Pretty Numbers

I’m incredibly excited about this new project that I am kicking off –  For years, I’ve been interested in quantitative analysis and data visualization, but with the amount of available data constantly expanding via the internet and open data services, the need for dialogue and perspective in these areas has never been greater.  It is my hope to use this blog to investigate the exciting (at least to uber-geeks) field of data visualization and to help showcase some of the cool examples that there are out there (because there aren’t enough of THOSE out there).  Of course, the other reason for this blog is to motivate myself to generate my OWN visualizations and give them a place to live.  I’ve got one that I’m working on, but it’s challenging work.  

Anyway – check out the new blog. I’m having a blast doing it!

– g


I want to see a lot more of Gina Carano

Gina Carano (promo pic)Gina Carano is changing everything that I believe about a great number of things. I’ve been wanting to write this post since last Tuesday when I first watched her in her Steven Soderbergh-directed debut film, Haywire. However, I’ve was too busy last week. So ironically, I’m started writing it from my local shawarma place while UFC on Fox was playing live from New Jersey.

MMA Fighters- Good; MMA- Bad

In spite of the fact that I studied martial arts for over five years, I have significant reservations about MMA as a professional sport. I sincerely acknowledge the athleticism, dedication and sheer nerve of these contestants. I also recognize that there is a market for this kind of gladiatorial entertainment that offers people who are truly gifted at it an opportunity to to express their abilities.  Nevertheless, competitive fighting, especially where the permissiveness of the rules and refereeing encourage significantly harming one another, is simply barbaric to me and fills me with fear for the society that greedily consumes it.

So out of this ethically-dubious sport comes a woman who is the subject of my fascination.  Gina was an exemplary athlete in high school and attended university to study psychology.  After getting involved in Muay Thai kickboxing, she entered the fledgling world of professional female mixed martial arts.  After a satisfying career, she was seen by director Soderbergh and he immediately was so impressed with her that he reached out to her to build a film project around her.  You only have to watch her fight to be impressed with her ability.

So what makes her so compelling to me… and Steven Soderbergh… and the 214 thousand (yes, a decent-sized city’s worth of) other people?  She’s attractive and photogenic, but one could argue that there are a lot of prettier women out there to look at.  She’s a solid fighter, but there are better, more ruthless fighters, including the one that took her title from her.  In her debut film, her acting is decent and up to the task that she is offered, working next to heavyweights like Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas, but she’s no Meryl Streep (although she may as well be compared to the likes of say… Megan Fox). 

So what is it?  What is the Carano-factor? I was discussing the topic with a colleague of mine at work recently (typical water-cooler fare), and he helped me to really narrow down what it is that I like so much about Gina.

Do three things and do them well

There might be sweeter eye candy, harder fighters, and actresses better favoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but she’s the best woman I’ve ever seen who has all three things and does them all well.  We forget in the day of Ripley, Sarah Connor, and Lara Croft (I’m intentionally leaving out whatshername from Underworld and the entire cast of Suckerpunch), that women were not traditionally considered viable action headliners.

One of the earliest, best examples of a bona fide fighter in action movies was pioneer martial artist Cynthia Rothrock.  A five-time world karate champion, she was a master martial artist and brought authenticity and skill to the screen (although for the most part, she wound up in the worst sort of terrible gangster/cyborg/post-apocalypse kind of films known to man in the 80’s and early 90’s).  But for all of her skill and sincerity in doing all of her own fighting and stunts, she wasn’t much of an actress and for lack of scripts or direction, was never able to really make an impression on audiences for anything other than her amazing flips, kicks and weapons work.  So we have a great fighter, but a fairly lousy actress and in spite of tacky efforts to sexualize her, her looks didn’t exactly light up the screen (again, a testament to the terrible films in which she found herself).

So what about the pretty, decent acting action heroines?  Let’s leave Sigourney Weaver out of this, since it’s fairly universally accepted that she is a brilliant woman, a breathtaking beauty and a gifted actress, capable of filling the most unbelievable scenarios with humanity and depth.  That leaves us with the likes of Angelina Jolie, Ziyi Zhang, Carrie-Anne Moss, Kristen Kreuk, Uma Thurman, and a handful of others.  These women are lovely to look at on the screen, but are they credible in a fight?  They might scratch you with their bony elbows, but they all probably weigh-in at a cameragenic 100 – 120lbs, at most.  In films, they are seen taking down 6’4″, 250lb adversaries with technical skill and speed, but in reality with that kind of weight differential, it’s incredibly unlikely that a direct confrontation between a combatant (female or male) and someone literally twice his or her size would end well for the underdog.  Unless perhaps the underdog was armed with Thor’s hammer.  At 5’8″ and a muscular 145lbs, Gina Carano has the stats of a male featherweight to lightweight fighter and if you’ve seen her kick or strike, you can see she has really credible power.

