Monday, January 31, 2011

Tangled: A Movie Review

I took my sweet wife to see Tangled on Friday night. I want to buy it. My computer graphics professional's eye was tuned to the quality of the CG animation. It was an interesting contrast to Tron, which is a mixture of live action and deliberate CG.

In Tron, the storytellers and artists went for photorealism. They expected the audience to do the suspension-of-disbelief thing that sucks people into Star Wars, Star Trek, and so on. In most of the scenes, they succeeded.

In Tangled, instead, the storytellers and artists went for cartoony effects. The characters were caricatures, the scenery elements were fanciful and exaggerated, the physics was cartoon physics -- and yet they sucked you in anyway.

And just when you were getting comfortable with the cartooniness of the thing, they gave you a visual effect that was stunning in its realism. I offer you four examples:

1. Rapunzel's dress
Disney being Disney, I'm sure they made several real dresses, put them on several models, and took hundreds of videos and stills for the artists to work from. Well, their meticulousness paid off. The laces on the back of the dress were not spaced perfectly, just as laces on a real dress would not be, and yet the laces kept their imperfect spacing when Rapunzel moved - just as they would on a real dress. The hem on the white petticoat looked and moved just like a lace-trimmed hem on a real petticoat.

And the sleeves! Did you notice the sleeves? I'm not talking about the puffy shoulders, but the delicate, sheer, skin-hugging material that went all the way down her arms and ended with embroidery? binding? some kind of fancy trim, anyway, at her wrists. Maybe these subtle touches were missed on most of the audience, but without them, the film would have felt a little less polished. It's like a dressmaker drew every frame with the dress in it.

One other subtle touch, and please don't think I'm a perv for noticing this: In real life, a wide neckline gapes open just a fraction of an inch at the sides, at the reverse curve on the front of the shoulder. (Shoulder straps can often be seen in this gap.) The gap widens and closes according to the wearer's posture and movement. Few, if any, animated movies get this right. No, change that. Until Tangled, every animated movie ignored this gap completely. Even Shrek ignored it. I don't know how, but Tangled got it right.

Again, you might ask: why go for all this realism if you intended to make a cartoony movie in the first place? I dunno. But the fact that they did, and got it right, makes the movie that much richer.

2. Water
Everywhere there was water, its modeling was a mixture of cartooniness and realism. The cartooniness was deliberate, and so was the realism. How they decided which approach to use, and when, is beyond me, but again they got it right. The waterfalls, the dam, the flooding of the cavern, and - oh my - the lake that surrounded the island town, were all modeled so perfectly that they enhanced, rather than distracted from, the film. For a contrast, look at the CG water in The X-Men, which was a nice try but still obviously fake, and in The Incredibles, which was also intentionally cartoony, and felt more like plastic than water.

3. Light
If you watch the film again, you will notice that "light" was a central theme throughout the movie. That was deliberate, and they put real money into "light". The Lighting department got a major portion of the credits at the end.

The story line followed the light, emanated from light, and always returned to light. Starting with the fireflower in the prologue, then with the incident in the nursery, light against darkness mattered. It was central to the story. It told the story. The interplay of light rays and shadows in the tower told of good versus evil, knowledge versus ignorance, courage versus fear, hope versus despair, freedom versus captivity. The complicated animation that was Rapunzel's glowing hair was fascinating. But to me, the most breathtaking use of light was during the festival of the lanterns.

4. The lantern scene
When the first lantern was lit and launched, that was okay. Yeah, it was amazingly realistic, but by then I was used to the amazing realism. But then the entire town lit up lanterns - and I gasped out loud. These glowing tissue-paper lanterns lifted off and floated around, hundreds of them, in individual paths, all around the palace towers. It was a powerful visual representation of hope. It brought tears to my eyes.

Then, combining the water and light effects, the camera zeroed in on the boy and girl, sitting in a small boat in the middle of the lake, surrounded by lanterns in the air and lantern reflections in the calm water. Right then, I wished we were watching the movie in 3D. That's the kind of scene 3D cinema was made for.

I sat there with my mouth hanging open until the lantern scene ended. Between the tears and the mouth agape, I'm glad the theatre was dark.


