Saturday, June 30, 2007

Movies: Ratatouille

Ever since the success of "Toy Story," lots of other animation studios have been scrambling to capture the Pixar magic. Some of these efforts have been palatable ("Shrek"), while others have not worked out so well ("The Polar Express"). "Cars," Pixar's last movie, was a tepid, by-the-numbers "Doc Hollywood" remake with some questionable design decisions. I never actually saw the end of that one - by about three-quarters of the way through, I left the movie theater to see something else.

"Ratatouille" is a good return to form for Pixar. It's more of a light comedy than some of Pixar's previous films, which have been mostly action-adventures ("Toy Story," "A Bug's Life," "Finding Nemo," etc.). It's a charming story about a rat named Remy who dreams of becoming a master chef. The "gimmick" of the movie is that Remy has a keen sense of smell, allowing him to cook with amazing intuition. "Ratatouille" is more about honesty, friendship, and family than anything else, however.

The movie has some flaws - like "Finding Nemo," this is a one-man show - Remy is the only truly intriguing character, which prevents "Ratatouille" from attaining the richness of "The Incredibles" or "Toy Story." The absurd premise works well enough, but there's never any real sustained notes of physical peril for Remy, which seems like a missed opportunity. The various action sequences are lively, but sometimes lack that trademark Pixar polish.

The folks over at Pixar have pretty much mastered this CGI animation thing, and are free to focus all their efforts on the details and story. There are long stretches of "Ratatouille" where you forget you're looking at the product of some server farm in California. Once they can bring this same sort of verisimilitude to all their characters on a consistent basis, Pixar won't just be the best CGI moviemakers, they'll be the best moviemakers period.

Rating: 8/10

Miscellany: My FM Radio Dial

Places in Gainesville tend to be on one side of the university or the other, so sometimes you do end up spending a lot of time in the car. I'm not the world's most enthusiastic driver, so I like listening to the radio to pass the many hours eventually spent behind the wheel. Here are some of the things I typically listen to - I'm sure there are analogous stations in other markets around the country.

89.1 - Classic 89: Our public radio station, broadcast out of the UF campus. I've posted about them before, and I usually run here whenever all the other stations are in commercial. They often play popular classical music. There's just something that feels right about listening to "Ride of the Valkyries" when going to the pistol range. ;-)

92.5 - Wind FM: They usually play a pretty varied selection of '60s, '70s, and '80s rock. I've heard everything from the Beatles to Zeppelin to Black Sabbath. Favorite segments here include "The Acoustic Storm" and "Led Before Bed." They had a contest recently where a lucky caller won a trip to London to see Genesis in their reunion tour with Phil Collins.

103.7 - Rock104: Another station coming out of UF. Much more recent stuff than Wind FM, with a bias towards '90s rock methinks. You'll hear quite a bit of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, etc. They also do the occasional event/promotion on campus, which usually results in a quick, free meal or a crappy T-shirt.

106.9 - WKZY: Their tagline is "The '80s, the '90s, whatever we want," and they generally live up to this. Expect a lot of '90s pop, including incessant play of Smashmouth songs like "All Star" and "Walkin' on the Sun." This station in particular brings back a rush of nostalgia for me; even if I'm not really a fan, I grew up with bands like Sugar Ray and No Doubt.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Guns: Regarding .22 Long Rifle

I was testing out my new CZ magazine springs (they work great BTW - 400 rounds of 9mm downrange with no problems), and in-between firing the trusty P-01, I used my equally trusty Kadet .22 conversion. I must have put a brick's worth of .22 Long Rifle through my Kadet kit in that one range session. I was shooting the most common cartridge in the world - the .22 LR.

There used to be a rich assortment of rimfire calibers, but with the advent of smokeless powder and the correspondingly higher pressures generated, these have all died off, and only the .22 LR remains (well, aside from stuff like .17 HMR and .22 Mag, but they're not nearly as common). You can buy the cheapest .22 LR in $10 bulk packs, known colloquially as "bricks" or "550s" because of their form factor and the 500+ cartridges one can cram into said form factor. There are also match-grade .22 LR loadings available, the kind of stuff Olympic shooters use.

The bulk pack stuff is dirty and nasty compared to modern centerfire ammunition. It's manufactured in huge factories, with less attention paid to consistency or even quality control (you'll probably have more squib .22s than all the other calibers put together). The residues and unburnt crap coming off of the "primer" material (the stuff hanging around in the rim of the cartridge )are not fun to breathe in - sometimes there's literally a cloud of smoke hanging in the air after a magazine's worth of .22 rounds. I was looking at my boogers hours later and they were stained black. Ewwwww.

Miscellany: Running a "Call of Cthulhu Campaign"

I'm going to start GMing my first "Call of Cthulhu" campaign this fall, and I've reflected on it a bit. Being a "Call of Cthulhu" game master (or, as the game calls it, a "Keeper of Arcane Lore") can be a difficult proposition. Unlike other RPGs, CoC is set in the real world, which means you can't just invent locations and people wholesale. If the investigators are going to Peru in 1923, you damn well better research what Peru was like in the 1920s. This sort of campaign preparation might seem like a lot of work, but it can also be a lot of fun.

Another problem facing CoC keepers is the fact that almost every encounter in the game can turn deadly. Ordinary thugs armed with crowbars can quickly overwhelm the average party, and it gets even worse when you throw in the near-immortal monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos. Additionally, since investigators never gain hit points and typically lose Sanity every time they're played, an experienced investigator is often no stronger than a brand-new character. It's very hard balancing a campaign when the protagonists can actually get easier to slay as time progresses.

The final issue that I believe is most vexing is the creation of a proper atmosphere. CoC includes some LARP-lite elements. For example, the game manual suggests playing sinister or period music to set the mood, as well as creating fake telegrams, letters, and other documents for the players to read while playing the game. I'm not sure things like this help the game to be scary, but they sure sound cool to do.

Books: The Wheel of Time

When I was a teenager, I searched for a new fantasy epic to read. I walked around the bookstore, and basically picked a book at random, noting the amount of accolades that critics had accorded it. The book I settled on was The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, and it was the first book of "The Wheel of Time." The cover was iconic - a great knight, an elegant lady, and some peasants following them. I dove in greedily, and the Tolkien-esque story about a young shepherd named Rand became one of my favorites.

Unfortunately, my feelings towards "The Wheel of Time" became rather ambivalent as the years went on.

I enjoyed the first eight or so volumes (no small achievement, given that each book runs about 800 pages long), since they contained everything a teenage boy could want. There were swordfights, horrific monsters, good, evil, love, hate, and all sorts of interesting places and people to read about. The simple peasants of the first book had been transformed into powerful world leaders, with all the baggage that accompanies that heavy responsibility. The characters felt real - I could see Nynaeve tugging at her braid, or Egwene's exasperated expressions.

Then, right around Winter's Heart, the ninth volume, my progress slowed. Where once Jordan had lead the reader through wizard's duels in abandoned cities, there was now so much description, so many side characters, so much sheer minutiae that the story's momentum ground to a halt. I would never accuse anybody of selling out (least of all a fantasy author who has already made his money and thus lacks a motive), but it was evident that the author had become too enamored of his fantasy world, and forgot the basics of plot and drama. To this day, Winter's Heart remains in my bookshelf, unfinished.

The author is writing the final book, A Memory of Light, which is slated to be released in 2009. In it, I assume Rand finally faces his Satan-like nemesis in an apocalyptic final battle for the fate of the world. I just hope it doesn't take 3000 pages to get there.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Music: The Hardest Button to Button

The White Stripes (AKA Jack White and this Girl Who Drums in the Background) recently released another album, Icky Thump. While I haven't picked up that one yet, I have to say, I like quite a number of the Stripes' songs, though I'm not really a true fan. I do remember when I first picked up "Elephant" - my Mom didn't like the music, but she couldn't help but sing along to "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself."

