Sunday, September 30, 2007

Movies: Snakes on a Plane

"Snakes on a Plane" is an interesting example of how sometimes kitsch and camp do not necessarily make a movie a cult classic. If you don't recall, there was quite an Internet movement surrounding the movie, with all sorts of blogs and pages covering the movie's ridiculous, tongue-in-cheek premise. I mean, check out Samuel L. Jackson in the film's climactic scene (warning - foul language):



The problem here, and probably the main reason that the movie didn't live up to the hype at the box office, is that none of the corniness is memorable. As soon as the film is over, you can literally feel yourself begin to forget about it. There are a lot of snake bites, a lot of standard-issue airplane action movie stuff (you know the drill - cabin depressurization, a cargo hold sequence, the petty interactions of the nameless passengers destined to be snake fodder), but very little in the way of classic "Evil Dead" style so-bad-it's-good moments.

On the plus side, Sam Jackson does a decent job of chewing up scenery, and Todd Louiso puts in a workmanlike performance as comic relief, as he usually does.

Rating: 5/10

Miscellany: Tootsie Rolls, Tootsie Pops

If there ever was a "baseline" candy, it's a Tootsie Roll. Very few people love them, but they're chocolatey enough that few people hate them, either. With Halloween coming round the corner, they'll be rolling around in the bottom of trick-or-treaters candy bags, waiting for the day when they are "the only thing left" and gobbled up by a hungry fifth-grader.

And then there were the commercials:



Tootsie Pops always compete with their archenemy, Charms Blow Pops, for supremacy in the oversized-stuffing-filled lollipop world. I tend to go with the Charms varieties merely because the flavors taste better, but I have to admit, the jagged center of a Blow Pop usually shreds my mouth to ribbons. Anyway, here's a very memorable ad about Tootsie Pops:

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Miscellany: Running a "Call of Cthulhu" campaign, part 8


Yesterday night, I took the investigators through a prison adventure in Georgia, and a lot of it just didn't work. I didn't sense that my friends were really into the setting, and it seemed like all the content I created was going to waste. It was really frustrating for me to watch them sail through one mystery after another, without delving into anything. The combat, due to a series of lucky rolls and good decisions from the investigators, was fairly skewed in their favor, and I had to hit the "reset button" just to keep them in the prison.

As a GM, it's common to have an "off" night. Not every session can be a paragon of dramatic roleplaying, just as not every movie can be a "Casablanca." I think it's important to treat these instances of subpar performance as learning experiences. For example, in this particular adventure, I failed to prod the investigators hard enough to find out what was going on in the plot.

It's one thing to lead players by the nose, but most people won't have enough intuition or cleverness to instantly figure out the labyrinthine plot you've developed. The clever alien rod that you gave them might be used as a knuckle duster, the mysterious excavation they're supposed to enter is ignored, and the interesting spell you gave them remains unused. When this happens in the future, I'm going to hint at the solution more plainly.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Miscellany: The Eighth Wonder of the World

Tam's post on "The Princess Bride" reminded me of the story of an interesting man - André the Giant, whose real name was André Roussimoff. André rose to fame as a professional wrestler in the WWF - his 7' frame and enormous weight made him a fascinating physical spectacle. Unfortunately, these traits were caused by acromegaly, the hormonal disorder that finally killed him.



I prefer to remember him as Fezzik, the simple-minded but ultimately good-hearted fellow in "the Princess Bride":

TV: Recipe for Success

If I could collar Karl Marx's ghost and make him watch something, it'd be "Recipe For Success" on the Food Network. This seemingly innocuous semi-reality TV show follows food-based businesses that are just starting out. In the process, it's pretty much a complete rebuttal to every socialist or communist portrayal of the greedy business owner:



To start a business, people often need to sacrifice or put in doubt everything they have - whether it's taking out big loans, tightening budgets, working long hours with little financial reward, or withstanding the embarrassment of having to hawk your wares from shop to shop. Anyone who criticizes the profit that these business owners finally reap probably don't see the massive cost, risk, and hard work involved at the outset.

Bear Naked's story ends well. I can buy their granola at the local supermarket, so they must have survived. And man, they earned that grocery store markup.

Movies: "Into the Wild" Preview

"Into the Wild" is one of those movies I'll probably end up seeing on TV. Based on a true story, it stars Emile Hirsch (that guy from "The Girl Next Door") as Chris McCandless, a young wanderer who grew disenchanted with materialism and starting going on the road (read: hippie):



There was a real Christopher McCandless, and he did leave his pampered suburban life for the harsh realities of the road. He eventually died in Alaska of starvation.

The thing that will keep me from seeing the movie is how monumentally dumb McCandless's final journey to Alaska was. Going into the middle of the Alaskan wilderness with very little knowledge of how to survive is Dumb. Taking along only a .22 rifle, when the grizzlies are starting to wake up, is Dumb. Not bringing a map is dumb. Not bringing a friend, or even telling anyone where you are, is Dumb.

There's a lesson here, I think. Abandoning the material world might be fun philosophically, but when you discard thousands of years of human civilization, your life expectancy reverts back to Stone Age levels, too.

Tech: Portal preview

I've already looked at one part of Valve's new "Orange Box" compilation of first-person shooters - Team Fortress 2. It's proven to be a lot of fun, though wildly different from the previous iterations of Team Fortress.

Today, though, we'll look at a product that's completely different from almost every other game out there - Portal:



It's a first-person puzzle/adventure using space-warping portals that preserve your momentum. 'Nuff said.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Music: Crazy On You

Heart, as a band, is notable for two things - the virtuoso songwriting of Ann and Nancy Wilson, and the endless procession of other band members who came and went as the band gained and lost popularity. While a number of their songs are now classics, my favorite's always been "Crazy On You." As a little kid, I missed the obvious sexual innuendo, but the guitar riff is so catchy it didn't matter.