So what about other athletic women who are attractive and can kick serious ass… can they act?  This question hardly warrants examination.  Compared to other American Gladiator girls even in non-dramatic roles?  Compared to say a Pamela Anderson or even very likeable and charming Zoë Bell?  Gina is like the Katherine Hepburn of martial arts actresses.

Fighting and feminism

So what do we do with this Wonder Woman in film?  How does her entry to the scene change the game, if it does at all?  As a violent action-film, Haywire doesn’t pull any punches (so to speak).  Carano’s character is the victim of an elaborate double-cross and everyone she meets is intent on savagely taking her down.  She’s sucker-punched, attacked from behind full-force, and hunted by armed tac-teams.  In just about any conceivable context, this would be considered glorified misogyny.

But the story doesn’t victimize her character for even a moment… the violence that is inflicted upon her (we are expected to conclude) is presented in direct proportion to the apparent threat that she presents as an opponent.  I feel that this represents a very different type of female hero modality.  Her assailants don’t scoff at her efforts to stand her ground because she is a girl as is often the attitude against action heroines.  They do not react to her with brutality because they hate women or want to dominate her in particular – they do it because they fully expect her to respond as an equal opposing force.  To Soderbergh’s credit, the violence doesn’t come across as patronizing or humiliating, but rather pragmatic and professional.  I suppose that it’s somewhat ridiculous to conclude that it is respectful, since they are all out to kill her.  But short of that, there is an acknowledgement that her character is a potential equal and needs to be dealt with accordingly.  Carano’s real-life background and her authentic physicality sells the whole package with room to spare.  So it looks to me like Carano has opened the door to an absurd sort of women’s equality in an arena traditionally considered the exclusive domain of men.

Does Carano’s character achieve this parity by sacrificing her intate femininity or by simply co-opting the masculine stance, thereby betraying her own feminism?  I don’t think that’s quite right either.  Carano’s character’s concerns are for her family and retribution for her own treatment and the treatment of those she (very briefly) cares about.  Her final battle repudiates her prior mercenary choices that led her into the circumstances of the film and punctuates her otherness from the very masculine, single-minded warrior mentality.  But you’ll have to see the film to debate me on that point.

 Why I want to see a whole lot more of Gina

Soderbergh is a smart enough producer and director to make something other than a cheap 80’s chixploitation action flick and has made a new kind of action heroine who is as intimidating as a JCVD or Schwarzenegger, but in a much more feminine manner.   With her winning look, undeniable physicality and affable disposition, I think Gina makes a great new kind of role model for the action genre that has long treated women a sex-objects or love-interest/hostages.  She takes parts of some of the most iconic masculine heros like Indiana Jones, self-reliance, ingenuity, discipline and commitment, and embodies them in a feminine manner.  I think that it will be interesting to see her career progress and evolve, hopefully expanding on her potential, rather than pigeon-holing her as a one-trick-pony.  Even if it does, I’ll be grateful for the contribution that she’s made to the genre.

– g

ps.  i’m such a fanboy.

stop sopa

i’ve recently started a new project in Canada’s national capitol, Ottawa.  i’ve had a long fascination with Ottawa because it is the home of some of Canada’s most historic and important institutions – Parliament, the Supreme Court and the National Gallery of Canada to name just a few.  i used to watch the House of Commons Question Period on public television and felt that i could directly observe (if not quite participate in) the process of democracy shaping my world.

these days i have quite a different feeling than i did twenty-some years ago.  each week that i’ve been here, i would walk down Wellington Street past Parliament and the Supreme Court and the National Archives and wonder how the world got this way. debates about constitutional reform seem like a thing of history.  discussions about human rights and legal ethics are things that we engage in regarding other countries, but there appears to be so little attention paid to these matters here (at least in the popular press).  maybe all of the really hard questions have been dealt with and we Canadians are just doing our best to keep our heads above water while the globe’s economic and political structures pitch and sway with dervish-like abandon. 

