Saturday, September 30, 2006

Miscellany: Cue the "Rocky" music

On the one hand, I hate going to the gym. I hate spending time working out, when I could be doing something else. I enjoy running and cycling because you get a change of scenery every time you do it, and you get some time outdoors, but it seems a bit silly to exercise indoors.

On the other, I've always wanted to do a chin-up. I haven't been able to do one since grade school. Push-ups, sit-ups, running mile after mile - no problem. But chin-ups have got me licked.

So I did the cheapest thing I could think of - $40 set of dumbbells, and $15 weight training book that covers all the exercises I'm likely to need, and how to safely exercise them. The main key? - go slow. Each rep should take about 5 seconds to do - around 2 seconds to extend, and then 3 seconds to contract. You shouldn't "cheat" by using momentum or improper form to "squeeze" out reps.

So this way I can weight train whenever I like, while listening to NPR or a podcast. Give me six months, and maybe I'll be able to do a chin-up.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Books: City of Light, City of Dark

Many of you might know Avi from his Newberry Award winners, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Nothing But the Truth. He is a fairly prolific and well-respected author of "children's books." My favorite Avi book, though, is City of Light, City of Dark.

"To begin with - there were Kurbs." These Kurbs are shadowy entities that secretly control the island of Manhatten. Every year a ritual must be performed to appease them, or they will freeze the city. This book is about one year's ritual, in which a very ordinary girl and a very ordinary boy embark on an incredible adventure through New York City.

Unlike other "graphic novels" that merely amp up the violence and sex found in weekly comics, this is truly a "comic-book novel" - it has the emotional depth and strength of plot that have made Avi such an accomplished author. Brian Floca's black-and-white art is sometimes spare, sometimes lush, but always evocative. If you've ever been to NYC in winter, this is what it feels like.

I bought this book many, many years ago back in elementary school, and it still holds up well today. Very few stories in any medium can claim that. This is a highly recommended read, for kids and kids-at-heart alike.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

News: A lesser sort of madness...

BAILEY, Colorado (CNN) -- As 16-year-old Emily Keyes was being held hostage by a gunman in the last hours of her life, she tapped out one last text message to her family: "I love u guys."

Here we have a 53 year-old loner living out of his car. Nothing serious on his record, but he was a fugitive-from-justice. He shoots an innocent 16 year-old girl in the back of the head when the SWAT team busts in, then shoots himself (the one constant, it seems - not many of these school shooters ever shoot it out with the police). He had reportedly sexually assualted and terrorized them in the standoff. A tragedy all around. And yet...

I wonder what would have happened had this man lived 20,000 years ago (well, for starters, he probably wouldn't be alive - 53 seems a pretty old age for Upper Neolithic humans). Back then, people were hunter-gatherers. With his mental problems, would he have fit in with the small bands and tribes, or would they have abandoned him? Might they even serve as some sort of twisted asset (after all, attacking a mammoth must mean you have a small death wish)?

Nature vs. nurture, mental illness, society's pressures, a handgun, a loner, a teenager, a cell phone - intersect.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Links: Cheap Ass Gamer

Cheap Ass Gamer (CAG) is a gaming website for people who hate paying full price for games. It's packed to the gills with killer deals on the forums and occasionally posted on the front page. Using CAG, I scored RE4 for Gamecube for $10 when the game was still $40 back around Christmas. The forums can have some pretty outrageous deals if you are patient.

The highlight of the site (for me, anyway) is the CAGcast, a podcast hosted by the site manager, CheapyD, and an irascible gamer called Wombat. The two have pretty good chemistry and the podcast is usually fun to listen to. It's a bit less polished than other gaming sites' casts (leading to gay jokes and sometimes disturbing amounts of drinking), but they see games from the older gamer's viewpoint - these are guys who grew up with the NES and Genesis, and they remember the classic era when they review the latest generic FPS.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Miscellany: Mr. Goodbike

One of my all-time favorite bike shops is Mr. Goodbike, on 13th street near the Krispy Kreme. They're an "old-school" bike shop - lots of random stuff just hanging everywhere. The guys who work there obviously know what they are doing and love biking. The place is kept fairly clean and organized; it's just that they have so much stuff to cram into such a small space that it still feels indie and out-of-the-way.

