Tuesday, July 31, 2007

TV: Swans Crossing

[Part of my "Memories of Grandma" series]

As tempting as it is to idealize the time I spent with my Grandma, there were certainly rough patches. The main problem for a young kid back in those days was boredom. There were a lot of hours in the day to occupy, and video games only went so far. I was a lazy kid, and the neighborhood around the house was kinda rough, so I watched my share of TV.

One of the most airheaded confections I saw was "Swans Crossing," a half-hour soap opera for teens that starred a young Sarah Michelle Gellar as the scheming character she would later fully embrace in "All My Children" and "Cruel Intentions." It was a guilty pleasure, especially for a young boy, and Grandma never kept me from watching it. And as other soap operas, primetime and otherwise, have proven, watching rich people lie and cheat on each other never gets old if you're in the right frame of mind.

I think the premises for the episodes, like a lot of soap operas, became progressively weirder as time went on. You can only trip over your father's grave so many times...

Guns: A Stupid Idea

While I'm here in Houston visiting Grandma, it's almost inevitable that I come across the infamous "30.06 signs," which are supposed to read:


The purpose of these signs is to disarm, by definition, law-abiding citizens who have a valid CHL. To me, these are the silliest signs in the world. The fact that some businesses waste money etching this on their front window glass is even more asinine. You might as well put up a sign saying, "No Criminals Allowed" for all the good it's going to do.

The "No Guns, No Money" cards are a good way to fight such foolishness.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Food: Red Baron Pizza

[Part of my "Memories of Grandma" series]

I was a picky eater when I was young. During those summers I spent in Houston, Grandma would pretty much be the only adult looking after me for the entire day. Lunch usually came down to three staples - hot dogs (usually Ballpark franks), Campbell's Chunky soup, and Red Baron pizza.

Red Baron pizza was unique because you could nuke the darn things. It came in those little paper crisping stands, two to a box. I used to love eating those pizzas. Nowadays, the only frozen pizza brand I eat is DiGiorno's, and even then, only once in a blue moon. Those things aren't good for you at all.

Miscellany: Waiting Room Games

The waiting room of an ICU can be a rough place for a kid. While visiting and looking after Grandma, we had to spend many hours alone in there, all with several children under 10 years old. Here's some of the activities I came up with to pass the time:

1) The Category Game - A simple little exercise that you've probably played under a different name. One side comes up with a category ("Name 10 fruits") and the other side races to name things in the category as fast as possible. Best if someone has a watch.

2) Bocce Shoe - A variation of standard bocce, using shoes. Competitors throw their shoes towards a designated target approximately 10-15 yards away - closest wins. You can use the second shoe to collide with your opponents' efforts. Obviously not a game for confined or crowded spaces.

3) Cellphone Musical Chairs - Musical chairs is usually not a game that you could play impromptu, but the advent of cellphone ringtones has changed that. Using your ringtone list as a repository of songs, have the contestants play musical chairs - when the music stops, whoever's left standing is out.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Tech: My first video game console

[Part of my "Memories of Grandma" series]

I remember the speculation the most. That big present under the tree at Grandma and Grandpa's house - what could it be? I dared to dream it might be a Nintendo, the one thing I really wanted that Christmas. Alternately the box was too large, too small, too fat, too thin - my probing guesses at its contents were futile.

When the big moment finally arrived, I cartwheeled (sort of), jumped up and down, and generally went crazy over the darn thing. In today's era of stripped down consoles, the idea of a console package that contained 2 controllers, 2 games, and a frickin' light gun must be foreign. I nearly fell over myself thanking my grandparents.

My reaction was even mroe enthusiastic than these two:

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Leaving...On a jet plane...

...Don't know when I'll be back again.

I hate to type it, but it looks like Grandma really is going to pass away. Her kidney has gotten better (which stunned the doctors) but she's still on a ventilator, and rather than drag it out, everybody's coming in to say goodbye. I'm flying out to Houston, with the rest of my family to follow.

I booked the ticket, but it's somewhat surprising that the "bereavement and compassion" fare discount is so vanishingly small (5% in my case). I guess I can't blame the airlines, since checking out each and every traveler's bereavement claim could cost a bundle, but 5% really isn't even worth the trouble.

Anyway, I'll be in Houston for the better part of two weeks, so blogging obviously will take a back seat. I'll probably post incessantly about the memories I have of Grandma...

Friday, July 27, 2007

Miscellany: Checkers has been solved, or "This book is pretty much worthless to me now"

Perfect information strategy games with no random elements are ideal fodder for computers. One of the greatest human talents, pattern recognition, is used every time a player evaluates a position, so these kinds of games provide good workouts for these algorithms. While there are some games that are so complex (Go, for example) that computers still lag far behind human beings, as of July 2007, checkers is not one of them.

This is sad, in a way, that there is no human being that can possibly beat this computer at checkers. I guess the next time I'm in a school playroom, I'll see the red and black checkerboard with some faint tinge of wistfulness for all the children who will play the game that isn't much of a game any more.

In one way, this discovery has already obsoleted the book "Win at Checkers," a neat little treasure trove of checkers strategy and trivia by Millard Hopper. I loved the author's quaint, almost idealistic belief that checkers could promote peace and brotherhood among men. The numerous diagrams and tactical puzzles remain in my mind, because checkers, among all the Western strategy games, is about controlled sacrifice of your own men.

Movies: Red Eye

I've seen a lot of Wes Craven's work, from the early stuff like "The Last House on the Left" right up to today's entry, "Red Eye," starring Rachel McAdams. What strikes me most about Craven's movies is the perfection of the early acts and setup. Other horror directors are better at all-out carnage, gore, or even pitched scenes of suspense, but Craven can "set up" a movie with the best of them (actually, come to think of it, Hitchcock was superb at that, too - look at the first ten minutes of "Lifeboat").

Unfortunately, "Red Eye" is mostly great setup without actual payoff. The beginning scenes, with Cillian Murphy playing a strange, intense, but appealing stranger, are easily the best part of the movie. You sense an uneasiness behind Murphy's eyes and mannerisms, which makes the eventual revealing of the thriller/suspense plot easy to swallow. The plot itself, at least in the beginning, exploits the confines of the plane and the irony of being all alone in a crowded airliner.

