If you have any complaints which you'd like to make, I'd be more than happy to send you the appropriate forms.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
Miscellany: The Purim Carnival
It's the 14th day of Adar, which means Purim is here! If you have no idea what Purim is, then maybe this clip from Christopher Guest's "For Your Consideration" will jog your memory:
In a nutshell, Purim is a Jewish festival commemorating the defeat of Haman, a vizier of the Persian empire who plotted to destroy all the Jews (people tend to do that, regrettably). Esther and Mordecai, according to the Old Testament, used their diplomacy skills to convince the king to kill Haman instead.
Around here, the Jewish community centers, schools, and temples put on elaborate Purim carnivals. I'm not sure what the execution of an evil Persian vizier thousands of years ago has to do with rock-climbing and bounce houses, but kudos to modern day Jews for finding an excuse to celebrate and give to the poor.
Being a cop in real life can be a mixed bag, but if you're the police protagonist in a Hollywood action movie, it's all gravy. You can hijack cars, ignore your department bigwigs, and generally tear up a city as long as you're trying to catch a terrorist. "12 Rounds," an action movie starring WWE wrestler/actor John Cena, shows that if your girlfriend is in trouble, everything else in New Orleans is expendable:
The plot: NOPD detective Danny Fisher is forced through a series of 12 deadly challenges dreamed up by a ruthless terrorist who has kidnapped Danny's girlfriend. As you can tell from the trailer, "12 Rounds" unabashedly borrows from other, better action movies. The primary inspiration is the "Die Hard" series: there's a foreign-y main villain that chats up Cena's character, an Awesome Black Partner, and a series of race-against-time sequences that always have explosive payoffs.
The concept was a bit tedious when it starred Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in "Die Hard with a Vengeance;" here, it's rendered nearly unwatchable by wooden performances from Cena and his costars. Unlike wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Cena doesn't have the charisma and comedic timing to bring levity to the screen, nor can Cena bank on the Everyman persona of other action stars (it's hard to feel like an Average Joe on film when you're 6'1" and 240 pounds).
The only saving grace "12 Rounds" might have is the enjoyment of laughing at the silliness on screen. There's one scene that illustrates how close to farce the movie gets: Danny Fisher commandeers a fire engine and races toward his next objective on a major thoroughfare. Unfortunately, there's a grass hut-filled, open air Tiki bar conspicuously located right next to the main road Fisher is barreling down. It's almost as if the screenwriter consulted a random encounter table for car chases.
It must be tough being a game designer at Nintendo. Given the company's track record and the overwhelming success of its franchises, every new project is held to an intimidating standard of quality. Take the oft-maligned "Super Mario Sunshine"...reskin the levels, slap a different cartoon mascot in there in lieu of the beloved Mario, and the game would probably be lauded as a breakout hit. Instead, "Sunshine" is considered a disappointment.
Can "New Super Mario Bros. Wii" live up to its famous forebears?
Despite the polygonal graphics, NSMB Wii is a traditional 2D side-scroller that plays like a remix of every Nintendo platformer from the last twenty years. There are new power-ups (including an adorable penguin costume), but the core gameplay will be old hat for any longtime Mario fan. You'll run through ice worlds, airships, underwater stages...it's all pretty familiar stuff. Familiar, that is, until you play with more than one person.
Few games, even the latest-and-greatest shooters like "Call of Duty" and "Halo," showcase absolute chaos quite like 4-player NSMB Wii. Since the onscreen characters can't pass through each other, you end up bopping each other on the head, interrupting each others' jumps, and generally colliding like a bunch of idiots. Depending on your mood, it'll be fun or frustrating, but at least it's never boring.
Unfortunately, the delightful multiplayer mayhem can't be played with online opponents; it might be for the best considering the havoc lag could play with split-second jumps. It's also unclear if simultaneous co-op is the way we'll all be playing Mario in the future, or if NSMB Wii is just an odd one-off (think "Four Swords," Nintendo's multiplayer rejiggering of the Zelda series). For now, though, pull up a couch, grab a Fire Flower, and enjoy the ride.