It was a good story, too, and well told. There's a reason G and PG movies still pull in most of the money in the movie industry, in spite of the fact that they are outnumbered by all the other titles. And I'm not embarrassed by the fact that I prefer movies like Tangled over most of that other stuff.

Having said that, I am looking forward to Cowboys and Aliens this summer.

Friday, January 28, 2011

LibreOffice: An Intriguing Alternative to Microsoft Office

Other than the cost, I have no objections to Microsoft Office. I've used it perforce for years, and I've gotten used to it. Like Xerox copiers and HP LaserJet printers, MS Office is the standard against which all other "office" programs are measured.

(And the cost is perfectly understandable. MS is in business to make money, and they charge what the market will bear. Entities who sell software deserve to make a profit doing it. Don't ever use pirated software, and always pay a reasonable price for software.)

I've also used and enjoyed for years. OOo, as it's called, is a "free and open-source" alternative to MS Office. It's very well put together. It's a little larger than MS Office, and it's a little slower than MS Office, but it does some things that MS Office doesn't do, and it does some things better than MS Office does. The user interface (how it looks on the screen and how you interact with it) are a little different from MS Office, but even the MS Office UI changes from version to version. You get used to the OOo interface quickly, and the Help function is very good.

When Oracle bought Sun Microsystems (who were the custodians of OOo), the future of OOo was suddenly called into question. Oracle didn't do anything to allay peoples' fears, and in fact said some things that aggravated those fears. So a movement was started to create another version of OOo, independent of OOo and Oracle's influence. The movement eventually took the name "The Document Foundation," and the name "LibreOffice" was chosen ("libre" as in "free") for the new version of OOo.

TDF embarked on a rapid effort to develop and release LibreOffice before OOo disappeared for good. This week, they released their first production version, called LibreOffice 3.3. (The latest public release of is 3.3, and LibreOffice 3.3 is a direct derivative, or fork, of the previous version, OOo 3.2.)

LO 3.3 has some great features. One intriguing feature is the ability to import, edit, and save SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) files. SVG is an open format that is gaining respect, even popularity, among the graphics community for its power and portability.

Another great feature, and the one that excites me the most, is its portability. LO 3.3 can be installed on your hard disk drive, like any other software, but it can also be installed on a removable storage medium - the ubiquitous Flash drive. I installed it on a flash drive, just to try it out.

First, the minuses:
Flash drives aren't fast. Any time the program needs to do a "disk access," as it were, it hesitates. You will notice this when you're typing or mousing and suddenly things freeze for several seconds. You'll also notice that, once in a while, the letters appearing on the screen are a few keystrokes behind your fingers and trying hard to catch up.

I expect that the non-portable version of LO, installed on a hard drive instead of on a flash drive, will run faster. I'll keep you posted.

One area that LO hasn't explored yet is the cloud - the world of software that runs inside a Web browser. Microsoft has a web-based version of MS Office. Google, Yahoo and other big Web actors also have web-based office suites. Whether LO will go there remains to be seen.

Okay, that's it for the minuses. Now for the pluses:
It really, truly works! Please forgive the exclamation point. I was skeptical at first. I tried it on my home computer, an Intel i3 M330 64-bit running at 2.13 GHz with Windows 7, it works fine. I then tried it on my work computer, an older machine with an Intel Pentium D dual-core running at 2.8 GHz with Windows XP Pro, and it works equally well. I'll have to try it on some older machines and see how they do.

Okay, so the fact that it works is the only plus so far. I'm sure I'll be adding to the list as time goes on.

As one would expect, it eats up a lot of disk space. Installation on a flash drive takes 482 MB.

And be careful removing the flash drive! I don't know what tricks TDF did to make LO run directly from the flash drive, but because of those tricks, you must make sure that you have completely exited LibreOffice, and closed all of its windows, before you remove the flash drive from the computer. It's also a good idea to tell your computer you want to "Eject" or "Safely remove" the flash drive before you pull it out. If you don't know how to do this, you shouldn't be using the portable version of LibreOffice. Just install it on your hard drive, and you'll be happy.