But the movie doesn't do much with this material. The body count is low, and the killer's menace is ultimately deflated early in the movie's third act. If you're going to make a movie about a stranger on a plane, you better keep the action on the plane for as long as possible. And that's why "Red Eye" is a commercially successful but ultimately hollow entry in Craven's career.

Rating: 5/10

Here's a funny recut trailer - the movie would've worked as a straight romance, crazily enough:

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Miscellany: Blogging Philosophy

The indefatigable Tam started up yet another new blog, the subject matter of which is classic computer stuff. This is a good example of what I call the "divide and conquer" approach to blogging - split each topic of discussion into its own separate blog. This way, people who are only interested in one subject can focus in on all the posts about that subject, making for a more coherent and orderly experience.

You might have noticed that Shangrila Towers is not structured that way. ;-)

Though a single-topic approach is certainly fine, I admit that I like reading a blog without knowing what's coming up next. An examination of the pottery of southern India? Reviews of new varieties of bubble gum? A dirty joke? Too often Internet writing can get self-important and sullen. Then again, you can become too zany and off-kilter, as well. It's tough sometimes, balancing between life's miseries and joys.

TV: Secret World of Haute Couture

I know zilch about fashion, and that's probably why I found "Secret World of Haute Couture," a BBC documentary, to be entertaining. There's something bizarrely fascinating about taking a peak into the lives of a small, secretive bunch of people, and it becomes even better when said group is ultra rich. Here, Margy Kinmouth looks at the exclusive "club" of women who sit in the front rows of the Parisian haute couture fashion shows. They snap up expensive dress after expensive dress - some with six figure price tags.

The documentary presents an interesting portrait of haute couture, past and present. Most of the women who make up the buyer's "club" are trophy wives, who married into their wealth. And the reverence they display for their favored designers borders on cultlike; Paris becomes the Vatican, with the catwalk as a cathedral. This is way more fancy than "ready-to-wear" fashion - sort of a Saville Row for the women.

Average construction time for a single piece is around 150 hours. No machines, just lots of lots of stitching and sewing by hand. Most of the time, haute couture actually loses money for the houses that design and produce it - they make much more money off the non-custom, mass-produced fashion lines (analogous to auto companies who produce high-end sports cars for the prestige value alone). All in all, a rarefied world for the phenomenally rich.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Miscellany: Toucan Sam, member of an endangered species

When I was a kid, it was pretty obvious that heavily sugared cereals like "Fruit Loops" or "Cocoa Krispies" just couldn't be good for you. Good Lord, they turned the milk into different colors. Nowadays, though, I guess kids (or, more likely, their parents) are too ignorant or indifferent to this basic fact. Some are growing up fat. The threat of government regulation and lawsuits has prompted food makers to curtail their advertising.

Toucan Sam and Cap'n Crunch are some of the more recent casualties of this phenomenon - animated food mascots appealing to children will soon be as verboten as a beer company airing ads during Spongebob Squarepants. It's sad when obesity is blamed on the food and not the consumer of that food, and it's doubly sad when this has the consequence of destroying some memorable spokesmen. I hope they don't move on to Ronald McDonald and the Coca-Cola polar bears.

Guns: CMP Garands, a dying breed

My grandmother's illness has reminded me of the old saying that begins with, "All good things..." That sentiment not only applies to beloved relatives, but also to classic rifles - and in this case, a particular supply of those rifles. For many years, the Civilian Marksmanship Program sold surplus M1 Garands - most were incredible values, considering the prices being paid for modern day Springfield Armory knock-offs.

Granted, the CMP Garands aren't new rifles or anything close to them. In fact, many show significant wear, even compared to other surplus rifles. But the M1 has a hallowed place in gunnie culture - when an American gun owner looks back at WWII, they think of the 8-round, semiautomatic rifle chambered in .30-06:

Like any kind of surplus sale, however, supply ebbs and flows. It does seem, though, that the rifles are getting harder and harder to find, and the suspension of all orders until sometime in Fall 2007 just bears that fact out. If you have any interest at all in these rifles, it's probably best to buy them now, rather than later.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Politics: Leopards never really change their spots, I suppose

The CNN-Youtube Democratic Debate recently was pretty blah - all the questions were filtered anyway, so there was none of the impromptu anarchy present in the real World Wide Web. Most telling for the purposes of this blog was the question on gun control. Watch Richardson and Biden respond:

Bill Richardson is representative of the "new look" Dems who realize tighter gun restrictions cost votes while never really gaining them anything in return. He stays away from calling for any more bans, which is refreshing and better than a certain Republican candidate. Of course, he has no real shot at the nomination.

Biden's response, which garnered applause from the crowd, is disturbing. The gun owner here was obviously hamming it up a bit when he referred to his AR-15 as his baby (engaging in a bit of misdirection - "it's for the children" is the usual refrain of the gun grabbers), but Biden's first instinct is to trivialize him and question his sanity. Seems he supports another so-called "assault weapons" ban, along with Feinstein and her ilk. Does Biden talk for the Democratic party leadership? It seems so, at least to me.

A Belated Birthday

My parents are troopers. Even on the very day my Mom was scheduled to fly out to attend to my Grandma, she offered to take me shopping for a (late) birthday present - a briefcase, mostly for when I'd have to interview with law firms. I accepted, knowing shopping would take her mind off of things. Keep in mind, though, that the only thing I know about briefcases comes from TV and the movies:

Anyway, we visited a few places in the mall, and it was painfully evident that no one sells traditional hard-sided briefcases any more. Much more prevalent was the soft bag style of briefcase, which I suppose is easier to shovel a laptop into (but I already have a laptop bag). The few briefcases in stock were pretty cheap-looking.

Why a briefcase? My Dad has been carrying the same faded brown briefcase for the past couple of decades, with no end in sight. There's a certain romanticism involved with carrying on the family tradition. Moreover, I always thought that's what lawyers carried. The times, they are a-changing.

Miscellany: The easiest job in the world

In times of crisis and sadness, you can always count on your friends to cheer you up. Last week, I visited a couple of my buddies (who have summer jobs in the computer lab of a commuity college) in order to get my mind off of things. I also got a lot of my JTLP competition cases printed up.

My friends have the easiest job in the world. They sit inside an air-conditioned, spacious computer lab all day helping people print or finagle the settings in Microsoft Word. When no one is using the lab, they have free reign. We even played a three-player deathmatch session of Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force for almost an hour before being disturbed.