Here's a live performance from the '70s.


And this clip proves that even 30 years later, these ladies can still rock with the best of 'em:

Guns: GunBlast.com


Unlike most consumer goods, it can be difficult finding reviews of guns on the Web. Shooters often have to pore over dozens of webforum posts, containing sometimes apocryphal accounts of what a particular firearm will or will not do, in order to make an informed decision. One of the websites that does provide lengthy and detailed reviews of guns is GunBlast.com.

That's not to say the place isn't a commercial entity. Like most big websites, there's ads, and the occasional review that almost reads like an advertisement. But the Quinns and their contributing writers seldom venture into gun rag hip-wader territory. Instead, you'll get lots of pictures (many of which show them carrying guns in practical holsters, which is a nice touch), and even load and accuracy information.

The breakthrough review for me was their piece on the then-new .500 S&W. I couldn't imagine how such a powerful revolver could be comfortable to shoot, but, as they claim, the .500 is really a pussycat with the right loads.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

School: A Sad Story


This is Alan Crotzer, who was convicted of sexual battery, kidnapping, and robbery when he was twenty years old. The family of his codefendants didn't think he did it. And there were quite a few problems with the identification methods the police used in the case. But he was put in jail nonetheless.

For nearly 25 years, Crotzer maintained his innocence. Fortunately, he managed to get advanced DNA testing with the help of to conclusively prove he was not the one who committed the crime. Exonerated, he now helps others in his position and is lobbying to get compensated for all the time he spent in prison (1.2 million - or roughly $50,000 for every year incarcerated).

I can't help but ask myself the question - can money even repay the harm down to this man? When he got out of jail, he literally couldn't wash his hands; he had never seen automatic faucets before. He was obviously going to have a hard time finding a job, at middle age with no work experience or education to speak of. And all because of a mistake.

Mr. Crotzer spoke to us in our Evidence class, and now I've told his story here. Take from it what you will - whether it's that no justice system is perfect, or that sometimes things are not what they seem, or that you should never give up hope.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Miscellany: Running a "Call of Cthulhu" campaign, part 7



As in the past, I'm experimenting with various atmospheric tricks to make my "Call of Cthulhu" sessions more compelling. For example, last game, I instituted a stopwatch that ticked down every hour, requiring Sanity rolls every time it hit zero (the investigators were infected with a disease that caused various hallucinations). And I've already talked about creating sham 1920s documents.

For this next session, I thought some period music might enhance the mood, especially since the investigators will be making their way through the deep South of the 1920s, including a potentially lethal stopover in a Georgia prison. Obviously, this kind of music isn't exactly on sale at your local Wally World, so it takes some work and ingenuity to track it down.

My first stop was the local library. You'd be surprised at the amount of folk, bluegrass, and traditional CDs you can find if you search long enough. Unfortunately, most of today's R&B and country is overproduced for my purposes, but I did get some interesting tracks (especially from Ralph Stanley, who had a stunning vocal on the "O Brother Where Art Thou?" soundtrack).

A more comprehensive (and probably more accurate) option is the Internet Archive, under "Open Source Audio" in particular. Cross-reference it with popular 1920s performers and bingo, you've got songs like this.

Food: Tori's Bar-B-Q


Like most people, I tend to root for the underdog, and it's hard not to find a bigger underdog than Tori's Bar-B-Q, a little restaurant near Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville. Formerly Terrell's Bar-B-Q (Terrell left the restaurant when it fell on hard times, and Tori bought him out), it's a little place in a strip mall with possibly the worst location imaginable for an independent BBQ place - behind a Sonny's BBQ restaurant (Sonny's is probably the biggest BBQ chain in Florida).

The ribs being served are honest, regular sized ribs, topped with an optional sweet sauce that tastes a lot like Cattleman's or KC Masterpiece. A half slab will set you back $11 and will satisfy all but the hungriest appetite - most will find that it serves two people easily. The sides are about $1 each and are generous portions of the classics - cole slaw, collard greens, green beans, and the like.

There isn't much to say about the decor - you sit on plastic benches, and Wind FM is playing in the background. It's a counter-service type of deal, so no servers to bring you your food. In the final analysis, the food isn't stellar, but it tastes fine and is priced right. All in all, I'd say it's worth the visit.

2/4 stars

Sunday, September 23, 2007

News: Marcel Marceau, 1923-2007

I first remember seeing Marcel's work in French class in high school. Here was a man who had seen some of the worst humanity had to offer, who lived through the horrors of WWII and helped the French resistance and the Allies. So when Marcel talks about life and death, he doesn't need to say a word:

Sports: A Tim Tebow Tribute

Tim Tebow, the current starting quarterback for the Florida Gators, has acquired something of a legendary status here at UF. Here's some of the highlights from last season, where he was essentially being played as a fullback:



There was some trepidation this year over whether Tim could throw:



And of course, there's the infamous kiss from his teammate and roommate, Tony Joiner:



Asked how many men he's ever kissed, Joiner replied, "Only two. My Dad and Tim Tebow."

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Miscellany: What is a tabletop roleplaying game? (long)

A friend of mine was puzzled by the whole idea of tabletop RPGs, so I thought I'd give a little example of how such things work. We'll use the "Dungeons & Dragons" game as our example, since it's the most popular one out there (and pretty darn entertaining, too).

-=-=-=-=-

First, imagine a bunch of people sitting around a table. We'll call them Anne, Bob, Calvin, and Dennis. On the table there are hardcover rulebooks, paper, pencils, and some funny-looking dice.

