Saturday, March 31, 2007

Guns: The Bayonet, Past and Present

Popular culture continues to glamorize the sword, but the spear has arguably always been the backbone of Western armies. Stretching back to the ancient Greek phalanx all the way to Napoleonic warfare, whenever land needed to be taken, it invariably came down to a battle between masses of the Poor Bloody Infantry armed with spears.

The bayonet is a logical extension of the idea of a long stabbing weapon in a time when firearms were relatively inaccurate and unreliable. From the 21st century standpoint, attaching a 17" long knife to a rifle may seem silly, but picture hundreds of men in rank with such weapons, and you can see how effective a bayonet charge could be. Columns of soldiers with attached bayonets would persist until the development of the cartridge and the repeating action.

Today's bayonets are more for emergency use than as a primary fighting option, and the small carbines favored by today's military forces are ill-suited for thrusting compared to a turn-of-the-century bolt action rifle. Bayonets are still important, though, as urban warfare and counter-terrorism operations bring soldiers closer than ever before to their adversaries. What new developments will be brought to bear for the bayonet? Here's one theory from "Gears of War" - the chainsaw bayonet:

I'd buy one.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Music: Gattaca soundtrack

I'm a sucker for minimalism sometimes, so it's no surprise that the soundtrack from the movie "Gattaca" finds its way into my playlist now and again. Michael Nyman isn't as well known as Philip Glass, but Nyman's compositions for "Gattaca" are about as good as it gets when it comes to modern instrumental scores. Using mostly haunting strings and dynamic winds, the various orchestral cues are memorable enough to bring back images from the film, which is sort of the acid test for me. Every time I hear this stuff, I think of, in director Andrew Niccol's words, "hope and sorrow," all in the same composition.

Here's the opening to "Gattaca." In my opinion, the beautiful snow-like image of dead skin cells falling meshes perfectly with the soundtrack.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Food: Adventures in Awful Dinners

I'm usually not one to complain about food. As you can see from some of the past reviews here, even a greasy-spoon fast food joint will get decent marks from me if the price is right and the quality is reasonable. Sometimes, though, things do tend to get out of hand, especially when I'm tired of the same old haunts and I want to try something new.

I tried some Kentucky Fried Chicken for the first time in literally a decade after I picked up the RX300 from the shop. Typical fast food, right? Well, our particular KFC has to be one of the worst KFCs in the entire country - staffed by people who work slowly and barely speak English. The chicken was dry and undercooked (yes, even by KFC standards), a condition I didn't think the laws of physics allowed. I literally wanted to toss the whole plate right then and there, but it was my only dinner so I ate it. I suspect it'll be another decade or so before I try KFC again.

The next night, I went to Miraku, a Japanese steak house and sushi joint. I stay away from hibachi/teppan yaki, mostly because everything ends up tasting like everything else. I ordered some sushi and sashimi instead - a mistake. The resulting pieces of fish were worse than what you could buy at the local supermarket, and the price was pretty ludicrous considering how much food you were actually served (let's just say I could've had dinner twice at the Ale House for what I paid). I can understand skimping on the fish, but why cut back on the amount of salad you give people?

Tomorrow, after my practice oral, it's time for some real food.

Tech: Xbox 360 Elite Misgivings

At heart, I've always been a Microsoft apologist. I never found other operating systems much better than Windows, and I've always thought Microsoft's actual applications worked fairly well. On the gaming front, the original Xbox, while big and clunky, was pretty robust for a first effort at a video game console. MS has also been pretty good about putting up the cash for new IPs and development tools, which is probably why most game developers gush about them.

The Xbox 360 was a bit of a misstep, frankly. It's no secret the 360s have a relatively high rate of product defects, and were prone to all sorts of maladies (overheating was a likely culprit). They were also noisy and even the premium versions had a scant 20 gigs of space, which isn't much when Live Marketplace has HD content up for download.

So here comes the 360 Elite. Essentially, it's a 360 Premium with a 120 gig hard drive, HDMI, and (perhaps) quieter, cooler, better circuitry. I've never been a fan of the multiple-stock-keeping-unit technique myself, and now Microsoft has three SKUs up for sale (Core, Premium, and Elite). I know Windows and other software has been doing this for years, but it seems disingenuous for MS to released a "fixed" 360 and charge $480 for it, especially with their incredulous denials of any problem with the 360 design (not to mention their hilariously incompetent customer "service"). Another problem is that MS is not operating in a vacuum - even the low-level Sony PS3 includes Blu-Ray and a hard drive; and the 360 Elite doesn't include HD-DVD, making it look overpriced compared to Sony's machine.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Miscellany: Munchkin

"Munchkin" is a card game that hilariously celebrates and parodies the munchkin, that player in a role-playing group that invariably sets out to accrue the most loot, wield the best weapons, and kill the most indigenous creatures. Designed by Steve Jackson and illustrated by John Kovalic of "Dork Tower" fame, "Munchkin" has spawned numerous expansions and semi-sequels, as well as a relentless legion of fans.

The tagline of the game is "Kill the monsters. Steal the treasure. Stab your buddy." and it's accurate for the most part; players take turns revealing new monsters and curses from the dungeon, all the while "helping" or hurting each other in an effort to reach Level 10. While in the early going you may not get much interference from your fellow players, as you edge closer to winning the game every single combat will eventually have people dropping in stuff like "Friendship Potions," wandering monsters, and even Ducks of Doom in a wild melee.

It's a bit random (okay, it's a lot random), but there's some strategy here, as well as the opportunity for conniving and trading. The winner in a three way contest, for example, tends to be the player who emerges, beaten and bloody, from the best efforts of the other two to sabotage his or her last combat. If there's one knock against the game it's that it requires a six-sided dice to play, as well as a lot of arithmetic, which diminishes the user-friendliness of the design somewhat. Still though, if you're looking for a light card game with lots of D&D-parody flavor, Munchkin is a solid choice.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Guns: On Personal Defense Ammunition

James has written a good post about hollowpoint ammunition. I think his observations are excellent, especially with all the misinformation you can get from your local gun store clerk telling you about the latest terrorist-killing frangible superbullet.

In my own view, I think what type of ammunition you load into a firearm used for personal defense makes very little difference, so long as the ammo is reliable. Yes, modern hollowpoints expand pretty consistently, but I don't mind carrying standard FMJ in a handgun if I've verified that four or five hundred rounds can be put downrange with no worries about whether the next round will feed or extract.

Why is this? Handguns, at least in the common defense calibers, aren't very powerful, and almost everyone would agree that many shots may be needed to stop an attacker from harming you or your loved ones. Regardless of what ballistics or wounding theory you adhere to, all the fancy bonded hollowpoints in the world won't make a difference if they won't feed in your gun.

The only real way to make sure this is the case is to shoot your gun, as often as possible. Gun and ammo choice is maybe 5% of the self-defense equation, the other 95% is what's between the ears (an experienced shooter could reasonably defend himself or herself with any decent handgun, in other words). Shooting once a month is pretty much the bottom level of proficiency - if I could shoot daily, I would, but alas, I only get to shoot once a week.