Blizzard's been feeding the WoW cashcow for the past few years, but it looks like things are finally coming together for high-profile updates to its other big franchises, Starcraft and Diablo. Eseell got his hands on the hot-off-the-presses Starcraft II beta, so check out that blog for awesome, high-res galleries of the game.
If you're hungry for even more info, check out Crota's match reports. Crota's your average veteran SC gamer (not a newbie, but not a pro, either), so his early experience with multiplayer will probably be more meaningful and instructive than watching some 17 year-old Korean power gamer vaporize hapless opponents. As a final resource, check out SC2 Armory for the latest beta news and unit databases.
The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver is one of those seminal sessions of the Games where a common theme emerges. This year, several sports have illustrated the continual (and sometimes risky) expansion of the boundaries of human athleticism. Consider:
- Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili dies in a tragic accident during a training run before the opening of the Games. He was thrown off his luge and collided with a steel column at 90 mph. The accident occurred on one of the fastest luge tracks ever designed, with lugers reaching record speeds of up to 95 mph. Officials hurried to modify the track and moved the start positions for all luge events, to some controversy.
- Snowboarder Shaun White annihilates the competition with stratospheric airs and an innovative trick, the Double McTwist 1260. White had only perfected the trick in a Grand Prix event right before the Olympics (of course, it helps when Red Bull builds you your own private half pipe to practice in). Meanwhile, injured snowboarder Kevin Pearce is learning how to walk again after he damaged his brain during training (Pearce was wearing a helmet).
- Evan Lysacek edges out Evgeni Plushenko, sparking a debate over the future of figure skating (here's the best, most neutral breakdown of what happened). Part of the reason Lysacek didn't perform the "quad," skating's most difficult jump? The physical toll on his foot and the risk of injury during training.
After Thursday's attack, which lasted 90 minutes before a volley of mortar shells and rockets presumably wiped out the insurgents who had been shooting, the Marines returned to their designated corners of the base in the darkness. Dinner was cold, and the cards were scattered. But nobody cared. All they wanted to do was talk about the fighting, and the one Marine who had been wounded by a Taliban sniper.
"This is better than 'Call of Duty,' " said Lance Cpl. Paul Stephens, 20, of Corona, Calif., referring to a series of shoot-'em-up video games.
The use of video games as a tool for increasing enlistment was once derided as a fad ("America's Army," anyone?). But the armed forces have gotten better and better at it:
Of course, it's easy to sell the experience when it's all shooting terrorists and blowing stuff up with tanks. I imagine the Marines in the WaPo piece sound excited because military life is more like this:
The economic downturn has hit a number of local ice cream places hard - Johnny's Dream had to close down not too long ago, and even established businesses like Sloan's have been seeing fewer customers willing to splurge on a $4 cone of the cold stuff. Amidst all the turmoil, it's good to see that Kobosko's Kreamery is still scraping along.
Of course, Kobosko's is not just an ice cream shop. Inside, you can still buy bulk candy and fresh flowers, vestiges from the days the place used to be a farmer's market. And they have frozen yogurt and an espresso machine, too - upscale additions for the benefit of wealthy Wellington suburbanites who live in the big subdivisions flanking the Kobosko's Crossing shopping center.
Ice cream will always be their bread and butter, though, and Kobosko's Kreamery has a strong selection of chocolate flavors. The chocolate peanut butter is laced with big, creamy ribbons of peanut butter, thick enough to bite into. For the low carb crowd, the no sugar added chocolate turtle (flavored with Splenda) has enough caramel and pecans to satisfy any sweet tooth. And, as always, Kobosko's makes their own waffle cones and stocks plenty of toppings (hot fudge, nuts, candies, etc.) for sundae purists.
Unfortunately, the non-chocolate flavors at Kobosko's are a little bit of a letdown. The strawberry tasted artificial, with garish, sugary strawberry jelly being used in lieu of the actual fruit. Even the cherry vanilla, while smooth, had an overpowering vanilla flavor that was too safe and simple. As a whole, the flavor selection won't wow anyone used to indie ice cream shops (like the excellent Sweet Dreams of Gainesville).
Still, if you're in the neighborhood, you'll probably want to grab a scoop at Kobosko's, if only to prevent a world where the only ice cream you can get is at a big chain like Cold Stone or Ben & Jerry's.