They only do mountain bikes, which makes sense, as mountain bikes have about 95% of the market in the U.S. right now. I believe Bob's friend "Skimbleshanks" still works there - not sure. The service is pretty good for such a small place - as soon as you walk in the door, someone's going to greet you, which is a nice change of pace from those impersonal, big bike shops.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Tech: TGS 2006 - The Empire Strikes Back

Sony looked a bit flustered after its incredibly disappointing showing at E3, and, to their credit, they added price cuts and HDMI support to the low-end PS3 (but the price cuts are only in Japan, unfortunately). The PS3 was easily the star of TGS this year, with lots of high-profile games on hand to placate the masses who were hungry for some indication that Sony was taking this whole thing seriously.

Standout games for me include Metal Gear Solid 4, Shirokishi (AKA White Knight Story), and the 18 different variations of FFXIII (I'm exaggerating...slightly). There are, of course, some rehashed games like Gran Turismo HD and Ninja Gaiden Sigma, but that happens with every system launch.

All in all, I'm looking forward to seeing what the PS3 can do ... in 2007. Quite frankly, everyone knows Sony is following the same strategy it used for the PS1 and the PS2 - a paltry launch with limited unit availability to drum up the hype, and then roll out the units in early to mid 2007 when they'll be cheaper to make and when the true AAA titles, like Final Fantasy and Metal Gear, will arrive.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Food: Whataburger

There are two Whataburgers on Newberry now. One is near the fork in the road by Bento's, and another is just past I-75 going west. I'm not sure the city of Gainesville can even support two Whataburgers, but hey, what do I know?

Here is a "Whatameal" #1 combo. It comes complete with a standard "Whataburger" (roughly equivalent to a BK "Whopper" in size), a bunch of fries, and a tall soft drink. Plus you get two "Whatacandies" (the top right of the tray). They don't actually call them Whatacandies ... or at least, I hope they don't.

The burger is mustardy and less "mayonnaise-y" than a Whopper. It has lettuce, onions, pickles, tomatoes, and lots of mustard. The fries kinda sucked, but at least the ketchup comes in cool platic packages like McDonald's nuggets' sauces. The soft drink selection was good. The whole meal cost a hair less than $5, and probably provides enough calories to feed an entire African village for a day.

2/4 stars

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Links: Karsten Koch (and module music in general)

A module file is sort of like a super MIDI file. While MIDI sound quality invariably depends on your sound card, a module file uses repeating patterns of sounds that are stored within the file itself, meaning that the file should sound virtually the same even across many different players and sound cards.

The upshot of all this is that module files can be very, very small compared to MP3s, but can still deliver entire "songs."

Of course, that means that you need music that repeats a lot...hmmm...techno time! Karsten Koch is one of the featured artists from the game, Uplink. Uplink is all about hacking into computer systems, so I suppose the techno vibe makes sense. Anyway, try downloading some of Karsten's tracks - music to hack by.

Friday, September 22, 2006

School: A nice old lady

Justice Ginsburg lectured today in the law school's courtyard. On the one hand, I was sort of embarrassed about our school - the speaker system wasn't set up correctly, the stage presentation was a joke, and there didn't seem to be as many people as I expected.

On the other, I couldn't help but be mesmerized by Justice Ginsburg. She mostly described how life actually is behind the scenes at the Supreme Court - they have birthday parties and eat lunch together; she really came across as a human being, which is impressive in that the rulings she and her associates pass down affect our lives every day. I was struck by her humility, her measured tone, and her good humor about everything from her husband's cooking to the new Chief Justice.

After the talk, we got to ask questions. Here's mine: "Do Supreme Court Justices use LexisNexis and Westlaw to do research?" She said they are all computerized now, and they even recently got outside Internet access.