Another thing - all the reputable brands like Speer, Remington, Corbon, etc. are fine choices for defense. Avoid exotic stuff that has pictures of counter-terrorist teams on the label and instead find out what the local police department carries - you can bet it's some run-of-the-mill, easily available jacketed hollowpoint.

Movies: The Last Starfighter

In the back of every avid video game player's mind is the small hope that someday, somehow, the skills of playing the game will translate to something that matters in real life. Movies like "The Last Starfighter" are expressly geared towards tapping into this deep, optimistic part of the gamer's subconscious. While on the surface it's just another 80s space opera hoping to cash in on the success of "Star Wars," there's some other, more noteworthy stuff going on here.

Alex is just a normal guy, albeit poor and lacking direction in his life. He's an ace at an arcade game that features suspiciously incredible-looking graphics (games in the 80s didn't look like this, folks). Finally, he masters the game...

A mysterious stranger appears...

And he eventually joins the Star League in their desperate battle against the Ko-Dan armada. Yes, it's corny, but everybody does a good job of playing it straight. The special effects are pretty good for the time (all the CGI was rendered on a Cray supercomputer), and there's some intentionally tongue-in-cheek parts, like when the Ko-Dan command ship finally gets its comeuppance:

My personal take-away from the movie was the special weapon employed by Alex's fighter ship. The super weapon had an evocative name - the "Death Blossom." When activated, it rapidly spun the ship around in place while automatically firing a barrage of lasers and missiles at everything in range. The term has been adopted by U.S. troops in Iraq for the tendency of Iraqi military and police to wildly spray in all directions upon taking a hint of enemy fire. :-)

Rating: 6/10 - a cult classic, but still watchable

Sports: They're Back

The Florida Gators are back in the Final Four, and it's been a long road for the team. Here's some observations from Sunday's NCAA Tourney action:

Returning five starters from their title team, three of whom would've been likely NBA lottery picks, the Gators have been saddled with the weight of lofty expectations from the very beginning. While most analysts focus on the two big guys, Al Horford and Joakim Noah, it's the guards that shredded #3 Oregon today. Lee Humphrey, who's been quiet in the Tourney until now, exploded with 7 three-pointers and some tenacious defense of the plucky Porter (Lee even managed to get a steal and followed it with a rare layup). Taurean Green also shot the ball well.

Regarding the second game of the evening, UNC choked pretty hard in my opinion. It's one thing to have a cold shooting period; it's quite another to fail to drive to the basket when your opponent is clearly creeping up on you. Instead, UNC rattled off forced shot after forced shot (many of them awful-looking three-pointers), and they looked collectively like a deer in headlights. Hibbert fairly destroyed them down the end, and the Oden-Hibbert clash next weekend is likely to be epic.

My pick for the championship? Honestly, I feel like Florida has the worst chance of winning - OSU, Georgetown, and UCLA are so stacked with talent and momentum that it's gonna take quite a bit to take them down. Florida has been down in all of its games in March, though never by huge margins. One thing to remember, though - while various players in the Hoyas-Tarheels game were begging for the ball from their teammates, I can't ever remember when Noah or Horford demanded that someone feed them the ball. In the end, basketball is a team game, and I do feel that if the Gators can correct some of their mistakes (mostly taking care of the ball), they're still the best team.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

TV: Batman - The Animated Series

While I do still believe Tim Burton's "Batman" movies were the start of the current renaissance in pop culture, the "Batman" animated series that aired on FOX in the early 90s was arguably just as important. This was a breakthrough cartoon in an age when American television cartoons were largely comedic and lighthearted. The series was adept at blending film noir, art deco, and sometimes disturbing storylines while making sure to keep the overall product from being too dark and melancholy, especially considering the target audience.

Just look at the superb opening sequence:

Later superhero cartoons on FOX, like "Spider-Man" and "X-Men," would use similar, serious approaches and had equal success. But while the Marvel series were simply transporting the nuanced characters of the comics onto the screen, the "Batman" series was literally creating its own mythology - never had "Mr. Freeze," for example, been drawn so tragically (the award-winning episode, "Heart of Ice").

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Guns: Perils of Buying a Used 1911

I generally dislike buying used guns, if only because in my experience the previous owners have either monkeyed around with or neglected many of the pieces that you see in pawn shops and gun shows. In particular, the Model 1911, because of its design, is often a testbed for amateur would-be pistolsmiths. It seems so easy, and the parts are all available from Brownells, so why not?

The one used 1911 I bought, a customized Norinco, was purchased for the tidy sum of $300. For a Norinco, which is no longer imported and is made to GI specs, that's not a bad price, and the gun seemed to shoot fine, so I bit on it before someone beat me to it. I should have field-stripped the gun, though...

The first warning sign I should have paid attention to was the scratch on the gun near the slidestop. It's been said before: if you can't insert the slidestop properly on a 1911, you have no business making modifications to the gun or even paying someone else to make modifications to the gun. The front of the grip was crudely stippled; it looked awful. Most problematic, though, was the extended link of the barrel, which is usually a sign someone was trying to tighten the barrel-slide lockup in the worst possible way. I ended up selling the gun.

News: Honorary degrees and other claptrap

The University of Florida Faculty Senate voted recently against giving former Florida governor Jeb Bush an honorary degree. I guess I'm in a decent position to comment about this, being a UF alum and current UF law student, so I'll try my best.

First of all, honorary degrees aren't much of an honor. Sure, they're nice and all, but the fact is, no one except the third-grader doing a biographical report on you will remember that you received a Ph.D. from Wassamotta U. Compared to the huzzahs you receive when you win the Nobel Prize or the Fields Medal, an honorary degree just isn't very meaningful.

Second, UF doesn't gain much from giving out honorary degrees. Jeb Bush went to UT, a fairly prestigious and large university, and will probably always be remembered as a UT grad. UF isn't getting any more prestige other than a press release and perhaps a smiling Jeb Bush at a commencement ceremony. Even worse, there's a famous governor who attended UF already - no need to hand out degrees to every Florida chief executive.

Jeb Bush, by most accounts, was a popular and effective governor. If Florida didn't have term limits, he would have easily won again. Every time I look at the current White House, I think everyone would have been better off with Jeb at the helm.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Miscellany: Car Maintenance

My sister's RX300 has a problem. The "check engine" light is flashing on and off, and there's a subtle vibration (more of a pulse) that can be felt from the steering wheel when the car is stopped at a red light. According to the code, it's two misfiring cylinders, and Clyde's Tire & Brake tells me that replacing an ignition coil, $170 each for the part.

That seems pretty darn high to me, so I leave the car with them and search the net. Sure enough, you can find these coils on the Web for ~$90 apiece. I even called JM Lexus, the freaking dealer, and they can replace all six coils for $700. Now, I understand mechanics have to turn a profit, but a near-100 percent markup on ordered parts smells kind of fishy to me.

I suppose since I've already left the car at Clyde's and since they've allegedly already ordered the parts, there's not much I can do. The mechanic in charge, when questioned, claims he doesn't know why the parts are so expensive, nor what the price will eventually be when he gets them in hand (whatever that means).

