Thursday, April 30, 2009

Guns: What's Next? A Flamethrower?

Gun rag articles feature the silliest things sometimes. Hey, you only get so much mileage out of reviewing the umpteenth AR variant coming from some indie machine shop - in order to get more people to read your magazine, sometimes you have to write about something unexpected. Just look at what was on the cover of April's "Shotgun News":




"AR + Arrows = PSE TAC-15"

That's right, the folks at Precision Shooting Equipment cooked up an AR-15-based crossbow. It fits on any standard AR lower, turning your sedate 5.56 caliber carbine into a medieval-style engine of destruction:



The craziest thing is that this is not only a usable crossbow, but a powerful one. It uses nonstandard bolts because of the force imparted by the string; normal bolts would be shredded by the 170 peak weight. According to PSE, the TAC-15 can deliver a 425 grain bolt with 160 foot pounds of energy - about a 50% increase over the standard hunting crossbow.

Before you jump in line, the list price from PSE for one of these things is $1300. Still, it's actually fairly practical as far as curiosities go - if your locality has a special hunting season for crossbow users, the TAC-15 might let you join in the fun with all your AR lower accessories: grip, stock, trigger (I'm not sure on this, since legally the lower is a firearm no matter what you mount on it).

In the absurd event you actually shoot this thing in self-defense, be comforted that a 160 ft-lb broadhead will sail clean through a game animal - or conventional body armor.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Tech: 50 Cent - Blood On The Sand

Somewhere along the line, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson morphed into a parody of himself. Maybe it was when he started marketing his own flavor of vitaminwater (Try it!). Maybe it was when he did a cameo on "The Simpsons." Who knows?

I'll grant that people should be allowed to make fun of themselves, but I think the "50 Cent" persona is now noticeably divorced from "50 Cent" the actual person. The problem here is that to sell albums to young people, it helps to at least appear to be stickin' it to the man and all that, regardless of Mr. Cent's multimillion dollar net worth. So, in the ongoing balancing act between gangsta' street cred and Main Street marketability, "50 Cent: Blood on the Sand" represents...err...represents - ah heck, I'm not sure it represents anything:



50 Cent and a few members of G-Unit voice themselves in this epic action game. The plot is elementary - some fool stole 50's jewel-encrusted skull, and now 50 Cent wants it back, no matter the cost in property or lives. Over the course of the game, you'll fight your way through an unnamed Middle Eastern country, destroying buildings, terrorists, and cultural landmarks.

It all gets very silly very fast, but honestly, that's where the charm of the game lies. Body-slamming terrorists and jumping over explosions in your Hummer would be crazy enough, but now imagine doing it to a thumping soundtrack of 50 Cent tunes. And in slow motion.

The actual core gameplay is similar to every third-person shooter you've ever played, and honestly, it does get a little repetitive (there's only one type of boss in the game, for instance - a mostly nonthreatening attack chopper). The developers helpfully added little arcade-style challenges (kill X enemies in the next thirty seconds, collect Y gold in the next minute, etc.) and fun unlockables (like music videos of 50 Cent songs), but the lack of a true competitive multiplayer mode means this game doesn't have the legs of something like "Gears of War 2."

Rating: 75/100

Links: G.I. Joe - Resolute

Remember G.I. Joe? Whether from the comic books, toys, or TV series, Hasbro's G.I. Joe has had a big place in pop culture since the '60s. And just when it seemed interest might wane in the new millenium, September 11th and the Iraq War stirred up interest in toys depicting the U.S. military.

But we haven't had a proper animated G.I. Joe cartoon in awhile. Until now:



Created by English comics author Warren Ellis, "G.I. Joe: Resolute" infuses the old-school Joe vs. Cobra battle with new school production values and sensibilities. The notion of a well-funded, worldwide terrorist network isn't very far-fetched any more, so Cobra has become more frightening than ever to compensate. In the first five minutes of "Resolute," Cobra kills over ten million people and cripples the Joe command center. In other words, this ain't the "G.I. Joe" of your childhood.

And yet it is. Everyone still has ridiculous codenames, there are a ton of disposable vehicles, the generic Cobra soldiers still can't hit the broadside of a barn, the Baroness is still hot, and Snake Eyes never says a word. As a starting point for an animated series, "Resolute" is incredibly promising, though they'd have to tone down the violence if this ever made it to Saturday morning (as is, it'd work great for "Adult Swim").

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Food: Exam Season Snacks

If you've ever crammed for multiple exams, you know there's not a whole lot of time to cook your own food. Heck, sometimes you can't even spare the time to go out to eat. Yet that doesn't mean you should fill your body with potato chips and Snickers bars, either. Here's a few of my favorite healthy convenience foods for this harrying season:


Prunes


There was a massive effort to rebrand prunes by Sunsweet Growers (the largest prune producers in the world). Traditionally associated with people with digestive problems, prunes were emphasized as tasting great and being good for you. To this end, Sunsweet introduced "Sunsweet Ones," individually wrapped prunes in an attractive plastic canister.

Okay, so it's not ecologically friendly, but the individual plastic wrapping for each prune eliminates the previously sticky experience of sticking your hand into a jar of prunes. And it's not all marketing hype, either; prunes have a boatload of soluble and insoluble fiber, as well as potassium and antioxidants. The form factor of "Sunsweet Ones" is ideal for study breaks - pop a couple of prunes every hour, and you'll have long-lasting energy and colon health.

Almonds

Nuts have always been a mixed bag nutritionally. On the one hand, nuts are good sources of protein, fiber, and other nutrients. On the other, they're rich in fat. And even though most of that fat might be the "good," monounsaturated kind, it still means you can't gorge on nuts without adding to your overall calorie intake.

