Monday, January 21, 2019

Books: John Marshall


Anyone who thinks the partisan struggles over the Supreme Court are a recent development should read Richard Brookhiser's John Marshall. The biography is an interesting portrait of John Marshall's life and 34-year tenure as Chief Justice, and it illustrates how the political winds buffeting the early Republic - and the Court - were just as intense as those blowing today.

The book starts with Marshall's military and diplomatic service, including the deprivation he suffered at Valley Forge and his unwavering admiration for General Washington. These experiences heavily influenced Marshall's preference for a strong national government that could properly provide for an army, putting him into regular conflict with Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. The Court thus became the stage for bitter partisan strife, including the only impeachment trial of a sitting Justice and several court-packing Judiciary Acts.

Although Brookhiser is not a lawyer, the book ably covers the ins and outs of the early Court's major cases, including Marbury, McCulloch, and Gibbons. It turns out that the politicization of the Court is nothing new, and the book's discussion of these landmark opinions fills in the partisan backstory missing from the average constitutional law textbook (for instance, many of these were "test cases," the kind that people would bring today). Above all, Brookhiser credits Justice Marshall's gregarious civility and intellectual rigor with making the Court the institution it is today.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Movies: Bumblebee


Michael Bay's brand of cheesy, over-the-top action spectacle worked fine in the first "Transformers" movie, but it became increasingly hard to swallow in sequel after sequel (to the point where 2017's entry, "The Last Knight," barely cracked $600 million worldwide, which surely must've irked some Chinese investors).

"Bumblebee," a prequel/spin-off/soft reboot starring Hailee Steinfeld, wisely opts for a simpler approach:


The film is set in 1987 and follows a misfit teenager named Charlie, who is having a rough time of it after the sudden death of her father. One day, Charlie finds a decrepit yellow VW Bug in a scrapyard, and, wouldn't you know it, the car transforms into everyone's favorite Autobot scout. Unfortunately, old Bee ain't alone here on Earth. The Decepticons are hunting him and Optimus Prime, and it'll be up to Bumblebee, Charlie, and a hardnosed Section 7 agent (John Cena, doing yeoman's work) to thwart their plans.

This is the first "Transformers" movie helmed by someone other than Michael Bay, and the change works wonders. Travis Knight ("Kubo and the Two Strings") takes familiar ingredients, but instead of blending them into an incomprehensible Bay-sian stew, he puts them together into a functioning story with solid action and *gasp* emotional payoffs. By the end of "Bumblebee," the Bay films feel like garish parodies of the universe presented here. This is the "Transformers" movie that should have been made 11 years ago.

Now, I don't want to oversell "Bumblebee," because in many ways it's a fairly typical fish-out-of-water alien visitor/coming-of-age story (think Steven Spielberg's "E.T.," Brad Bird's "The Iron Giant," and "Suburban Commando"). There were also several times when the '80s nostalgia crosses the line from fun to obnoxious (I hope you like "The Breakfast Club" - Travis Knight sure does). Still, these are minor quibbles in what is probably the best live-action "Transformers" movie ever made.

Rating: 8/10

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Mulliga's Holiday Gift Guide, Part 4: $20 & Under Stocking Stuffers

The Hanukkah and Christmas seasons are upon us, so I thought it'd be fun to feature some great gift ideas for the geek, gamer, or gun guru in your life.

It's the last weekend to shop before Christmas, which is right about the time when people realize they forgot to get something for visiting acquaintances and distant relatives. In case you need a not-so-expensive present quickly, all of the following items are Mulliga-approved and should be available for purchase at your local big box center (bring your CCW):


Spyfall - This card game works spectacularly well at parties and family gatherings. The rules are simple: one player has the "spy" card, while all the other players have cards with the same wacky location (a casino, a submarine, etc.). The cards are secret, so the players take turns asking and answering questions designed to sort out who's who. The non-spy players try to signal to each other that they know the secret location; at the same time, the spy tries to figure out what location everyone is in while bluffing through the Q&A to avoid blowing cover.


Spot It! - Sometimes our family's parties include younger children or people who speak limited English. A fast-paced visual card game like Spot It! is perfect for such occasions, since all you do is match one of the many zany images on your card with one of the many zany images on the center card. If you call out a match before anyone else, you take the center card, and a new one is drawn. The player with the most matches at the end is the winner.


The Pocket Shot Jr. - Regrettably, there are some households where "gun" is a dirty word. If you know a kid whose parents would freak out over a Daisy Red Ryder, a good alternative gift is the Pocket Shot Jr. The Junior is a down-sized version of the original Pocket Shot slingshot, but it works in exactly the same way: drop a pellet in the pouch, pull it back, and let it go.  It's cheap ($10), small, and comes with plenty of harmless plastic ball ammunition. Just grab an empty cardboard box, paint a target on it, and watch kids get interested in marksmanship.