Well, if the outcome eventually turns out to be sour, I won't be going back there again.

Music: Exit Music (For a Film)

Radiohead's song, "Exit Music," is featured at the end credits for Baz Luhrman's "Romeo + Juliet," and it was written specifically for that film. Though I guess the song is supposed to be depressing, it always makes me laugh. That is, when hearing it, I remember some of the funny scenes in Baz's movie - like pretty much anytime Leguizamo is on screen.

Anyway, here's a music video of the song set to the 1968 version of "Romeo and Juliet" (the one with a fifteen year old Olivia Hussey). Her hairstyle at the time was so distinctive that my Mom and all her friends wore it for awhile.

Tech: My Toughest Games

Inspired by this post, here's some of the toughest games I've ever tackled:

Devil May Cry 3 - Dante is back and slaying demons and devils to set things straight in this surprisingly poignant PS2 action game. Great story, good graphics, insanely difficult boss fights the first time through. The boss of the second level is harder than most games' final bosses. The difficulty is toned down quite a bit if you can start to horde items.

R-Type 3 - A side-scrolling shooter. I've talked about the R-Type series before, but R-Type 3 is almost ridiculously unfair sometimes, even though the game gives you infinite continues. There's a level, shown above, where giant plumes of fire hurtle towards your ship in confined tunnels, all in a seemingly random fashion; you're guaranteed to die a half dozen times going through before fighting a boss. Then you get to go through the gauntlet again...backwards.

Super Ghouls 'N' Ghosts - King Arthur has to traverse deadly, monster-infested levels to rescue fair Guinevere in this game. While in the objective sense "Ghosts and Goblins" was harder, SG&G is notable in that it's hard, but it's fair(er). Arthur can actually double-jump now, though you still have no control over his trajectory during the jumps as is standard in other platformers. The cruelest part of the game isn't the demanding stages or tough enemies, though; it's the fact that the torch is probably the most useless weapon ever conceived, and it seems to spawn in every other chest.

Solar Jetman - A truly unique space shooter/adventure/exploration game. This little-known Rare gem was one of my first NES games. The first planet was deceptively easy, taking maybe half an hour for a first-timer. The second planet was many, many times bigger than the first and introduced a whole host of enemies, new game elements, and much stronger gravity. This jump in complexity kept me from completing the game for 12 years.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Guns: Diagnosing FTEs, or "I'm back to the S&W 642 for awhile"

It's never a pretty sight when a carry gun goes down. The problem child in this case is my formerly-flawless CZ P-01 9mm, which recently developed problems extracting rounds out of the chamber. A FTE is very serious - the gun should immediately be repaired (a backup gun can be essential here if you want to continue carrying a firearm for defense). There are quite a few possible causes to this type of malfunction in an autoloader...

1) Weak extractor spring (or extractor not properly tensioned in 1911-style guns)
2) Damaged extractor

I'm not a gunsmith, but I'd wager the following would also be causes...

3) Weak recoil spring (slide is moving rearward at an improper rate, causing the extractor to "slip" the case rim)
4) Rough or burred chamber (dirty chambers, however, are no excuse for poor extraction)
5) Weak hammer spring (same as #2, but far, far, far less common)

In the P-01's case, I think #4 and #5 can be ruled out, given that the gun was flawless out of the box. #3 is a possibility, though I've only put about 1600 rounds through the gun - most recoil springs for standard size pistols last much longer. The extractor looks fine, which leaves #1. Thankfully, I have a spare extractor spring from Wolff (always have spare parts ready in case something goes wrong) from when my CZ-75B had a similar problem (CZ has always had a problem with undersprung guns - it's a shame in that it's a niggling flaw in an otherwise fine product).

To correct the problem, I'm going to need a sturdy 1/16" punch, a hammer, and a vise. I'll take it on over to MSS and see if they can do the swap there.

UPDATE: The spring is changed and the gun seems fine after 400 more rounds. I'm expecting a full recovery for this patient. ;-)

Miscellany: My workout regimen

After experiencing it for half a year now, I've come to the conclusion that regular strength training is key to maintaining overall health. Whenever I slack off and skip workouts, my gut starts to balloon and my weight starts to rise. I never used to get these kinds of results with just pure cardio (running and biking). Then again, every body is different.

I warm up for 10-15 minutes with a light run - not wind sprinting or anything, but a good pace that works up a sweat. I follow with some stretching. Many debate about this, but it works for me. The most important thing about stretching is that ballistic stretches, where you rapidly go in and out of a stretch, are for experts - I prefer the slow, supported, methodical kind.

Then it's to the exercises, all with dumbbells. Dumbbells are the cheapest way to start training in my opinion (well, short of doing crunches, pullups, and pushups), but they require good technique. I put on some music (an album that lasts an hour is perfect) and start - bicep curls, bench presses, shoulder presses, lateral raises, pec flys, the works. I usually do three sets of 12 reps, but I skip sets if my muscles start to feel iffy. I also use a flat weightlifting bench for some exercises - it works a lot better than just lying on the floor.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Links: Hardcore Gaming 101

It can be strange to share the Internet with a generation that never experienced the beginning of the video game industry. I received an NES for Christmas when I was five years' old - some of today's teenage gamers' first experiences with gaming were with the 3D consoles - the N64 and the PSX. When you start talking fondly about "Blaster Master" and "Brandish," you're likely to get a few blank stares. Even worse are the classic franchises that have been run into the ground -it's hard to rhapsodize about Sonic's 2D outings when the recent 3D games have been so frightfully bad.

That's why sites like Hardcore Gaming 101 are so useful. Featuring synopses and descriptions of entire series of classic games, HG101 is a great way to inform new gamers about where the medium has been, where it is, and where it might be going. Feel like going over all the characters in the "Darkstalkers" series? It's there. Want to look back at "Prince of Persia" before the "Sands of Time" trilogy? Feast your eyes on the Prince in all his 16-bit, limited color palette glory.

Perhaps the only problem with gaming nostalgia sites is that there's no way to really communicate how great a game is short of actually letting a person play it. Like movies and books, each game will affect a person in a unique way; telling someone how much fun they could have is equivalent to licking an ice cream cone and describing how good it is.

TV: FutureStupidity

Normally I enjoy shows about military technology (especially stuff like "Mail Call" and "Tactical to Practical"), but the success of "FutureWeapons" on the Discovery Channel just has me baffled. The show is hosted by former Navy SEAL Richard Machowicz (that's a pretty cool name, BTW) in a tone that can only be described as "intense."

Every time they introduce a new weapon, he fawns over it and acts so amazed you'd swear the darn thing was created by God Himself. I don't deny Machowicz has "been there and done that," but there's just something unsettling about his manner as a host. Combine his attitude with the various manufacturers extolling their products' virtues, and it starts to sound like an infomercial targeted at the DoD.