One of the players (Dennis) is the "Dungeon Master," or "DM," and he creates all the content and problems in the game, often on-the-fly. The other players (Anne, Bob, and Calvin) play the roles of different fantasy characters. These characters are called "player-characters," or "PCs," to differentiate them from the characters the DM makes up.

To make things simpler, we'll start in the middle of the action. The PCs have been sent on a mission by the priests of Pelor to retrieve a potent holy artifact that has been stolen by a band of bandits. After some investigation, they are nearing the ruins of a church where they suspect the artifact is held.

Dennis: It's a cloudy night. There are shadows all around you as you walk into the town square. The church, according to your map, is about a quarter-mile away, at the end of the main road. Decrepit buildings on either side seem to hem you in. What do you do?

Anne (who is playing an elven wizard named Elanna): Is there any sign of life here?

Dennis: Not that you can see.

Calvin (playing a cunning thief named Rovan, who is along for the ride because the bandits reportedly have their big stash hidden in the church): Hmm. Why don't I search the neighboring buildings of the town for some...supplies.

Anne: We've got better things to do than loot abandoned houses, Rovan.

Bob (playing a tough-as-nails dwarf fighter named Kelgan): Bah, enough of this mulling around! Why don't we go in to that church and hit these bandits head on?

Anne: Fine with me. As long as the dwarf's in front.

Calvin: All right. Let's get this over with. I guess the real prize is in there, anyway.

Dennis: Okay. You are right outside the church now. The building's in bad shape - the thatch roof is almost completely gone. There's a lock on the front door.

Calvin: I can handle that. I'm gonna try to pick the lock (rolls a 20-sided die and gets a 16). Okay, 16, plus 9 from my lockpicking skill, for a final result of 25.

Dennis: You deftly manipulate the crude tumblers in the lock. The hasp comes off with no trouble. Kelgan, you want to open the door and go in first?

Bob: Let's go. I draw my axe. I'm gonna kick the door in.

Calvin: I'll stand a ways back, with shortbow at the ready.

Anne: I cast Mage Armor on myself. Time to get my hands dirty, I suppose.

Dennis: Okay, with your heavy dwarven boots, you kick the door in (Rolls some dice and notes the result). You manage to surprise two shabbily-armored bandits, who have their swords drawn but weren't expecting you to come from their locked front door. You can act before them. What do you do?

Bob: I'll charge the lead bandit and swing at him with my axe (Rolls die). A final result of 24! Does that hit?

Dennis: Oh yeah. Roll your damage.

Bob: 13.

Dennis: Your axe easily bites through his crude leather armor. Kelgan, you literally cleave him in two, and his bloody torso falls a distance from the rest of his body. Rovan, how about you?

Calvin: Let loose an arrow into the other one (Rolls die). Rolled a 20 on the die.

Dennis: Critical threat. Roll to confirm.

Calvin: 16, plus 5 from my attack bonus and my dexterity stat. A hit? (Dennis nods, and Calvin rolls his damage dice). 15, from my triple critical damage and my sneak attack bonus.

Dennis: Your arrow sails right into the guy's forehead. He's down on the ground, dead.

Anne: Something's wrong. That was too easy.

Bob: Aye. The guards at the church of Pelor would be more than a match for these guys.

Dennis: Roll Spot checks (All the players roll dice and tell the DM the results). Ooh, all of you fail. As you guys are milling around, wondering why there aren't more of them and searching for the relic, you fail to see the bandits' blood pooling into an unholy symbol written on the floor. A great winged serpent, made of coagulated blood, rises from the floor. It roars, shaking the old building to its foundations. Elanna, roll a Spellcraft check - since you might recognize this process, you may not be surprised, and can thus take an action.

Anne: (Rolls and succeeds) Whew. I cast Fireball at the monster (Rolls damage).

Dennis: With a low roar, a ball of fire erupts right at the serpent. It obviously didn't like that, and it's stunned for a bit, but now most of the building is on fire, and the fire's spreading.

Calvin: Might be a good idea to get out now. I retreat out the way we came.

Dennis: The door's locked from the outside now!

Calvin: Oh crap.

And so it goes. Will the PCs defeat this gruesome monster? Will they get out of the burning church? Who drew that unholy symbol - the bandits or someone even more evil? Will Rovan ever care about anything more than his next score? The players might succeed, they might fail, but they'll have fun doing it.

Music: The Space Between

I'm not a Dave Matthews fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I have to admit, the refrain of "The Space Between" has been stuck in my head all day. I most closely associate the song with the "Black Hawk Down" trailer. Here's a little music video rigged up by a fan with scenes from the movie:

Friday, September 21, 2007

Guns: Remington 700 Mountain


Much like many performance-minded cyclists, hunters are often obsessed with lightweight components. While an extra pound or two shaved here and there off of a hunting rifle might not seem like much, I've read that it becomes very noticeable at the end of a day spent hoofing around in the woods.

The Remington 700 Mountain is a curious illustration of these design tenets. It has a shorter than usual barrel with a slim profile, as well as a slim stock, making it lighter than the normal 700 (and much lighter than the "tactical" variants with heavy target barrels). On the other hand, the actual action seems identical to the full-weight versions.

I toyed around with one (chambered in .30-06) for awhile, and it was an accurate gun, though the barrel tended to get fairly hot after even a single magazine. One problem, unfortunately, is the increased recoil that results from having a lighter gun - while the 700 Mountain isn't as rough on your shoulder as the synthetic stocked, whiz-bang titanium versions, it isn't the most confortable gun in the world to shoot long strings with off of the bench.