Here's my favorite song from "Elephant" - "The Hardest Button to Button":

And the inevitable Simpsons parody:

Movies: Short Circuit & Short Circuit 2

Director John Badham must have had a thing for intelligent machines, since after directing the oft-parodied "WarGames," he went on to film Johnny Five, one of the robotic mascots of the 1980s, in "Short Circuit." The plot is pretty simple - Number Five, a military robot, accidentally gains sentience, and all sorts of kinda-hilarious pandemonium follows. Eventually, he befriends a woman played by Ally Sheedy, and even his creator, Steve Gutenberg (basically playing himself).

It's not a great movie, or even a particularly good one. The premise dips into absurdity pretty early on - indeed, there be exploding boats here. Steve Gutenberg gives his usual workmanlike performance, and Ally Sheedy's portrayal is so mired in the decade's conventions that it's hard to keep a straight face sometimes (who uses "mutation" as an insult?). The production budget was reportedly blown entirely on the various versions of Johnny Five, which explains why most of the action takes place around the same section of town. Still, there's a certain charm here, especially in Johnny Five's battle with his robotic clones.

Rating: 6/10

"Short Circuit 2" is every bit the typical inferior '80s sequel except for a peculiar quirk of screenwriting: if you subtracted all the crap before the last half hour or so of the movie, it'd actually be a better film than the full length version. Not many movies have this characteristic. It almsot feels like the writers figured out that no one cared about the humans - the audience just wanted to see more Johnny Five, not boring conversations in a New York City that bears a suspicious resemblance to Toronto.

Thus, the final sequence includes lots of memorable moments. Johnny Five is savagely beaten, repairs himself, and vows revenge. He chases down the head evildoer in a climactic struggle between good and evil, with the up-tempo Bonnie Tyler song "Holding Out For a Hero" underlying the action. After that, Johnny Five gets pimped out in gold plating and becomes a U.S. citizen. That, my friends, is all you need for a movie:

Johnny Five getting beaten up:

Johnny Five out for revenge:

Rating: 4/10

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Guns: A Disturbing Trend, Part 2

I saw this video at Xavier's place. It has apparently been making its way around many other blogs, so I might as well join in on the fun:

I took away two things from the interview. One, I need me some "ninja knives." Two, "criminal profiler" Pat Brown probably isn't friends with many gun collectors.

This isn't an isolated attitude. For some reason, it's okay to fear, stereotype, and belittle gun owners. Last week I visited a small used bookstore near my place and asked if they had any books on firearms. It turned out they did ... right next to books like Hooded Americanism. I'm not sure why a pro-KKK "history" is placed in the guns section, but I didn't feel the need to waste my time to ask - I exited the store without spending a cent.

That's not to say all gun owners are saints, or that nobody in the KKK owns any guns. But it's pretty disconcerting to be pigeonholed as some kind of bigot or sociopath when people find out you carry a firearm for self-defense. I'm hoping that as more states get CCW and more people start owning guns, we can get rid of some if this intolerance, and go back to the time when a Democratic president gratefully accepted a life membership from the NRA.

TV: Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List

I'm not a huge fan of Kathy Griffin's comedy, but I have to admit, I found her reality TV show "My Life on the D-List" (poking fun at her third-rate celebrity status) fairly entertaining, at least in short doses. Ever since the inexplicable success of sorta-biographical reality shows like "The Anna Nicole Show," all sorts of minor celebs are getting into the act, with mixed results. Kathy Griffin's show is one of the better ones.

In a hilarious turn, Griffin was actually on auditioning to be on the Home Shopping Network, in the hopes of one day creating her own line of ... women's ... something. Some other highlights were her gag date with legendary porn star Ron Jeremy and her performance in front of her nephew's school class. Sometimes the show is poignant - this season, Kathy's father passed away and it was interesting to see how she dealt with her grief.

I think the whole reality TV thing is getting firmly out of hand. I just saw a preview for a bio-reality show called "Hey Paula," covering the life and times of Paula Abdul. That's right, a judge for a reality TV competition is being covered in her own reality TV show. I also saw a preview for a show called "America's Next Producer" on TV Guide Channel. You know, the channel with the TV listings scrolling 24/7. Is it really so hard to fill up that top two-thirds of the screen with actual content and not just reality TV?

Tech: Panel de Pwned (AKA Planet Puzzle League Review)

My introduction to the entire Panel de Pon series of puzzle video games was memorable: one of the guys in my dorm was a Tetris Attack fanatic. The idea of the game was simple enough - flip around blocks, matching three or more of a single color to make them disappear (chain reactions caused by falling blocks earn huge bonus points and are great for attacking enemies in multiplayer).

To this day, I remember marveling at how fast the guy in my dorm could clear the entire screen of blocks, almost like magic. Perhaps a movie would best demonstrate the speed of a Panel de Pon expert (the player on the left, of course):

The latest iteration of the classic puzzle game is available on the Nintendo DS as "Planet Puzzle League." The DS touch screen can be used to move blocks around, which works better than you might think. Most importantly, the game features online play against opponents from across the globe via Nintendo's free Wi-Fi Connection service.

Getting into a multiplayer fight with a Panel de Pon specialist is humbling. You're twiddling your blocks around, perhaps getting a few chains or combos, when suddenly a huge block of garbage is thrown into your playfield because your foe just cleared his entire stack. If you've never played these games before, you're going to get schooled. I wish the game had some way of tracking people's skill levels, so they always faced appropriate competition. It's kind of silly going into a match with either a total newbie that you can thrash easily or a seasoned veteran that totally outclasses you.

The game plays a bit slower than the SNES game, which is unfortunate. The presentation of the game is clean and modern, with a distinct spacy/techno feel to the music and artwork. There are plenty of modes, puzzles, and tutorials included, as well. In short, if you're looking for an intense beatdown administered by a Japanese schoolchild on the other side of the Earth, "Planet Puzzle League" is your game.

Rating: 89/100

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

News: Pro Wrestling Tragedies

It's been almost a decade since I've watched pro wrestling. That's probably for the best, since I think the whole thing jumped the shark when they were forced to change "WWF" to "WWE." Whereas the storylines used to be funny or even dramatic, and the scripted gymnastics were high-flying, now we have "Divas" who probably shouldn't be in the ring in the first place, as well as tragedy all around as the consequences of a pro wrestling career start emerging.

The latest sad occurrence is a grisly murder-suicide committed by Chris Benoit, perhaps partially driven by steroidal rage. Benoit strangled his wife, his son, and then committed suicide over the course of a single weekend. I can't imagine what could drive a father to do violence to his own son - and I'm not sure I want to know.

Steroid use has been cited in a number of other deaths, including Eddie Guerrero, Mr. Perfect, the British Bulldog...the list goes on and on. I can't believe the guys I was watching in 8th grade are falling over dead. It's a subtly ironic thing. My Dad, an aging, out of shape engineer, is probably more healthy than some of these heavily-muscled wrestlers and athletes, if we're looking at long-term survival as our goal.

There have to be other, healthier ways to build stronger muscles. I'm inspired by the training regimen posted up by Porta's Cat. Currently I do 3x12 of a bunch of different exercises 3 times a week - maybe I should go for a more spread out approach.

Food: Book Lover's Cafe

Sometimes you feel like eating vegetables. I like meat as much as the next guy, but there are times that I absolutely crave a good salad or some tofu. The choices for vegetarian fare in Gainesville are pretty good for a city of this size. Though I usually opt for the Hare Krishna lunch (subject of a future post), today I tried the Book Lover's Cafe.

Book Lover's Cafe has the blessing of a neat location. How many vegetarian cafes are nestled inside of a used book store, and a good one at that? The walls and walls of books make for a pleasing, quiet environment, and there's even seating outside if the weather's nice. It's also a bit rare to be able to eat in such close proximity to books (the cafes inside of the big box bookstores are invariably separated from the bookshelves).