Guns: Tiny sliver of vast federal firearm restrictions repealed...Cue the handwringing!
It must be fun to be a gun control advocate, in a weird, surreal sort of way. Just take a normal everyday situation, like camping out in the woods with your family, add those evil guns, and then enter the realm of fantasy land:
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said national parks are now among the safest places in America, but that could change under the new law.
“When you are at a campfire and people are getting loud and boisterous next to you, you used to have to worry about them quieting down. Now you have to worry about when they will start shooting,” Helmke said.
(Somehow I doubt that this law will cause campers to suddenly gun down random strangers in Yellowstone.)
The whole thing does make for a fun party game - for every pro-gun law or court case, make up an anti-gun press release that envisions an improbable doomsday scenario ending in the proverbial blood on the streets. Say the government finally allowed you to CCW in a federal courthouse (highly unlikely, but a guy can dream, right?):
Fame is relative - walk "Star Trek" alum Wil Wheaton through a dog show, and no one would have any idea who he was (unless a few of the dog owners were TNG fans). In the same vein, I bet Jack Horkheimer can go almost anywhere in real life without being recognized. Put him in front of a starfield, though, and you can produce something immediately familiar to PBS viewers, especially in South Florida:
"Star Gazer" is a weekly show that focuses on all the astronomical sights you can see with the naked eye - stars, comets, eclipses, and the like (the show was originally called "Jack Horkheimer: Star Hustler," but the producers renamed it since web searches were showing links to Hustler, the porn brand). Horkheimer, the director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium, started hosting the show in the '70s, and it's been going strong ever since, expanding beyond Florida and into PBS markets across the country.
It's back-to-basics amateur astronomy that strives to be as inclusive and family friendly as possible. You can download episodes or view them on YouTube, which means you can carry a convenient tour of the stars with you wherever an iPhone can go. So, if you ever take a trip to a place where light pollution doesn't prevent you from seeing all but the brightest stars, bring Horkheimer along and discover the night sky, "Star Gazer" style.
The memorable electronic version of Debussy's Arabesque No. 1 that opens the show was arranged by famed Japanese synthesizer artist Isao Tomita. If you like ethereal, oddly playful renditions of classic pieces, check out his album "Snowflakes Are Dancing":
If you'd like to find out the answers to these pressing questions, you should check out "Grudge Match," a website launched back in 1995 by a couple of Cornell grads named Steve Levine and Brian Wright. Pitting pop culture icons against each other (Lucy and Ethel, Scotty from "Star Trek," and Jacques Cousteau, to name a few), "Grudge Match" allowed viewers to vote for the winners and comment on the contestants. The best responses were posted alongside the final fight results.
The whole idea may seem a little quaint in today's social network-heavy Web, but it was state of the art back then. The mix of anonymous commenting and geek fandom made for truly collaborative comedy (the Scrappy-Doo vs. Jar Jar Binks result was as inevitable as it was funny). The site's not posting new matches any more, unfortunately, but the archives make for fun reading on a rainy day.
Here's a Shangrila Towers Investigation Hint - it's rather unlikely for someone to "accidentally" shoot a hole in your bedroom wall, then to "accidentally" shoot you in the chest, and then to "accidentally" point a gun at a passing car.
Anyway, the whole ordeal really illustrates that very few spree shooters suddenly "snap" and start killing people out of the blue. Despite some Hollywood portrayals to the contrary, it takes a lot of screws loose to actually shoot a person without provocation. As more time goes by, we'll know more about what happened, but my guess is that heads are going to roll over this one. If there was ever a time for a wrongful death claim...
"Winning Ugly" is a book about the mental side of tennis - how to play the game as opposed to how to hit a forehand. It was written in 1994 by Brad Gilbert, one of the game's premier coaches. Gilbert has since coached several world class players, including current top 10 pros Andy Roddick and Andy Murray.
As a player, Brad Gilbert didn't have the weapons of his contemporaries - the enormous serve of Becker, the smooth net game of Edberg, the shotmaking genius of McEnroe. Yet he managed to stay near or in the world's top ten for large stretches of his career, and reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, mostly due to his grasp of tennis tactics (here's Gilbert holding his own with Boris Becker).