Man, do I wanna be a Supreme Court Justice or what?...:)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Miscellany: Trek 4900

I suppose I should post about my bike, a 2003 Trek 4900, proudly assembled in America from foreign and domestic parts (whatever the heck that means). It comes with Shimano Deore rear derailleur, Bontrager handlebars and stem, and RockShox Pilot C front suspension. I've since acquired Shimano Deore front derailleur, Kenda Kross Plus combo tires, Shimano HG chain, etc.

I like my bike. It's a great entry-level mountain bike, good for knocking around and abusing. It cost $450 new at Bikes and Bargains in Lake Worth, but that was a special deal. I am looking into getting a road bike for commuting, but I can't imagine not riding this thing into the ground.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

School: A short post

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who looks suspiciously like my Chem 2046 professor) is coming to the school to dedicate a classroom and to give an address to the student body. Which is great, but since we can't do Contracts Friday morning, I have a double dose of Contracts to read.

But hey, it's cool. Tomorrow afternoon should be a relief.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

News: A close call...

My Compaq Presario V4000 laptop went down hard today - Windows XP registry was all screwed up (I think Galactic Civilizations II is to blame :P ). Strangely enough, however, the Windows XP Recovery Console did its job and here I am, merrily typing away. Sometimes Bill Gates' crap works like it's supposed to.

Oh, and Thailand had another coup d'etat. Go figure.

Monday, September 18, 2006

News: "A world I no longer want to live in"

Over the summer, I took many walks with my father. This is a man who's lived in four continents, who speaks three languages, who has worked with engineers from Beijing to Boca Raton. I love my Dad and trust his judgment, and so it scared me when we talked about dying.

"It won't be so bad to die," he said. "You grow up, and the world is a certain way. But now, with things happening the way they are, I think it'll be a relief to die. This world is not the same - it's changing for the worse." I said that he had a long way to go (and he does), but I couldn't help thinking how life will be when I'm in my fifties...
The Mujahedeen Shura Council, an umbrella organization of Sunni Arab extremist groups that includes al Qaeda in Iraq, issued a statement on a Web forum vowing to continue its holy war against the West. The authenticity of the statement could not be independently verified.

The group said Muslims would be victorious and addressed the pope as "the worshipper of the cross" saying "you and the West are doomed as you can see from the defeat in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and elsewhere. ... We will break up the cross, spill the liquor and impose head tax, then the only thing acceptable is a conversion (to Islam) or (killed by) the sword."

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Links: Queen of Wands

Queen of Wands was a neat little webcomic that ran for several years. Written and illustrated by Aeire, it bursts with snarky humor, sudden dramatic life changes, and allusions to pop culture. I find it all the more refreshing because the strip is from a woman's perspective, which is sometimes rare on the Web.

My favorite strip is here. Let's face it, it's just a fun word to say - bukkake!.

Links: Animated Knots

Animated Knots by Grog is a one-stop place for learning how to tie useful and safe knots. I know, I know, you can Google about 70,000 sites for tying knots, but let's face it: a series of black and white pictures with numbers affixed to them does not make it easy to learn to tie the darn things.

Especially helpful are the explanations about what the knots are supposed to do. Some knots can be tied with no load, and some knots must be unloaded to untie them at all (the bowline is a good example). If you've ever had to tie down a bike on a car roof and struggled to make it secure, you might pick up some pointers from this site.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

School: A day in my life as a 1L... (finale)

Here is my Criminal Law class starting up. On the front row there are some of the usual suspects - Chris, Ziggy, Jason, and Dave. Professor Jacobs obviously knows what she is doing, but good Lord, she is very liberal ;).

The crowd outside a class before it starts. A good time to chat, mill around, or just cram in the last few cases that you forgot to study...

I get out of school three out of five days a week at about 4:00 (Monday and Tuesday end earlier). Of course, if you have to wait for the bus, you could be stuck there for another half an hour. That's why having a bike officially Kicks Butt™.