Miscellany: A quick personality test

Premise: There are two kinds of people in the world - those who find the following clip funny, and those who don't.

Miscellany: The Crane Game Queen of Japan

Ever play one of those crane games? Where you try using a flimsy crane to get stuffed animals and such?

Just watch this:

Tech: Driver Dosado


Even when your powerful new graphics card is installed in your PC, the work doesn't end there. Modern computer games are so ruinously complicated that there are inevitably problems with the interaction between software and hardware. The device drivers that help to bridge this gap are essential for the video card to even function, so it's nice to know that the manufacturers update them.

The problem is that new drivers come out literally every week. While it doesn't take much time to download and install a new driver, it gets pretty irritating when every new game release has some buggy interaction with your current video card driver. And we're not talking graphical glitches - a driver incompatibility can make it impossible to run a game.

Sometimes, ATI and Nvidia (the two 800 lb gorillas of the graphics card industry) even get caught "cheating" with their drivers - releasing stuff that's specifically optimized for a single popular program or 3D benchmark. I guess it's comforting to know that the competition for drivers is essentially no different than the Tour de France.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

News: Jena 6

First brought to my attention by the Black Law Students Association, and then by national news outlets, is the plight of the so-called "Jena 6," a group of black high school students charged with crimes arising out of the alleged assault of a white teenager. This was, as protesters allege, a direct result of the racial tensions there, and many claim that the black students were discriminated against.

I'm not completely familiar with all the facts of the case. Like most people, I had never heard of the town of Jena, Louisiana. But if the likes of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are down there, you know there's blood in the water - and it's bad blood. I've learned a long time ago that things these two hucksters support are often things I don't support, but this particular case might be an exception.

The District Attorney, and indeed any prosecutor, as recent stories have made clear, has a phenomenal amount of discretion in deciding who to charge and what to charge them with. Unfortunately, that kind of power is ripe for abuse. It'll be interesting to see how this all plays out.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Miscellany: Plateaus

During the course of strength training, I believe most everyone hits a plateau. That is, most people will reach a point where continued exercise doesn't seem to increase strength like it used to - if strength vs. time was plotted as a graph, it'd be a level region. It seems like I've become mired in a plateau of my own.

There are some various remedies for this situation. Most recommend varying the workouts - new exercises, new equipment, lower reps/higher weights or vice versa. Sometimes laying off from exercise helps, as does changing your diet. In the end, though, a friend told me from personal experience that the only surefire way is to keep plugging away at it, to work through it.

Of course, a little inspiration never hurt:

News: Squeezing the Juice

Speaking as a law student, I know that many think the original "Trial of the Century" demonstrated some of the seedier aspects of our adversarial court system - specifically the fact that people with the best lawyers can sometimes win where most other defendants could not. When society loses faith in impartial courts and fair trials, that's when you get the beginnings of tribal justice and "screw the other guy."

Even if O.J. is somehow totally innocent of the vicious double murder in Brentwood, it's safe to say his conduct afterwards has been laughable at best, and reprehensible at worst. There's nothing like cashing in with a book deal, or trying to make a TV special. His latest legal troubles are basically front page news, all the time.

I'm glad CNN and co. have something new to put on the airwaves, I guess. And comedians are having a field day (NSFW):

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tech: Team Fortress 2 Preview

I'm playing the TF2 beta, and it's sweeeeeeet. The stylized, cartoony art style looks great (especially with my swanky graphics card), and the gameplay is pretty good. I do think some of the classes need more special abilities, but that can always be added in. Take a look:



School: John Kerry's townhall meeting - electrifying, lol

Some guy got tasered at the recent John Kerry townhall meeting here at UF. I think the video kinda speaks for itself:



What I like best is Kerry's laconic, almost soporific voice droning while the guy gets cuffed. I guess that's what you should expect from the extreme fringes of the political system (the political left, in this case). Kerry is, of course, fairly embarrassed by this supporter, as well he should.



I guess the "Skull & Bones" thing was the last straw. :-P In any event, I'm not sorry I missed the lecture - I've had enough of John Kerry on Iraq to last a lifetime.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Guns: California Schemin' - microstamping madness

I'm not sure who is running California, but they seem to have a pretty distorted notion of how things work in the real world.

Exhibit A.

The California "microstamping" bill (requiring semiautomatic pistols to microstamp each shell that leaves the chamber with a serial number) has passed out of the Senate and it's hit Governor Schwarzenegger's desk. I'm hoping every CA gunowner will call in, or at least send a letter, expressing just how stupid and misguided a bill like this is.

Then again, maybe the people behind the bill know how stupid it is. Maybe they know that any two-bit criminal with half a brain will file off the microstamping components, or will start using revolvers instead. Maybe they know about the millions of guns in California already in circulation that don't have this technology and never will. Maybe they know the entire thing is just a way to raise the costs of making guns and ammunition, and will have zero effect on violent crime.

It's been said before: I'm not sure what's scarier - stupid legislators, or smart ones.

Food: Chunks of Energy


I'm not a vegetarian or anything, but I do think that in terms of trail food and quick snacks, vegetarian stuff usually has the edge. I like dried meat as much as the next guy, but it's woefully expensive compared to homemade trail mix or GORP (granola oats raisins peanuts). Of course, that's only if you don't opt for "Chunks of Energy," the lazy man's snack food.

I first saw "Chunks of Energy" when my friend pulled them out to snack on during one of our D&D sessions. They were funny little cubes, but they contained a whole bunch of nuts, seeds, and honey (read: tons of sugar). They tasted okay, but they were more addictive than you would think. We started snapping them up.