I favor Blue Diamond Growers' whole, unflavored almonds for my snacking needs. You can get them in either the traditional nut canister or a sleekly designed plastic fliptop container. The plastic containers have clever markings on the side to help you measure out one-ounce portions. Short of eating cans of beans, this is the most cost-effective way to get your protein on the go.

Rooibos Tea

If you need less caffeine and tannin than even green tea, you should try some rooibos tea, or "bush tea" as it's known in South Africa. I was first introduced to this stuff in the pages of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" where main character Mma Ramotswe imbibes the stuff whenever she is working on a difficult case.

It has a calming effect, especially when served with some milk and a little sugar. Rooibos makes the list of convenience foods because it's mind-numbingly easy to make - it's almost impossible to oversteep this tea. Just pour boiling water over the leaves, wait however long you want, and drink up. If you tried that with green tea, you could end up with an astringent mess.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Movies: Vehicular Stupidity Double Feature

Today we're looking at two movies with cars as central characters. Both are poor-to-mediocre outings, but they have some interesting automobile hijinks, so what makes more sense than cobbling them together into a double feature?

Sex Drive

R-rated teen comedies are a dime a dozen. It's easy to make one up on the fly - take a socially hapless but good-hearted protagonist, an outrageous oversexed and/or popular best friend, and attach a youthful premise (road trip, prom night, graduation, etc.), and BOOM, you're done:



Ian (Josh Zuckerman) is a regular-Joe type who's never had much luck with the ladies. But when an anonymous chat room friend offers to "go all the way," Ian's hormones get the best of him. He decides to steal his brother's car, a vintage 1969 GTO, in order to make the trip cross-country to meet the girl...if she's even a girl. His ladykiller friend (played with aplomb by Clark Duke) and his girl-friend-who's-not-a-girlfriend (Amanda Crew) tag along for the ride.

Okay, so director Sean Anders isn't straying very far from the formula here, but it's not really that bad of a movie. The main failing is a lack of laughs, which is a pretty big deal for what's being marketed as a zany comedy. There is plenty of incident, and the GTO eventually plays a big part in the story, but subjectively the movie just wasn't very funny for me.

Rating: 6/10

Death Race

Jason Statham has a peculiar talent - he has starred in some of the most violently nonsensical productions ever filmed. Between "Crank," "In the Name of the King," and "Death Race," he's destined to become a legendary B-movie actor:



Yes, it's a remake of the forgettable Roger Corman cult film "Death Race 2000." That alone should put you on notice that the movie will be absurd, but the slick production values help to hide the cornball cheesiness of the premise. Statham plays former racecar driver Jensen Ames, who is framed for his wife's murder in the opening scenes. He's taken to Terminal Island, where convicts race against each other in armor-plated, machine-gun-equipped vehicles to delight the masses.

Director Paul W. S. Anderson shows his trademark inconsistency here, at times making you cringe at awful dialogue and at times exciting you with good practical effects. This one's not nearly as bad as "Alien vs. Predator," but it doesn't reach the cheesy standard set by "Resident Evil" or "Mortal Kombat," either. I think where "Death Race" stumbles the most is during the final act, which hamhandedly discards all the careful setup explaining why convicts with armor-plated, machine-gun-equipped vehicles don't just, you know, escape the prison. The plot holes here, become, literally, big enough to drive a truck through.

Rating: 4/10

BONUS! Jason Statham's newest movie, "Diabetes":



It's only a joke because it hasn't been filmed yet.

Links: Blogroll Update

That whole "20/20" debacle really stirred up the proverbial pot, which means that a bunch of great blogs caught my attention. Unsurprisingly, most of them follow the format of Shangrila Towers - a mix of various interests, current events, and firearms stuff. In alphabetical order...

All You Really Need - John the Texaner started this blog in January, but it's already got some interesting posts. The blog's mostly focused on "guns, food, and photography" - all you really need. In terms of gun stuff, you'll see a nice BHP range report and a discussion of John's home defense shotgun. He posts less frequently than I do, but the posts are much longer and more detailed - nice for grabbing a mug of coffee and pondering.

Bore Patch - The subtitle says it all, really: "Internet Security and Firearms. Either way, helping you keep your muzzle clean. No extra charge." Aside from these two topics, Bore Patch heaps a considerable helping of fun miscellany at the reader - music videos, politics, vacation photos, etc. The author is a father, so there's also the added fun of being able to share in the war stories of parenting.

Found: One Troll - Eseell's blog focuses on two of my interests: computers and guns. But just because there's a slightly more focused range of topics doesn't mean that there aren't awesome off-the-wall posts either, like an embed of "Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter." Guns and geekery - they go together like peanut butter and chocolate.

ricketyclick - This one's a mite more political than the other blogs on this list, with regular criticism of President Obama and the forces of gun control. Excellent quality posts, though, so even if your politics differ, you should check ricketyclick out.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Miscellany: Targus Sport Deluxe 16" Backpack


Before I switched over to netbooks, I used to be a desktop replacement junkie. I was enamored of heavy laptops kitted out with fancy graphics cards and enormous screens. My first three laptops, for instance, all had 15" screens and all weighed at least eight pounds.

In order to lug around a laptop of that size, you need a serious carrying case. Well, the desktop replacements have been phased out, but today I'm reviewing one carrying case that has withstood the test of time - the Targus Sport Deluxe laptop backpack.

It's easily one of the best backpacks I've ever owned, especially if you need to tote a gorilla-sized laptop. The internal computer compartment can accommodate a full 15"-16" screen laptop or a fairly large hardcover textbook. Aside from the inner compartment, there's a main outer pocket with an interesting vertical zipper design (the flaps fold out like wings). This outer pocket can expand like a kangaroo pouch, making it handy for storing bulky items like jackets or purses.