Links: Re-Imagineering

Re-Imagineering got a lot of press when it first started (I believe it was around the time when Pixar's John Lasseter became the Chief Creative Officer for all of Walt Disney animation). The Disney buyout of Pixar put a lot of hope in Disney fans' hearts - the animated features Disney has put out in the past four or five years (movies like Chicken Little and Home on the Range) have been competent but not very popular.

The blog details the current criticisms of Disney's theme parks and resorts - all three gajillion of them. While not without its detractors, the blog at least brings up a bunch of issues easily identifiable for anyone who's been to a Disney park before the 1990s (I personally miss the Skyway and will maim whoever canned that ride ;- ). It's worth a read if you have fond memories of Disney (which I do) but are dismayed with the 2 hour lines and constant "dumbing down" of the park (which I am).

Friday, September 15, 2006

School: A day in my life as a 1L... (part 2)

Coming to class is often a chore. With 200 people trying to get into two lecture rooms, side by side, just the spectacle of everyone cramming into the entranceway can be a sight to see. Here is a shot of the central staircase, the most popular in the law school.

And the rush starts when class lets out. Nothing like 60+people packing up their laptops at once.

Between classes, it's usually time to study for the classes coming up. The library has a nice, brightly lit, and quiet reading room that makes it pretty easy to stay focused.

They keep you at the school for pretty much the whole day. Obviously, a snack or a drink can come in handy when you're poring over thick casebooks. This is the "cafeteria" - it's got a coffee shop, a book store/convenience store, and some vending machines. I prefer to get my food and drink at Wilbert's across the street.

This is the main courtyard. Lots of stuff can happen here, especially when the law school organizations table. Oddly enough, this seems to be the place where Supreme Court Justices get to do their lectures in front of the student body.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Tech: Nintendo Wii details

I've always been a Nintendo fan - I can't even count how many systems I've bought (okay, I can - NES, SNES, N64, GCN, original GB, GBA, GBA SP, DS Lite - so 8 systems in all). I cut my teeth on the original Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt combo cartridge packed in the NES Action Set my grandparents bought me for Christmas. Heck, if it weren't for that first NES, I might be in Yale now...:P

The new Nintendo Wii has received a LOT of buzz around the Web ever since it completely dominated E3 in May. The crazy control scheme has naturally attracted a lot of interest, though it's only now that Nintendo has finally released firm details about the launch date, price, and games available (you can get the hinkfo from other sites). Here are some of my thoughts:

1. $250 is a bit pricey. My dream would be a $150 price point and a packed-in game, but, admittedly, that doesn't leave much room for the price to drop over the next few years. And Bluetooth technology ain't exactly cheap - a basic Bluetooth handset for your phone, for example, could easily fetch $30-$40 right there.

2. I like pack-ins. I like being able to take a system out of the box and start playing it RIGHT NOW. I know many would prefer leaving Wii Sports out and shaving a bit off the price, but I applaud Nintendo for going retro (consoles used to always have pack-in games, of course).

3. November 19th is technically lagging slightly behind Sony's PS3 launch date, but I think we can all agree it will be nearly impossible for people to actually find a PS3 at launch, especially in Japan (100,000 PS3s for ALL of Japan - not a good sign, Sony). So as long as Nintendo launches before the post-Turkey Day rush, I think they're fine.

4. I'm still kind of in the dark about DVD playback. It's not really necessary (even the homeless guy across the street has a DVD player nowadays), but it'd be nice if it could play DVDs out of the box.

5. Ironically, I'm kind of hyped up about the whole "surf the internet from your TV." Sometimes, you just want to pull up the showtimes of a movie or the phone number of a restaurant - to have to log on to your PC upstairs could be a bit inconvenient. And kudos to the big N for using Opera.

6. I wanna play Zelda.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

School: A day in my life as a 1L... (part 1)

It starts, as most things do, with the weather. Today I turn on the computer and find out it's going to be rainy all day. Great.

