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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

More Sporadicness in the Near Future

I went in for a cortisone shot in my spine yesterday and got some bad news: more problems with disks up the stack from the last problems. Recovery from the shot blew yesterday, and there'll be more medical appointments in the next couple of weeks. On top of that, my older son has finalized the dates for his visit back to Oregon, and it's the week starting this Friday. We'll be putting him and his wife up in the spare bedroom, and acting as reunion central for the rest of the local family and friends, so I don't expect to have much time for the internet. I'll sneak in posts as I can.

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Very Sad Story

I've debated for the last week whether to post this story because I honestly don't know how to take it. It's a damn shame that it happened, but there's nothing that you or I can do about it. It's a personal tragedy, and I'm damned if I can articulate any greater lesson or caution to be learned from it, other than, "Yes, it can happen to anyone." But I want to talk about it, because it bugs me, so here goes.

When I went into the surgeon's office for a followup exam after my back surgery last year I was told that I would have to see the surgeon's assistant because the surgeon was on extended leave for personal reasons. That wasn't a big problem for me because the assistant had taken part in my surgery and was familiar with my case. Then three months after my surgery, when I had another followup appointment, I was told that the senior surgeon was still unavailable, as a result of medical problems. I talked to people in his office and in the rehab group I went to; no one seemed to know what had happened to my surgeon, though there were rumors of chronic neurological problems that would prevent him from performing surgery.

A couple of weeks ago the doctor who's overseeing my recovery1 suggested that I talk to a surgeon again about procedures that might improve some of the problems that the previous surgery hasn't been very effective against. He suggested I see my original surgeon's partner, so I called up, and was told that my surgeon had returned and was seeing patients once a week, and that he would like to see me. So I made an appointment for last Tuesday.

It was immediately obvious what had happened to him when he walked into the consultation room, and he confirmed it: he'd had a severe stroke that partially paralyzed his left side. There was no effect on his cognitive abilities, language processing, or memory, but almost 9 months later he's still got a brace on his left foot to prevent foot drop2 and his left arm is extremely weak. He's not an old man by any means, I think he's in his late 30s, but he looks like 10 miles of bad road: his hairline has receded, he's lost considerable weight3 and his movements are not those of a active and confident man, instead they're hesitant and conservative, as if he's no longer sure what his body can do4.

Of course the irony of this happening to him at a high point in a career that's based in part on his ability to do exacting and precise physical work for long periods of time5 is not lost on him. It's especially keen as he was a surgeon in large part because he was very good at it, and he loved doing it. It' s extremely likely he will never be able to perform surgery again. But my hat's off to him; he could certainly decide not to have anything to do with medicine anymore, if he can't do surgery, but he's come back and is seeing patients and helping to plan treatments which his partner and assistant will actually perform. I surely hope that the satisfaction he gets outweighs the disappointment, if for no other reasons than that he is an excellent doctor and a really nice guy.

So there it is: I feel very bad for the doctor; having a stroke isn't worse for him than it would be for anyone else, though the resultant damage to the life he had is especially poignant in his case. I like him and am grateful to him for his work on me, so I identify more strongly with him than might with someone I don't know. But he's doing his best to come back from the physical damage, and is determined to rebuild his professional life as best he can, all of which is good. So why do I feel such a need to talk about his case? Is it just that I've found a good piece of gossip? I hope not, that wouldn't make me feel very good about myself. But what about this story should be told for what salutary effect on my readers?

1. He's a specialist in neurological and back/spine rehabilitation whose job is to make sure that the various other specialists, surgeons, therapists, and whatnot are talking to each other, and that there is someone who's watching out for the outcome of my treatment, not just the procedures being administered. I am really grateful I found him; he's the one who tells me when we need to re-evaluate how well my progress is following the expected outcome.
2. And I can sympathize with that: I've got braces on both feet for the same purpose.
3. He was in quite good physical condition before the stroke; not bulked up, but he looked like he played a lot of tennis or raquetball.
4. And I know that one too; that's what happens to anyone whose body suddenly won't do or does only with difficulty what used to be effortless.
5. My surgery lasted 6 1/2 hours; a year or so ago they'd done an 18 to 20 hour procedure that completely restructured the spine of a teenage girl with spinabifuda from C5 to S3. Shortly before my surgery, she was able to dance at her prom.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Go Ask Alice

Eva and I went to see Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" in 3D yesterday. We both wanted to see the movie, she'd never seen a 3D film, and I wanted to see how the technology had changed in the 20 years or so since I'd last seen one. Conclusions: a very good movie if you ignore the 3D aspect completely. The 3D effect was technically well-handled but perhaps a bit overdone for artistic purposes (I got a mild migraine from eyestrain because of titles and foreground objects placed about at the bridge of my nose).

There are three works of Lewis Carroll's that I think are among the jewels of English literature¹: "Alice in Wonderland", "Through the Looking-Glass", and "The Hunting of the Snark".² So I tend to get somewhat critical of adaptations of Alice, to film especially. I've resigned myself to the inability of most screen writers to distinguish between "Wonderland" and "Looking-Glass"³, but I really do insist that the adapters have some clue about what Carroll was doing with his original versions. Hence my distaste for the recent abomination on SyFy.

Burton, as you might expect, has respect for both Carroll's stories and the original Tenniel illustrations. The intersection of those two is Johnny Depp's portrayal of the Mad Hatter, which I enjoyed immensely, both to look at and to hear. But the Jabberwock ("The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!") should also be admired; it is the very finest homage to Tenniel. And Burton has the sense not to try to retell the same stories as Carroll as many have tried before and failed at. Instead he gives us an older Alice, returning to Wonderland with imperfect memories of what she experienced there in her childhood.