Even more surprising, the community college in question doesn't care that my friends goof off when no one's in the lab, because it doesn't affect their performance as lab assistants. Sometimes, the lab is commandeered for an orientation and my friends get hours and hours to do whatever, on the college's dime. They make $12.50 an hour.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Links: Chore Wars

Anyone who's ever played a MMORPG like "World of Warcraft" will be familiar with "The Grind." In order to keep people from advancing too quickly and to limit the amount of fresh content that must be produced, companies force gamers to complete repetitive, tedious tasks that have insidious Pavlovian feedback mechanisms attached to them (mostly related to your character getting stronger). For the obsessive-compulsive, the results can literally be deadly.

Now, though, someone had the bright idea of translating the level treadmill into domestic life with "Chore Wars." A group signs in and competes to see who can complete the most chores (almost like quests). As chores are finished in the real world, they add to your virtual character's experience points. Why fight with your siblings, significant other, or coworkers over who has to do the chores when you can outlevel them instead?

It's an idea that's either brilliantly stupid or stupidly brilliant; I haven't decided.

Miscellany: Easily Amused

It's weird how even an incremental upgrade in your daily routine can lead to dumb astonishment. I used to deposit checks via ATM, which required a tedious series of actions on my part - endorse the checks, put the account number on the back of the checks, calculate the value of all the checks added together, put in the deposit envelope...

Now, though, they have these newfangled ATMs where you simply slip in the check directly - no muss, no fuss. When I fed that first check in, and saw the scanned image of the check staring back at me from the ATM, I actually said, "Wow." As if a photo scanner with OCR technology weren't available in every copy center, office supply store, and Best Buy in the country.

Movies: Little Miss Sunshine

Mixing drama and comedy is invariably risky. A pure comedy, unencumbered by real consequences and negative emotions, is easier to make and infinitely easier to sell. But some movies, like "Little Miss Sunshine," have the unique ability to blend the absurd with the serious.

"Little Miss Sunshine" is the debut feature-length effort from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, a prolific music video directing team whose credits include music video classics like The Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight":

The movie conerns a road trip undertaken by a dysfunctional family of losers, played by a fine ensemble cast. Greg Kinnear turns in literally the best performance I've ever seen from him, and Alan Arkin and Abigail Breslin's grandfather-granddaughter relationship is about as real as can be hoped for.

There are some belly laughs to be found here, especially if you don't mind macabre humor. The final sequence has echoes of "Napoleon Dynamite" but manages to be simultaneously more realistic and more funny - quite a feat. It's also fortuitous that they didn't cast a bigger name comedian, like Robin Williams or Bill Murray, in place of Steve Carrell.

Here's the final number of the film (SPOILERS!) :

Rating: 9/10

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Guns: Gun Control in the Media

Here's the recent NBC piece on "black rifles" (AKA AR-15s) that's been making its rounds on the gunboards:

Admittedly, it's not overflowing with pro-gun rights feeling, but it's a good start. They repeat the VPC/Brady assertions that pistol grips encourage people to "shoot from the hip" (they don't) and that semiautomatic rifles are somehow the weapon of choice for criminals (they aren't). Even the fact that this is on TV is sort of an anti-gun slant - the so-called "assault weapons" ban ended in 2004, and nothing apocalyptic has happened since then, so why is the fact that people are buying these guns national news?

Anyway, it's a lot better than the infamous CNN piece on the expired ban, which showed a fully automatic M16 instead of the crippled civilian version that was the subject of the ban. Wayne LaPierre explains:

Not Much Time Left

When my Mom began receiving reports that Grandma was getting sicker and sicker, we didn't really get too alarmed. Grandma's an old woman, and she's been ill before. It seems, though, that this is the end. While the details are sketchy at this point, she's had multiple heart attacks and her kidney's failing.

My Mom got the critical calls Friday night. It was late, and I heard the phone ring from within my room. Every son or daughter knows the sound of his parents crying - it must be some sort of instinct. I knew something was amiss, but since Mom didn't knock on my door, I tried to get back to sleep. Now, Mom is taking the two-hour flight to the hospital, where Grandma is in the ICU. I'm hoping for the best, but realistically, this is probably the last time she'll see Grandma alive.

I'm sad, of course, but I can't help remembering the times when Grandma was practically raising me, during the grade-school summers when my parents worked and I shipped off for my grandparents' place. Grandma would spoil and protect me during those summers, as most grandmothers do. I never really appreciated her then, but I sure do now.

Food: Grand Lux Cafe

There's always a sort of trepidation that accompanies the first session at a new restaurant. At "Grand Lux Cafe," this problem was somewhat softened since it's owned by the same folks as "The Cheesecake Factory," a middle-of-the-road casual dining concept with large portions. Now, "The Cheesecake Factory" will never be fine dining (far from it, in fact) but it's always been edible, and the restaurants themselves are usually nicely decorated, if a bit noisy.

The Polynesian Chicken Salad I ordered at "Grand Lux" was drowned in a too-sweet apricot dressing, but the actual concept of the salad would have fared well had I ordered the dressing on the side. Mom's lettuce wraps were pretty lame, with a chopped-up mash of Chinese-flavored something-or-other inhabiting the space between the pieces of lettuce - not very good at all. Dad's chicken sandwich was serviceable; the chicken was nothing to get excited about, but there was plenty of avocado and bacon layered on top. Our dessert, beignets with various dipping sauces, was good and had enough beignets to feed four people's sweet tooths comfortably, all for $7.50.

The ambient noise was somewhere below a dull roar. The high ceiling might be impressive, but it makes for some killer reverb in a room filled with several hundred people talking. Service was prompt if unspectacular, and the waiting area could have used enlarging. We're unlikely to return, but it wasn't a bad meal.

2/4 stars (barely)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Miscellany: Conan - the Roleplaying Game

"Sword and sorcery" yarns of any origin practically beg to be adapted into RPGs, so it makes sense that Mongoose has coalesced the writing of Robert E. Howard into "Conan: The Roleplaying Game." Using the Open Gaming License (think d20 in drag), the Conan RPG allows players to explore the Hyborean Age with characters ripped straight out of Howard's stories (or in some cases, the further adventures described by people like Robert Jordan and John Milius).