I prefer riding my bike. It's quicker, I get a nice bit of exercise, and I hate being cooped up in the bus. When it's wet and rainy, though, I have to leave it at home.

Here's our bus stop. I never appreciated covered stops before. If there is any rain at all, that bench on the right quickly becomes unusable.

After a twenty minute ride and a short walk up a hill, I finally enter the law school about 8:30 AM.

Here is my first class, Torts. It's not really full yet - soon nearly every seat will be occupied. Many (if not most) people have laptops for taking notes. When the professor says something important, you hear a storm of clicking keys - reminiscent of the scarabs from "The Mummy."

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Tech: How NOT to make a game installer

I purchased Galactic Civilizations II yesterday and just got around to installing it today.

I don't know if it's because the CDs are bad, or if it's because the installer uses Windows Scripting and is conflicting with my antivirus stuff (I turned script scanning off, of course), but when I clicked "Install" on the usual AutoPlay launcher, nothing happened and the CD and my hard drive started going bonkers.

Okay, already I'm a bit miffed. I mean, how hard is it to license InstallShield or Wise and get your game installed like every other game on Earth? Why eschew installers that seem to work 99% of the time?

I considered exchanging the game right there, but I figured I'd give Stardock Corp. (makers of Gal. Civ. II) a chance. They, of course, famously abstain from using annoying copy protection schemes on their games, the game got pretty good reviews, and the price was fair, $30.

I downloaded their Stardock Central app (suspiciously similar to Valve's Steam program) and began downloading Gal. Civ. II using the CD key in the box (you normally don't even need to do this - the game truly has no copy protection whatsoever - the key is only for downloading updates and patches).

Currently I'm playing Pure Moods, reading my Criminal Law book, and praying to God this download doesn't take all night.

Links: Astronomy Picture of the Day

Astronomy Picture of the Day ("APOD" for short) is a neat site provided by NASA and Michigan Technological University that features a picture related to aeronautics or astronomy each day. The images are captioned by an astronomer with many hyperlinks leading you to various interesting sites, both technical and whimsical.

APOD has shown everything from sunrises over the Himalayas to tornadoes in Kansas to supermassive black holes. Many of the pictures make great desktop wallpaper, and most give you an inkling of just how stupefyingly large the universe is. The site has been running for over a decade now (how many websites can you think of that can say that?) and, when something noteworthy happens (Huygens probe landing on Titan, for example) you can be sure APOD will have a neat image or animation to accompany it.

And you thought your tax dollars were going to waste ;-).

Monday, September 11, 2006

News: 9-11-01 - we will never forget...

...Except that most of us have forgotten. Not a commentary on how callous or unreasonable people may be, but simply an observation. I visited the USS Arizona memorial this summer in Oahu, and while most showed the appropriate respect in what is essentially a hallowed underwater graveyard for thousands of U.S. sailors, I cannot imagine that same level of reverence for the WTC site.

Car accidents will happen in front of where the towers fell. People will go to the bathroom, watch TV, do business, eat hot dogs, and yes, buy souvenirs at the new Freedom Tower. Yet innocent people died there. Others gave their lives so that others might live. And still others mercilessly killed the living. But that is life, and not restricted to Ground Zero, now or 60 years ago.

A footnote - next to the Arizona memorial parking lot were people selling sunglasses and burgers. Time does, indeed, heal all wounds.

Tech: Canon SD600

I bought my first digital camera, a Canon SD600. This is a 6 megapixel camera with a decent array of features - 16:9 support, ISO800-level sensitivity, 30fps 640x480 video. Intended as a midrange point-and-shoot/ultracompact camera, the SD600 takes pretty good pictures, though the ISO settings take some futzing around with to get good results. The video is very good, too - good enough to make internet pr0n.

The tiny viewfinder is pretty useless compared to the good 2.5" LCD, so if it's available, you might wanna spring for the slightly pricier SD630 (the SD630, BTW, is "Maria Sharapova's favorite camera" - until someone else pays her more money to endorse another camera :P). Here's a sampling of random pictures (they've been massively downsized in terms of jpeg quality, but you get the idea).