"Winning Ugly" relates many of those important lessons - how to weather periods of on-fire play from your opponent, how to make people play shots they aren't comfortable with, how to make sure you're mentally plugged in before a match even starts. Some of it borders on gamesmanship, but Gilbert's advice is sound and will help most club players who want to win matches.
My favorite part of the book is actually the end, where Gilbert breaks down the strengths of all the top men's players from the '80s and '90s - Courier, Agassi, Lendl, Sampras, and more. There's a note of humility and reverence here, because while Gilbert is a great coach and a good player, he never had a signature weapon that could hurt the top guys (he never beat Ivan Lendl, for instance, despite playing him 16 times over a period of nine years).
Yard House is a California-based chain of restaurants that offers sorta-upscale American-style cuisine, a huge selection of beers, and an ambiance firmly grounded in classic rock. It's also ruinously expensive, unless you go at a magic time known as happy hour.
During happy hour, most of the appetizers, which are otherwise ridiculously overpriced, come down to something at or below what other sports bars charge. A Hawaiian poke stack or ahi sashimi platter just tastes better when you're paying $6 a plate instead of $12.
The drinks are (relatively) cheaper, too, so you can enjoy a pint of Rogue Shakespeare stout for $4.50 instead of whatever the heck it is normally. Throw in some classic rock (I distinctly remember "Carry On Wayward Son" playing during my meal) and you have a half-decent place to unwind after work.
Films about people with mental disorders can often become shallow star vehicles, without much insight or empathy beyond facile homilies. At first glance, HBO's "Temple Grandin" looks like it's following the "Forrest Gump" mold - protagonist does heroic deeds in spite of a handicap:
"Temple Grandin," however, is a biopic about a real, extraordinary person and not fiction. The movie has a more nuanced message because of the source material; Temple Grandin succeeds in life because of her autism, not just in spite of it. As one of the characters says, she's "different, not less."
The film follows Grandin through high school, college, and her career in the cattle industry. Grandin uses her affinity for animals and her meticulously observant mind to design new ways to handle cattle so they're less anxious. PETA types might wince at the strange marriage of science and slaughter, but Grandin's designs have calmed livestock all around the country.
Through it all, Claire Danes manages to capture the mix of brilliance and social awkwardness found in the real Dr. Grandin, who has roundly praised Danes's performance. Along for the ride are the sort of predictable friends and allies in this type of movie - Temple's Anne Sullivan-esque science teacher, her aunt (played with gusto by veteran Catherine O'Hara), and (I'm not making this up) her blind college roommate.
Overall, "Temple Grandin" is a decent movie that's worthy of the silver screen, and certainly better than most of the stuff HBO Films releases. It's almost guaranteed to get Claire Danes an Emmy nod, but in this case, it's well-deserved.
It must be easy to get in the mood for the 2010 Winter Olympics when the Eastern Seaboard is being engulfed by a blizzard. Just making your way to your car can be a chore in these conditions; it really shows how gifted those elite skiers and skaters are.
Of course, many of the events at the Winter Games don't have much relevance in a survival situation, with one big exception...when the roads around you are covered in three feet of snow, when stores are closed and the power is down, you'll be happy you chose to compete in biathlon instead of figure skating:
It's a neat combination, but obviously not a sport you can just pick up at your local rec center. For one thing, the Anschutz straight-pull rifles world class biathletes use cost about $5000:
Not to mention the incredibly rigorous training needed to be able to ski 7.5 km fast and shoot a bunch of targets with 30,000 people cheering you on:
TV: The Shangrila Towers Super Bowl XLIV Telecast Awards
The Super Bowl is a strange time for the average NFL junkie. If, like most football fans, you follow a particular team, there's a pretty good chance you won't be rooting for anyone in particular during the game, since only two teams out of the 32 NFL franchises are playing (I've been a Dolphins fan since the heady days of Dan Marino, so I've never been invested in a Super Bowl game). On the plus side, that detachment has allowed me to catalog the highs, lows, and in-betweens of the Super Bowl telecast:
Jury Prize for "Aging Rockers Who Need to Retire" - The Who:
I love The Who ("Tommy" is one of the best rock albums ever made), but they really need to hang it up. It was bad enough that they were playing in this Super Bowl halftime show without legendary drummer Keith Moon and the late John Entwistle; add on to that the fact that Roger Daltrey's voice is only a shadow of what it once was and you have a performance geared more towards nostalgia than rock music bliss (for comparison, check out Zeppelin's amazing one-off show at the O2 in 2007).