The food was pretty good, although the portions were too small for the price. The lentil soup was a pretty sizable bowl of tasty lentils, celery, spices, and some other stuff - quite hearty. I also had a tempeh Reuben - an interesting taste, but I don't think I'll be giving up the corned beef version anytime soon. All in all, the meal was expensive, but good enough that I wouldn't mind coming back - as long as I had a veggie craving, of course.

2/4 stars

Movies: Primer

I remember seeing the trailer for "Primer" somewhere, and the strength of the premise ultimately led me to rent the movie this past weekend.

Shot for $7000 (a smaller budget than many porno movies), "Primer" is a good example of how sometimes a storyteller can become too enamored with his or her story. If you can't tell from the trailer, the plot concerns two friends and their construction and use of a miraculous device that effectively allows time travel. The resulting chaos is predictable, but to say any more would spoil the film.

The movie, originally shot on Super-16 and blown up to 35mm, looks great considering the limited money on hand. The acting, while a bit rough, conveys the points across well enough. The real problems here are not technical.

There is something to be said for a mystery that cannot be solved. The confusing last third of "Primer" has our heroes cavorting through time (along with their collapsible time machines), paradoxically influencing past future versions of themselves. There are many elements of the plot never shown on screen, so it's fair to say only a savant who understand this movie the first time through. Ultimately, though, the puzzle itself doesn't reward the attention needed to solve it. Check out the timeline below to see how much of a mess the movie becomes:

Rating: 6/10

Monday, June 25, 2007

Guns: Diagnosing premature slide lockback, or "I'm back to the S&W 642 again"

Although it's less serious than a failure to extract, a failure to feed or fire is still not something you'd want to see in a carry gun. Sometimes rounds will be caught up trying to get into the chamber, but in my case, my P-01's slide stop was locking the slide back prematurely (that is, before the mag was empty). 200 problem-free rounds with my seldom-used 10 round mag convinced me that the culprit was a weak magazine spring.

How could a weak mag spring cause the slide to lock back? If the mag spring is weak enough, rounds can move forward from the mag during firing (basic physics - the gun and mag are moving backward from the recoil, and if the round's not gripped tightly enough, it slips). The nose of the bullet can then trip the slide stop. Almost every magazine spring wears out eventually, most often from the constant loading and unloading the springs have to endure.

A quick order with Wolff gunsprings and hopefully I'll be back in business by the end of the week. This is a good illustration of why it's best to have some unused test magazines for troubleshooting. Another possible cause of a premature lockback is a weak slide stop spring - this part is not so easy to replace on my gun, so I hope the new mag springs fix the problem.

School: A Day at the Museums

The Cultural Plaza is one of the few parts of UF where members of the general public can be seen en masse (well, aside from days with a football game scheduled). It consists of a natural history museum, an art museum, and a 2000 seat performance hall. Admission to the museums is free, though parking can be a problem on school days (the official museum parking section is $3.00, but I just use my commuter decal). I visited both of the museums this past weekend, mostly for fun but also for something else...

The Florida Museum of Natural History contains various rotating exhibitions, mostly concerning either prehistoric wildlife or peoples indigenous to the Americas. Like most Florida nature museums, they have dioramas featuring the various ecosystems in and around our state. Unfortunately, nothing in the exhibits is alive - it's all just static displays and fake animals/people.

The neatest part of the museum is the new butterfly atrium. Unfortunately, this butterfly exhibit costs actual admission (6 bucks!). If you do enter, you'll see about two dozen species of butterflies and moths flying all around the mini-"forest." They put out lots of flowers and even plates of fruit to attract the insects, making it easy for shutterbugs to get great photos. It's a pretty calm little place.

The Harn Museum of Art features works chiefly from Africa, Asia, and Europe. They have a handful of less-known pieces from famous artists like Rodin and Monet, but much of the art on display comes from sources like the Qing Dynasty or the Zulu kingdoms. They have lots and lots of space to spare - I wonder why they don't put more of their collection on display.

The Harn has an expanded international art exhibition and a new cafe downstairs. This is a full-service restaurant, and I hear the food's okay, but the prices are enormous. The museum also has a little mini-library complete with books on art all across the world (I even ran across an art law book). I managed to dig up some tidbits here on the Inca:

All in all, both museums are worth a visit, especially since they're both free. They're not big museums, but they should kill a couple hours for the average visitor. I had an ulterior motive here, one that will be revealed in a future post.

Tech: Trauma Center: Second Opinion

"Trauma Center: Under the Knife" must have been a tough sell for localization. "Hey, Bob, here's a Japanese surgery action game! Let's bring it to the U.S. market!" Nevertheless, the DS game sold fairly well, so it was no surprise that one of the Nintendo Wii launch titles was a remake of "Trauma Center."

You take the role of Derek Stiles, a rookie surgeon who has a knack for healing patients. In the virtual OR, you'll cut, suture, and inject your way to victory. The Wii Remote does an excellent job here of approximating the surgery experience. The pinching motion you do on the Wii controller feels a lot like real forceps, and the shaking hands and sweaty palms you get while playing the game actually increase the difficulty of the operations.

Eventually, you'll be called upon to perform seemingly impossible surgeries - excising tumors, handling transplanted organs, and battling viruses. The storyline that accompanies all this is pretty good, with suitable anime pathos drenching most of the proceedings. It's almost like "Operation" meets "24" (Hell, you even defuse a bomb in this game).

The production values are improved from the DS game, but nothing here's gonna blow you away. One big disappointment is that the game lacks 16:9 support (one of the main reasons the score isn't higher). And, for all the game's strengths, you're essentially pointing and clicking most of the time. All in all, though, this game provides hours of surgery fun. :-)

Rating: 81/100

Books: Tales - H.P. Lovecraft

The problem with any review of an H.P. Lovecraft collection is that if you just read a single page of a story like "The Call of Cthulhu," the writing seems, well, bad. Packed to the gills with hyperbole and colorful adjectives, the narrative often slows to a halt with the protagonists describing their deepest mental states, or perhaps the vagaries of some arcane ritual. It's hard to believe, you say to yourself, that writing like this could inspire whole generations of of science fiction and horror.

What I've found, though, is that reading an entire Lovecraft story (especially one of his longer, later works like "At the Mountains of Madness") is almost like being submerged into someone else's consciousness. A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required here, but if you can accept the narrator's take on events, you can share the narrator's terror. Cthulhu, for example, is not very scary on his own, but, like witnessing a tornado, he's much scarier if you can picture it firsthand.

"Tales: H.P. Lovecraft" is a neat little hardbound collection of pretty much everything important Lovecraft ever wrote. It's a bit expensive, and you might balk at the price when you see how small the book really is. It's a deceptively complete volume, though - the paper is Bible-thin and what looks like perhaps 300 pages is actually 800+ pages, covering even the longer novellas like "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" and "The Shadow Out of Time." It comes with its own little sewn-in blue ribbon bookmark, which should come in handy for my big plane flight to Spain. I should warn any potential buyers - the collection does include some of Lovecraft's early stinkers (most of which were written just to make money, like "The Lurking Fear").

Sunday, June 24, 2007

News: No News at All

It looks like Larry King is giving Paris Hilton her first post-incarceration interview. I'm not sure why CNN splashes this kind of thing on the front page - probably a slow news week (to be fair, I'm talking about it, too, aren't I?). Actually, having never spent any time in jail myself, I do wonder what it's like.

Then again, it's not as if Hilton ever got the full "Oz"-like experience. Her sentence was served at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, billed as the world's largest jail. There's a pretty huge difference between a place like that and a federal prison. The former probably has a library and Internet access; the latter probably includes plenty of armed guards and smaller, 1 or 2 person cells.

No word yet whether Paris' jail-time affected the filming of "The Hottie or the Nottie."

Guns: Stopped by the Rep

While other consumer products can often be compared in terms of published repair history surveys (anytime Consumer Reports reviews a dishwasher, for example), the potential reliability of a gun must sometimes be gleaned from its reputation. This is a dangerous thing, because word-of-mouth, especially on the Web or even in gun stores, almost inevitably leads to shouting matches and "X brand vs. Y brand."