The main combat change from straight 3.5E D&D is that wearing armor absorbs damage but doesn't make you harder to hit. This has consequences that ripple all across the board, eventually culminating in two new base bonuses, "Base Parry Bonus" and "Base Dodge Bonus." I find that the bonuses to hit and defense can get unnecessarily complicated in the Conan RPG, but at least they're trying to be different.

The races and classes are all pretty true to the original Conan stories as written by Howard. You can be a swashbuckling pirate, a stuffy noble, or even a nomad. It does feel more like a "reskinning" of D&D than a totally new RPG - which is fair, I suppose, considering how much D&D took from Conan in the first place. The asking price of the hardcover, full-color "Atlantean Edition" of the game manual is $50, but you can get a pocket trade paperback edition for $20.

I bought the expensive edition because frankly, the rules don't deviate much from standard D&D, except for perhaps the Sorcery system (which has echoes, appropriately enough, of the system from "Call of Cthulhu," a game based on H.P. Lovecraft, who was a friend of Howard's). Thus, just buying the rules without any of the pizazz might disappoint. For people sick of encountering kobolds and playing the same old rangers, druids, and paladins, the Conan RPG is a nice change of pace that should be easy to pick up.

Movies: Transformers

Like most of Michael Bay's movies, "Transformers" has moments where it's exciting and fun to watch. In-between those moments, however, there is awkward dialogue, an overdramatic symphonic score, and paper-thin plotting and characters. While it's interesting that one director could put out so many films with incredibly uneven quality levels ("The Rock," "Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor"), it's equally interesting how this approach collides with an established license.

The story is pretty simple - Optimus Prime and the Autobots are trying to stop Megatron and the Decepticons from conquering the Universe and killing the human race. There's various McGuffins, famous actors (yes, Jon Voigt has been reduced to playing a small part in a movie with giant killer robots), and lots of CGI. Oh, and gratuitous shots of Megan Fox:

Good-looking women notwithstanding, the movie comes across as alternately brilliant and horrible. Optimus actually says, "My bad," and yes, a Mountain Dew machine transforms on screen, shooting horrible cans of soda at the populace. On the other hand, most of the fights are suitably intense, and Optimus is still a very noble character. Too bad he's given short shrift in favor of horndog Sam Witwicky, played by Shia LaBeouf. Most problematic is the constant product placement that eventually borders on self-parody - all the cars are GM, eBay is mentioned about a half-dozen times, and you see an Xbox 360 start to transform.

Rating: 6/10

Almost makes you want to awaken into a simpler time (below video contains foul language, but it's funny if you know the source material):

Friday, July 20, 2007

Guns (sorta): "There's a vampire in the bathtub"

Good old-fashioned parody of the hidden camera show "Punk'd". To be frank, I'm not so fond of Justin Timberlake, either:

News: People like sex

I'm not quite sure what's the point of these high-profile prostitution busts - including the recent D.C. Madam case. Sure, there's always some well-deserved snickering directed at the hypocritical muckety-mucks who are fingered as customers (in this case, the Junior Senator from Louisiana), but it doesn't seem like anyone but the madam and the prostitutes ever get into hot water, which is sad.

It takes two to tango - if you're going to make sex a crime, it's strange not to charge both parties with wrongdoing. And, of course, there's no pressure from Republicans for Vitter to resign, since if he did so, a Democrat would likely be appointed in his place. As so often happens in history, when political power is at stake, all that morality crap goes out the window.

Books: Harry Potter

I'm going to confess; I have never read a single word of the "Harry Potter" books. I was considering giving them a try (mostly to start a conversation with a girl I was interested in who was a diehard fan), but got sidetracked into Narnia and His Dark Materials instead. So, when the final book got over half a million preorders, I didn't bat an eye.

I have seen a couple of the "Harry Potter" movies, though, so I'm not totally unfamiliar with Rowling's world. I've also seen the bookmarks, the oversized wizard hats, the Harry Potter action figures, the sticker books...The range of merchandise puts other children's fantasies to shame.

I wonder if such things could exist without the success of the "Harry Potter" movies. It seems to me that even a classic work of fantasy, like "The Lord of the Rings," never has widespread licensing potential until someone makes a popular movie out of it. Disappointing, really...I could've used an R. Daneel Olivaw action figure.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Miscellany: The gym down here

When I'm home from college, I don't have access to the fancy bench and dumbbells in my place back up in G'ville. Thankfully, like a lot of suburban subdivisions, we have a recreation center that includes a gym and a poolhouse. It's a bit far away, but that just means I can get warmed up just by travelling there.

Inside is a slightly cramped but fully equipped weight room. You've got dumbbells from 5 pounds to 100 pounds, treadmills, stairclimbers, stationary bikes, a half-dozen different weight machines, and a big ole Swiss ball. There's even disinfectant and paper towels - "sanitized for your convenience," as it were.

I don't really care much for the TVs in the room, though. I enjoy weight training without any kind of inane chatter to gum up the experience, but the housewives and retirees that frequent our gym often turn on "The View" or something similarly grating. Next time, I'll try to put on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." I see your Barbara Walters, and raise you a Jean-Luc Picard!

TV: Scare Tactics

The hidden camera show has a long and storied tradition. Ever since the debut of Candid Camera back in the late 1940s (!), we'd been Punk'd and "Jamie Kennedy'd" many times over. Today's entry is "Scare Tactics," first hosted by Shannon Doherty and later by Stephen Baldwin. The twist here is that the prank played on the victim is similar to a situation in a horror movie. Here's what I mean:

Okay, so the show's not all that great, and there's a better-than-even chance some of the "victims" are people who are just playing along. But brother, it gave Shannon Doherty and Stephen Baldwin some paychecks, plus it occupied space in the Sci-Fi channel's primetime vacuum. Maybe, just maybe, that's enough.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Movies: My Super Ex-Girlfriend

There are some films that make you lose respect for a director you once liked. Unfortunately, "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" has undermined my faith in Ivan Reitman to direct passable comedies. While in previous years, Reitman projects like "Ghostbusters," "Kindergarten Cop," and "Evolution" were at least decent and in some cases classic, this latest box office dud starring Uma Thurman and Luke Wilson is one of the worst movies I've seen recently. Here's the trailer:

A good premise, I suppose, for some superhero screwball relationship comedy. But the actual execution is so lifeless that it attracts flies. Uma is channeling some of her post-Ethan rage here, but G-Girl's actions soon cross the line from harassment to outright attempted murder. Wilson is even worse - a limp fish who ends up feeling slimy and dishonest when he strings his superhero girlfriend along.