Where to get it:LibreOffice 3.3 is available for free download from . The portable version is available for free download from . If that link stops working, then try . is an intriguing concept, the gist of which is that you put portable versions of all the apps (er, programs) you really need on a portable device such as a flash drive or MP3 player, and carry it around with you all the time. To run your applications, you plug the flash drive into the nearest computer, open the flash drive, and click on the program you want to run. It doesn't require you to install anything on the host computer, and it doesn't secretly install anything, either, or write any temporary files on the host computer. It's very clean, and very polite. has an entire suite of such programs, and they're proud to add LibreOffice Portable to their suite. At this time, LO Portable and only work on Windows machines. But the non-portable version of LO 3.3 works on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux machines.

End note 1, Nerd talk: Some people keep their Linux on a bootable flash drive as well. I guess you could install LO 3.3 on your bootable Linux flash drive!

End note 2, Money talk:
LO is free. So is OOo. In the phrase "free and open source," free means free, like the air you breathe. But they're always willing to accept donations. If you save $100 to $500 by using LO in place of MS Office, consider donating part of the money you saved to TDF. Your donation will help to keep it free.

End note 3, Truth in advertising:
Unlike that crap that passes for reviews of the ripoff known as ProFlightSimulator, this is an honest, original, and independent review. Nobody asked me to write it, and I don't get any compensation of any kind for writing it. I simply think that this is a good product, one that other people will want to know about. If you don't believe me, go read my article, "Blogging for Dollars". If you still don't believe me, I don't care.

UPDATE! MAY 17, 2012: OpenOffice is back! Who would have imagined? Oracle decided they didn't want it, but rather than kill it, they put it in a basket on the Apache Incubator's doorstep. Now it's been renamed Apache Open Office and it's ready to roll. Will you switch back?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mint brownies

This is a true story. Nothing herein is fictional or made up. Those of you who know me may find that hard to believe, but I have witnesses.

Yesterday, a friend and I went to Rocky Mountain National Park to go snowshoeing.

After several ranger-less-and-therefore-fee-less trips to the park, we finally got there on a Saturday when a ranger was manning the entrance booth, so we had to pay an entrance fee. I paid with a credit card, and the ranger handed me a pen to sign the receipt. As I was signing, the pen's cap jumped off and fell under the driver's seat.

The car is a Toyota Camry.

Right there at the entrance to the national park, I had to get out of the car, open the left rear door, and reach under the seat to retrieve the cap. Imagine my surprise when I also retrieved a mint brownie. The brownie was completely dried out, but in perfect shape otherwise. The edges were not rounded or worn off, not even on the icing, and there was no discoloration at all. I noted the total absence of dog hair or other foreign debris.

I don't know how it got there, but I figured it had to have something to do with Christmas goodie deliveries. I decided to save it to show to the missus.

I got home in the early afternoon. My sweet wife was on the phone with somebody, so I set the brownie on the dining room table next to her elbow, and without a word went upstairs to take a shower.

I came down later and asked her, "Where's the brownie?"

She said, "I ate it. Where did you get it?"

I said, "But it was so hard and dry!"

She said, "I soaked it in milk first. Where did it come from?" I saw the bowl and spoon in front of her, so I knew she wasn't lying. She really did eat it.

Now put yourself in my place. What would you tell your spouse?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Snowflakes under an electron microscope

Last winter, I wrote about the "frost blossom" phenomenon happening on our sidewalks on a cold December night. Today, while looking up something else on the Internet, I ran across a link to a website with scanning electron microscope pictures (micrographs?) of snowflakes. They're fascinating pictures, especially if you: (1) like snowflakes; or (2) know how an SEM works.

Here's the link:

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Dear Miss Cottrill

This happened to me in Grade 1 or Grade 2, at Ridgeview School, in Brampton, Ontario. I don't remember my Grade 1 teacher's name at this moment, but I do recall that Miss Cottrill was my Grade 2 teacher, so let's just say that it happened in Grade 2.

We were doing phonics, and we had just studied the "sw" sound. Our teacher gave everyone a sheet of unlined paper, and told us to fold it in quarters. Then we unfolded the sheet. In each of the four quarters, we were supposed to draw a picture of a word that started with "sw", and then write the word.