I was looking at a camo Henry Survival .22, the latest incarnation of the AR-7 rifle originally developed by Stoner and co. over at Armalite. It's a neat concept - a takedown .22 that fits into a compact package that floats in water. Intended as a tool to help downed pilots survive in the wilderness, it's seen a number of manufacturers over the years (including a long run by Charter Arms). The price was right, too - only a couple hundred bucks.

Only problem is that the gun has a nasty reputation - many people say it's a jammomatic and that the accuracy is not what you'd expect from a rifle, takedown or not. I'm used to semiauto .22s that are not finicky about ammo, so it's slightly unnerving when owners of the rifle defend it by saying you must use this or that kind of .22 LR. Anyway, I think I'll hold off and grab something with a better track record.

Music: Black Hole Sun

I'm not really a Soundgarden fan; nothing wrong with their music but I just never listened to them when I was young. The song "Black Hole Sun" is probably their greatest hit, so I am familiar with it. Most people who grew up in the 90s will recognize the surreal music video that went with the song.

Incidentally, if the Sun were instantly turned into a black hole of equivalent starting mass, its gravitational pull would not be increased at all - the Earth would remain in orbit at the same distance (of course, it'd get pretty cold here pretty fast...).

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Food: Some Thoughts on Exercise Nutrition

I started working out again last week (welcoming myself back to Soreness City in the process), and it seemed fitting to post about what I like to eat, pre and post exercise. I'm no nutritionist or dietician, and every person has different dietary needs, but I think it might be edifying to hear about what someone else eats.

Before I start to exercise, I find it's important to have a decent meal half-digested in the system, in order to provide some energy. For example, if I wish to run in the morning, I'll eat a good-sized breakfast (glass of water, bowl of cereal, some fruit, perhaps a PB&J), and then relax for about 2 hours. That way, when I start running at 9 AM, I'll be ready to go. Weight training in the afternoon follows a similar procedure. After exercise, you definitely need nutrients to help repair and recover. Good, balanced meals work well for this, along with plenty of water.

Another problem people run into is what to eat. My old roommates used to use powdered protein shakes, but I've never tried them (if I can't maintain my muscles with the stuff I eat normally, what's the point?). Instead, I like to go back to the basics for protein. Cheap protein sources include eggs, beans, nuts. More expensive sources (for me) are chicken wings, all-you-can-eat ribs, and carnitas. Most of the time, you get a decent amount of fat in these foods, too (you need fat to survive, and it also happens to taste great).

As far as quantity, I think most people agree that eating a big meal three hours before bedtime is a bad idea. I normally try to make lunch the biggest meal of the day, with smaller meals and snacks coming as needed. I generally prevent myself from feeling hungry or thirsty in this fashion - in this sense, I think it's better to overeat than undereat. Going to bed hungry should not be a daily experience.

TV: Stretching E/I

If you've watched a children's television show in the past decade, you probably have seen the small "E/I" symbol somewhere on the screen. Ever since the Children's Television Act went into effect, broadcast stations must show at least three hours of E/I (educational and informative) programming every week. Most of the time these requirements are met by showing Saturday morning cartoons, which is understandable but not inventive.

Some stations "stretch" the definition of E/I. For example, while nobody would argue "Beakman's World" is not an educational show, it's hard to justify putting "Saved by the Bell" into the E/I category (unless someone intends to learn how to start a mediocre acting career like Dustin Diamond). Similar sorta-informative shows include "This Week In Baseball" and "NBA Access with Ahmad Rashad" - I suppose if you want a lesson in steroid use or incessant contract whining, these shows are up your alley.

From my experience, kids can learn something from watching pretty much anything. As a kid, I remember devouring such off-kilter fare as "The Frugal Gourmet," "Knight Rider," and "Allegra's Window." Children, in general, seem to be sponges for information. The question then becomes, I suppose, whether we want kids to learn what's being shown on TV.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Movies: Final Fantasy VII - Advent Cash-In

"FFVII: Advent Children," a CGI-animated feature from Square, feels more like an amateur machinima than an actual dramatic continuation. The only people who could have possibly enjoyed it as anything more than spectacle are the fans of the original game (that is, Final Fantasy VII for the PlayStation). Ironically, Square betrays these fans' trust with a trite plot that doesn't give any of the characters much to do.

[Those who have never played FFVII will have no idea what's going on, so you can pretty much skip the rest of the post. :-) ]

It's a couple years after the near-apocalypse brought on by Sephiroth and Meteor. Cloud and the rest of the gang are scraping around, trying to survive, but a mysterious new illness is sweeping across the land. The protagonists have to defeat the bad guys and cure the people.

That's pretty much it.

There are lots of pretty action scenes, with almost the entire last forty minutes or so given over to a huge combat sequence that sees Cloud fighting a gigantic dragon, chasing the evildoers on a motorcycle, and dueling with a familiar face. Aside from the frenetic action, though, we never get any of the funny or poignant moments that made FFVII so special to begin with. I want to see Cid try to make it back to the stars, or Cait Sith/Reeve participate in another (not quite) heroic sacrifice.

The animation is very detailed, and it compares favorably with any of the whiz-bang computer-generated stuff coming out of Hollywood these days. Too bad there's no story or characterization here to back up the fireworks.

Rating: 5/10

Guns: A Distressing Trend

I grew up in a typical American suburb, the sort you might see in a sitcom. Plenty of different people lived there - we had retirees, young families, old families. There were also half a dozen families that included police officers. We saw their cruisers and SUVs parked in their driveways, and no one gave them a second glance.

This post by ColtCCO is part of a growing militarization of the police, segregating from modern society. Whenever you hear a law enforcement officer call somebody a "civilian," it's a symptom of this syndrome. Whenever you see some police department's new shiny armored car, it's a symptom. And whenever you see outrageous conduct directed toward an average citizen who just happens to be lawfully carrying a firearm...well, you get the idea.

The recent trend in the Supreme Court has been to balance individual rights with crime control. The police are given extraordinary discretion nowadays to do their jobs. I think most of this is justified, but it's unsettling when you see abuses like this. I am friends with a couple of fine young police officers, so I'm hopeful for the future.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Miscellany: A (Really) Inconvenient Truth

I was listening to Fresh Air today and there was an interesting interview with Jeff Goodell, author of "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future." It's a fairly thorough (if perhaps one-sided) overview of the coal industry in the United States, past and present. Goodell is pretty knowledgable, though the interview is punctuated by some fairly inane questions from Terry Gross (Goodell: "There's been talk about bringing in coal miners from China or South America, but it always creates a firestorm of controversy"/Gross: "Why's that?").

Most importantly, though, it was a good reminder that to generate the electricity for every sleek iPod, HDTV, or PS3, we're essentially burning rocks that we dig up out of the ground like we have since the 19th century. The major electricity sinks have always been air conditioning, appliances, and lighting, but now computers and high-end electronics are getting more and more power-hungry.

I'm somehow reminded of our senior year project in high school, regarding energy conservation. We calculated the amount of energy the school could save if we built a wind generator to supplement our power needs. It wasn't much, to say the least. The hardest, most inconvenient truth is this - humanity's growing need for energy won't be solved until someone comes up with viable one of these.

Miscellany: Star Wars Saga Edition RPG

If there's one sci-fi property that's the equivalent of a tired 45 year-old prostitute with a bad meth habit, it's "Star Wars." Ever since Luke and Leia swung across that chasm in 1977, an endless line of spinoffs and licensed merchandise have flooded the public consciousness to the point of exhaustion. Some of these products are sublime (the "Knights of the Old Republic" video game, the LEGO "Star Wars" line) and some of these could serve as gateways to Hell itself ("Star Wars Holiday Special" AKA "The Two Hours Time and God Forgot").