i really don’t mean for this to seem disdainful or contemptuous.  Canadians are fiercely proud of their incomparable good fortune – we have an abundance of everything that is scarce in the rest of the world combined with a degree of safety and security that is virtually unprecedented in the history of the world.  i know that i am fiercely proud of this state of affairs – even as i worry that we are not as contemplative or vigilant a nation as i feel that we used to be.  

however, my ruminations do make me feel that it is important to speak up against something like SOPA.  SOPA has the power to destabilize the very internet – the thing that pays my salary and gives me freedom to access information in a way that i can directly control.  the internet has broken my dependence on mass media for ideas and information, and has empowered me to draw my own conclusions on what the world is and where it is heading by allowing me to find a contemplative and vigilant community that cares about issues of concern, rather than the biased concerns of populist media conglomerates susceptible to corporate interests.  while SOPA is not directly about quashing the democratic voice of the people of the world, it has the power to censure and constrain it, and that is why i think that it is harmful.  the thin edge of the wedge.  the edge of the slippery slope.   

there are altogether too many fronts on which our modern society is on the brink.  therefore, i feel that it is not too much trouble for me to participate in what might be the largest online protest in the history of online to voice my concern.  i hope that during this week, you will think about this issue and do what you can to express your concern in what way you can as well.

thanks for your attention.  

– g


digital versus everyting

some of my crappy vinyl collection

in preparations for (yet another) cross-country move, i was at my parents’ house rearranging some stuff i had there for storage. most of the stuff was college textbooks and other heavy items that i didn’t want to move before. the problem with books is that they are so heavy, and unless you are constantly rereading them, you can exert an awful lot of effort and cost trucking them back and forth with you everywhere you go. even moving within the same city, a single box of books can easily weigh 40kg and piss you off by the tenth or twentieth box. that is why i came up with the moving rule of buying digital versions of whatever book i needed from hereonin.

but then i found my box of records from my childhood in the garage. the albums and singles had been lingering in the garage for well over a decade, continuously visited by rain and snow and thaw and cold and mold and mice. i brought the box to my apartment and surveyed the damage. the cardboard of most of the covers had become warped and soiled for the most part, but the vinyl seems to be fine. looking over the curious and antiquated media brought back all kinds of memories and recollections from my past for which i was frankly unprepared.

i have 46.2 days worth of continuous music in my iTunes library. 13,441 items which would fit on approximately 1,344 albums. but the emotional impact of leafing through that collection, compared to the 40 – 50 albums in my crusty cardboard box, was a fraction of that amount. even with coverflow. so i wonder what young people who grew up with purely digital media will have to look forward to 20 – 30 years from now. will they scroll through a window of files in a directory and think, “wow, i remember when i listened to these downloads over and over on my iPod nano” and smile inside?

to me, the issue is not one of audio quality or convenience or availability, but of quality of experience. there is something inherently ritualistic about pulling out a great big 12″ square record album, looking at the big high-definition printed cover art/photography, reading the cleverly designed liner notes, placing the disc on the turntable and setting the needle to the record that is lost in the replacement task of double-clicking a file or a song title in a playlist.

or how about movies? i used to go to the cinema all the time, as recently as a few years ago. now, i can almost barely be bothered to go and see the climax of the Harry Potter series on the big screen. again, the ritual of taking the bus to the theatre, buying a ticket, getting a bag of popcorn, and struggling to find the best available seat, has been replaced by shlumping onto the couch and renting “Hanna” online from iTunes on demand. I can stop the film, go to the bathroom, write and email, make dinner, go to work, and come back to the film, totally breaking its demand for the suspension of disbelief. how can that possibly do justice to the artist’s vision?

the same goes for books. i used to revere books and care about them dearly, personalizing them ever so carefully with annotations and dogears only where absolutely necessary or critical – because books, unlike eBooks, have no “undo” feature, and a page once folded, can never be made smooth again. so how is it that i’ve come full circle and sold and abandoned so many cherished books in favour of their back-lit imposters?

i even have digital versions of my entire “Sandman” comic book collection, now sitting in the dank crawlspace between my parents’ main floor and basement. i only read “Wired” magazine on my iPad, although i used to buy every issue from the very first issue that was ever printed religiously. i haven’t had a newspaper subscription since the internet began.

i’ve come to enjoy the consumption of every type of medium digitally – i depend on it with my lifestyle and workload. but now that i have given myself completely to the digital age, i have to look back and wonder just what the heck i’ve been reading/listening to/watching/loving in that entire time. it’s a completely unfathomable mystery to me now, because all i can see is a stack of perpetually inadequate storage devices on my desk that hold the three terabytes of data that represents my life for the past 15 years.

i need a better way to appreciate and reminisce about the things i’ve experienced than what the current digital experience allows me. maybe Facebook timeline will help with that – LOL!