"Awwww..." of the night - Drew Brees holding his baby boy after winning the Super Bowl:
Brees was passed up by the penny-pinching management of the Miami Dolphins (I'm not bitter...really!), and New Orleans welcomed him with open arms. The sight of Brees' kid, clad in black and gold Saints colors, along with the backstory of Katrina-struck New Orleans...a Hollywood scribe couldn't churn out a more poignant scene.
"Much Ado About Nothing" moment - Tim Tebow's Pro-Life Ad for Focus on the Family:
There was a lot of ink spilled in the sports media over an ad that is, at least on its face, completely innocuous. Sure, Focus on the Family is a conservative Christian organization, but you don't see the press pitching such a fit over Hollywood celebs doing ads supporting gay marriage. I expect that the floodgates will really open next year, where you'll see a raft of ads pushing one issue or the next.
"Sexy TV Commercials are Sexy" Award - GoDaddy.com
They've been running suggestive ads during the Super Bowl for several years now, and the latest one is pretty tame. The thing is, if "Go Daddy Girl" Danica Patrick becomes a bona fide NASCAR star, Go Daddy's stock is going to skyrocket. Imagine a Super Bowl ad featuring the winner of the Daytona 500 in the shower.
"Manipulative Reality TV Award" - "Undercover Boss":
Airing in the coveted post-Super Bowl slot, "Undercover Boss" is a reality TV show that takes the CEO of a major company (7-Eleven, Hooters, etc.) and puts them in a series of low-level jobs for a week. In these economic times, the pilot was almost guaranteed to get good ratings, but the whole affair smacked of condescension and faux populism. Every worker the CEO meets, at least in the pilot, is a hard-working saint who just wants to give the company 110%. We all know that's not how things are in real life, and it's pretty insulting that the producers have to cherry pick the company's best employees in order to dignify the average working stiff. "Dirty Jobs" does the whole concept a lot better.
The Cold Steel catalog covers everything from the useful (the well-liked Voyager line of folding knives) to the patently silly (the sjambok riding crop). Falling somewhere in between those two extremes is their entry into the "tactical pen" market, the Cold Steel Pocket Shark:
Now, you could obviously use an ordinary marker or pen as a strike aid, so why drop the $4 on the Pocket Shark? Two reasons - first of all, the Pocket Shark has an awesome shark's jaw design on it, so the bad guy will know you mean business...err...
Actually, the only real reason this sucker holds up so well to abuse is the thick, high-impact plastic Cold Steel uses. The Pocket Shark is obscenely heavy for a felt-tip marker (2.3 ounces), and quadruple-thickness wall construction makes it difficult to snap or break. Additionally, the cap has a screw-on design that'll stay more secure than the snap-on caps of other markers.
Despite these improvements, it's still a rather gimmicky piece of kit, lacking the relaxed charm of a kubaton. The plastic pocket clip is just plain sad, and the overall build quality and writing capability won't impress anyone. But, heck, if you're unwilling to shell out the big bucks for a SureFire or Benchmade pen, this could sorta fill in...sorta. And that pricey Benchmade won't have a shark's jaw on it, you can be sure of that.
Korea has a temperate climate, with four distinct seasons (it's near the same latitude as Virginia). Winters are long and cold on the peninsula, especially in the mountains. The endless expanse of snow is a popular backdrop for TV shows filmed there, like KBS' 2002 drama "Winter Sonata":
If you ever wanted to watch a prototypical Korean soap opera, "Winter Sonata" is the one to study. The series, directed by KBS stalwart Yoon Suk-ho, has proven to be incredibly popular even outside of Korea (it's been broadcast throughout Asia and adapted into anime form).