Thankfully, the new Saga edition of the "Star Wars" d20 system RPG belongs to the former category (mostly). Every kid who's ever seen the original trilogy imagines what it would be like to duel with lightsabers, pilot an X-Wing, or outfox a Rodian in a musty cantina. Such material seems like an ideal candidate for a pen-and-paper RPG, but aside from the middling d6 version from West End Games, only Wizards of the Coast has been brave enough to try publishing one.

The book itself is a handsome thing, with a menacing gold-and-black image of Vader adorning the front. It's hardcover, full-color (for $40, it better be) and mostly intuitive, given that it apes the D&D Player's Handbook almost perfectly. There are revised rules for "Using the Force," and many of the skills and classes have been simplified, making the game play more like KOTOR than D&D. The seven hour play session I had felt pretty neat - at the end, my Han Solo-like character and two Jedi found themselves trapped in the underbelly of Coruscant, tasked with bringing a lunatic up into the outside world.

There are a number of issues keeping me from giving the book an unqualified thumbs-up. As nice as it is to be able to play with a single book and not multiple core rulebooks, the info for the GM concerning enemies and the environment is skimpy at best; it only occupies about 60 pages, and ends up feeling like an afterthought. The text itself is annoyingly small - they could have easily enlarged it given the book's generous margins. The terse one-page index and crudely divided equipment sections need improvement. But if you want to bargain with a Trandoshan or match wits with a Sith Lord, the Saga Edition's the only game in town right now.

Books: Tale of two books - "Carnage and Culture" vs. "Guns, Germs, and Steel"

Much like the "nature" vs. "nurture" conflict that surrounds the development of the individual, there's a similar continuum present in how civilizations and cultures interact and develop. Human history is full of examples where a technologically superior invader crushed and defeated an unprepared foe - but why does this occur, when at a very fundamental level people are alike?

"Carnage and Culture," by military historian Victor Davis Hanson, reasons that the primary reason Western and Westernized civilizations win these conflicts is because the Western way of conducting war is inherently more successful. That doesn't mean that Westerners are better, or even that their warmaking is somehow more moral - it just means that a non-Western army has a tough time annihilating a Western army.

"Guns, Germs, and Steel" posits that the geographic conditions of Eurasia allowed denser populations, domesticated animals, and advanced technology. Peculiarities like arable land, grains, and available species led to the technological superiority that made the Conquistadors, for example, so lethal in battle.

Who's right? I'm not sure, but I'd wager the theory behind the formation and development of human civilization is too complicated to fit into a trade paperback. Thankfully, nearly all historians and anthropologists reject any kind of racial explanation for human history.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Movies: Scanners

Movies concerning telepaths or mind-controllers, like "Village of the Damned" and "Scanners," seem to contain particular staple scenes. There's always a telepath commanding a person to commit suicide, there's always a long extended shot of a psychic struggle (invariably involving lots of grunting), and there are usually explosions (because everyone knows the best way to kill a telepath is by blowing him or her up).

"Scanners" is probably one of the most...Canadian...of these efforts. The titular scanners are human mutants with the ability to read people's thoughts, bend their will, and even destroy their very bodies. Naturally, such people would make perfect weapons, but a scanner leader named Revok is emerging and plans to (what else?) rule the world. Even more naturally, a lone scanner will rise up to oppose Revok.

There are some good performances here, including a fatherly turn from Patrick McGoohan (of "The Prisoner" fame) and a nasty villain in Revok, played by Michael Ironside. The car chases, shootouts, and various locales are pretty pedestrian though, giving the proceedings a fairly bland aftertaste. One fun scene includes an ordinary phone booth exploding like it has a bunch of thermite charges planted underneath it.

Breaking from the usual biohorror mold, director David Cronenberg is not really treading any new ground in this movie. In fact, the primary reason the film's still remembered at all is one pivotal scene:

Even an exploding head, though, doesn't make a film a classic...

Rating: 7/10

Guns: Reactive Targets

I suppose this is a follow-up/complement to my previous post. I still think paper targets are the best for training, and that they provide the best feedback about where the bullets are actually going.

Truth be told, however, it's a little underwhelming to just punch holes in paper if you don't have any prior interest in shooting. Hollywood conditions people to expect gunshots to rip chunks out of concrete, generate enormous sparks off of metal, and to knock people back twenty feet. Seeing a little puff come off the berm after hitting it with a .30-06 seems a bit tame in comparison.

My favorite reactive targets are milk jugs filled with water. They're cheap, cleanup is easy, and they make fairly satisfying explosions.

Second on the list are breakable items like clays and such. Whether placed on a berm or thrown in the air, they are good targets available at most stores that carry shotguns. Warning: fancy shooting below -

It must be reiterated here - don't shoot glass bottles or containers. It's not only kinda unsafe, but it's a pain to clean up.

School: Meet the Professors, summer edition

I'm taking a couple of interesting classes over the summer...
"Criminal Procedure: Police Practices" is taught by Professor Baldwin, who received his JD from the University of Georgia, an LLM from Yale, and an LLM from the University of Illinois. He is one of those professors from whom you always sense a bemused antipathy from; he always expresses amazement that we haven't learned about this case or that case in Criminal Law. The class itself concerns the various limits on police and criminal proceedings - searches, seizures, IAC challenges, interrogation, surveillance, the whole nine yards.

"Antitrust Law" is basically a look at a hundred years of Supreme Court Sherman and Clayton Act jurisprudence, with Professor Harrison as our guide. Professor Harrison received a Ph.D. from UF and a JD from the University of North Carolina. He's been teaching for nearly 40 years, and it shows - he has a great manner in the classroom, never hesitating to sketch stuff out on the board. I always look forward to Antitrust class.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

News: Ultraviolence

Today's Internet storm for video gamers was provoked by the recent announcements that "Manhunt 2" will be essentially banned in the UK and will probably be rated "Adults Only" in the U.S. (The "AO" rating is basically a kiss of death, as Wally World and other big box retailers generally don't sell AO-rated games). The controversy stems from the violent in-game executions that the main character of the game performs.

The distinction between video games and movies being shown here borders on nonsensical. How can movies like "Saw III" and "Hostel 2," which feature plenty of disturbing graphic violence, be released as "R" movies and sold in "family-friendly" establishments, when "Manhunt 2" can't? How can "unrated" DVDs regularly feature on mainstream store shelves, while "Manhunt 2" will be absent?

I was actually looking forward to this game, especially since I could play it on my Nintendo Wii. On the Wii version, when you execute people, you actually have to pantomime the hand motions with your controller. So if you're sawing a guy's leg off, for example, you make a sawing motion with the Wii remote. Yes, it's sick and disturbing - but it's also a game. Not reality. Most people can tell the difference.

Here's a preview:

Miscellany: Call of Cthulhu

I can't believe I've gone all this time without encountering the classic horror roleplaying game, "Call of Cthulhu." Based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, "Call of Cthulhu" pits players against otherworldly horrors and mysterious cults (which are all part of an overarching "Cthulhu Mythos"). First released in 1981, CoC is now in its 6th edition, and it has become one of the horror RPGs against which all others are measured.

Unlike superpowered combatfests like D&D and V:TM, CoC's characters are ordinary people with human abilities...and human frailties. A single lucky shotgun blast from a crazed cultist can end a character's life. Death also comes quickly against the godlike monsters described in the CoC game manual - often the goal is not to kill an enemy, but merely to escape from it or thwart its plans.

The most significant part of the CoC experience is Sanity. In addition to the usual hit points and magic points, all CoC characters have a limited supply of Sanity points. Sanity is lost as your character encounters awful monsters and gory sights. Lose enough Sanity points and your character becomes temporarily insane - fainting spells, overwhelming fear, seizures - the possibilities are only limited by your imagination. Lose 20% of your Sanity, and your character goes indefinitely insane; he or she acquires a psychological ailment (examples include extreme claustrophobia, multiple personality disorder, substance abuse) that lasts until treated with psychoanalysis or drugs. Lose all your Sanity, and the character goes permanently insane, with basically no hope of recovery.