The second major problem, at least for me, is that many of the "FutureWeapons" are not really that futuristic. It's hard to keep a straight face when the show is describing the HK 416 gas-piston AR upper as "amazing" and next-gen (maybe someone should send them the popular Leitner-Wise upper, which you can literally order right now off the Web). The show even pimped the AA12 automatic shotgun as "the ultimate close-combat weapon." The silliest part was when they showed the ridiculous twin-turret mount for the AA12. Which would you rather have on top of your vehicle - two automatic shotguns effective up to perhaps 50-75 yards, or a belt-fed .30 caliber machine gun that can hit stuff 600-800 yards away?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Miscellany: Everway musings, or "Drowning in armor"

One of my favorite non-RPGish RPGs is Everway, a game from Jonathan Tweet (who helped design 3rd Edition D&D). Everway tosses out many of the most cherished RPG conventions - like rolling dice and experience points - in favor of drawing cards out of a "Fortune Deck." This mechanic allows conflicts to be resolved in a more ambiguous (and thus less complicated) way, giving the game master plenty of control into how he or she wants the plot to move forward.

What results is probably the most open-to-interpretation experiences ever. If you draw a card like "War" (meaning "Great Effort") in battle, for example, it probably means you'll do pretty well in combat. But what about drawing a card like "The Satyr" (meaning "Indulgence") during a battle? Does that hurt or help you? Number-crunchers and DM-beaters will probably hate it, but everyone into RPGs for an interactive story will probably find it refreshing.

The Achilles' Heel of the game is the lack of development of players' characters (a by-product of no experience points or levels). In theory, you're supposed to be granted "boons" as quest rewards, but there's little sense of permanent enrichment. I suspect that many Everway GMs simply award an extra character point after every few sessions to encourage the players.

I'm reminded of Everway since there was a card in the Fortune Deck called "Drowning in Armor" - which meant your protective measures turned dangerous. Right now, I have congestion and a runny nose caused by allergies, and the card's image is pretty evocative of what I'm feeling.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sports: March Madness

It's that time of year again - the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is underway, and it's probably the most drama-filled sporting event ever, for a number of reasons.

1. Lots and lots of single-elimination games. It's one thing to watch a big game that eventually comes down to the final seconds - it's another thing entirely to watch one close finish after another. Sometimes CBS switches between two close games at the timeouts, which is pretty annoying but undoubtedly makes for great TV for sports fans with short attention spans.

2. These are young guys with a lot of emotion. With professional sports, I think there's invariably a certain detachment with winning or losing - the most you have invested in the affair is how many zeros your paycheck has at the end and how many marketing deals you get. Seeing players puff out their jerseys in pride or hang towels over their heads in anguish adds compelling human interest.

3. It's basketball. In basketball, compared to the other major professional sports, it's common for a big lead to evaporate in a couple of minutes, which keeps games exciting right up to the very end.

The defending champs, the Florida Gators (I've posted about them before), just played a close one with Purdue. They edged out the win, and are now in the Sweet 16. Go Gators!

Guns: Perfect Practice

If you can't get to a shooting range regularly, it can be very difficult to keep your gunhandling and shooting proficiencies at a reasonable level. There aren't a whole lot of remedies to this - as far as I know, the best way to get better at drawing and firing a gun is, well, drawing and firing a gun repeatedly. The next best thing, though, is dry-fire practice.

The first step is the most important. Clear your gun. Clear it again and again. Some would say it's best to take all ammo out of the room - it might be overkill, but it would also prevent any embarrassing mishaps. Even after the gun is clear, the safety rules should still be followed as much as possible, which means not pointing the gun at somebody when dry-firing (it sounds idiotic, but these things happen) and finding a safe backstop (remember, bullets sail through most building materials - try a big mound of dirt or a hard floor of some sort).

The next step is loading up practice ammo if your gun cannot be dry-fired without damaging it (most guns are fine with being dry-fired, but some - like my CZ-75B - may exhibit parts breakage with repeated dry-firing). Double-check to make sure it's practice ammo. A-Zoom snap caps are terrific for this - they last a long time.

The final step is to practice drawing in all the positions you find yourself in everyday life. Whether it's seated at a computer, walking down a hallway, or even crouching down on the ground, it couldn't hurt to practice. Don't go for a quick draw; focus on smoothness and repetition. Draw and snap off a shot, noting your sight picture. Pop-up targets like this give a nice bit of unpredictability and are a sobering reminder of how difficult it is to react to a random stimulus.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Movies: 300

I enjoyed Zack Snyder's re-imagining of "Dawn of the Dead" more than I thought I would, so I was looking forward to "300." "300" ostensibly portrays the Battle of Thermopylae, but a glance at any of the previews would tell you what you're in for - a stylized, operatic action movie. And while the original comic book wasn't one of Miller's strongest works in terms of characterization (that award, for me, goes to "The Dark Knight Returns"), the visually striking panels and spare storyline seemed a perfect fit for the big screen.

Something went wrong in the adaptation, though. The battle scenes, instead of being breathtaking, feel lifeless, the MTV-ish slowmo-fastforward routine sucking the energy out of them. The acting is sometimes competent (Lena Headey in particular gets some good material), but it's not long before Leonidas' hoarse, over-the-top delivery becomes more comedic than inspiring. As a final nail in the coffin (or, in this case, arrow in the Spartan), the CGI in some of the most graphically violent scenes becomes noticeably fake and distracting.

A final note - some commentators have complained the film is somehow pro-Iraq War propaganda, or even racist. Some have even compared this movie's methods of making a political message to "The Eternal Jew." This is ridiculous for reasons outlined on many other blogs, but even if it were true, so what? Nobody claims movies like Fahrenheit 9/11 aren't designed to influence people; why should "300" be criticized just for being faintly political?

Rating: 6/10

Friday, March 16, 2007

Tech: iRiver H10 mini-HD MP3 player

In some ways, the iRiver H10 is an obsolete piece of technology, a historical piece that's mainly notable as a curiosity. Manufactured by iRiver, a Korean consumer electronics giant, it's no longer advertised on iRiver's site. The H10 uses a mini hard disk drive, like the iPod Mini, but most of them (including mine) only have a 5 or 6 GB capacity. Newer flash memory players, like the new version of the iPod Nano, can obviously match and exceed this capacity, and with a smaller form factor.

The H10 has several smallish buttons on the side for control - these are hard to tell apart from each other and don't give very tactile feedback when pressed. The H10's primary control, though, is a vertical strip that houses a rudimentary touchpad. This is about as intuitive as the default scroll wheel for the iPod series, but longtime Apple users may find the switch jarring. In practice, the strip is pretty precise, but it's still a pain to scroll through long lists of songs.

Which brings us to the H10's love-it-or-hate-it menus. I've never used iTunes or any other music organization software, so I tend to treat MP3 players as portable generic hard drives and drag and drop whole folders of albums into them. The H10, through the "Browser" option, will play entire folders of songs, one after the other, without stopping, which is a feature I like for long road trips and study sessions.

If you're in the market for an MP3 player and you can find an H10 for cheap (say, $100 perhaps?), it might be worth the price.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Miscellany: Lost Cities

I bought a truckload of board/card games from Thought Hammer (great place to buy games from, BTW), so I'll be reviewing them over the next few months. First up is "Lost Cities," a light family card game for two players designed by the famous Reiner Knizia. In LC, you mount expeditions to five regions using cards drawn from the deck...only trouble is, your opponent is also trying to mount his or her own expeditions. Expeditions that have enough cards played on them can become very profitable, while expeditions that are started but then neglected penalize you.