Eventually, I tracked down where my friend had got them - Mother Earth Market, a chain of health/organic food stores in and around the area. They're 4 bucks for a half pound, which is as expensive as deli meat. I'm not sure I'd recommend them to other people, but I have to say, I'm munching on them as I type this. :-P

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Links: The Breda Fallacy

Ever get the impression that the blog or journal you're reading is sort of an eerie mirror image of your own?

Check this out.

When I saw the "Rule #3, Jodie!" part, combined with the Cookie Monster and Beowulf posts, I knew this one would be going on the blogroll. :-)

Miscellany: Tragedy of the Commons, writ small

"The Tragedy of the Commons" is a name for a very old concept - the problem that emerges when individuals (who are assumed to be selfish by nature) set upon a finite resource.

From Garret Hardin's essay:
============


The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, "What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?" This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.
2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of 1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another. . . . But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit--in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

===============

There's some controversy over whether this is actually what happens in real life. Shouldn't it be obvious to everyone involved that adding animals indefinitely isn't possible?

Anyhoo, I only point out the metaphor to relate the tale of "Scion Girl." We have parking spaces located all around our condos, and they're more or less a free-for-all in terms of who gets to park where. Most people park next to their apartments, so disagreements are rare. Unfortunately, the girl from the next building over constantly steals our parking spot, and she drives a white Scion tC. I'm even thinking of putting a sign on her car demanding she doesn't park there.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Music: Promises

The Cranberries have had their share of popular hits, but the average person probably hasn't heard anything aside from the "Dreams-Linger-Zombie" trifecta.

Here's my favorite obscure Cranberries song:

Miscellany: The Rule Dispute

The game master in a role-playing game also wears the hat of referee. And like all refs, sometimes the calls are disputed or complained about.

For example, we recently had a fairly lengthy discussion about whether a swimming hydra, when affected by a "Deep Slumber" spell, should receive a second saving throw when its head(s) slip into the water (it had failed its first). We argued that this went against the description in the PHB, which requires a slap or physical wound, not merely a normal noise. Is being re-immersed in water like being slapped? Who knows?

Another close call happened in a "Star Wars" Saga Edition session. A Cerean Jedi ran past a room with a thug in it, and it was a major point of contention whether the thug could take a free attack on the Jedi (that is, whether the thug "surprised" the Jedi). The Jedi player contended that he should at least get a Perception roll against the thug's stealth roll.

I'm not sure what the correct answers are in these cases. But I do know this - the best policy for a disagreement is to resolve it as quickly as possible. Nothing saps the life out of a role-playing session than bickering about concepts that doesn't even exist in the real world. As a DM, I enjoy making a rule that seems fair, and running with it.

Guns: J-Frame Monogrip review

My go-to pocket carry gun is the S&W 642, but it's not a soft-shooting gun. Most of that is because of the petite 15-ounce aluminum frame firing full power .38+P loads, but another culprit is the hard plastic "boot grip" that comes standard with the revolver.

I've heard it explained like this - originally, J-frames were steel only, so they had grips that didn't cover the area right behind the trigger guard, allowing most shooters to get three fingers on the gun.


As people desired more oomph from their .38 loads, and as lightweight revolvers came into vogue, that trigger guard starting ramming people's hands during recoil, so someone came up with the "boot" or "T" grip - that only allows two fingers on the gun, but doesn't allow the trigger guard to damage the shooter like before.

The Hogue Monogrip is a cheap ($20 or less), almost retro combination of these schools of thought. It has a longer stem than the default boot grips, so you can get a full grip, but it also covers the area behind the trigger guard.

While testing it, I tended to shoot low - I guess I'm used to choking up on the smaller grips. It was a bit more pleasant than the boot grips and would be aces for anyone with large hands. The one downside is that it's big, so the gun won't conceal as well. For anyone bringing a lightweight revolver to the range, it seems worth a try, though.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Tech: Neverwinter Nights 2



In any given computer game, there is a chance for show-stopping bugs and annoying errors. For some reason, though, computer RPGs tend to have the most problems. Maybe it's the complexity of the scripting and game-state tracking. Maybe it's the smaller budgets or cramped development cycles. Whatever it is, the fact remains that most of the RPGs I've played, from "Fallout 2" to "Morrowind," had various technical issues that needed to be ironed out.

"Neverwinter Nights 2" is no exception. Upon install, I downloaded a huge 100-odd megabyte patch - so it's clear they've been working on this for awhile. While I haven't encountered any game-crashing problems, the AI for both friendly and enemy characters is pretty bad. For instance, sometimes your foes will come in single file, like lambs to the slaughter. Even worse, sometimes your companion's AI shuts down altogether, so you have to reinstate it by issuing a "broadcast command." The camera is generally poor, and unless you adopt a bird's-eye, strictly overhead view, it's going to get stuck in walls and such (sometimes it starts rotating around at a sickening pace for no reason).

More problematic, though, is the overall performance, especially given that the graphics probably won't impress anyone. Running this game at 1440x900 resolution with a Core 2 Quad at 2.4 GHz, 2 GB of RAM, and a GeForce 8800 GTS 320 MB, the framerates are still just okay. Keep in mind this is a computer that can play "Bioshock" at 50 fps, and you see how frustrating the game could be if you don't have a decent PC.

It's a shame that technical issues are keeping this game back, because without them, this is a well-crafted RPG in the mode of "Baldur's Gate" and "Knights of the Old Republic." Most of the D&D 3.5 Edition ruleset, from crafting to diplomacy, is implemented in a pretty seamless way. The story is nothing spectacular, nor are the characters as charming as "Bladur's Gate," but the gameplay is there. The tantalizing possibilites of fan-made modules and content, as well as the multiplayer mode of the game, make it worth a look for RPG fans. Just be prepared to futz around a bit.