The exterior of the backpack is similarly well-designed. As you can see, there are two webbed pouches on the outside flap. When combined with the dual elastic cords on the flap, these pouches are perfect for strapping in Sigg bottles, umbrellas, or other cylindrical objects. Even the smallish side pockets are handy for stashing electronics and peripherals like computer mice. To top it all off, there's a handy removable cell phone pouch attached to the padded shoulder straps.

I've owned and used the Sport Deluxe for nearly a decade. The space age styling might be a minus to some, but overall, this is a very solid backpack.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Guns (sorta): The Right to Bear Tasers?

Law professor Eugene Volokh is writing an interesting article arguing that stun gun and irritant spray bans should be unconstitutional, either under the various state RKBA provisions or an incorporated-against-the-states 2nd Amendment. The article is slated to appear next year in the Stanford Law Review (check out the series of posts discussing the subject on The Volokh Conspiracy). It doesn't really claim that these less-lethal weapons are preferable to firearms for self-defense. but instead puts forth some reasons that people might prefer using a Taser or pepper spray instead of a SIG.

Most surprising is the fact that some states ban stun guns while allowing possession of firearms, and even shall-issue CCW(!). The opposite approach is present here in Florida, where it's legal to carry self-defense irritant sprays and nonlethal electric devices without a concealed weapons permit (Fla. Stat. 790.01(4)).

In broad terms, Volokh's argument makes a lot of sense - there just isn't much reason to have these kinds of less-lethal bans when firearms are allowed. Yet I can see some dangers with the end consequences of the argument, though. One is that if Tasers and the like are lumped in with "arms" according to the sundry state RKBA provisions or the 2nd Amendment itself, then some of the pro-gun control folks may claim that restricting firearms is constitutionally okay, since there are still "arms" available for self-defense.

This sort of treatment has been applied to other constitutional rights, such as when the government regulates speech on the public sidewalk - in that case, courts do look at whether alternate channels of communication are available. Thus, it's not hard to extrapolate the Florida example into an onerous two-tier system, where less-lethal weapons are available but actual firearms are heavily restricted.

The problem here is that electric defense devices and irritant sprays are far inferior to firearms for self-defense. James Rummel goes over the most pertinent reasons at Hell in a Handbasket (among them - spotty reliability of a lithium ion battery/irritant cartridge that is left unused for months or years at a time, limited standoff range available with today's devices, and limited capabilities against multiple attackers), but I thought a more visceral demonstration would be helpful.

The following video comes from Taser's own promotional videos:



That's right, if you ever get attacked by more than one criminal, Taser's own training video advises you to engage in melee combat with one of the thugs - and that's if you're lucky enough to have the criminals sequentially attack as in the video, and not all at once. I can't believe anyone would choose a Taser over a handgun after seeing the above video, particularly if they are confined to a wheelchair or must protect small children who may not be able to drop everything and run away at a moment's notice. The same goes with other non-firearm weapons - whether knife, baton, spray, or whatever gadget, they all assume certain things about the defender that might not be true.

In contrast, firearms are a mature technology that provides overwhelming force multiplication. They are, to paraphrase Jeff Cooper's "Art of the Rifle," the symbol of things as they ought to be. A 90-year old 1911 pistol works on the same principles and will defend you just as well as the latest handguns. It will do so on a windy day, or in the rain, against one criminal or three. It will do so even if you are a pregnant mother or paralyzed from the waist down. With minor maintenance, both the pistol and its ammunition can last years, even decades of inactivity.

That's not to say training can be ignored when using a firearm for defense. The 20/20 video from a couple weeks ago showed how important training is. But think about the alternative - would pepper spray or a Taser have provided the student CCW with even a ghost of a chance? I heartily agree that less-lethal weapons should be free of government restriction, but not at the expense of the true self-defense tools.

Friday, April 24, 2009

School: The Final Lesson

For various reasons, my last set of exams is serving as a kind of crescendo for the law school experience. First, I didn't pay much attention for the first two months of school because of the near-daily practice required for the National Trial Competition. Second, many of the professors' lectures during this semester were just flat-out awful (sit in for a few hours of Baldwin's constant rambling or Raum's PowerPoint sessions and you'll be asleep, too).

That's why the studying for this set of finals has taken an interesting turn. I'm finding that it's easier to comprehend the applicable subject matter by studying court opinions and law review articles, rather than the assigned textbook or my lecture notes. In a sense, I guess, this semester of law school has taught me the value of independence; having someone talk at you about a subject doesn't necessarily help you absorb it any better. The big point of law school turns out to be that you don't need law school to learn the law.

I don't feel cheated, though. There's a value to that final, ironic realization. I do wish it could have come a bit cheaper.

Movies: Vaguely Sexually Ambiguous Horror Double Feature

Today I'll be reviewing two horror movies containing some vague sexual ambiguities. Both movies are directed by foreigners, although one is an American production.

Let the Right One In

This movie is sort of an antidote to all the recent "Twilight" hoopla - judge for yourself:



Oskar is a lonely boy who is routinely bullied by his classmates. One night, though, he runs into a young girl named Eli, who's just moved into an apartment across the way. The two have a relationship that develops over the course of a number of grisly murders in town.

Yes, it's a vampire story, but there isn't any stupid plot twist - from the moment you lay eyes on Eli, you know she's...unusual, and most viewers, even without any prior knowledge of the plot, will guess her true nature rapidly. But what really is her true nature?...

Lina Leandersson does an incredible job playing Eli, whose limited dialogue was actually dubbed over by a boy. The movie has the austere look common to murder films set in winter (blood on snow imagery is interesting to look at, no matter how cliché it is). What I like most, though, is that the movie embraces essentially every aspect of the classic vampire mythos (the titular aversion to entering uninvited, obsessive-compulsiveness, vulnerability to sunlight, etc.) without being silly. For those worried that vampires that sparkle in the sunlight will take over the planet, "Let the Right One In" is a delicious alternative.