The heart of the game, then, lies in risk and reward - invest several cards into a single expedition, and you take a huge penalty if you don't manage to complete it; however, the reward for expeditions that are progressed far enough is substantial and key to winning the game. The game even emphasizes this by allowing you to play "investment cards" before an expedition is even begun, doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling the points AND penalties for that expedition.

LC is a fun little two-player game, perfect for those half-hour gaps of time people sometimes find themselves stuck in. The theme is fun, the mechanics are easy to learn, and the cards are satisyingly oversize and well-made, with attractive artwork. There might be a problem here with lack of depth (that is, it might get boring after a dozen or so plays), but the addition of some house rules (for example, some good-old fashioned betting) might alleviate that.

Books: Million Dollar Baby

(Note: this book was originally published as "Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner")

The main character of the short story "Million Dollar Baby" can be viewed as an analogue of author F.X. Toole. Too old for their respective fields, and tired from countless rejections, each took one last swing at immortality - and hit the mark. The short story was adapted into an Academy Award-winning motion picture, and now Toole (a pen name for Jerry Boyd) and his work are famous.

Here is a collection of short stories about boxing in all its myriad manifestations. From shoving adrenaline into cuts, to working the heavy bag, to smelly fights in seedy gyms in Tijuana and beyond, there's virtually no corner of the boxing world left untouched. The characters are generally drawn well, the prose chugs ahead with relentlessness, and the overall plots are okay if unsurprising (except for the aforementioned "Million Dollar Baby").

The collection itself is a bit hard to judge. I'm a boxing fan, so I instantly took to the fascinating details of training, treating cuts, and fighting - as well as the motley characters that inhabit Toole's world, a wonderland seemingly devoted to fighters and their craft. Some of the dialect, especially the story "Black Jew," can get tedious to slog through, but overall, it's a quick, entertaining read.

Worth checking out from the library or buying on discount from a store.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

News: On Hyperbole (or, "Why I Still Love America")

If you took note of the protests of President Bush's visit to Latin America, you might have seen the "Bush = Hitler" shirts that seem to be all the rage. Now, I'm not a Republican, and I don't agree with many, if not most, of Bush's policies, but if you only listen to protesters, you'd think Bush is the second coming of Hitler and that the current administration is some kind of Fourth Reich.

So let's take a look at the rest of the world, shall we?

Turkey banned YouTube for two days because a video was put up insulting the modern founder of the country.
A blogger in Egypt was sentenced to four years in prison for contrary blog posts.
Zimbabwe opposition leaders were apparently tortured by police. (Hell, even the police admit one protester was shot)
And, of course, China, the most populous nation in the world, censors the Internet constantly.

So explain to me why protesters aren't up at all hours shouting on street corners about these countries? If someone from 1944 were transported to the present, which ones most resemble Nazi Germany?

I thank my lucky stars I don't live in any of these places. I'm thankful to live in the United States of America.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Miscellany: The Rise and Fall of the Boynton Beach Mall

I used to frequent the Boynton Beach Mall quite a bit in my youth. The BBM was special in that it had two competing bookstores at opposite ends of the mall - in the days before the big-box bookstores and the Internet, going to the BBM almost ensured I could buy the latest book I wanted to read. The mall also had a neat food court, with a giant series of rotating shafts turning a bunch of wicker fan blades at the ceiling skylight. Adjacent to the food court was a video arcade that was invariably packed with the newest games and plenty of competition. It was a fun place to shop and hang out.

The problems started, I guess, when Simon took over. Simon Properties runs malls and shopping centers all over the world, including many in South Florida. Like any big corporate entity, they tend to homogenize their holdings to simplify managing them. No surprise there, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. But here, they took out the awesome fan system (which really puzzled me) and "renovated" the whole exterior of the mall, turning it from grey (which actually stands out quite a bit here in Florida) to a generic shade of tan/peach.

The final nail in the coffin was the Christmas Eve gangland argument that ended in someone getting shot to death in front of Dillard's (oh, the mall has a posted "no weapons" policy - a fat load of good that did). Stores have been pulling out, and the mall seems to be losing tenants at an alarming rate. There isn't even a book store in the mall any more.

Guns: On Selling Firearms

Some people trade and sell guns like baseball cards. I'm not quite that bad, but I do tend to part with non-essential guns fairly easily. Firearms, as a commodity, can be more difficult to sell than other things, but, fortunately, well-made firearms hold their value quite well compared to most other consumer goods (the prices for current HDTVs for someone who adopted early in 2004 are enough to make a grown man cry). The Internet has revolutionized the buying and selling of gun-related stuff, so it's best to start there.

I've never sold a firearm on auction sites like GunBroker or Auction Arms, but my experience with eBay in my younger years has convinced me it's not worth the trouble except for fairly big-ticket items. The hassles involved seem too great here - getting people to bid on the auction, finding a buyer who's responsible enough to send in an FFL if it's across state lines, shipping the darn thing...then again, I've never tried it.

I've had a lot more luck selling guns through Web forums like THR. With the message boards, it's easy to get in touch with the people in your area who are interested in firearms, and a face-to-face transfer, depending on the laws of your area, is almost always easier than shipping to a sight-unseen buyer. Read Xavier's excellent "Bill of Sale" for a nice little form you can bring to the proceedings to formalize everything.

A final option is putting a gun on consignment at a local gun shop. This is an excellent way to get rid of guns that may not have an immediate draw and thus might be difficult to sell on the fast-moving Internet. I've had guns sit for weeks and even months waiting to be sold. Depending on your local shop's policies (how much money they charge for consignment) and their traffic, this might be the easiest way to sell a gun.

Food: Jon Smith Subs

Jon Smith Subs is one of those local franchises that you wish was spread throughout the country, if only so you could eat it everywhere. There are about two dozen or so individual restaurants in the Palm Beach County area; you can't even get JSS in Gainesville - hugely disappointing. My family and I have been eating at JSS for nearly two decades now, and the quality has never wavered, which is a pretty huge deal in my book.

The menu is simple, and the setup is deceptively similar to a Quiznos or a Subway. You order a sub, sit down, and wait for them to bring it out to you. The difference here, though, is that the various steak and chicken-based subs are cooked to order and thus are always fresh. My personal favorite, the Steak Bomb, is incredibly satisying - grilled steak, mushrooms, bell peppers, bacon, cheese.

The drawback to this approach, of course, is that it's slow. You might have to actually wait for your food to be cooked before you start chomping down, unlike the prepackaged stuff they hand out at the big boys. If you have the time and inclination, and you're in West Palm Beach, I'd highly recommend stopping by...

3/4 stars

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Movies: The Prestige

(Note: I normally don't get to watch this many movies, but I am on vacation, and my family consists of mostly incurable cinephiles.)