I don't remember the first three pictures I drew, but do remember that I had trouble thinking of a fourth word. Finally I thought of "swear." I took four colored crayons, and with each crayon I drew one letter of a four-letter word. Yes, thatkind of four-letter word. And I really was that naive and innocent. We didn't use those kinds of words in our family, but I knew what they were, and I didn't see any problem with using the word as an illustrative example in a cold and clinical environment like a school assignment.

I outlined each letter with a black crayon, wrote the word "swear" in the square, and submitted my finished assignment.

That afternoon, while we were quietly working on something else, Miss Cottrill took advantage of the slack time to review and grade our phonics assignments. I was rather proud of my artwork -- all of it, not just the "swear" illustration -- and I was hoping for a good grade.

Not that I was watching her or anything, but suddenly I heard Miss Cottrill gasp. It was more like a yelp - an audible and shrill intake of breath, anyway. I looked up from whatever I was doing to see her examining my paper, then I went back to my work.

The next day she handed back the graded assignments. I didn't get mine. Afterwards, I went to her desk and asked if I could have mine back. She said, "no." She wasn't mean about it, but she didn't give me an explanation.

I've always wondered what happened to that assignment. Did she burn it to ashes in a puritanical fervor? Did she show it to the principal and ask for his advice, and he told her not to worry about it? Did she post it on the bulletin board in the staff room, for the other teachers' amusement? Did she put it in her scrapbook of "crazy things that happened to me during my career as a public school teacher?" Did she talk to my parents about it? And were they scandalized, or did they laugh it off?

One of these days, I'll write about the time in 8th grade when I used a word that had a double-entendre I didn't even know about, and how it got me in trouble anyway.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The End of the World is Coming - Again had an interesting article today, about a coalition of religious groups claiming that the end of the world will happen in 2011. (See the article here.) Specifically, they claim that the Rapture will happen on May 21, 2011, and the end of the world, the wrapping up of all things, the final curtain for this planet (and the sun and moon and stars, according to the prophecies) will be on October 21, 2011.

Well. That May 21 date is really going to mess up the graduation plans for our three local high schools.

The article is written rather tongue-in-cheek, with more than a note of amusement. The May 21 date is prominently featured in a photograph accompanying the article, but you have to click through a couple more websites to find the October 21 date. I think that would be a more important date than May 21, for most earthlings.

Those other two websites? Well, the article has enough clues for you to find them on your own. One website has a detailed, lengthy, and convoluted description of the calculations that led its author to those two dates.

Forgive my skepticism, but we've been down this road before. Not counting bona fide kooks who try to hitch a ride on a passing comet, modern times have seen many Christians who have tried to decipher the clues in the Bible to come up with dates for the End Times.

In fairness, I should disclose that I am a member of a religious group that believes firmly in the reality of a literal, future, Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the literal fulfillment of all the prophecies leading up to it. I look forward to His Coming. I believe that many of the prophesied events have already happened, and that the time is near. But I can't define "near." I wish we knew the day when He was coming, because I work better under deadline pressure, and a deadline would make it a lot easier to prepare.

Ah, but that's the point. As good Christians, we should be living in such a way that we are always prepared for His coming.

Because the reality is this: we see Jesus Christ every day. Not literally, of course, but every day we have the opportunity to render service to someone, to brighten somebody's day, to give somebody comfort or relief or a simple helping hand. Jesus explained to His followers: "Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me." (That's Matthew 25:40, if you want to look it up.)

Another part of that reality is this: you may literally meet your Maker today. You don't need to wait for May 21, 2011. Maybe the cement truck with your name on the front bumper is headed your direction right now. Just as "no man knoweth the hour or the day of" the Second Coming, so nobody can predict the hour or the day of their own death (with a few exceptions). If that cement truck catches up to you today, you could beat the Big Event by 4 months and 18 days.

All this fussing about dates is irrelevant -- it's "straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel" -- and moreover, it ignores what the Master called the "weightier matters of the law." Whatever happens on May 21, or whenever They call my number, I hope that the day finds me still buckled into the harness and tugging hard, working to make the world a better place one person at a time, the same as on any other day.