Lego Classic Sets - For quite some time, the ne plus ultra of geek gifts has been a themed Lego set - Star Wars, Harry Potter, Batman, Lord of the Rings, and the like. Unfortunately, those licenses ain't cheap, so even a basic Lego X-Wing costs the better part of a C-note nowadays. But that doesn't mean your loved one must go Lego-less! If you want to give those plastic bricks to someone without breaking the bank, try looking the "Classic" line. The brightly colored sets might not have a fancy IP attached to them, but they're only a fraction of the cost - just tell your recipient to use their imagination.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Miscellany: Krav Maga class journal, month 1

I was getting really out of shape, so I'm taking a local beginner's Krav Maga class. I'll post updates here, mostly for myself but also to give people an idea of what you might expect if you sign up for one of these things.

Session 2

Remember how I wondered whether the warm-up exercises would be the same every class? Well, they aren't. The calisthenics in this session consisted of brutal core work: sit-up punches, leg raises, etc. In terms of technique, we drilled straight punches and straight forward kicks, and practiced some real basic 360 degree defense versus knives:



Session 3

The warm-up for today was "shoulder touch," where you and a partner try to touch each other's shoulders without getting touched back; I think it's designed to promote hand-eye coordination and dodging, rather than blocking.

As far as techniques go, we trained knees from the Muay Thai clinch, rear elbows, and then various bearhug defenses (you "base" against the attack by adopting a wide stance, dropping your weight, and bracing your arms, then strike the attacker however you can, such as with a rear elbow or a front groin hit). In the "self-defense" portion, the lights were turned off and half of us split off as roving attackers to bearhug random people.

Session 4

I arrived to class late, and the students were already shimmying sideways on their backs on the ground, crawling with their forearms, and doing a front military crawl. We workshopped jabs and crosses, drilled rear hammerfists, and practiced escaping from simple rear forearm bars and carotid chokes (not real rear naked chokes quite yet).

Session 5

After a shoulder touch warm-up, we drilled "elbows four through seven," i.e., elbows from various positions. We covered a basic sprawl defense against a takedown attempt, as well as an escape from a standing choke from the side:




In the self-defense portion of the class, we went out onto the parking lot and hid behind cars, with people taking turns as chokers and defenders.

Session 6

Shoulder touch warm-up again, and then some striking practice - one-two combos while advancing forward, downward hammerfists and elbows, and forward knees from the basic sprawl position we covered last class. Ms. Hwang demonstrated a basic guillotine choke for use against a double leg takedown defense, both in free space and against a wall.

Session 7

Yet another shoulder touch warm-up, and then a cover-up and explode drill (your partner pushes and lightly hits you with pads while you're in full defense position, and then you punch out when there's a chance). The bulk of the class is spent on the ground - we learn a ground defense stance, upward kicks from the ground, getting up safely, and bucking and rolling against a mounted attacker.




Session 8

This marked about a month of training for me. We start with the back shimmy warm-up (it's tough, you're not supposed to use your feet or elbows) and a punch-and-advance drill, then do some training with the fence/interview position and straight punches. From there, we drill an "inside defense" against straight punches:



Next is a defense against rear chokes, which involves a shoulder turn and stance change. We then combine the two, partnering up against each other for inside defenses while roaming attackers use chokes.

Mulliga's Holiday Gift Guide, Part 3: Gamo Whisper Fusion Mach 1 air rifle

The Hanukkah and Christmas seasons are upon us, so I thought it'd be fun to feature some great gift ideas for the geek, gamer, or gun guru in your life. 

One way to skip the potential hassles of gifting a firearm is to give an airgun - they're cheaper, can be shot in more places, and generally aren't banned (yet). However, most serious shooters will want something a bit more accurate and powerful than a Daisy Red Ryder. If you're looking for such an air rifle, may I suggest the Gamo Whisper Fusion Mach 1?


I got the Mach 1 to ward off the iguana infestation plaguing South Florida and Mom's vegetable garden. You see, iguanas are resistant to common BBs, but not to a real-deal air rifle shooting a .22 caliber slug at nearly 1,000 fps. One shot to the head is a quick and humane method of dispatching this invasive species and, truth be told, stationary iguanas are easy targets:



The Mach 1 is perfect for the task, even given the monster lizards that formerly lounged around our backyard. It's pretty quiet (the slamming of the porch screen door makes a louder noise) and its break-barrel design means you don't need to mess with a separate pump or tanks; just break open the barrel, drop in a pellet, close, and fire. It does take a decent amount of strength to crack the action open (Mom can just barely manage it), but it's a small price to pay for a peaceful garden.

TV: Happy!

The Christmas holiday carries with it a certain kind of treacly television melodrama. You know the arc - a bitter Scrooge is confronted with his or her life choices, and by the end is converted into a paragon of holiday cheer. "Happy!," a Syfy original series whose first season is currently available for streaming on Netflix, is sort of like that, except with the violence, gore, sex, and drugs amped up to 11:


Christopher Meloni plays Nick Sax, a down-and-out former NYPD detective-turned-hitman.  After Nick gets shot and has a heart attack on a particularly rough night near the holidays, he starts seeing a flying blue unicorn named Happy (Patton Oswalt, an inspired bit of VO casting). Happy's the imaginary friend of a little girl in peril, and he's here to get Nick to save her. The unlikely partnership is rocky at first, but as you might imagine, the two eventually join forces to combat a cartoonish New York filled with perverts, scumbags, and gangsters.