Sunday, September 10, 2006

Links: "French in Action"

If you ever wanted to learn French, one of the least painful ways to go about doing it is "French in Action," a series hosted by Yale French professor Pierre Capretz. It consists of 52 episodes designed to teach you French the same way as a child does (that is, by watching, listening, and repeating, instead of merely learning to translate English into French). The series also features French babe Valerie Allain as Mireille, whom one reviewer aptly described as a bounteous "walking vanilla sundae."

Let's face it, learning a language can be a long, tedious process, so some eye candy (the episode where Mireille gets a drink spilled all over her shirt is a classic) and some funny film clips can lighten the load on the student. You may also get a kick out of the 80s production values, too, especially the electronic theme song.

As an aside, the site hosting "French in Action,", has literally dozens and dozens of educational series collected for free on their website (you do have to register, but it's very, very quick). Some really fascinating stuff is available, so if you feel like picking up another language, exploring Western art, or checking out the Serengeti, it's worth a look.

Food: On the Border - a generic Tex-Mex joint

Along with the rest of my family, I finally hopped into On The Border, a Tex-Mex chain restaurant that positively screams "corporate" (watch out, that website has Flash). I had seen the Gainesville location many times driving up and down Archer, but never ventured inside, which was probably for the better.

Aping Chili's in many ways, the food was a bit more expensive but seemingly the same quality as that ubiquitous chain. My margarita chicken was a dead ringer for the Chili's version; my parent's beef tacos were competent but uninspiring, and my sister's enchiladas were possessed of a texture that could best be described as "nebulous." The service was very good (but I believe that's more a function of how good your server is and how busy the restaurant is than anything else). I think I'll stick with Las Margaritas for my gringo-style Mexican in the future, thank you very much.

2/4 stars

School: Five Observations on Gameday at the Swamp

Well, I just attended my first UF football game (sorta - I left at halftime):

1. Some of the student section seats are pretty awesome. You can definitely get close enough to yell catcalls at the refs and the visiting team.
2. You will probably be standing the entire time.
3. Nobody knows the words to the school song(s). Hell, half the people were mumbling "The Star-Spangled Banner."
4. (Related to #1) Opposing teams are booed, calls against the Gators (whether warranted or not) are met with cries of "Bull...shit!," and in all, people can make incredible asses of themselves.
5. The Gators still suck this year. If you have trouble running the ball against UCF, you're going to be in some hot water come October and November.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Books: One L by Scott Turow

One L is a first-person, slightly fictionalized narrative of a rather famous lawyer's first year at Harvard Law School (all first-year law students are called "1Ls"). Turow takes all the feelings most law students have at the beginning of their legal education and manages to amp them up to near-hyperbolic levels.

The personalities of the students and professors described by the author will be familiar to most grad students; something about post-grad education in general seems to attract certain types of people. There are the enthusiastic go-getters, the social-networkers, the underachievers - Turow paints in caricature, ensuring a response from a broad swath of readers.

The book is entertaining as a time capsule (Turow attended law school in the 70s) and as a look into the neuroses that afflict students who choose to pursue advanced degrees of any sort. The monumental workload, the permanent changes in attitude and outlook, and the inevitable satisfaction and regret will ring true with many.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

"Shangrila Towers?"

If you've never seen the movie "Brazil," directed by Terry Gilliam, then I believe you're missing out on one of the best portrayals of how a man can at once be a victim of the society he inhabits and also complicit in helping that society function.

In "Brazil," Sam Lowry, a lowly worker at the Ministry of Information's Records department, delivers a refund check to the wife of Harry Buttle, who was killed when the police mistakenly raided his apartment looking for Harry Tuttle. The name of Buttle's apartment, was, of course, Shangrila Towers.

Shangri-La is, of course, what many of us seek in these disturbing times. But too often, we get Shangrila Towers instead - dark, dirty, and isolating.