– g

ps.  i fear that this post indicates the completion of my transformation into an emo-hipster.  sigh.

why facebook’s timeline was inevitable

Facebook Timeline

today at Facebook’s F8 developers conference, Mark Zuckerberg made one of the smartest plays with Facebook since adding the Like button to everything on the web – he announced Timeline. Timeline allows Facebook users to view their Facebook contributions from the beginning of their accounts, and earlier, on a clever and attractive timeline – like a patchwork autobiography. Timeline isn’t an amazingly novel idea (i mean, even i had the idea a year ago) but it is one that i truly believe can add at least another 2 – 5 years to social networking’s reign as a supreme technology and i will explain why.

this summer saw reports of declines in use in social networking sites with the term “Facebook fatigue” being coined and endorsed by CNN. this is pretty understandable. apart from sharing photos of pets and newborns, and less noble pursuits like stalking and snooping on friends or friends-of-friends, the novelty of Facebook as a social sharing medium has grown a little thin. we can only poke a friend so many times before it gets old. Facebook’s most valuable commercial enterprise apart from ads is online gaming, which again while entertaining, offers no substantive value to the end user. the only other real value Facebook has is allowing friends to share content that they’ve liked on other sites with other friends, but there are so many vehicles to achieve the same thing, Facebook hardly has much of an edge on that (apart from its ever-increasing user base). so how can Facebook be made relevant and valuable to users after they graduate high school/depart university, etc.?

Facebook has discovered that the information that we Facebook users have been loading it full of over the past years has personal, historical value to its users. i stopped keeping a diary when i turned 15, and now that i am… older than 15, i am finding it harder and harder to keep track of the things that i’ve been doing and have done. So when i get the opportunity to look back at the past 3-4 years that i’ve spent injecting Facebook with status updates, wall photos, relationship updates, random profanity, and other sundry posts and messages, i find that i’ve got for myself a pretty sweet little autobiography that i can use with to-the-second certainty to identify exactly what i was doing/thinking/eating/drinking/liking at that point when i was updating Facebook. it’s as if all of those fleeting and extemporaneous thoughts that I had in-the-moment to be released and forgotten ever after, were gathered up and marvelled at as a mosaic-tiled narrative.

“ok – so what?” you are probably thinking to yourself. who cares that my Facebook content is now ordered chronologically? well, for me anyway, and apparently the geers at Facebook agree, it makes Facebook a valuable tool to ME as opposed to my network and i can now choose to contribute to it because i want to extend the narrative that i have been creating for the past four years and improve its quality and fidelity, especially now that the tool is much better designed to do it. i am no longer motivated to update my status because i want my community to be aware of what i am doing – i am motivated to update my status because i want FUTURE ME, of my future wife, or future children or whoever to be aware of what i WAS DOING at this point in history.

and Facebook went one very clever step farther. with its Open Graph API, launch partners are able to add their apps to the timeline from day one, so that your Spotify data can feed a part of the history, or what you were watching on Netflix. Zuckerberg demonstrated integration with Nike Plus, which i have also been using forever – and having that data integrated makes Timeline even more authoritative. the potential is really vast.

obviously, there are significant challenges to be faced by Facebook Timeline. people are already concerned with how much control they have over their private information and the permissions they can give to others to view their content. Timeline seems to be a way of getting users to pour even MORE personal information than they would normally place on Facebook – even going so far as to prompt users to add photos, videos, and notes about their own birth, or other significant life events. i’m not sure how much even i like that idea, and i love the idea of Timeline tremendously.

privacy and security concerns notwithstanding, evolving social networking and sharing into a personal micro-history generator is simply brilliant. so many of the young generation’s best moments have already been captured online in social sites so when they turn on Timeline, their autobiographies will be so much more robust than my generation’s, and so much more meaningful. i have a hard time believing that any of us will be able to see the reflection of our personal histories presented in a slick new interface and quickly turn away from it… at least not without thinking twice.

– g