"Happy!" is amazingly faithful to Grant Morrison's original 4-issue comic book miniseries (Morrison is an executive producer and writer), but the show actually improves on the source material in a lot of ways. Nick's ex-partner and ex-wife have much larger roles, minor characters are fleshed out, and the humorous Yuletide theme is a lot more evident than in the comic, in large part due to Meloni's sardonic take on the role. If you're in the mood for some tinsel-flavored ultraviolence that is absolutely not for children, go ahead and feel "Happy!"

Friday, December 14, 2018

Mulliga's Holiday Gift Guide, Part 2: Hollow Knight

The Hanukkah and Christmas seasons are upon us, so I thought it'd be fun to feature some great gift ideas for the geek, gamer, or gun guru in your life. 

The move to digital distribution has made "gifting" games easier than ever, especially for friends and family separated by long distances. It's also created a market for smaller, cheaper, and independent titles that would never see the light of day if they had to occupy a big box store shelf.

"Hollow Knight" is just such a game, and it makes an excellent stocking stuffer for someone who's a fan of side-scrolling open world action-adventures (i.e., "Metroidvanias"). You play as the Knight, a mute, cute insect-like swordsman exploring the ruins of an ancient underground kingdom. Along the way, you'll battle huge bosses, tackle tricky hazards, and get lost in the lore of the fallen kingdom.


There's nothing really groundbreaking about "Hollow Knight" in terms of gameplay, but developer Team Cherry did a superb job at executing on the Metroidvania formula. The platforming is tight and responsive and the artwork is gorgeous. Most important, though, is the feeling of discovery - just when you think you've seen everything there is to see, you unlock a huge new part of the subterranean labyrinth to explore.


The game's only shortcomings are mostly those inherent in the genre - there's a fair bit of aimless wandering and backtracking required, and there isn't much of a story here, either. If the gamer in your life can deal with those drawbacks, he or she will love "Hollow Knight."

Rating: 90/100

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Movies: Green Book

Around this time of year, studios start flooding the market with Oscar bait, and one of the go-to categories to cover is character-driven historical drama dealing with racial prejudice. That's not a bad thing per se, but the movies cut from this cloth range from the sublime ("12 Years A Slave") to the syrupy ("Selma"). Is "Green Book" the former or the latter?


As you can see, the film's both a figurative and literal vehicle for stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali to garner some recognition come awards time. The title comes from the Negro Motorist Green Book by Victor Hugo Green, a guide listing places that welcomed African-American travelers (a sad relic from the age of Jim Crow and segregation, when walking into the wrong restaurant while black could be deadly). 

In the movie, "Tony Lip" Vallelonga, a rough-and-tumble Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx, signs on as the chauffeur and de facto bodyguard to Don Shirley, a sophisticated Carnegie Hall pianist playing a concert tour of the Deep South. They'll encounter corrupt cops, fight hostile hillbillys, and help each other discover the best versions of themselves.

You've seen this odd couple road trip story before (it's basically an inverted "Driving Miss Daisy" meets "Planes, Trains, & Automobiles"), but "Green Book" still works despite its formulaic setup and low-stakes plot. There's a ton of laugh-out-loud humor, and both leads give top-notch performances that really elevate the movie. If you need some feel-good awards season drama, you could do a lot worse than this.

Rating: 8/10

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Mulliga's Holiday Gift Guide, Part 1: Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History

The Hanukkah and Christmas seasons are upon us, so I thought it'd be fun to feature some great gift ideas for the geek, gamer, or gun guru in your life. Today's suggestion is a massive coffee table book about THE role-playing game, the archetype, the Big Kahuna ... D&D.



I started playing Dungeons & Dragons back in '94 with the Basic Set, but even back then, the game had a rich and mysterious history. The glossy hardcover TSR books on the shelves of my local Borders were merely the latest in a decades-old tradition that famously started in Gary Gygax's basement in 1974. I gleaned information here and there, but there was never any comprehensive chronology showing where D&D began and how it evolved (I imagine the situation is even more puzzling for a new player today, starting on the 5th edition of a game that's likely older than their parents).

Well, no more. Thanks to several years of effort by the authors and a host of current and former artists, D&D now has a sumptuous visual history in "Art & Arcana." This incredible 400+ page tome is broad and deep, covering not only the artwork used in D&D's many game books and supplements over the years, but also stuff around the game (there's a picture of TSR's original office, an obligatory poster of "Mazes and Monsters", and even a game screen from Tower of Doom). It's a wonderful gift for any D&D fan.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Music: Autumn Leaves

The line between classical and jazz music was blurred in the mid-20th century, sort of like the hazy boundary between Thanksgiving and the holiday shopping season. If you need a timeout between rounds of leftover turkey and Black Friday doorbusters, may I suggest this somber version of Joseph Kosma's "Autumn Leaves," performed by Dami Im?



Kosma was steeped in the classical tradition (he trained with famous Hungarian composers like Béla Bartók), but he wrote plenty of popular music, too, including "Autumn Leaves." The piece is now a jazz standard, with the most famous versions featuring English language lyrics by Johnny Mercer.

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