"The Prestige" opened only a couple months after "The Illusionist," another movie about stage magic. "The Prestige" concerns the rivalry of two magicians and their attempts to one-up each other, which eventually leads down some dark paths. Directed by Chris Nolan of "Memento" and "Batman Begins" fame, it's a better movie than "The Illusionist" in that its central, gagdet-like premise is a bit more inventive, but ironically it shares many of same problems.

The central crime committed here, in my view, is that the ending and the "trick" behind the story is telegraphed to the viewer well in advance, and that even when fully explained, so many plotholes arise when "the trick" is fully extended to its logical limits that the results are jarring to say the least.

In the aggregate, the acting, production, and direction are quite satisfying. Christian Bale gets to use the horrid English accent he developed for "Reign of Fire" once more, and along with Hugh Jackman, 90% of the movie revolves around the two, as it should be. Scarlett Johansson is a nicer bit of eye-candy than Jessica Biel provided in "The Illusionist," but she isn't given much to do here. "The Prestige" makes for a decent rental if you're willing to accept the film's screwy internal logic - Nolan claims it's a genreless film, but to me, it was basically 19th-century science fiction.
Rating: 7/10

News: Some are more equal than others

I'm on vacation now, and I don't quite get to post as often as I can when I'm at school. As dirtcrashr noted, the Court of Appeals' recent Parker decision is a landmark one - this is the first time, at least that I've heard, that a Federal court has struck down a law on Second Amendment grounds.

The biggest news, though, in my opinion, was DC Mayor Fenty's outburst against the ruling.
"I am personally, deeply disappointed and quite frankly outraged," Fenty said.

Outraged? Outraged?

How dare he. Any second-grader can look up the crime statistics in Washington, D.C. for the past few decades and notice one simple fact - the bans do not work. They never have. And no matter how much Mayor Fenty expresses his "outrage," it won't help the disarmed victims of violent crime who have suffered under the DC gun ban.

While Mayor Fenty and his private, taxpayer-funded security detail cozy up for the end of Daylight Savings Time, I can't help but remember Orwell's warning...

Saturday, March 10, 2007

School: Meet the Professors, Second Semester

This semster, we're taking Property, Civil Procedure, Appellate Advocacy, and Constitutional Law. The dreaded second-semester weariness has set in for many of us - where once our nights were spent briefing cases, outlining chapters, and reading ahead, it's fair to say much of this semester has been spent goofing off.
Property is taught by Professor Mark Fenster, who is probably my favorite of the new crop of professors. It's apparent that he's a bit tired of the material (he's teaching two sections this semester, so he teaches the same thing twice a day), but he has the intellectual chops for being a professor (J.D. from Yale, Ph.D. from U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). He offers up the most help and support in my experience, and he uses the Socratic method the most.

Professor Lear handles CivPro. She received her J.D. from the University of Michigan and clerked for Judge Lumbard on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit. She's about as fast a talker as any law professor you might have; though her pleasant demeanor and strange turns of phrase might fool you, she's "shockingly" smart (as she might say), though even she can't clarify the badly-written Federal Rules of Civil Procedure into anything approaching common sense. She almost never calls on anyone, which sort of makes for a tedious class sometimes.

Professor Jackson teaches ApAd. I had him last semester, and all the same applies. Still a good professor. He even showed us video of him arguing a case before the FL Supreme Court.
Professor Collier, our ConLaw teacher, is easily the most philosophical of the second batch, and also the most yawn-inducing. He's not a great lecturer, but his hypos are always insightful, and he has an almost ridiculous amount of degrees (PH.D. from Yale, J.D. from Stanford, etc.).

Movies: The Illusionist

I've never been a fan of the twist/sudden revelation style of ending. In my opinion, it cheapens a movie - while the first time you see "The Usual Suspects" or "The Sixth Sense" might be fun, the realization that the director is simply playing a game with the audience is always close at hand upon susequent viewings.

Unfortunately, "The Illusionist" suffers from this particular screenwriters' malaise. Edward Norton plays a magician who falls in love with a duchess; the fallout that results from the forbidden love (this is late nineteenth century Vienna, I believe) occupies the majority of the running time. While some real life sleight of hand is employed, many of the illusions are depressingly CGI.

The production values are great (though Phillip Glass' score can get a little self-conscious), the directing is competent, and the acting - especially Paul Giamatti's work - is fine. I've said it before, though - all the great trappings in the world cannot save a mediocre story. From the halfway mark, astute viewers will have surmised what may (or may not be) going on behind the scenes, so to speak. To bludgeon people at the very end of the movie with an explanation of the "twist" is borderline insulting, and lessens the film's emotional thrust.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Tech: A Roguelike Retrospective

The computer role-playing game has a long and storied history, and there are many different varieties of CRPG. From D&D-based properties like "Baldur's Gate" and "Neverwinter Nights," to sci-fi games like "Fallout" and "Knights of the Old Republic," to the current MMORPGs that dominate today's charts, there are a wide variety of settings to suit every taste.

All of these games, though, owe something to "Rogue". "Rogue" is a simple game where you descend through a treacherous dungeon, finding treasure and killing enemies. This certainly sounds exciting enough, except that all the graphics are rendered in ASCII. Still, the game was incredibly popular through the 80s and spawned dozens of clones and homages. I actually played "Rogue" back in the 6th grade (it was one of the only programs we could sneak onto the school computers), and it provided many hours of escape from Ms. Rao's dull Geography class.

The most famous "Roguelike" game, though, is "Diablo." Though it added the trappings of graphics, sound, and Internet multiplayer, the game, at its heart, was still a simple dungeon crawl. The randomly generated dungeon, the various character classes, the menagerie of baddies, and, most importantly, the epic amounts of loot you could acquire made "Diablo" an instant success. I never actually played the game until high school, but that first descent into the church of Tristram consumed almost four hours of my life. Most first-timers back then reported similar experiences.

I dabbled with some of the various Diablo clones out there - "Darkstone," "Nox," etc. None were as atmospheric and gripping as the original (even "Diablo II" wasn't that great). It's been awhile since someone has delivered a truly satisfying hack-and-slash dungeon crawling experience. Games like "Oblivion" are nice and all, but sometimes you just want to slice some zombies and balrogs up, without all that pesky plot in the way.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Guns: AR stripped lowers

It's been said before, but an AR-15 stripped lower receiver is a ticket to a sea of possibilities. You can grab one for around $100-$150 (all the name brands like RRA, Bushmaster, Armalite, etc. are essentially of equivalent quality), and it counts, by BATFE standards, as a "firearm" - so the remaining parts can be obtained through the Web with no pesky background checks or restrictions (well, unless you live in places like California or New Jersey :-P). Buy a lower parts kit, put all the fiddly little bits in correctly, buy a complete upper assembly (so no worries about headspace), slap the two halves together and BAM! - you have a shiny new AR.

I just ordered a stripped lower from my local shop, and I'm already thinking about what the eventual rifle will look like...perhaps a lightweight or M4-type carbine, like my last AR?

Or should I simplify, and go for a standard 20" model?
I could go a little off-the-beaten-path and get a Dissipator
And don't forget the ever popular varmint/target configs...