78/100

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Miscellany: Our Old Friend Entropy


There's a certain amount of energy that's needed to keep a system in order. Or, put another way, the amount of useful work a system can do is limited by the unavailability of some of that energy.

This is all well and good, except in this case the system is a messy room. Or, more precisely, my messy room. I'm one of those poor saps who doesn't pick up after himself, and who also tends to packrat every little knickknack that comes along. It's a bad habit.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

TV: Quantum Leap

The "traveling angel" show, where a benevolent protagonist wanders through the world doing good and solving problems, has always been a staple of modern commercial media. From the early old-time radio adventures of "Johnny Dollar" to stuff like "Joan of Arcadia," it's just downright easy for writers to stick our hero into some new mess, in some new place.

"Quantum Leap" mixed in some light-hearted science-fictiony time travel into the formula, and it was the one show that I watched every day, hoping to see the leap home...



This show was pretty much the high point for Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell, but their chemistry on screen was so good I suppose there's no hard feelings. The series did get a little weird when they tried to shore up flagging ratings (the Lee Harvey Oswald leaps, the infamous "Evil Leaper" Alia) but I always wished they'd wrap up the series properly.

On the whole, the show was all about tolerance and helping people out. And of course, it's been parodied mercilessly:



Movies: Iron Man preview

The casting of the upcoming superhero flick "Iron Man" is what I consider a stroke of ironic genius. In the comics, Tony Stark (Iron Man's alter-ego secret identity) is wealthy, famous, and saddled with destructive bouts of alcoholism. Check out the trailer (if the YT video below doesn't work, try the official site):



Yes, that's right, it's Robert Downey Jr. as "Iron Man." It makes sense, in a strange way - why not get a real recovered drug addict to play a fictional recovered alcoholic?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

September 11

Music: Soulja Boy

Not a great song, methinks, but play something often enough, and it gets in your head:



Actually, when I heard the song for the first time, I was instantly reminded of this:

School: Giving Up


Well, the deadline to turn in Moot Court briefs is about a week away, and I'm much, much further than that when it comes to actually writing the darn thing. Specifically, I researched a bit and studied the facts of the case they gave us, and it's quite apparent I wouldn't be able to do a very good job in such a limited time.

There's always a sullen note of disappointment when you abandon a project. I have to admit, the limited time available for the competition (August 23rd to September 19th) was a killer. I don't have the best time management skills, and it's hard to make something a priority when it's essentially optional.

Guns: DCGunCase.com

Alan Gura, Bob Levy, and Clark Neily have their own blog. They are the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in what is the most important Second Amendment case in 70 years - Heller v. District of Columbia (formerly Parker v. D.C.). On their site, you can find links to all the litigation documents, which might interest RKBA diehards or lawyers, but will bore the crap outta everyone else. ;-)

The Supreme Court will either grant or deny the petition for certiorari sometime next month. If they do take the case, expect a very interesting 2008 election season...

Monday, September 10, 2007

Miscellany: A quick post featuring David Caruso

Jim Carrey doing pretty much the best "CSI: Miami" parody ever:



And here's the real thing:

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Sports: Federer wins the U.S. Open

Roger Federer didn't play particularly well (certainly not like he did in the sizzling quarterfinals victory over Andy Roddick), but he still managed to beat Novak Djokovic in straight sets 7-6(4),7-6(2), 6-4 to capture his 12th Grand Slam.

A lot of people search for superlatives to capture Federer's play, but I think the highest compliment is that he wins points when he needs to. Djokovic had 5 set points in the first set and 2 set points in the second, but Roger found a way to survive each one of them. In terms of dominance in a sport, I don't think anyone has ever come close.

Novak has definitely positioned himself as the next big thing in tennis. He might not have bested Roger on the court, but his impressions are dead-on and hilarious:

Tech: A Digital D&D Retrospective

A bunch of games, both for PCs and video game consoles, have tried to capture what makes D&D so fun to play (with a good DM, anyway). Some have been more successful than others, so I thought it'd be fun to take a look back at the various adaptations of the venerable RPG system:


Eye of the Beholder - Someone gave me this Super Nintendo cartridge for free, and I can see why. This is a straight dungeon crawl in the most literal sense - you're underneath Waterdeep, and you're hacking stuff to bits. With a first-person view and a crappy mapping system, the task often became frustrating. The controls were clunky, and I never really got into the game.

Planescape: Torment - Probably one of the best RPGs ever made. The game is set in the Planescape setting, where you play the Nameless One, an amnesiac who eventually meets a motley crew of companions from all over the Planes. The main character, in a perverse reversal of fantasy RPG mechanics, is immortal, and sometimes dying in combat actually helps you remember stuff. The story, voice acting, and artwork are all topnotch.


Tower of Doom - A slight rip-off of the famous "Golden Axe" series of fantasy sidescrolling beat-em-ups, "Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom" is a Capcom-developed arcade game where you beat the crap out of enemies in glorious 12-bit color, complete with a booming QSound voice saying "Welcome to the D&D world!" It was mindless arcade fun at its best, with the artists and such at Capcom doing a good job of anime-izing the D&D stereotypes into something stylish.