Rating: 8/10

Midnight Meat Train



No, it's not a gay porn flick - it's an adaptation of a short story that originally appeared in Clive Barker's "Books of Blood." In MMT, a photographer stumbles across a brutal crime: a serial killer apparently murdering riders of the late night subway in New York. As the photographer investigates deeper, he learns the nearly unimaginable motives and methods behind the disappearances.

I'm not a huge Clive Barker fan (my favorite work of his is "Undying," an obscure PC game released in 2001), but this is one of the best "punch-in-the-gut" horror premises you'll ever see. Simple, visceral, and common enough to happen to anyone. As for the film itself, "Midnight Meat Train" was directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, the director of "Versus." As you might expect, the fight scenes are suitably exciting and bloody, easily the best parts of the film. It all builds up to a gory crescendo compares favorably to most mainstream horror (I'm a little tired of gore porn and teen slasher flicks hogging all the horror mind share).

Rating: 8/10

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Food: UF Plaza Restaurants' Lunch Review-a-rama

There's a piece of extremely high-value real estate right across from the UF campus - the UF Plaza strip mall. The peculiar thing about the UF Plaza is that only a dozen or so vehicles can fit inside the strip mall's parking lot at a time. Due to the limited parking space, the tenants consist mainly of restaurants that cater to the student lunch crowd that walks in from campus. Here's some of the eateries you'll find there:

The Copper Monkey Restaurant & Pub


These guys are supposedly famous for their burgers, although I think the New Deal Cafe still serves up better ones. It's essentially a laid-back sports bar serving average sports bar-type food, sort of like "Gator City Sports Grill" downstairs (except that The Copper Monkey doesn't turn into a thumping club at nighttime).

My burger and fries were good, a little greasy, but not really remarkable. For those inclined there was, however, an ample selection of beer, including Guinness on tap (w00t!). The place is cozy, for lack of a better term, so I can see why it's lasted so long in the fickle restaurant market. I imagine it'd be a great place to unwind after class.

Rating: 2/4 stars

Relish Big Tasty Burgers

This is a relatively new fast food place that adjoins the Pita Pit on the bottom floor (they seem to share the same parent company, too, though I couldn't find any link to them on the Pita Pit site). The shtick here is that you can put all sorts of junk on your burger, like hummus.

In terms of value, I think Relish is the clear winner out of all the restaurants on the plaza. The burgers are cooked fresh (no steam trays or microwaving to my knowledge), a big step up from the Godawful patties they foist on you at McDonald's and Burger King. A half-pound burger with drink and side item will set you back around $7, which isn't too bad.

Rating: 2/4 stars

Designer Greens

An example of a nascent franchise arrangement (the first Designer Greens is located in UCF). You choose the ingredients you want on your salad, and they toss it for you. There are plenty of interesting options, including Granny Smith apples, artichokes, and goat cheese. The $7 "full" salad lets you choose five ingredients to top a spring mix or romaine base.

I think the salads are a little overpriced, but the portions are fairly large, at least. It's a lot cheaper to just make your own salad, of course, but the ability to constantly mix and match ingredients and dressings (like chipotle lime or strawberry vinaigrette) is convenient and helps to avoid boredom if you're on a diet. One caveat - like with most restaurant salads, you should order dressing on the side unless you like your greens soaking in oil.

Rating: 2/4 stars

School: The Last Exam Season

The management here at Shangrila Towers apologizes for the spotty posting as of late. This is, in fact, the last semester of law school for me, and between studying for finals, preparing to take the bar, and trying to find a job in the middle of a ten-year low in lawyer employment, there's not much free time left for posting.

But what the heck, I'll keep posting anyway.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Books: Scratch Beginnings


"Scratch Beginnings" is a biography by college graduate Adam Shepard, who conducted an interesting experiment: could he survive for a year in modern America starting off with only $25 and a sleeping bag?

If it sounds familiar, it's because Shepard intended the book as a direct response to Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed." Ehrenreich went "undercover" and pursued a similar series of low-paying jobs, but burned out of each one. She eventually concluded that it was nearly impossible for the working poor to ever better themselves economically.

In contrast, "Scratch Beginnings" adopts an optimistic tone. Shepard's prose is less developed, the experiences more raw, but it's clear he's more game for the experiment than Ehrenreich ever was. He sacrifices all the luxuries, living in a homeless shelter for the first two months and finding work wherever possible. During the course of his trials Shepard meets an incredible cast of people.

Contrary to what you might expect, the book doesn't devolve into an indictment of the poor; it's clear that Shepard respects the enormous obstacles that are faced by people who don't have the benefit of a stable middle or upper class upbringing. Instead, the main point of "Scratch Beginnings" is that there comes a time when someone has to grow up, where they can either keep blaming their past or start preparing for the future.

I don't want to spoil the ending, but I can tell you that after the experiment, Shepard doesn't end up a millionaire, nor does he end up dead in a gutter. After almost a year's worth of hard work and scrupulous saving, he ends up where most of us are - somewhere in that vast middle, searching for the American dream.

Tech: Sennheiser HD 202 headphones

It's time for final exams here at Shangrila Towers, and that means listening to music through headphones. While my favorite pair of low-cost cans have long been the Grado SR-60s, they have one drawback: an "open" design. That means sounds from the outside world can be heard virtually unimpeded when you're wearing the SR-60s; it makes for a more natural soundstage and it's great for situational awareness, but it's not so good for concentration.

So, when I'm in a semipublic area like the law school where I can let my guard down just a hair, I tend to use a set of Sennheiser HD 202 headphones:



The 202s feature a "closed" design that muffles outside sound somewhat. It's an order of magnitude less than a true ear canal monitor or noise-canceling headphone, but it helps to block footsteps in the hall and other background noise. I find that when I can't quite hear the sound of my fingers clicking on a keyboard, I tend to focus better on what's appearing on the screen.