Choices are always a good thing. :)

Miscellany: Risk: Godstorm

"Risk: Godstorm" is a mythologically themed version of "Risk," the classic entry-level war game. Similar to "Risk: 2210," there are lots of new wrinkles here - most importantly, players can buy and play powerful Miracle cards that can change the course of the game in a single turn. Various god figures (analogous to commanders in "2210") and temples can be purchased, as well. The underlying territorial control and combat system is exactly the same as standard "Risk," but the learning curve is still pretty steep.

The game looks great, with a nice board and decent plastic pieces. The colors picked for the armies are atrocious - the Egyptians' and Vikings' pieces (tan and light orange, respectively) are difficult to tell apart, which definitely makes me wonder, since any amount of playtesting could have revealed that flaw. Unique in this game are "Atlantis" and "Underworld" maps, as well as a 5-turn limit (games still take 4-5 hours to complete).

Gameplay is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the game is much more fluid and tactical than normal "Risk," with the various Miracle cards and special abilities making attacks easier than ever. You rarely know who is going to win until the very end, though it tends to be the person who didn't bloody themselves in battle with his or her opponents. The element of the luck of the die, which pervades "Risk," is here, but it doesn't annoy as much because of all the other, controllable factors involved.

However, the chance element introduced with Miracle cards can easily make someone either a winner or a loser (some cards are ridiculously powerful, others not so much), which is not funin my book. The temples are usually too expensive to waste your precious Faith tokens on. Games still take an atrocious amount of time, and players can and do get eliminated, making for a frustrating experience for casual gamers. All in all, I'd recommend trying "2210" before entering "Godstorm."

Monday, March 05, 2007

Links: WUFT-FM "Classic 89"

I have my father to thank for introducing me to public radio. When he drove me to school, NPR's "Morning Edition" was always playing in the car, giving an erstwhile youngster a taste of "grown-up" news. I recently read that a week of the New York Times contains more worldwide news than the average person would come across in an entire lifetime in the 18th century (which is even more amazing if you distrust the Times). I'm grateful to my Dad for not humoring me or insulting my intelligence by turning to another station; then again, he might have just not cared how I felt about what was on. ;-)

Nowadays my local public radio station here in G'ville is WUFT, which broadcasts right out of the University. In years past, their signal was considerably weaker than the other commercial radio stations, but they recently upgraded their equipment. They even broadcast "HD Radio," whatever the heck that is. I tend to listen mostly to their classical music programs, which run nearly all day, but I also make a point of catching "Car Talk" and "Thistle & Shamrock" when I can. I suppose I'll get around to talking about all those shows, and more, eventually.

TV: Guilty pleasures

There are some TV shows that you don't mind admitting you're a fan of - MST3K, Star Trek: TNG, I Love Lucy, etc. Then there are the TV shows that you know you should hate but that have a certain special meaning for you, so you like them anyhow.

"Full House" is one of those shows. I grew up with this stuff - it was on in primetime when I was a kid, and even when I was a teenager, syndicated reruns would pop up thirty or forty times a day. The comedy was bland and inoffensive, the characters were picture-perfect, but by golly, if you needed to kill half an hour, "Full House" was there for you. Here's some outtakes:

Next up is "Mama's Family." Now, one thing you have to keep in mind about this show is that the main character is a spinoff from "The Carol Burnett Show" - imagine "Father Guido" from SNL getting a sitcom that lasts for six seasons, and you see how much of an oddity "Mama's Family" was. Vicki Lawrence, who bares more than a passing resemblance to Carol Burnett, stars as the irascible Mama, and various hijinks ensue.

Finally we have the biggest guilty pleasure of them all, "Barney & Friends." Now, I used to be a "Barney"-hater, but my sister loved the big stupid purple dinosaur as a kid, and she bought a Barney singalong tape ("Barney's Magical Musical Adventure" - Jesus Christ they have a Wikipedia page for it) that featured so many infectious nursery-rhyme based songs that I couldn't help but get it in my head (the fact that she played it several dozen times in my youth probably played a role in that, too). "Barney" may not be as cool as "SpongeBob," but I dare you to find anything sappier on mainstream television.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Guns: Knife vs. Gun?

I talked with a good friend of mine yesterday about why I carry a concealed handgun. He opined that he would probably get a CCW permit, but would only carry a knife instead of a gun. He said that he was a lousy shot (only fired a gun a few times in his life) whereas he had practiced Eskrima for years. That's sound, rational thinking - you should carry what you have experience with. I do, however, have some thoughts to add...

Anyone who's ever attended a half-decent concealed weapons course knows that drawing and shooting a gun when someone is within close range is very difficult at best, impossible at worst. While you often hear Teuller Drill distances bandied about, it's very difficult to keep everyone in the world 7 yards away from you at all times, as this video shows (read LawDog's excellent analysis). So unless you have ESP, you're going to be exposed to attack every time you wait in a line in a public place, or walk a crowded street, etc.

Of course, the above case isn't typical - most criminals will only attack people who are isolated. And to be fair, there are steps you can take to buy yourself time while you draw - sidesteps and back steps, to be precise, not to mention effective use of your off hand to protect your head and body. But the fact remains, a holstered gun is a poor choice in close combat.

The upshot of all this is as follows - the same limitations apply to a concealed knife. Unless you have some way of palming the knife in hand all the time, you will have to draw it from somewhere, same as a gun (though knives can fit almost anywhere). And unless I'm missing something, there should be negligible difference between the drawing speed of a knife and a gun.

Knives have a lot of advantages for an attacker - they are silent, they require no ammunition and never jam, and they can cause just as much damage as a bullet (sometimes more, if the knife attacker knows what he is doing). Unfortunately, in order for the defender to realize these advantages, the defender is going to have to close to contact distance anyway. And given that the first rule of personal protection is to not get into the situation in the first place, it does come off as a bit paradoxical that you have to be at a range where your attacker can harm you in order for you to stop your attacker.

I definitely think knives have a place in the concealed carry universe - for my friend, for example. But just as people should not think a gun is some kind of magic talisman, people should be aware of the shortcomings of a knife and plan accordingly.

Movies: A duo of historically inaccurate proportions

I usually only watch TV while in the midst of another activity; yesterday, I was doing the laundry while watching parts of both "The Patriot" and "Gladiator." Both are fairly silly from a story perspective - Russel Crowe famously remarked to one of the screenwriters that his "lines are garbage but I'm the greatest actor in the world, and I can make even garbage sound good." "The Patriot" is even worse, essentially making the entire American Revolution a Mel Gibson-led Braveheart-esque struggle against a maniacal British colonel. Thankfully, though, the budget for these movies was spent on period clothing and weapons, not just big name actors.

First is the best, most ridiculous scene in "The Patriot," where Mel manages to kill 20 Redcoats with only the help of his two pre-teen sons.

Next is the best fight in Gladiator, Maximus vs. Tigris of Gaul:

Saturday, March 03, 2007

News: I'm kind of jealous, but then kinda not

This kind of thing seems to happen on a regular basis. I also notice something else - it seems to happen a lot in California. My guess, given the somewhat rare nature of an out-and-out residential fire, is that many people in California have caches like this. It's a bit sad, really - when the bans first came there, I'm sure they thought they could store their guns and ammo indefinitely, waiting for a mythical revolution, or perhaps for a less restrictive political climate. There's a lesson to take from this - burying your guns is almost never productive. If you feel the need to do so, sell them all off and spend the money fighting politically in the legislature - at least you didn't go down without a fight.