Between Burton, Depp, the voice of the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman!), and the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry!!) the level of insanity is quite as high as necessary, and definitely as dark and edgy as it needs to be (this is where Disney blew it big time in 1951, of course). Special insane honors should be given to Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the Queen of Hearts with a strident psychopathy that really endeared her to me (in a dark and edgy, I'd-never-want-to-meet-her-in-a-dark-alley sort of way).

I can't really say enough good things about the visual design. The playing cards were done in a rusty-red armor that clearly did not contain human beings and managed to be both menacing and somewhat clumsy-looking at the same time, though their movements were swift and deadly; the chess pieces in the White Queen's army were from a relatively cheap, abstract-shape set (and looked as if they were made from a slightly off-white plastic). And the architecture of the castle of the Queen of Hearts was pure Eldritch Gothic.

In fact, there was only one thing I would have liked to have seen done differently. As Eva pointed out as we drove away from the theater, Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" gets its power from the fact that the actions, dialog, and motivations of the creatures of Wonderland are chaotic and often random and lacking obvious cause and effect relations. No film or TV adaptation has ever been able to unhook itself sufficiently from the orthodox notions of narrative storytelling to follow that example as far out as Carroll went. Moreover, "Through the Looking-Glass" is just the opposite, with the characters and their interactions often following spurious and nonsensical, but logical, patterns. That's why putting the two together is so problematic. In the end, Carroll had no other way to end "Wonderland" than to say that it was all a dream (or was it?); Burton felt it necessary to wrap the story in a narrative of Alice's acceptance of the adult responsibility for her own decisions. I wish he had been brave enough to stick with nonsense.

As for the 3D technology, it was reasonably good, modulo the overuse of parallax I mentioned above. I noticed a couple of odd effects, possibly artifacts of the technology: occasionally soft images such as (computer-generated, I think) lens flare or smoke effects seemed to be at the wrong depth, and some images that intended to appear very close to the viewer seemed to have inverted parallax as if they were actually behind my head. I have no idea if that's what was actually happening, but these effects were a bit disconcerting. My take on current use of 3D (not having seen "Avatar"4 which I have been told uses it very well) is that it's still somewhat of a gimmick.

I'm encouraged in my wishes for the success of this movie by the fact that three weeks after the opening it is still running in 3 theaters (2 in 2d and 1 in 3D) of the multiplex where we saw it. Please, all of you, go out and see it (again if appropriate) to make it as financially successful as it is artistically successful.

¹ And several that in a just universe would be totally forgotten: "Sylvie and Bruno" and "Sylvia and Bruno Revisited" especially.
² If you ever get a chance, listen to a audio recording of Jean Shepherd reading "The Hunting of the Snark" on his radio show (he did it once a year, with great glee and gusto).
³ I don't know if Disney was the first to do this, but I believe he influenced everyone afterwards to do it.
4For reasons of political taste, the same reasons which have so far prevented me from watching "Dances with Wolves".

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

No Post, Radio

Nothing to see here at the moment. I've got some more feedback photos to post, probably tomorrow, but the last few days have been taken up with taxes and medical appointments, so there's been time to work, but not much time to write about working. But I shall return soon.

Monday, March 8, 2010

More on Eve Arnold

Via Luminous-Lint:

My aunt Eve is going to be awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Sony World Photography Awards in Cannes this April.  Even neater, the award will be given on April 22, the day after her 98th birthday. Go, Eve!

ETA: see my previous posts on Eve, here and here for more information about her.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

I Attempt Feedback

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm working on a visual accompaniment to a piece of music, consisting entirely of images generated by video feedback. I've done this a couple of times before, but that was in the 1970's; since then I've played with feedback occasionally but not tried to do anything serious with it. The simplest form of video feedback involves pointing a camera at a screen displaying the output of the camera. Because there is a one-frame delay from when a pixel on the screen changes until that change is sent back to the screen from the camera, a delayed feedback loop is created. Here's a still photo taken off a video of the basic setup:



Now you can move, tilt, and zoom the camera to make some more interesting patterns:


Note the camera control icons in these stills. I don't have a video camcorder, so I tried to use the video mode of a point and shoot digital camera. In fact, I tried 2 different cameras, and found that I couldn't get rid of all the icons on either of them. My current budget is constrained enough that I can't afford to go out and buy a camcorder just now, so simple video feedback is problematic for this project.

Never fear, the computer will save me. Turns out it's not at all difficult to simulate video feedback with a program. On Mac OS X, there is a program called Quartz Composer that allows you to program complicated video effects in the Core Image API. You can build components (called "patches") for these programs using standard Mac Objective-C coding, but once they're built, you can wire them together with composer in a visual editor paradigm. Since the system comes supplied with a wide-range of patches, and there are more at various developer sites on the web, you can do a lot without ever writing any code. I made some simple feedback videos using input from the iSight camera in my laptop feeding into Quartz Composer; here's one still:



Here's a screen-shot of a composer editor window:



That window shows the wiring diagram for a feedback video that looks like this:


And here's a short video of another simulated feedback program:


video

I'm now working on the problem of getting the clips of simulated feedback into my movie editing software so I can cut them to the music. For some reason one of them worked, but the second one I tried can't be imported correctly. Oh, the joys of software! I'll post more on this subject as I make progress.