At less than $30, a pair of Sennheiser HD 202 headphones is incredibly inexpensive. But the value you get for your money is quite high - much better sound quality than the run-of-the-mill iPod earbud, and better comfort than many higher-end headphones (the cheapo plastic band and foam cushioning work surprisingly well). So far the 202s have held up well in my bookbag, even through the rough-and-tumble of the school day, so they're well worth a look.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Movies: Delusions of Grandeur Double Feature

All this week, I'll be posting double feature movie reviews based on a particular theme. Today's post reviews two dark comedies where the main character is suffering from delusions of grandeur.

"Observe and Report"

Most of the time, my opinion of a movie falls in line with what most professional critics think (as reflected in aggregation sites like Rotten Tomatoes). "Observe and Report," a black comedy directed by Jody Hill, is one of those cases where I disagree with the mainstream:



Seth Rogen plays Ronnie, a loser security guard who is comically inept at his job. When a flasher starts harassing people at the mall where Ronnie works, the situation turns into an opportunity for Ronnie to realize his life's dream - to become a real police officer. Along for the ride are Anna Faris and Ray Liotta.

Critical reaction was mixed. It's an R-rated comedy in the "Superbad" mold without the reaffirming life lesson or the optimistic upturn at the end. It will be a shock for people expecting lighthearted slapstick in the vein of "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." "Observe and Report" is unrelenting in its capacity to offend: you'll see plenty of racial stereotypes, toilet humor, and even a near date-rape during its runtime.

For my part, I appreciate that director Jody Hill kept things funny and dark instead of predictable and inoffensive. Seth Rogen does a great job of playing an incompetent jerk of a security guard who still commands the sympathy of the audience, especially in the climactic (and unexpected) end sequence. The message may not be quite as hopeful as other movies, but you'll laugh all the same.

Rating: 9/10

"Special"

The last time I saw Michael Rapaport, he was starring in the short-lived sitcom "The War at Home." Now that I've seen his interestingly off-kilter turn in "Special," I wonder what he's been up to during the interim:



Rapaport plays Les, a lonely meter maid who signs up for a drug trial. When the drug has unexpected side effects, Les becomes convinced that he has developed superpowers, and decides that he must use them to make the world a better place. The sharp schism between his reality and the reality of others becomes the focal point of the movie.

Directed by Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore, "Special" looks like it was shot on a shoestring. The grainy look of the movie is pretty effective, though, and it presents a stark contrast from the ultra-slick superhero tales people are used to at the cineplex. The minimalist special effects never look cheap or low-budget.

The plot is pretty implausible in hindsight, and overall the movie doesn't show you too many things that you didn't see coming. But Rapaport really steals the show. His character is faced with almost insurmountable obstacles, mental and physical. It's easy for the audience to laugh or make fun of protagonists like Les if they aren't pulled off right, but Rapaport imbues the character with a gritty determination; it may not quite be "heroic," but it certainly is special.

Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tech: Puzzle Quest - Galactrix

Developer Infinite Interactive's "Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords" turned a lot of heads when it was first released in 2007. The game combined the casual gem-matching gameplay of "Bejeweled" with fantasy RPG elements cribbed from the "Warlords" series that Infinite Interactive was best known for. Now the sequel, "Puzzle Quest: Galactrix" is upon us:



As before, you slide multicolored gems on a playfield; match 3 or more in a row to eliminate them and potentially damage your enemy. The main change in "Galactrix" is the circular gameboard, which features hexagonal tiles that can slide in any of six directions. The direction you slide the tile in determines the direction the reminaing tiles fall - a wrinkle that makes the game very tense and strategic if you don't want to set your opponent up for huge damage-dealing combos.

There are other, more subtle changes for diehard PQ fans. It now takes 5 gems in a row to trigger an extra turn bonus, and the dreaded "mana drain" (no matches on the board) has been eliminated. Both tweaks help to cut down on the influence of chance that was such a criticism of the first game. Character classes are gone, replaced by a more open-ended equipment system that allows you to use almost any combination of powers that you can think of. The powers themselves are very similar to what you've already seen in the first PQ, however.

The new sci-fi setting is almost entirely a success. When two ships engage each other in gem-matching warfare, the presentation of the game (especially the melodramatic score) gives the impression of two great battleships trading hits with massive weaponry. It purposefully evokes "Star Wars," "Star Trek," and other sci-fi properties. Other parts of the singleplayer game (the somewhat tedious hacking minigame) are less fun.

Overall, "Galactrix" is an evolution rather than a revolution. It's currently available on the Xbox Live Arcade for 1600 points ($20), and I think it's well worth the cash if you enjoyed the first game.

Rating: 82/100

Monday, April 13, 2009

Miscellany: Zillions


Frugality might be back in style these days, but people were concerned with getting the best value for their dollar even in the booming economy of the '90s. Case in point: "Zillions" magazine, an offshoot of "Consumer Reports," was a fixture of my childhood.

The magazine featured product reviews of the sorts of things kids were likely to buy with their own money - toys, games, school supplies, and the like. There were also articles with basic financial advice, too, like the factors to consider when picking a summer job. I remember a segment that showed just how much money you make by earning and reinvesting the interest in a savings account over a few years (advice that our Congresscritters apparently never received when they were growing up).