In fact, no one in the movie is really sympathetic, which makes laughing at any of the situations difficult. I've always believed that in a comedy, you need someone to identify with, whether it's Arnold saying "It's not a tooo-muh" in "Kindergarten Cop" or the nerdy Ghostbusters, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. When you see "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" on TV, you probably won't mind changing the channel, either.

Rating: 4/10

Guns: One Last Appeal

The big news in the gun rights world this week has been D.C.'s appeal to the Supreme Court in the Parker case, after the Court of Appeals' denial of rehearing en banc. Some speculated that the Brady bunch or other antigun groups would force the Mayor and his posse to step away from the whole conflict, fearing an opinion from the Supreme Court that would undermine gun control.

I think the Court may deny cert. If they do decide to hear the case, practically anything could happen. Federalism concerns might provide a convenient "escape route" - they could simply overturn the ban without incoporating the Second Amendment. Another way would be to narrow the decision down to the facts of this particular ban - only Chicago or New York style de facto bans might be challenged. And of course, they might simply uphold the ban.

As I've said before, regardless of your stance on gun rights or abortion, I think it's a bit disingenuous to find the right to a first-trimester abortion in the "penumbra" of other constitutional rights (Roe v. Wade), while not finding the right to possess guns for self-defense logically flowing from the Second Amendment - which has explicit wording to that effect.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

School: Writing on...again

If there's one thing I like about law school, it's that it keeps you busy. Even in the space between summer classes ending and fall semester starting, there are multiple things to worry about. First is the "early interview week," where firms come on-campus and interview for that all-important second summer semester internship. The bidding for these interviews has come and gone, so now all that remains is for the students to wait and see if they've managed to win an interview.

Another thing that is eating up my spare time is the "Journal of Technology Law & Policy" write-on competition, a semesterly event that invites 2Ls and 3Ls to write a case comment on a recent technology-related case. This isn't something you can bang out in a weekend (well, I guess you could, but it'd be harsh on your brain). The comments are supposed to be 7 to 10 pages, with 12 to 15 pages of endnotes. The most time-consuming part of any legal writing, though, is the research and pre-writing.

Oh well. I suppose it's better than working for my Dad for another summer.

Miscellany: Running a "Call of Cthulhu" campaign, part 4

So, all went well with the first session of my CoC game. The heroes survived, the villains were (temporarily) defeated thanks to some plastic explosives, and the door is wide open for further adventures. The players have spent about 6 hours traipsing through the Florida Keys, and they've enjoyed themselves.

Now everyone has to go home and go to bed.

Any game master will be familiar with the problem of downtime. As fun as a role-playing game is, it's secondary to anything that goes on in real life. Getting together four or five people, all with their own lives, is difficult enough. Getting them together on a regular basis, for hours at a time, is nearly impossible.

Downtime also leads to rustiness. Running or playing a tabletop RPG is a skill that can atrophy with the passage of time. It's hard to maintain the enthusiasm and continuity necessary for long dramas when the players have to remember what the heck happened two months ago. The GM is not immune to this, either; as I've mentioned before, good improvisation is necessary for most games, and too much time between sessions can make an adventuring episode feel "flat" or forced.

CoC, unfortunately, is somewhat more susceptible to these problems. Characters in CoC don't have many game mechanics to separate them (everybody can fire a shotgun, for example, unlike in D&D where some classes can't use certain weapons), and character growth is less tangible than a little numerical value going up after every adventure. I'm going to try a number of techniques to minimize the damage. First, a brief recap of the characters, their motives, and what happened last session. Second, recurring villains and themes to reinforce the memories of past exploits. Third, cliffhanger endings whenever possible to drum up tension. I have high hopes, of course, but time is definitely not on our side.

Tech: Not quite like I remember

For the first part of a video gaming generation, video game consoles are more powerful and can match even high-end PCs (the PlayStation 3, for example, is more powerful than nearly all of the PCs you'll come across today). In the second part, consoles become outgunned against even midrange computers...which prompts video game manufacturers to release another console. I like both types of games, which often takes a toll on the wallet.

With the new computer I purchased recently, I finally had a processor, hard drive, and memory that were up to snuff. The problem is, the single most critical component in any gaming computer is the graphics card - and it's also becoming one of the most expensive components. I had a massive case of sticker shock when looking at current GPU prices - whereas the top of the market used to be $500, now cards sell for $800 and up (you could buy a whole computer for that) and eat up huge amounts of power.

To replace the sagging Radeon X1650SE that came with the computer, I've been eyeing the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS, as it's about $300 and has enough performance to play all of today's games. I suppose I should be thankful Microsoft is also the purveyor of Windows - this means I get a jazzed-up, higher-resolution port of "Gears of War" with free online multiplayer merely a year after the Xbox 360 release of the game.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Movies: 95 Miles to Go

I'm not really a Ray Romano fan, and I can count the number of episodes of "Everybody Loves Raymond" I've seen on one hand. But I have to admit, the documentary "95 Miles to Go" is a pretty cool look at the life of a fairly successful comedian on tour. This is what most comedians dream about, I suppose - nationwide recognition, lots of money, and the ability to essentially act as strange and neurotic as you've always acted.

Like most mainstream comedians, Romano still tours and does stand-up, even with a huge paycheck as the star of a hit sitcom. "95 Miles to Go" follows him through a tour of the southeast - he encounters everything from hot boiled peanuts to hotel porn. If there's a single impression I get from the documentary, it's that even a $50 million paycheck doesn't stop you from complaining about how late someone else is making you, or from questioning the funniness of your material.

One thing that Ray Romano will always have going for him is his funny-sounding voice. Just look at this Family Guy clip comparing his voice to comedic greats like Kermit the Frog, Al Michaels, and Harold Ramis:

Food: A Fiend for Mojitos

One of the stupidest (or coolest, depending on your perspective) lines in the recent Miami Vice movie was Colin Farrell claiming to Gong Li that he was a "fiend for mojitos." I'm not sure how an undercover cop can say something like that with a straight face, but it was a funny line. In fact, it's probably the only piece of dialogue I remember from that movie.