With the rapidly rising price of the stuff, I do wish I had a million rounds of ammunition, but I know in the back of my mind I'd shoot it all up in a few years anyway. On top of that, I didn't know you needed a permit for blackpowder in California. I wonder what will happen to all those guns - I'm guessing the Riverside PD is going to be getting some shiny new acquisitions soon...

Books: Bone

It's rare to read a graphic novel (and by graphic novel, I mean "big, thick comic book") that lasts longer than an hour or two. But, over the last six months, I had the pleasure of experiencing all 12 years and all 1300-odd pages of Jeff Smith's masterpiece, Bone.

Bone has been described as "Walt Disney" meets "Lord of the Rings," and it's an apt description. High fantasy, slapstick humor, and charming characters mingle in a meandering but often-sidesplitting journey. The story focuses on Fone Bone and his cousins, who have been run out of Boneville and find themselves in a vast and strange valley. To tell much more would be spoiling the fun, but let's just say the Bone cousins are going to get a lot more than they bargained for in this mysterious valley.

I read the book slowly, a chapter at a time (though if you wanted to, you could probably gulp the whole thing down in a long day of reading). There's already been a heap of praise for Bone, but I think for me what stands out most about the series is the excellent writing. The mythology of the fantasy is a bit simplistic, the action is good but not superb, but in the end, the characters are the heart of the story here. Bone is a highly recommended read, and a fantastic value at $40.

Friday, March 02, 2007

School: A Political Microcosm

Some lessons learned from the recent Student Government elections here at UF:

1) Whoever has the most money usually wins. Now, this might be because more money is indicative of more support, it might be because more money buys more campaign ads/volunteers/etc., it might be because people who have the ability to raise money also look good when they're gladhandling the populace - I'm not a poli-sci major.

The money disparity was apparent in this campaign - the Gator Party (which was, let's face it, the party of all the fraternities and so garnered instant support and funds) has a freaking sponsored link to their website in Google. They also completely crushed the Pants Party.

2) Voter apathy starts off early. This is a college, and, as you might expect, a lot of the students are politically minded, but the turnout for this year's election was dismal. I bet more people eat Hare Krishna lunch on the Plaza of the Americas on an average week than voted in the stupid SG election. This is weird, since voting takes about 5 minutes, polling locations are literally everywhere, and you don't even need to register in advance to vote (you just need your UF student ID). Even when voting takes less effort than walking to a bathroom, people won't be motivated to do it in most cases.

3) Corruption starts off early, too. I'm not an anti-frat guy; the fraternities do lots of good things here on campus (like their work on Dance Marathon). But it's an open secret that frats often pressure their members to vote a certain way (hmm, remind you of something?). The Pants Party got into trouble by distributing "I Voted" stickers to people passing by, in an attempt to weaken the frats' hold on their members (the rumor is that the frats check for "I Voted" stickers in order to make their members vote, whether they want to or not). The Gator Party complained all the way to the campus Supreme Court - and eventually, the administration penalized the Pants Party since the stickers were considered campaign materials.
Yeah, sure.

Food: David's Real Pit BBQ

Nestled in a little out-of-the-way shopping center well north of the University of Florida, David's Real Pit BBQ is one of those places that's almost good enough to recommend to other people, but not quite. It's a typical fast-food-ish BBQ place (they have a drive-through, and they have no waiters or waitresses).

The main highlight here, as their homepage suggests, is the voluminous variety of sauces you can slather on your BBQed meat - they have a whole rack full of 'em. Many are quite good - I had some "Old St. Augustine"-something-or-other hot sauce that went very well with my order of ribs. I had had some BBQ chicken and baked beans at a previous event (that's what led me to the restaurant in the first place), and both of those were pretty good.

There are quite a few drawbacks. The prices were very high, for one thing - I could have gotten an "all you can eat" order of ribs at Sonny's for the same price. While half the ribs were big and meaty, the other half (I'm guessing the crappy part of the pig) was dry and very tough - almost like pork jerky. The cole slaw and corn on the cob were passable, but not noteworthy in any way. Dessert - a Key Lime pie plucked from the fridge - was downright poor, as the marshmallow topping on the pie kept forming into slimy pieces in my mouth.

The jury's still sort of out on this one. I was tempted to give it only one star, but I'll see how I feel about it after going to bed tonight.

2/4 stars

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Tech: The iPhone

I saw a commercial for the iPhone on the TV the other day.

Okay, it's not quite as bad as all that. But I suppose it has to be loaded with features in order to justify the unprecedented $500 price point. This thing literally does everything the typical cell phone does nowadays (phone, camera, media player) and most things the typical CrackBerry or PDA does (Web, e-mail, mobile applications). I'm definitely tempted to buy one, if only because it's fairly impractical to lug an 8 pound laptop with me every time I need Wi-Fi Internet access.

But then the $500 price tag hits me upside the head, and I'm reminded of another incredible multimedia convergence device with a dubiously high cost of entry.

Guns: The Ballad of "Paul"

(A crappy poem based on a true story of a "gun groupie" who wouldn't go away - sorry all, just felt like telling the story in a roundabout way)

The Ballad of Paul

There's this guy, Paul, who comes in sometimes
Holster sniffer, you know the kind
I'm polite and all, but I avoid his jive

See, one time Paul had a "pal"
They drove to a gun show over in Ocala
But Paul pestered his pal

Saying "You should buy this!" or "If
you can buy that,
I can get you the money for it"

A few weeks later Paul's pal
Was looking at Gun List over breakfast
Paul walked in

"Hey, can I borrow this?"
But Paul's pal wanted to keep his List
Paul was getting pissed

Some time later, Paul stole the Gun List
Right outta Paul's pal's mailbox
So Paul's pal walked out, with his gun

"Listen, I know you have my Gun List
Stealing from my mailbox is a federal crime
I could call the cops for this

But I'm gonna give you one chance
I never wanna see you again"
And Paul lost his pal

There's this guy, Paul, that comes in sometimes,
Holster sniffer, you know the kind
I'm polite and all, but I avoid his jive

TV: Top Design

Bravo is quickly becoming creative-competition-reality-show central, with shows like "Project Runway" and "Top Chef" scoring big with audiences. Their latest concoction, "Top Design," is all about the harsh world of interior decorating - swatches, fabric samples, furniture, "distressed" pieces...yeah.

It's a pretty formulaic show that you sort of wish was boiled down into a half-hour - it's way more interesting just to explore the final rooms created than to watch how they are made. Most of the designers have a fairly serious disconnect with the average person's needs - yeah, that small art deco table might look good, but is it big enough to actually work on?

The most intersting contestant is Ryan (pictured with his crazy, Willy Wonka-esque room above), a sort of anti-designer who's actually an installation artist by trade. He's been clsoe to being eliminated for three consecutive weeks, but somehow someone always screws up each week worse than he does.