There rules of the game aren't perfect. The inevitable slide into madness might make for fun roleplaying, but sometimes players can get too cavalier about their characters, confident that they'll be able to roll up new characters anyway. You never truly get the sense your character is advancing, because no matter how many mysteries your investigator has solved, he or she will never be a match for even the lowliest of the Great Old Ones. But, while humanity may never be able to triumph over these creatures, it's fun to give it a try.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Links: Superdickery

There's really not much I can explain about Superdickery, a site that offers tons of strange and funny comic book covers. Perhaps an image is in order?...

Movies: Waitress

[My Mom has been wanting to see this movie for awhile, so we all went on the night before Father's Day. The other people in the theatre were fairly rude (how hard is it to be quiet during a movie?), and at times it was difficult to concentrate on the film. I've taken this into account in my rating.]

"Waitress" is sort of like "Felicity" meets "Like Water For Chocolate" - sex, love, and self-awareness all set against the backdrop of lots and lots of pie-baking. Keri Russell plays Jenna, a small-town waitress stuck in a horrible marriage. When she finds out that she's pregnant and that her doctor (played by Nathan "Still looking for a steady job after Firefly" Fillion) is falling in love with her, hijinks ensue.

I'm probably not the target audience for such a film, but I mostly liked it. There's some subtle humor, and the characters are more than just one-note caricatures. Jenna's awful husband, for example, is alternately domineering and pitiful, making him more than just a straight villain. The various relationships that are highlighted in the movie are often comical, but they do say something about the nature of love and happiness.

The movie does slightly overstay its welcome. I wish the plot was tightened up, and the forces holding Jenna down in her life are never fully portrayed. In a side note, writer/director Adrienne Shelly (who also plays a substantial supporting role in the movie) was apparently murdered before the film premiered at Sundance. If "Waitress" is any indication of what her future was going to be like, than the loss is even harder to take.

Rating: 8/10

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Guns: The Double Action Trigger

I have to admit, for the longest time, I was leery of the double action trigger (or "DA trigger" for short). DA triggers are mostly found these days on revolvers, as most of the world has adopted single action or pseudo single action triggers in their handguns. It wasn't until I realized that my ideal pocket carry gun was a DA-only revolver that I dedicated myself to trying to learn how to shoot the DA trigger properly.

In truth, trigger control is fairly consistent across all trigger types. Align the sights, and press back on the trigger far enough for the hammer to fall, all while trying not to move any of the other fingers in your hand except the trigger finger. Simple, right? But the first time I took out my S&W 642, I had trouble nailing an 8" wide target at 10 yards. Something was decidedly different here than with a standard single action trigger.

That something is movement. While most single action triggers "break" after reaching a certain pressure, there is no such defining point in the DA pull. I don't believe the weight of the trigger pull has anything to do with it - a 12 lb single action trigger would still be easier to learn than a DA trigger, simply because there's less movement involved. The "dime trick," putting a dime across the top of the barrel of the gun and dry-firing without the dime falling off, is a good exercise. Even better is simply dry-firing at a stationary target and seeing how much the front sight moves during the pull.

I don't agree with those who instruct people to "stage" the trigger of a DA gun (that is, pull on the trigger slowly and stop midway, holding it there until you press harder for the final release). First of all, a good DA trigger shouldn't really "stage" at all - an ideal DA would be buttery smooth and free of any hitches when depressing and releasing the trigger. Second, staging is much slower than learning how to shoot properly, and in a defense situation, you'll want to shoot as quickly and accurately as possible.

Tech: A Text-Based Adventure Retrospective

Nowadays they're called "interactive fiction," but text-based adventures are some of the oldest computer games around. Back before polygons and sophisticated Dolby 5.1 sound, and even before VGA graphics and stereo sound, these games allowed players to explore entire virtual worlds created by talented game designers - all without showing a single visual or auditory cue except for the stark lines of text flowing across the screen. This post is sort of my tip of the hat to anyone who's ever stared at a command line, imagining where to go next.

The most iconic of these adventures, and one of the first, is Zork. It begins evocatively:

From this starting point, you can explore an underground empire, its rich history, and its famous denizens (the grue, in particular, is one of the best examples of mounting tension and area denial ever conceived). Simple commands like "Get book" and "Drink potion" allow all sorts of possibilites, including complicated puzzles.

Further games would become even more elaborate. While the commercial era of interactive fiction ended many decades ago, people are still making stories within the genre, some of them rivaling printed novels in terms of plot depth and complexity. The (sorta) famous XYZZY Awards commemorate the best of these new IF authors. While there's always a need for innovative play mechanics, a good story will always save mediocre gameplay, and not the other way around.

I suppose the latest evolution in the text-based game is the MUD. Analogous to modern MMORPGs but with far less graphical overhead, MUDs allow many users at a time to communicate and adventure in a common environment. Though SecondLife and other "virtual worlds" get more press, the MUD is, at its core, the same idea. I sort of view the Internet itself as a twisting maze of text-based challenges.

Actually, the first computer program I ever wrote was a text adventure (more like a "choose your own adventure" book, actually, in that you were limited in your choices). It was a simple little affair in line-numbered BASIC that took you through haunted woods and across rickety bridges. I miss it terribly - never should have deleted it.

School: Yeah, who didn't see that coming?

The Duke lacrosse team prosecutor has been disbarred for ethics violations. This is a punishment the prosecutor actually supported in a good old-fashioned bout of mea culpa. Now the families of the lacrosse team members are pushing for criminal charges.

In this case, the facts are fairly clear (even Nifong himself admitted to them), and they might indeed support criminal charges. Disbarment is a great penalty to a lawyer, to be sure, but my libertarian streak compels me to take this position: any misuse of the machinery of government and the vast forces of the state, in bad faith, must be punished severely. Society should not offer succor to dishonest people, and this goes doubly to dishonest people in power.

One of my friends from undergrad is attending law school at a fairly famous institution right now. When I described P.R., he seemed fascinated and also somewhat surprised. I asked him if he was required to take an ethics course - he said he wasn't. In my experience, taking a legal ethics class in the first year is one of the few great decisions my law school has made. I wonder if Nifong ever took one?...

TV: World's Wildest Narrative

One thing the Youtube generation sometimes misses out on is the addition of narrative. With a voiceover presiding over the events of video captured in real life, sometimes the effect of the video is enhanced. Many times a narrator has unintentional side-effects to the subject he narrates, making it seem funnier, more absurd, or more compelling than it actually is. One of those narrators is Sheriff John Bunnell, of "World's Wildest Police Videos."

Here's a small example of his work:

This should be a funny video, right? I mean, the images themselves are funny. And yet Bunnell's narration is so overboiled and trying-to-be-funny that it pushes the video back into unfunny land. This is a rare gift, and it must be cherished.

And that's not the end of it. If you're familiar at all with the show, you know that the entire unfunny cow commentary is actually a beat-for-beat recreation of the usual overboiled commentary that accompanies felony suspects. So in essence, I believe what we have here is unfunny self-parody, which is actually funny.

I'm overthinking this.

Happy Father's Day

I'm very grateful for everything my Dad has done for me. He's at once my biggest rival and my closest friend. Here's Dad on parenting (somewhat paraphrased):

"I wish babies came with a manual. While I was raising you, I never had any idea how things would turn out. I never knew if what I was doing was right or wrong. The day you were born was the scariest day of my life."

Like most sons, though, I can't imagine how Dad could have done a better job. While in my youth we didn't talk nearly as much as we do today (it's hard to have a meaningful conversation when there's a huge intellectual and experiential gulf between two people), he always guided me on how to treat people through his actions. He loves Mom, he earns an honest living, and he cares about the world and the people around him. By any standard, he is a great man and an exceptional Dad.