Anyway, Mom felt like some mojitos, so Dad and I gathered up the ingredients and went to work. We bought an absurdly large (1.75 L) bottle of Bacardi Gold just because it had a muddling tool attached to it. We grabbed a sackful of mint, a bagful of limes, and some club soda, and we set off to make the drinks.

1. Throw in a palmful of mint leaves
2. Throw in half a lime, diced into smallish pieces
3. Pour in some sugar or simple syrup, to taste
4. Muddle
5. Add a shot of rum
6. Muddle again
7. Add club soda to taste

It's really pretty easy, and the homemade mojitos were 10 times better and 10 times cheaper than the resturant or bar versions. With so much rum, we could make them a heckuva lot stronger than any competent bartender would, and we piled in huge amounts of mint - very refreshing.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Guns: The CZ-27 - a surplus firearm case study

The CZ-27, a pistol chambered in .32 ACP, was the first handgun I ever bought. I'll never forget the first time I shot it. It was pouring rain and the outdoor range was soaking wet. I emptied the entire mag at 5 yards into a cardboard target my friend had set up - it seemed fine, but my friend warned me that it jammed quite a bit. I bought it off of him for $50.

As I suspected, the jamming problems were due to the 70 year old springs, and a "spring refresh kit" ordered from Wolff changed the gun from a jammomatic to a relatively reliable pocket pistol. My particular specimen was made during the Nazi occupation of the region, and it bears the characteristic German eagle on its barrel.

It's a throwback to an earlier time, when police forces didn't mind using .38 revolvers and .32 pistols, guns that are typically derided as "underpowered" today. I think my CZ-27 will still do the job, and it's surprisingly accurate given the tiny v-notch sights. I am missing a grip screw (the grip is original) - there's probably no chance of me ever finding a CZ-27 grip screw for sale...

News: Dunbar Village

The gang rape and torture of a mother and her 12 year-old son in Dunbar village have gained national attention, but obviously people who live here in South Florida are the most interested. It's doubtful anything will be done in the long-term (there's just nothing valuable in Dunbar Village to police). The brutal incident provides a compelling, if tragic, case study on crime and punishment.

The area is basically a slum. Only 19% of the people there graduated from high school, and most of the population are single mothers making less than $11,000 a year. Many of these are Haitian immigrants. With this kind of crushing poverty, it doesn't take a sociologist to figure out that rampant crime would become a problem.

The biggest dilemma, though, is that many of the rapists simply got away. If no one enforces the law, people tend to break it (for instance, speeding). I think what we're seeing here is the flag of "Screw the Other Guy" raising its ugly head...

Sports: Phoning it in

Tonight marked the first time I attended a major league baseball game, albeit in somewhat compromised fashion. I arrived during the bottom of the 5th, and our seats were in an airconditioned skybox overlooking the stands, so I can't say I've gotten the full experience yet. Still, it was a noteworthy night.

The game was a meaningless contest between the Florida Marlins and the Washington Nationals in Dolphin Stadium, which is also the home of the Miami Dolphins. Seeing the game live didn't really make it any more exciting for me - I've always thought baseball was more fun to play than watch. Additionally, I got the distinct sense that the players weren't very jazzed up about this particular game - understandable, considering the 150+ game grind that is the MLB season.

After the Marlins won, Smash Mouth (yes, the '90s pop band) came out and performed a concert. I'm using "performed" in the loosest sense of the word; the show seemed like it was part of the "Smash Mouth: Contractual Obligation" tour. The acoustics and sound system of the stadium were horrible, and the crowd didn't seem very excited. Anyway, here's a vid of "All Star" - weird how it predicts the "Who Wants to be a Superhero?" show:

Friday, July 13, 2007

TV: Into Character

Back in 2004, when the reality TV craze was in full swing, I saw an episode of the short-lived AMC series "Into Character." The premise of the show was to turn ordinary people into the characters (not the actors) portrayed in their favorite films. For example, this one guy is a huge "Rocky" fan and wants to go the distance in the ring, but has never boxed before. The show trains him for a couple weeks and then films him fighting with a professional boxer.

For obvious reasons, this kind of crash course doesn't work too well most of the time. It takes hard work and dedication even just to learn how to fake boxing convincingly, much less participate in the real thing. That's probably why the series ended so fast - unlike most of these makeover reality shows, it's easy to see how little two weeks of training actually is.

The one episode of the show I watched, however, pitted two fans of "The Karate Kid" against each other: one was taught by a Mr. Miyagi-like Japanese sensei, and the other by a rough and tumble American sensei in New York. The final fight looked a lot like the final fight in the movie, and the "good" Japanese-trained fan actually won, too. That was pretty interesting.

Music: Ironic

The most ironic thing about Alanis Morissette's song "Ironic" is, in fact, that the song doesn't contain any ironies. Most of the events described in the song are just unlucky or tragic, not particularly ironic.

I think Mo Rocca said it best:

"Irony is the disparity between what you expect will happen and what does happen. So raining on your wedding day isn't ironic; it's just crappy. It would have been ironic if she had lived in a place like Seattle and traveled to the desert of Mexico for a wedding, and it ended up raining there, but not in Seattle. Alanis always gets the last laugh though. We all sit here, saying her song isn't ironic, but in fact, that's pretty ironic that she wrote a song called 'Ironic' that wasn't really ironic. Those Canadians are pretty crafty."

"It's like raaaaayyyyheeeeaiiiin..."

Miscellany: Running a "Call of Cthulhu" campaign, part 3

I was caught off guard tonight. One of our regulars in the D&D group has recently found himself addicted to WoW (sound familiar?), and our DM canceled the regularly scheduled D&D game so he could craft more content for the next dungeon crawl. Suddenly, my "Call of Cthulhu" campaign took center stage, and with some haste I put together the finishing touches on the first adventure for my players. I ran the game...

Being the game master for any kind of tabletop roleplaying game is fraught with peril. There are so many risks - make the game too easy, and everyone gets bored. Make the game too hard, and you risk killing everyone in an hour (when characters have lifespans shorter than Wile E. Coyote, it's difficult to get even the best players to roleplay effectively). I hate manipulating dice rolls, but I don't want to seem arbitrarily unfair when resolving events.