Despite its mass appeal, though, the show hews closely to the established formula for Korean soap operas. There's a pair of star-crossed lovers, Joon-sang and Yu-jin, who are separated by improbable circumstances (Joon-sang gets hit by a bus, to be exact). There's the "secondary couple," friends of the main couple who do their best to separate the two leads. Toss in some standard soap opera plotlines (unrequited love, scheming parents, sudden amnesia, etc.), shake and bake, and you have a series.
I didn't find "Winter Sonata" very compelling for two reasons: the central "mystery" of the story is easily guessed, and the lead actress, Choi Ji Woo, plays her character with enough tearful sentimentality to clog every scene she's in. Maybe teenage girls in Kyoto like watching a grown woman fuss over a man for 16 hours, but I like my soap operas with a little more incident.
Miscellany: "As Seen On TV" product review - Snuggie Blanket & HD Vision Wraparounds
When you find the "As Seen On TV" label on a product, you can rest assured that there's a silly commercial or infomercial hawking the thing. Beyond that, all bets are off, as I discovered reviewing these two items...
The Snuggie Blanket
We've all seen the Snuggie in stores, since it sold like gangbusters over the wintry holiday season. And at less than 15 bucks a pop, it makes for a cheap gag gift for your friends and family. Here's the commercial spot, showing enthusiastic Snuggie-wearers donning the sleeved-blanket in every life situation you can think of:
A very silly commercial. I half-expected them to show someone clothed in a Snuggie for their funeral.
The actual product is a little underwhelming. The Snuggie is made of a thin, 100% polyester material that causes so much static cling that you can literally hear it when someone peels one off of them. The Snuggie is not warm enough to substitute for a true comforter, and, on a cold night, you'll be a little uncomfortable under the Snuggie if all you have on are pajamas.
The Snuggie's big advantage is that it is wearable - sorta. I found that the sleeves are so ill-placed that it's difficult to walk more than ten yards without the thing slipping off. A real cotton robe worn backwards would actually be much more secure. On the plus side, the Snuggie is large, and should stretch shoulder-to-toe on everyone save an NBA player. If you're under 5 feet tall and seated on a couch, you could probably fold it over for more warmth - it's that large.
The best part of the Snuggie craze, though, is extrinsic: the Snuggie commercials launched a thousand parodies on the Web...
HD Vision Wraparounds
Novelty sunglasses are commonly sold on TV. It makes sense because the market is so broad - whether you're a fashionista or a soldier in Afghanistan, you need sunglasses. But I have a hunch I won't be bringing HD Vision Wraparounds with me the next time I trek to Helmand province:
To be fair, HD Vision Wraparounds aren't any worse than the ultra-cheap, plasticky sunglasses you find in the drug stores. The oversize wraparounds are designed to be worn over prescription eyeglasses, and they actually fit well - at least over my smallish half-frame glasses. As for protection, almost any pair of sunglasses works for casual use, and the side panels help block out sunlight, too. They even throw in a visor clip for your car.
The downside is that the sunglasses feel pretty cheap and they look naff. And you ain't gonna get "HD vision," whatever the heck that is. :-P
Overcrowded urban dystopias are a science fiction staple, but when you really think about it, they're sort of a lazy way of depicting the future. After all, there's no fundamental reason why an increased population would lead to human misery; there are more people living in the city of Tokyo than were alive on the entire planet 8000 years ago.
"The Caves of Steel," written by Isaac Asimov and first serialized in Galaxy Magazine, is one of the few works that paints a neutral view of a future megacity (in this case a New York housed in an enormous underground dome). It's also the first novel pairing the agoraphobic NYPD detective Lijah Baley with his robot partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. Both would become fan favorites for decades to come.
In the novel, Baley is tasked with solving a baffling assassination while fighting through anti-immigrant sentiment (in this case, the immigrants are Spacers, humans who have returned from far-off interstellar colonies). In true politico-screwing-the-cop-on-the-beat fashion, Baley's new partner for the case is Daneel, an emotionless Spacer android who may have his own agenda.
The story takes place entirely within the "caves of steel," enormous warrens of humans so closely packed that having a better seat at a cafeteria is considered a luxury. Despite the close quarters, people still manage to get along with each other, children still play, and the streets aren't lined with starved corpses. The overpopulation is a problem, and the eventual resolution of the mystery does suggest a solution (and no, it's not Soylent Green).