can be. I hard heard of the Devil's Staircase and its reputation, but was still surprised at how hard I found it. Even the 'are you sure' sign might go over the heads of some. This isn't really a casual day walk.
-I want to do it again, but take a bit more time. Our group did the crossing quickly, with little time for the side trips. I would also like to summit Ngauruhoe, at some point. We had thought of it as a 'maybe' this time, but that quickly became a 'no' on getting up there.
-I was expecting to be sore afterwards, but was surprised when I had to take a day off work a couple of days later due to being barely able to walk. I felt like I had two sprained ankles, but they returned to normal after a day or two. I think it was just bruising incurred on the descent, which is swift and on a hard packed trail due to the numbers walking it. This is about the only time on a trail I can remember being happy to walk in mud where I found it.

More pics on facebook here for those interested.