There's also the improvisational skill needed. Imagine directing a play with a script that has no set plot, that has the outcomes of events change and fluctuate randomly, and in which you are playing the part of every character besides the lead actors. In tonight's session, I literally had to create and describe monsters, plot points, characters, and settings on the fly (with things spinning predictably out of control - one of the characters was one point away from death). It's only natural to feel "stage fright" or "performance anxiety" with such a tall order.

Some of this can be alleviated by thorough preparation, but once characters stray off your carefully manicured path, you will be forced to do a lot of work to keep the scenario believable while generating more stuff to do, and all this work will be done in real time. If everything goes well and the players have a good time, though, it doesn't matter how much or how little of the campaign's plot survived.

What's that they say about hobbies? That they're just jobs where you don't get paid? :-)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Food: The Opposite of Serendipity

I was planning on having one last lunch at Wingstop before I had to leave to return home for the summer (summer semester ends shockingly early here at Levin). Before lunch, though, I bought some materials to prepare for an upcoming Conan RPG session that's being one by one of my gaming buddies - "The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian" and the Conan RPG itself. Strangely enough, the game store was in the same shopping plaza as a fairly new place called "Morrison's Buffet" - no relation to "Morrison's Cafeteria" (I'll do a post about Morrison's Cafeteria someday, too).

Inside, the place seemed clean enough, and it was fairly crowded, a good sign for most buffets. The price for all-you-can-eat lunch was $5.99, which is pretty reasonable in my book, so I dove in. Unfortunately, I soon learned that for all the quantity and variety of the buffet, the quality of the food left much to be desired.

The side dishes, ironically, were good - corn, rice, stuffing, and black-eyed peas tasted about how you expect them to taste. The deserts were passable, if oversweet and "packaged-tasting." The real problem, though, was that the actual entrees looked horrible and tasted worse. The salmon, chicken, and beef were all just below fast-food quality, which makes Mulliga sad.

I'm going to Wingstop tomorrow just to get the taste outta my mouth. :-P

Books: Swamp Thing - Dark Genesis

Sometimes the first instance that you see a comic book superhero colors your perception of that superhero for life. The first time I saw the exploits of Wolverine and Cyclops, for example, was on Saturday morning cartoons, which made the comics feel somewhat foreign when I finally got down to reading them. There are kids growing up now for whom Peter Parker is Tobey Maguire, not Christopher Daniel Barnes.

Many are familiar with Alan Moore's popular portrayal of Swamp Thing. My introduction to the character, though, came from the television series that aired on USA network. I guess that's a better first impression than the tongue-in-cheek short-lived animated TV series:

The book "Swamp Thing: Dark Genesis" collects the first ten original comics by the creators Len Wein and Berni Wrightson. This is a throwback of sorts, when comics were about dealing with personal sorrow and angst - while at the same time fighting with werewolves and sorcerors. It feels a bit strange at times to see this dialectic at work, but it makes for splashy storytelling. I think this would probably be the best first impression the "twisted mockery of a man" could get.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Guns: Dealing with Recoil

This post at James' place got me thinking about the deleterious effects of recoil. Bigger and bigger magnum calibers have rapidly outpaced the ability of the average shooter to tolerate their recoil. Whereas Grandpa's old .30-06 used to be enough for anything in the lower 48, now we have short magnums and superduper short magnums, all in the name of squeezing as much power into as short an action and as light a gun as possible. These guns, as most will attest, are pretty hard on your shoulders.

I have worn a shoulder-mounted recoil pad in the past. Many shooting vests and jackets integrate these pads into their shoulders. They make shooting hard-kicking rifle calibers a bit more tolerable, but no recoil pad will cheat the laws of physics. When you're sending something downrange that packs several times the power of a standard rifle caliber, you just can't expect to sit there all day at the shooting bench.

The same trend evinces itself in the handgun market. Revolvers get smaller and lighter, while pocket guns that used to be chambered in .32 and .380 are now polymer-framed 9mms and .40S&Ws. Purchasing a recoil-absorbing grip is a stopgap solution. So is owning a gun that is "shot a little and carried a lot."

The only way to deal with recoil, as far as I know, is to avoid it. If your shoulder or hand hurts after a trip to the range, your body is telling you something. You might be forced to shoot less powerful calibers now, but your bones will thank you a few decades down the line.

Tech: The Cheapest Speakers in the World

I'm glad I have my trusty Klipsch 2.1 speaker set, since the speakers that arrived with my new computer are...interesting, to say the least.

When I first opened the box, I knew these things had very little chance of sounding good. They were small, light, and they just felt cheap. There was no subwoofer, which is never a good sign. Most problematic, though, is that they are powered via a USB connection to the computer itself.

Making sound waves move through air requires power, and relatively large amounts of it (my high school physics teacher emphasized it like this - "Whenever you physically move something, you're probably increasing the 'd' in 'F x d = work', and that means energy is expended"). To give a comparison, the Klipsch set uses 200 watts - more than even a top of the line desktop CPU.

A USB connection is probably not the best place to draw that power from. Yes, it simplifies hooking the speakers up, but why bother in the first place when you don't get passable sound? These things are so underpowered that my laptop speakers can keep up with them. I'm not sure what to do with them - maybe I'll take them to the range one day for some "creative disposal."

School: Center of the Universe

I'm sitting in a chair in my dining room. The windows and doors are black outside. I can't even see streetlights from where I'm sitting, since the curtains are drawn. My place is quiet; the only light comes from the iridescent spotlights that shine down on the dining room table.

I'm studying U.S. antitrust law, which started with the Sherman Act and is fiercely relevant today. The basics are pretty easy to understand, but the actual process of analysis often includes lots of economics. I've heard that most lawyers (and judges) are poor economists, so this can be a problem. I'm figuring out how the market was calculated in the ALCOA case, when I notice a voice.