This holiday, like Mother's Day, is another relatively recent creation. And while some may not like the rampant commercialization ("Dads and Grads"), I firmly believe that a good father is an essential role model for both sons and daughters. So, spending one day a year to salute fathers seems appropriate.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Movies: The People Under the Stairs

While attending last year's Halloween Horror Nights, I noticed that they had a "People Under The Stairs"-themed haunted house. The actual haunted house was okay - though I don't like houses that plunge you into perpetual darkness since it makes it hard to see the craftsmanship and detail of the house itself. The most compelling part of the attraction, though, was the fact that the most evocative clips from the movie were played nonstop while we waited in line.

"The People Under the Stairs" is one part "Home Alone," one part "Goonies," and two parts "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," splashed with a dab of early '90s Spike Lee social consciousness. It's almost like horror master Wes Craven took a bet on the weirdest movie he could make, and then made it. The events of the film offer a good illustration of escalating weirdness.

There are some problems. In the latter parts of the film, you feel less like you're watching a gory live-action fairy tale and more like you're seeing a "Home Alone" sequel. The story never feels cohesive, so it's difficult even after a recent viewing to describe the actual "plot" of the movie. Basically, you can sum up the premise as "kid gets stuck in scary house with deranged individuals inside."

Thankfully, the child actors do a decent job in the movie, especially "Fool," the protagonist. It's sometimes rare in a horror/thriller to have a truly sympathetic main character - who hasn't found Hannibal more compelling than Clarice, or Freddy cooler than the people he kills? Here, though, Fool's coming-of-age journey and endless heroism are never boring for the audience.

Rating: 7/10

Miscellany: Wahaha

A segment posted from my favorite video gaming podcast/community, There's nothing better than being able to waste time on the Web with videos like this. "I'm having a cucumber day!"

Friday, June 15, 2007

Sports: UglyBall

The San Antonio Spurs defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers yesterday night, sweeping the best-of-seven series and winning their fourth NBA championship.

It wasn't pretty.

The commentators from ESPN seemed to dance around what was being shown on screen - a fairly poor display of basketball from most of the players, at least on the Cavs' side. LeBron James, heir apparent to Air Jordan himself, cannot beat an entire team alone. It seemed every time James kicked it out to someone else on his team who was wide-open, the teammate rewarded James' unselfishness by throwing up a brick.

Tim Duncan, though he brought his usual effort and dedication, looked discombobulated against Varejao. His usual array of post moves and jump hooks were mostly off for the evening. Even the much-ballyhooed defense of Bruce Bowen looked a bit suspect - Bowen's tendency to sag dared James to shoot fairly open midrange jumpers. It was only the fact that James himself struggled so mightily in every game of the series that kept the Spurs' strategy from backfiring.

But, as the coaches always say, "a win is a win." Although I'm really more of a Rockets and Heat fan, I grew up during the "Twin Towers" era of Spurs basketball, and seeing David Robinson in a cream-colored suit next to Tim Duncan produced a wave of nostalgia.

Guns: Housework, Initial Thoughts

Given how much time most people spend indoors, there's a good chance that if you ever need to defend yourself with a firearm, it'll be inside a building. People have written books and taught entire courses dealing with fighting in such spaces, mostly driven by the fact that the armed forces and police have to deal with these types of situations all the time. I'm neither a soldier or a cop, and I've never participated in a gunfight, thankfully, but I'm familiar with some of the theory. More able readers, feel free to correct me where I'm wrong. :-)

I've heard from nearly all sources that clearing a house is dangerous and difficult. If you don't have anyone to help you, it's nearly impossible to do so safely. The average residence or office building has a lot of concealment to offer anyone waiting to ambush you. The police and military go into such places because it's their job; if given a choice, it's definitely better to sit tight in one place, gun in hand, and call 911. Sometimes, though, you don't have a choice - you have to move through a dwelling in order to secure a loved one.

Common sense tells us that concealment is everywhere - sofas, desks, kitchen islands, you name it. The odd thing here is that the closer you get to an obstacle, the less you see. While your first instinct might be to hunker down behind a couch like in an action movie, it's actually often safer to stay away from such obstructions, lest you get pinned down and trapped without any way of easily knowing what's going on. Additionally, the further away you are from an obstacle, the less area behind said obstacle a bad guy can use to hide from you.

I use "concealment" because very few places in a home provide actual "cover." Most indoor walls and doors don't do anything to stop bullets. I'm not sure how many people have sandbags or engine blocks in their living rooms, but suffice it to say not much is going to stop any shots fired, especially rifle rounds.

While I do believe training for indoor fighting is extremely desirable, not everyone can afford or even attend such things. I'm also convinced spending a few days in a shoot house somewhere is no substitute for regular, monthly practice. I'm not sure of the best way to achieve such a thing - the much-vilified AirSoft? Water pistols? Imagination?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

News: Virginia Tech Massacre Aftershocks

Hot on the heels of a new bill that supposedly fixes the "holes" in the NICS record system, we have the release of the killer's mental health records to a gubernatorial panel. Personally, I'm not sure what such investigations are supposed to turn up - IIRC there were lengthy investigations into the backgrounds of the Columbine killers and other spree shooters, but obviously the murders haven't stopped. It's impossible to assess the mental health of everyone at all times. Maybe we should all just wear buttons labeling us "sane."

Also of interest is a Gamasutra article dealing with the making of video games about mass murders. "Super Columbine Massacre RPG" gained some notoriety some years ago, but the game's overall message and fairly deep research make it a good example of how games can positively raise questions about the nature and goals of violent media and violent people. Someone, however, made a game about the VA Tech murders but did not invest the time and energy to say anything of relevance.

I think video games may eventually be accepted as an art form, but only if more games like "Super Columbine Massacre RPG" are made. No one blinks an eye when Gus Van Sant directs "Elephant," and yet ultimately I think playing through the video game and being forced to "play out" the roles of the killers may teach us more. Somehow, though, I'm sure we'll never learn enough to completely stop all the killers in the world.

Food: Publix

If you're not from the southeast part of the U.S., you probably have never shopped at a Publix supermarket. Refreshingly, grocery store chains tend to be regional. I can count the times I've shopped at Food Lion or Piggly Wiggly on one hand, for example. Publix started in Lakeland, Florida, more than 75 years ago, and it's still going strong. My family's been shopping there for over 25 years.

The average Publix is, frankly, a step up from most supermarkets. The stores are well lit and clean, and the prices, while not the cheapest, are never expensive enough to matter. The company's won numerous awards and places high in most consumer satisfaction indices. Publix dominates the Florida market, with over 600 stores in the state.

Part of the success of the retailer is due to the food, of course. Publix fried chicken compares favorably to most fast-food joints and even some restaurants. The quality of the dairy and deli products is pretty good, and even the generic "Publix" branded foods (dry spaghetti, yogurt, you name it) are often as good as their name-brand counterparts.

In truth, though, much of Publix's popularity is because of its advertising. Publix has some of the slickest TV ads I've ever seen, from any company. Check out some of them below:

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Movies: The Faculty

Ever see the end of a movie, only to watch the movie in its entirety many years later? "The Faculty," directed by Robert Rodriguez and written by Kevin Williamson, is one of those movies that I just caught the tail end of on TV. Starring perennial girly-man Elijah Wood, the movie ends with a typical big dumb CGI sequence (complete with a one-liner delivered by Frodo himself). Thankfully, the rest of the movie is a passable take on the sci-fi/horror alien takeover theme.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then there's a lot of flattery here. To be fair, the script is certainly self-aware; much like "Scream," Williamson's other major foray into horror, the characters are aware of the "rules" and figure that into the plan. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "The Puppet Masters" are both mentioned and described in the movie, so in truth "The Faculty" is more like a pastiche or homage than a blatant cash-in.

Still, the lifts from the aforementioned movies, as well as a beat-for-beat remake of the famous blood test scene from "The Thing," start to feel a little, well, cheap. I can only take so much meta-sci-fi before I start going for the door. To make matters worse, most of the high-school scenes ring a bit false. I can understand playing around with the typical high-school stereotypes, but at times the characters sound like they're acting out a deleted scene from "Dawson's Creek."