"Zillions" used to be very popular in my neck of the woods, so I wonder why Consumer Reports discontinued the magazine in 2000. It was especially popular in my school, with new library copies soon showing the subtle wrinkles and tears of enthusiastic readership. That success is even more impressive when you consider how easy it would have been to make a magazine like "Zillions" dry and boring. Thankfully, though, the articles were lively and topical (the staff writers were quick to cover the latest new toy or fashion fad - remember pogs?) and saturated with interesting pictures. I hope that a small part of "Zillions" lives on here at Shangrila Towers.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Guns: Rethinking the "If I Only Had a Gun" Experiment

Some background - "20/20" ran a segment depicting an "experiment" where college students were given a concealed handgun and placed in a VA Tech-style classroom massacre situation. It was part of a larger pro-gun control hit piece hosted by Diane Sawyer (read fisks by Eseell and One Sensible Progressive). Here's the segment:





There are some pretty obvious problems with the whole thing. Here's a summary of everything I could find, cribbed off other blogs and my own thoughts:

1) First off, the shooter(s) here are police firearms trainers. They have way more shooting experience than even a regular police officer, and are certainly better-trained than the garden variety school shooter. They do try to mimic novice shooting positions (in the first test, I believe the trainer fires one-handed, which is certainly inefficient), but it's not the same.

2) Second, it appears like the school shooter in all situations knew that a student was armed, and perhaps even which student was carrying the gun. Notice at 1:40 how all the ABC crew/police personnel are already seated when the first participant walks in, forcing him to choose a seat in the front row, right in the middle. Also notice that at around 2:27 (you have to pause and play the video repeatedly to see the exact frames), the trainer appears to wheel and fire on Joey almost immediately.

Now, to be fair, I'm not positive if the police trainers have prior knowledge of where the CCW is in the room. I do think it's fishy that part of Brian's trial (at 4:56) is cut out - maybe the producers don't want you to notice how the two shooters immediately fired on "Brian" first (how on Earth did Brian get shot five times by two different shooters if the shooters had no foreknowledge of where he was?).

3) The students are carrying an unfamiliar gun in an unfamiliar holster in unfamiliar clothes, with their vision and movement restricted by a mask and gloves. Now, I don't think this error was necessarily malicious given that everyone has to have safety equipment on, but a big part of carrying a concealed weapon is, well, actually carrying it - sitting down with it, going to the restroom with it, crouching to buy a box of cereal with it. Nearly anybody who carries a firearm regularly will be faster on the draw than these students - yes, even the supposed gun enthusiast student.

4) The other students were actors who were in on the whole thing. I realize they want to control for variables, but it's crazy to think that a couple dozen prepared ABC crew and police officers would react more realistically to violence than a couple dozen complete strangers, or even unarmed program participants. Notice how they all uniformly head for the door, which would reveal the one lone seated or drawing CCW almost by default (most noticeable in Brian's trial).

These are just the problems with the experiment - let's take on the doctrinal assertions that are implied by the whole piece:

1) The CCW got killed, but others lived. This is seen as a "failure" of the test, but it's really a success for the people able to get away while the shooter engaged the CCW. Perhaps they should do another trial in a completely unarmed classroom and see how many hits Mr. Police Trainer is able to get on the helpless victims in the absence of another gun on the scene.

2) Real colleges aren't one classroom. In real schoool shootings, the shooter often moves from place to place. You've seen students having the time to barricade classroom doors or escape through windows - obviously speed of access to the gun wouldn't be an issue there.

3) Yes, carrying a concealed weapon is a lot of work. It's no secret that you have to practice and carry regularly if you want to outdraw and outshoot someone in a toe-to-toe confrontation. That still doesn't justify a blanket bar for carrying guns on college campuses, especially given the alternative.

Happy Easter

Bach's St. Matthew Passion is one of my favorite pieces of Easter music. It's a very famous work with many admirers, but the verses themselves make no mention of the Resurrection:



I understand the tendency to focus on the sacrifice and suffering of Jesus, but it really becomes a joyless world if we forget the Resurrection. To be fair, the New Testament doesn't say much about the actual mechanics of the whole thing - there isn't a crowd of people watching zombie Jesus come back from the dead, for instance. Instead, some people find an empty tomb, and Jesus is seen walking around later on. A bit understated for a miracle, I suppose.

Still, the fact remains that Easter Sunday is supposed to be a hopeful holiday, a time when great miracles can occur and great wrongs can be mended. The idea of rebirth, of life after death, is a central tenet of Christianity; at its heart is the belief that no matter how heinous the evil, good can never be extinguished. Happy Easter, everyone!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Links: The Nutnfancy Project

Most gun and gear reviews on YouTube are scattershot - usually just someone rambling on camera about a gun that they just purchased. That's not necessarily a bad thing, I guess, but it does mean that few reviewers make meaningful comparisons between different firearms. Nutnfancy's YouTube account takes a much more comprehensive approach.

Nutnfancy comments on key aspects of each firearm that's reviewed - "philosophy of use," reliability, durability, ergonomics, etc. and compares them to other popular models. Almost all of the reviews cover firearms that would be useful for self-defense against a human attacker - no .458 Lott hunting rifles, no .454 Casull revolvers, no gimmicky less-than-lethal weapons. I like how Nutnfancy considers each gun as a system, emphasizing the availability of holsters, ammunition, and aftermarket support as a factor to be considered before purchase.

That's not to say I agree with every review. For one thing, I personally feel it's impossible to fairly review a gun you haven't shot at least a couple hundred rounds out of (Nutnfancy sometimes reviews guns that he has limited experience with). Nutnfancy also has an admitted preference towards double-stack 9mms like the SIG P226 and the GLOCK 17. Overall, though, this is a fairly comprehensive set of reviews that just keeps growing, and I appreciate that someone is taking the time and effort to put up these videos.

My favorite gun review by Nutnfancy is his overview of the Taurus Judge. He's not afraid to say what we're all thinking - it probably makes for a cool snake gun loaded with .410 shotgun shells, but it's really awful for everything else. Imagine reading that in a gun rag:


Movies: Passenger 57

Wesley Snipes' first big action movie hit was this unassuming little movie from 1992 directed by Kevin Hooks. It's essentially "Die Hard" on a plane - airline security expert John Cutter faces off against an elite team of terrorists. I mean, they copy the premise of "Die Hard" exactly, right down to the terrorist leader who talks with an accent and the mostly-bumbling police response.