Baldur's Gate - Probably the closest anyone's ever come to replicating the typical tabletop D&D session, at least in single-player, is Baldur's Gate. Now, when I say typical D&D game, that has good points and bad points - you're going to fight tons of battles, meet some stock RPG characters and events ("you have been waylaid by enemies and must defend yourselves"), and get embroiled in a typical nigh-apocalyptic plot, crossing paths with Elminster, Volo, and Drizzt along the way. All in all, a fantastic RPG.
Neverwinter Nights 2 - The latest and greatest in a long line of RPGs. It's akin to Baldur's Gate, mixed with some KOTOR conveniences (party members automagically come back to life upon victory, for example). The jury's still out, but the game is at least competent in boiling down the 3.5 edition D&D rules into something that works in real-time.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Miscellany: Swiffer WetJet

You may not have any idea of what a Swiffer Wetjet is, so here's the television ad that prompted me to try it out (complete with Blondie hit "One Way or Another"):



The WetJet cost 20 bucks from the grocery store, and it was a neat little display of compact packaging when I finally unloaded it. It was very plasticky to be sure, and undoubtedly made in some factory in Guangzhou. Putting the thing together reminded me of assembling a rifle, and not in a good way. For instance, the darn thing requires 4 AA batteries just to squirt out its cleaning solvent.

I was definitely skeptical, and at first it looked like it was just pushing dirt around. You have to apply a decent amount of solution (about a 3 second blast) to clean correctly - one bottle will only last for about 8 or so medium size rooms. Furthermore, they recommend you vacuum before using the WetJet, otherwise you start getting the hair and stuff on the floor wet.

It was quick, though, and the actual mop itself is designed well, with a swiveling head that maneuvers easily. It won't replace a good old-fashioned mopping, but it's good enough for spot work and day-to-day touchup cleaning (by the front entrance floormat, for example).

Friday, September 07, 2007

Music: They

Jem (full name Jemma Griffiths) is a British singer. She achieved some minor popularity here in the U.S. (supplying songs for films like "Closer" and TV shows like "Grey's Anatomy"), but her album, "Finally Woken," went all the way to #6 on the UK charts.

"They" is the first track of the CD, and it was stuck in my head pretty much the entire time I was doing my senior design project. Here's the sexier space version of the music video:

Happy Birthday to Shangrila Towers

Yep, I've been writing to this sucker for a whole year now. There have been ups and downs, but it's certainly been a fun experience. Thanks to anyone who's ever posted a comment or enjoyed/hated/read anything I've written here.

When I want to celebrate something, this scene from Mrs. Doubtfire sometimes creeps into my mind:

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Miscellany: Running a "Call of Cthulhu" campaign, part 6


It's no secret that role-playing paraphernalia is hideously expensive. Aside from the books and dice themselves (which tend to be somewhat affordable), all the stuff you can add to your game to make it more "fun" can cost a lot of money.

Take miniatures, for example. They're handy in many ways (I especially like the ones with numbers on the bases, so that you can track damage to monsters of the same type), but when the asking price is $10 for a set of eight or so miniatures, you can see how running a large battle can become cost-prohibitive.

My solution for running battles in my "Call of Cthulhu" campaign are decorative, irregularly shaped glass stones (they can be found at most arts & crafts stores, probably as fish tank stones). They have lots of different colors, but are abstract enough that they don't spoil the mood or turn the game into a farce. Best of all, you can get a huge bag of them for $6 - enough to represent a whole army if need be.


The grid that investigators fight on is another problem. Again, you can buy "dungeon tiles" full of colorfully rendered landscapes gridded with 1"x1" squares, or even a full battle grid (people can get pretty elaborate, as seen above), but there remains a fundamental problem: scale. Even with each square representing a 5'x5' space, you need a 60" run of squares just to simulate a 100 yard distance. The firearms in CoC, like in real life, are effective at much greater ranges.

So, I'm just using some basic graph paper and sketching things out from now on. I'm thinking that perhaps a 1/4" should be ten yards in some of the larger battles. That way, a simple 8-1/2"x11" sheet can simulate a 300 yard x 440 yard area - dozens of acres of combat.

News: RIP Luciano

Luciano Pavarotti died at 71 today. Here's my favorite performance of his - a duet with "Duran Duran" singer Simon Le Bon at the "Together for the Children of Bosnia" charity concert:



Of course, Pavarotti was sort of a hired gun - he worked with many stars:



Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Guns: The Art of the Rifle

One of the very first books on guns I ever bought was Jeff Cooper's seminal work, "The Art of the Rifle." If you never had an older family member to teach you how to shoot a rifle, this is the book for you. All the basics are laid out, with quite a bit of philosophy from the Colonel himself:

"Personal weapons are what raised mankind out of the mud, and the rifle is the queen of personal weapons...The rifle has no moral stature, since it has no will of its own. Naturally, it may be used by evil men for evil purposes, but there are more good men than evil, and while the latter cannot be persuaded to the path of righteousness by propaganda, they can certainly be corrected by good men with rifles."

It's also in this book where Cooper laid out the pattern for his "scout" type rifle, a sort of general purpose rifle designed to be fairly competent at hunting and fighting, but not overspecialized in any one area. The main requirements are light weight, short barrel, front-mounted scope, and a .30-06 class caliber (~3000 ft. lbs. muzzle energy). Steyr sells an official "Scout" that meets all these requirements, but recently Ruger and others have introduced rifles that are in line with Cooper's directions:

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

TV: Yes, I know she's out of the U.S. Open...

...but this ad is still pretty funny.

Food: Smoothie Places in Gainesville


After doing "The Burrito Circuit," I thought it might be time to cover some of the myriad smoothie places that we have here in Gainesville.

Planet Smoothie - A huge smoothie chain, with locations in a couple dozen states all across the country. They don't have too many locations in South Florida, though, so it was only when I went to college that I encountered them. They serve up a typical, decent-tasting smoothie, with heavy reliance on sweet sugared fruit rather than yogurt (though they do serve yogurt-based smoothies). Like all these places, they offer nutritional supplements (vitamin and protein powders, mostly) to mix in with their drinks. My go-to smoothie there is the "Big Bang."