Experienced character actors like Robert Patrick and Bebe Neuwirth anchor the movie, thankfully. The young stars, including Josh "My voice is a cheerless monotone" Hartnett, are uneven, but form a competent ensemble. If you have a choice, either the 1958 or 1978 versions of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is better than this movie, but it's a decent flick to pass the time.

Rating: 7/10

Miscellany: Comic books and me

I was never really a huge reader of traditional American comic books in my youth. I did have a few issues of Marvel's "Robocop" series and a couple of the "Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight" series (specifically, the "Prey" storyline featuring the twisted Dr. Hugo Strange), but my main focus in those days was reading good old-fashioned books, along with healthy doses of Calvin & Hobbes.

This changed a bit as I aged. For one thing, most of the comic books were being collected in convenient graphic novel format, great for reading on the run. With the help of the local library, I read many of the seminal works in modern mainstream comics - "Watchmen," "The Dark Knight Returns," and more. I found that movie adaptations usually pale in comparison to the writing and artwork found in most of these classics (compare both versions of "From Hell" and you'll want to kick the screenwriters in the nuts).

However, while visiting "All-Star Comics," a dedicated comics shop tucked in the corner of a strip mall, I was dismayed to learn that comic books are in trouble. While manga is as popular as ever, the mainstream superhero comics are attracting fewer readers. This is occurring even as people flock to "Spider-Man 3" to the tune of 150 million dollars. Why someone would pony up $7 for a movie ticket and not $2.50 for a comic book featuring the same characters or $10 for a 200 page, full-color graphic novel is puzzling to me.

Books: Crime and Puzzlement

It's a messy thing to write for the teenage crowd. On one hand, you must appeal to the sensibilities of youth - plots must be toned down, characters have to be laundered slightly, and the pacing of a work often has to be sped up for youngsters with short attention spans. When executed correctly, however, fiction for young adults is able to transcend its boundaries and appeal to everyone (see classic novels like The Giver, for example).

"Crime and Puzzlement" is a neat little series of puzzle books from mystery writer Lawrence Treat (and a few different artists over the course of the series), and it has the ineffable quality of being entertaining for all ages. Each puzzle consists of a picture loaded with clues, a few paragraphs describing the crime, and several questions to aid young sleuths. While many of the crimes are sordid, the tone of the writing and artwork is lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek, so it's not too intense even for elementary school kids.

Some of the puzzles require a few probable (and not-so-probable) deductions, but when you figure out the essential nature of the "gimmick" for each puzzle, the crime often unfolds in clockwork fashion. Unfortunately, the books are hard to find nowadays in book stores - in a youth market that is rapidly becoming crowded with me-too "Harry Potter" rip-offs, it's getting harder for good old puzzles I suppose.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Guns: A CZ-75 History & Tribute

(Note: much of this info comes from the historical brochure "CZ 75: The Birth of a Legend" which you can order from CZ-USA)

The CZ-75 pistol is a fascinating product of geopolitics and human ingenuity. Around fifty years ago, the Communist Party leadership of Czechoslovakia realized that in times of slow military production, export sales to Western Europe would be crucial in maintaining the quality of their arms factories. The call went out from foreign customers for a new defensive sidearm in 9mm Luger. With only this vague specification, the chief designer of the CZ-75, František Koucký, partially aided by his brother Josef and the other personnel at the Uherský Brod arms factory, got to work.

Initially, František Koucký conceived that the 75 would be a single-stack, lightweight 9mm pocket pistol carrying eight rounds (foreshadowing later developments like the Kahr line of pistols). The Ministry of Foreign Trade, however, mandated that the 75 have a "high-capacity" magazine. The first prototypes of the gun were single-action only, but they still carried the distinctive slide/frame cuts and internal rail system that the current CZ-75 bears.

Throughout its development, the basic shape of the gun would change little. The operating system, however, was another story. The basic single-action system was augmented with a double-action trigger that could be accessed by manually decocking the pistol. Thus, the user of a CZ-75 has the choice of an cocked hammer locked by an external safety lever, and an uncocked hammer controlled by a heavy trigger (but thus no need to operate the safety).

In American Handgunner's review of the CZ P-01, the latest CZ-75 variant, they compare its curves and angles with those of a Frank Lloyd Wright chair - "it just looks right." Surprisingly, this isn't far off base - Koucký got some assistance from an architect named František Crhák, who helped fine-tune the distinctive curves of the gun. It's clear, however, that in the end František Koucký was the guiding force in CZ-75 development.

Mass production of the CZ-75 would begin in 1977. Literally half a dozen imitators and copycat designs were produced in other countries (some of these would develop followings of their own, particularly the Jericho 941 and the Bren Ten). In the past thirty years, even CZ itself made many small changes to the design, including the addition of a firing pin block and various tweaks to some of the components. The core of the pistol, though - its SA/DA trigger, its internal rail design, and the contours of the frame and slide - remained the same.

The CZ-75 was the first serious handgun I ever bought. It was something of an unknown quantity at the time for me. I had heard good reviews from the gun forums, but I essentially bought the gun trusting to its reputation. I didn't know it at the time, but the 75's unique trigger system is just about ideal for a pistol newbie - you get to try out cocked-and-locked carry and double-action carry all with the same gun.

10,000 rounds later, and I find my faith has been well-placed. That first CZ-75B is still with me, though its duties as primary CCW and nightstand gun have been taken over by the P-01. A new CZ-75B, bought today from a gun store for about $500, is about as well-thought out as a 9mm pistol can be. The controls are in logical places, the pistol is comfortable to carry and shoot, and it's as accurate a mass-produced autoloader as you'll find.

That's not to say it's a perfect gun. Candor is required for any true tribute, and I have to say, on all the CZs I've ever encountered, the extractor springs have needed replacement. CZ's various springs and parts fail as do all mechanical devices. Perhaps the biggest praise I can give my CZ, though, is that it's held up through all my years of ham-handed amateur gunsmithing.

A lot of things have changed since the CZ-75 was created. Czechoslovakia is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and many other 9mms (most of them polymer-framed) crowd the marketplace. But one thing hasn't changed - if you need to defend yourself or your loved ones from violent attack, there aren't too many pistols that'll do a "better" job than the CZ-75. Here's some footage of the latest 75 variant, the SP-01, in action:

Books: Gunsmith Cats

Fan·ser·vice \fanˈsɜrvɪs\ n [origin unknown]

1 : Elements of a plot (usually in manga or anime) designed to excite or titillate the viewer, with little or no relation to the story as a whole
2: Gunsmith Cats, by Kenichi Sonoda

Maybe I'm being a little unfair, but "Gunsmith Cats" is one of those manga series that is hard to take seriously. Just look at the two (female) protagonists - Rally Vincent, an expert driver and world-class marksman who also happens to be a good-looking brunette, and Minnie May, a 17 year-old explosives expert who easily passes for a 10 year-old girl (this part of her character is probably the most unsettling - she engages in some near-explicit sex acts during the series which were edited out of the U.S. release IIRC). Rally operates a gun shop, but really the two are dedicated bounty hunters, and the books invariably deal with their pursuits and the fallout that these pursuits generate.

That's not to say it's bad. There's nothing wrong with watching two bounty hunters engage in car chases, gunfights, and the occasional bout of slapstick humor. Everything, from the classic American muscle cars (though the author seems to have a Ford fetish :-P) to the various guns the characters use, is lovingly detailed and obsessively researched. Rally's CZ-75 pistol in particular is incredibly realistic. This is especially impressive considering the author is stuck in Japan where firearms are illegal for common people to possess.

But, aside from the rock 'em-sock 'em action scenes, the bounty hunting and emotional entaglements the pair get involved in (there are some recurring friends and enemies) are only average. Still, it's worth taking a look at if only for the visceral pleasure of the images.