What they didn't copy, however, was any of the tension, action, or humor in "Die Hard." Most of the fights boil down to opportunities for Snipes to show off his martial arts skills, and you never really get the sense that he's affected by the experience in any way (especially if you compare it to the beating that John McClane took).

There's also some Godawful one-liners in this one. I suppose if you take it as unintentional parody, it's watchable:



Not exactly "Yippie-ki-yay, motherf*****," is it?

Rating: 3/10

Friday, April 10, 2009

Food: El Indio


When I review a restaurant, I tend to factor in the location quite a bit. After all, it's one thing to operate a decent Jewish delicatessen in Boca Raton, Florida; it's quite another to run it in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. If a restaurant is at least better than its peers in the region, then I don't hold it against the proprietors if better examples exist where there is more demand for the type of food it serves.

So it goes with El Indio, a taco stand located on 13th Street in Gainesville, just a little north of the 13th/University intersection. In an absolute sense, El Indio isn't very good. I know I could get a fish taco that's probably worlds better if I were in La Jolla, but for Gainesville, the battered-and-fried whitefish that occupies El Indio's version will have to do.

And it really isn't that bad, especially considering the prices. For a dime or two more than the equivalent at the local Taco Bell, you can get a much better ground beef taco with lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese. El Indio also has a lot of vegetarian options - you can get either standard "veggie" tacos or burritos or swap out the meat of a regular dish with tempeh. The highlight of my visit was the apple burrito, sort of a cross between an apple pie and a burrito. It's a sizable portion of fresh-tasting apple pie filling inside a cinnamon-topped fried tortilla, and it's only two bucks.

One thing to be mindful of - it's a true taco stand and there is no indoor seating, so on a rainy day you're relegated to takeout unless you want to huddle under an umbrella at one of the picnic tables. Also, at nighttime that specific area of town isn't the greatest spot to be (one of my friends actually had a gun pointed at him near the Krispy Kreme across the street) so sitting outside chomping on a taco might not be the smartest idea.

2/4 stars

Miscellany: ASICS GT-2130 running shoes


Compared to other athletic shoe companies that sell products in the United States, ASICS keeps a low profile. They sell most of their shoes in Japan and Europe, so you don't see quite the same volume of glitzy TV commercials from ASICS as you do from Nike or Reebok. Even the meaning of the company name, "A sound mind in a sound body," seems out of place in an athletic market where burly slogans like "Just do it" and "Is it in you?" sell products.

It's probably ASICS' low profile that caused me to pass them by in previous trips for shoes. I broke the streak, though, and bought my first pair of ASICS about six months ago - a pair of GT-2130s. These are "stability" running shoes, offering mild to moderate support for overpronators like me. I found them on sale at Sports Authority, and after six months of regular use as both a running shoe and an everyday sneaker, I feel like I'm qualified to talk about them.

First of all, the GT-2130s are pretty comfortable shoes. The gel cushioning is immediately noticeable when you put them on for the first time, though I suppose some people might not like the "padded" feel. The shoe breathes well and responds okay to inclement weather; I even ran with them a few miles in a rainstorm with no major problems.

I find the toebox a little too roomy, and the frontsole and heel are too wide for my feet. The GT-2130 is also fairly heavy compared to my last pair of running shoes. the Nike Air Zoom. Overall, though, I'm pleased with how the shoes have held up (that grey-striped section of the sole is rigid and tough) and would buy ASICS products in the future.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

TV: Appliance Direct

Commercials are getting really fancy these days, but sometimes a TV spot that's simple and earnest can beat out the latest glitzy big-budget marketing campaign. Here's a commercial for Appliance Direct, an appliance store that's centered in Orlando, Florida:




It's a brutally simple pitch - give out some consumer information to attract any viewer who might be in need of a new fridge, and then hammer them over and over with the name of your store. Stress your advantages over the department stores (same day delivery, free pickup of the old appliance).





A lot of the charm comes from the people in the commercial, CEO Sam Pak and a woman named Lee (not related to Mr. Pak in any way). According to the fansite, Mr. Pak moved to this country several decades ago and had to learn English, which explains his accent. He worked his way up the ranks, and now oversees a burgeoning appliance empire. As for Lee, her constant use of the same green and yellow outfits and her excitable pitch in commercials make her a perfect counterpoint.

Current Appliance Direct commercials are even more, ahem, direct, simply pimping the products and telling you their exact prices on air, then repeatedly ramming in the "Appliance Direct" name and location. Talk about easy comparison shopping - thanks, Appliance Direct.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Miscellany: A Different Kind of Campaign Trail, Part 9


Whether you're talking about the current 4th Edition or previous versions, "Dungeons and Dragons" gameplay has always been balanced towards combat. Despite this focus, 4E D&D contains rules for "skill challenges," sequences where players roll dice around the table in order to solve a particular problem (whether it's a deadly trap, a tense negotiation with a band of thieves, or trying to research an obscure spell).

A skill challenge involves players rolling d20 skill checks in succession, all with a target number that they have to hit for success. I think designing an interesting skill challenge is tricky, so here are some overall principles that I stick to in my games:

1) Make sure there are several skills that can be used to succeed - The average D&D character only has so many things that they are good at. A ranger, for example, might have a pretty diverse skill set: climbing, tracking animals, stealth, surviving in the wilderness, etc.; all of those skills, however, are worthless when you're trying to convince the leader of a mercenary army to help you ambush a caravan.