2/4 stars

Freshëns - Another big chain. They have a location in the Reitz Union ground floor (next to the game room) that seems like it's been there for decades. They separate their smoothie lines into yogurt-based and "10 juice blend" based. I had a blueberry yogurt smoothie there, and it tasted like I was drinking medicine. The juice blended smoothies taste okay, though.

2/4 stars

Boost Smoothies - Formerly "Smoothie King," they've relocated up University Ave. near Leonardo's Pizzeria. This is a smallish place run by an Iranian couple, and they have the highest prices in town. They have the widest variety of ingredients and the best service, though, so I suppose it's to be expected. I had a pineapple-papaya smoothie that tasted pretty good, though it was a bit light on the papaya for my taste.

2/4 stars

Monday, September 03, 2007

Tech: "Bioshock" Review

"Bioshock" is the spiritual successor to "System Shock 2," one of my favorite games ever. It's a first-person shooter that strands you inside an undersea dystopia called "Rapture," perhaps one of the most vividly detailed gaming milieus ever to grace a PC monitor:



The production values are fantastic - everything from the period music, to the retro advertisements lining the walls (which look convincingly like '40s and '50s throwbacks), to the steampunk design of the weaponry exudes clever attention to detail. There are grisly corpses
strewn about the city, water and fire effects galore, and numerous optional nooks and crannies to explore.

As the silent protagonist, you'll gain access to genetic modifications that give you strange new powers, like sending swarms of insects at your enemies. At the heart of this system is the central choice - do you rescue the child-like "Little Sister" gatherers, or kill them to fuel your abilities? It's a moral mirror that doesn't get seen in games too often.

The game has a good deal of problems that keep it from being all that it could be. The instant resurrection chambers scattered around the levels essentially remove all penalty for death, robbing the gameplay of most of its challenge. There are only a few enemy types, so you'll be beating in the same foes over and over and over again. Finally, even generic baddies eventually gain so much health in the latter half of the game that it takes multiple shotgun blasts to the head to kill even one.

Even with all these issues, it's not hard to recommend "Bioshock" to everyone looking for a great new FPS to play.

Rating: 90/100

Movies: Mission: Impossible III

Directed by "Alias" creator J.J. Abrams, the Tom Cruise vehicle "Mission: Impossible III" takes the spy action flick and puts a made-for-TV spin on it:



It's not that the effects or production values aren't suitably lavish, or that the requisite star power isn't there (Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames, Laurence Fishburne), but the script itself lacks...well...it lacks a climax. Most audiences expect these movies to end in some incredible final action scene, complete with the villain dying in some over-the-top fashion (the first "Mission: Impossible" movie followed this formula - a helicopter exploded in the Chunnel, for heaven's sake). This flick, though, doesn't really deliver, and it sort of peters out instead of building to a crescendo.

That's not to say there isn't some good stuff here. Philip Seymour Hoffman is great as the primary villain, and the action scenes are generally well done, if increasingly implausible. There's also plenty of grist for the gun nerds - watch for not one but two instances of an assault rifle being assembled together on screen. And there's also one of the only times I've seen a double-clipped G36 mag being employed in a movie.

Rating: 7/10

(sidenote - it's difficult to see how IMF can function when there's a traitor lurking behind the scenes in literally every film)

Sports: Salute to the Underdogs


One of the traditional parts of the season for any elite college football program is the first-day stomping of a hopelessly overmatched opponent, usually from some school you've never heard of. I wonder what kind of player it takes to march out on that field and get whacked and pounded for four quarters, often ending in some lopsided score that people make fun about on ESPN. These underdogs exhibit a special kind of heroics, the will to keep on playing and to be a good sport about losing, that doesn't get mentioned as much as it should.

UF pretty much followed the script Saturday, racking up 49 points before the game was stopped on account of lightning. Even with the reserves in, UF still outplayed Western Kentucky, so it was more of a practice game than anything else. Even so, it was the season opener, so I'm sure Gainesville was packed.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Miscellany: Running a "Call of Cthulhu" campaign, part 5


The first duty as a game master, whether it's being a Keeper in "Call of Cthulhu" or anything else, is to the players. While there's certainly nothing that says you must kowtow to their every whim, listening and responding to what players do and don't like about your game is almost essential for everyone to have fun. There's almost nothing worse than an imperious Keeper who doesn't see fit to mess with the rules every so often.

My group wanted to try switching to the d20 "Call of Cthulhu" scheme. This has a number of advantages - I think the d20 system has a genuinely better method for making skill checks, and I like how D&D-style feats help to distinguish investigators from each other (in traditional CoC, the players can end up looking similar to each other). On the other hand, the gaining of hitpoints and levels does go against the spirit of CoC, but the investigators are usually so outmatched that it doesn't matter. I also don't think the standard D&D skills translate very well to the CoC investigation model.

We played a session using the d20 rules, and they mostly worked fine. I'm not sure how to refine armor class and attack rolls in combat - essentially, the Mythos monsters can hit the investigators 60%-75% of the time, while the investigators might have only a 30%-50% chance to hit. When each hit is potentially fatal, these kinds of probabilities spell certain doom over the long run; I'll have to see what I can do to ensure survivability.

The Sanity rules are essentially identical to standard CoC, which is probably for the best - I liked the Sanity rolls more than any other part of CoC. Currently, one of the investigators in my campaign is experiencing drug addiction - always a foreseeable consequence of taking psychoactive drugs.

Miscellany: The Cat Came Back

I came across this little nugget from my childhood. I still remember seeing this short as a kid on Nickelodeon. Kind of macabre for kid's fare, especially at the end:

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