Or are they? Perhaps you can use a Nature skill check to remember a terrain feature that might keep the mercenary army safe while the PCs engage in more direct combat. Maybe you can sneak into the leader's room to discover some motivation that you can exploit in the negotiation. The Difficulty Class for those outside-the-box skill checks should be high (after all, the Diplomacy, Insight, and perhaps Intimidate/Bluff checks should be more relevant in social challenges to reward players who train in them), but the important thing is to give players something to do that's based off of their characters' past experiences.

2) The consequences for failure shouldn't be too drastic - A skill challenge is very limited in terms of the tactics and powers that players can bring to bear. During a combat encounter, players can work together on the battlefield, providing flanking bonuses and using all of their equipment to influence the result. Most skill challenges, on the other hand, are basically die-rolling contests; a string of bad luck on the part of the PCs (4 or 5 single-digit d20 rolls) can make success nearly impossible, even given good roleplaying decisions on the part of the PCs.

Typically, penalizing the PCs with the loss of a healing surge or two for a close failure is sufficient. Major failures or sloppy roleplaying might have more drastic consequences, like making the next encounter harder (perhaps the failed stealth mission into a castle drew additional guards from the castle walls, or maybe the terrain itself changes to the PCs' detriment). Only in extraordinary cases should the DM impose more permanent disadvantages, like hard-to-cure diseases or lost opportunities to get treasure.

3) Tailor the length/complexity of the skill challenge to where it is during the adventure - The published 4E D&D adventures typically do a bad job of handling skill challenge length. They require an onerous amount of successes that often makes the skill challenge more trouble than it's worth, especially during combat. After all, in a combat encounter, time is precious, and every round spent fumbling with some trap or arcane ritual is a round that isn't spent attacking an enemy. I just hate it when an adventure requires a half-dozen successful d20 rolls to disable a trap during a fight - it's boring, it's mechanical, and it's not fair in most circumstances.

There are a few ways around the problem. The simplest is to decrease the required successes and failures. Another is to allow the expenditure of character powers in order to make multiple skill checks during a single round, especially for rogue classes. If a rogue wants to blow a daily power or two to disable a dangerous trap quickly, they should probably have that option. Most drastically, you can make it so that skill checks toward the challenge are only move or minor actions, allowing a PC to do something else in the same round.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Guns: J-Frame Holster Roundup

If you carry a concealed handgun for self-defense, you've probably experimented with a ton of different holsters for your firearm. In my experience, there are plenty of good holster options out there for the J-frame .38 snub (especially considering that many CCW revolvers, like the Ruger LCR, are intentionally about the same size and shape as the J-frame).

Here are some of the holsters that I've used in the past for the humble small revolver:

Uncle Mike's Inside-The-Pocket Holster - The most inexpensive option on this list. It's a simple pocket holster made of some kind of synthetic material - soft and flexible. There are a number of sizes available - I found the model expressly designed for snub .38s to be a little too big for the gun, but YMMV.

You'll probably be able to find this one in your local gun store, surrounded by similar holsters. One problem I noticed was a tendency for the holster to "stick" to the gun during the draw unless you flicked the holster down with your thumb (not unlike working a 1911 safety). In any case, though, the holster is so cheap that you'd be foolish not to give it a try.



Mika's Pocket Holster
- One of the coolest things about the Web is its ability to give the small business the same reach as a multinational corporation. Robert Mika designed these pocket holsters using his experience in law enforcement, and now sells them mainly through his website.

The Mika pocket holster is the biggest and bulkiest holster on this list, so you'll need some sizable pockets. Because of the holster's design, though, it is almost impossible to accidentally draw out the holster when you draw the gun. The holster also does a good job of concealing the outlines of the gun, and the wide top (especially compared with other pocket holsters) means that getting a firing grip and pulling the gun out is simple.

Galco "Bargain Bin Special" Inside-the-waistband holster - The holster hunt often inspires scavenging. I plucked a mysterious Galco IWB holster out of a sale box in a gun shop. I'm not even sure if the linked model is the same as the holster I have, but I do know it's a Galco holster.

It's a cheap, basic IWB holster. An aluminum frame .38 snub doesn't need much support since it's so light, so the holster can get away with a relatively flimsy nylon J-hook belt clip as its only anchor to the belt. The holster conceals the gun and rides comfortably, but the mouth isn't reinforced; drawing the revolver causes the holster to collapse.




Customized DeSantis Nemesis
- Another popular pocket holster, and probably my overall favorite holster after some customization (see below). The Nemesis has a textured material on the outside of the holster that limits the problems that occur when the holster doesn't come off the gun, although the draw still isn't quite as good as the Mika holster.

The default Nemesis that DeSantis recommends for the .38 snub isn't well-fitted to the J-frame. If you want to have a workable holster, you'll probably need to trim off excess material yourself, and then stitch the holster back together (in the picture above, you can see that the J-frame barrel ends well before the edge of the holster, and that the large flap on the side of the holster is cumbersome). I also modified the area around the trigger guard with an extra stitched panel to better hold the snub revolver.

Friday, April 03, 2009

TV: TLC is keeping it all in the family

Remember when the TLC cable network showed mildly educational programming?

"TLC" used to be short for "The Learning Channel." It was the home of documentaries and science shows back in the early 1990s, but after ratings sagged, the people running the network started changing their target audience. The slate of reality shows and filler that came next was occasionally fun to watch, but the educational content was far diminished ("Junkyard Wars" being the exception to the rule).

Fast-foward to 2009, and it seems like the only thing on TLC now is reality shows. And not just any reality TV - reality TV that follows oddball families in their daily lives. You've got "Little People, Big World," "18 Kids and Counting," "Table for 12," and the 800 pound gorilla, "Jon & Kate Plus 8." You'd think one or two shows about parents with multiple sets of kids would be enough, but TLC has got almost every permutation you can think of covered.

Is the average American's family life so boring that they need to watch someone else's family? Instead of watching Jon & Kate take their kids to the zoo, shouldn't you be actually taking your kids to the zoo?

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