"What's it for?," a song by my favorite composer, Yoko Kanno, is playing on my computer:

I listen to the song for a bit, then go back to the Court's "virgin ingot" passage. It's times like these when I feel like I'm at the center of the Universe. I suppose other people have these moments - when you're alone and you're so absorbed in studying something that you forget you exist.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Movies: Ultraviolet

On one level, I feel sorry for Milla Jovovich. After her breakout role in "The Fifth Element," she's been constantly typecast as a butt-kicking action heroine. On the other hand, there's many things Milla does well - modeling, singing. Acting ain't one of them, as is proven by the film "Ultraviolet":

Directed by Kurt Wimmer of "Equilibrium" fame, "Ultraviolet" is another of those films that is actually worse than the trailer. I don't mean the trailer is misleading you to think the movie is better than it is; I mean the trailer, as a film, is superior to "Ultraviolet" the full-length feature. The editing is tighter, all the critical plot points are covered, and even most of the special effects are there. Heck, the music is better too, with the song "24" by Jem highlighting Violet's struggles.

As you can tell from the trailer, the movie tells the story of a sorta-vampire's quest to save...well...save something. I'm kind of foggy on the plot right now, because the movie bordered on outright awfulness so many times it became funny. The final duel at the end, with flaming swords, was especially cheesy, and not in a good way.

I'd like to imagine there is an alternate universe where Ultraviolet had better plot, better performances, and better fight choreography. Alas, there's no way to get there from here.

Rating: 3/10

News: Well, that's one way to stamp out "corruption"...

If you've been following world trade, you know China's come under fire for the quality and safety of its food and drug exports. It's not surprising, really - go to Beijing and tell me how many days you can see a clear blue sky. There's always that painful period in a country's development, it seems, where public health takes a nosedive in the service of bigger and faster production.

What's really interesting, though, is how China remedies the problem. Now, I'm all for holding government officials responsible for any criminal actions they take, but combine that sensibility with the death penalty and you have a whole new can of worms. Executions like this smell like power struggles and political intrigue instead of justic - I wonder just how many Chinese officials take bribes like this.

I used to approve of capital punishment, but it's very difficult nowadays for me to validate the state's power of life or death over any individual, even a murderer. This point is hammered home especially hard after looking at some of the cases that have through our criminal justice system. There's a reason criminal defendants call public defenders "dump trucks"...

Monday, July 09, 2007

Miscellany: My mopping technique

There's a thousand ways to clean a tile floor (you can even buy a robot to do it for you), but I've settled upon a particular procedure taught to me by my parents.

1. Vacuum the floor. This is pretty important, otherwise you'll be pushing around wet crumbs and hair all around the floor with your wet mop.

2. Sweep the floor. The vacuum probably missed the bits inside the grout. A proper Asian-style broom will get most of this debris out (you can buy one at any Chinese grocery store - the American brooms are better for outside jobs, but the Asian brooms are aces for inside).

3. Vacuum again, this time with a handheld vacuum. I hate using dustpans, so I usually just sweep up the debris into piles and suck 'em up with a Dust Buster. The more voltage on your cordless vac, the better.

4. Time to prep the soapy wash. Add in enough floor cleaner (yeah, we use Pine Sol) to fill the top of the water with suds, and then slop this all over the floor with a twisty-mop. A good twist-up mop is worth its weight in gold here.

5. Start mopping. Press down with the mop and scrub as best you can. I tend to use a fresh batch of hot water every time I notice the mop bucket getting soapy with stuff picked up from the floor. It will take at least two, and perhaps three or more complete passes to get most of the soap off the floor.

6. Dry. I turn the air conditioning to a cold setting, turn on the ceiling fans, and watch a movie.

If all these steps are executed right, the floor will be clean enough to eat off of...

For a day or two.

Guns: Stocking Up

My local range tells me that from their reckoning, the price of ammo has gone up 23% in the past six months. That kind of jump in price is well above the rate of inflation for other goods. By now, however, it's old news to most gunowners. It's only natural to see a decreased supply of ammunition given the conflicts in the Middle East, combined with some finagling from our friends at the BATFE.

You may have heard about people investing in transferable pre-1986 machine guns, since the ever-dwindling supply means prices are almost guaranteed to increase, at least short of a miraculous lift of the 1986 ban on new MG registrations. I'm doing something slightly different - since I usually burn through half a case of 9mm every month, I figured I might as well stock up now.

I headed down to the local Wally World and snagged 10 boxes of Winchester White Box for the tidy sum of $160. Hopefully, I can get a job over the summer and buy some more.

Sports: Federer wins another one

Yeah, Roger Federer is already one of the greatest tennis players ever. He's on his way to become THE greatest - just check out the commercials:

Federer's Wimbledon win yesterday merely means he can continue endorsing pretty much anything and everything Switzerland produces.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Music: Stonehenge

I was ripping some of my favorite music CDs to my new computer, when I happened upon an album I bought long ago - "This is Spinal Tap." As all true Tapheads know, the band Spinal Tap has reunited to play at "Live Earth" with their new song "Warmer Than Hell." Here's a clip of them rehearsing and an interview:

My favorite Spinal Tap song will always be "Stonehenge," for its sumptuous production and Zeppelin-esque self-importance. Here's a performance of the song, from the disastrous 1982 "Smell the Glove" tour:

Tech: A Fresh Coat of Paint

My swanky new desktop PC arrived yesterday. Besides a ginormous 500 GB hard drive, an Intel Core 2 Quad processor (that's right, four separate cores clocked at 2.4 GHz), and a DVD burner, it also came with Microsoft Windows Vista Home Premium. After 5 years of primarily using laptops for computing, it's quite a change for me to be using a fairly capable machine again.

The Core 2 Quad is a beast for multithreaded applications, and even for just plain multitasking. There's nothing quite like installing Civilization 4 from a CD, playing an MP3, downloading several patches, running Folding@Home, and running EarthSim, all at the same time. If you do a lot of encoding, editing, or 3D modeling, this thing will knock your socks off. I can't wait until the first games start taking advantage of this architecture.

Vista bears the translucent glossy look (*cough* OS X *cough*) people seem to like these days. I tend to turn all this stuff off, but I'll leave it on for the time being. When you download things, the progress bar shimmers. Shimmers. Kinda pointless, and I'm sure other GUIs have more fascinating eye candy, but it's novel to me.

I tried running some older games on the machine. Civ4 worked fine after a patch, as did F.E.A.R. (though F.E.A.R.'s performance in Vista is infamously bad). Source engine games (Day of Defeat and Counter-Strike) didn't work at first; I had to go to Acer's site and download their graphics drivers in lieu of the official ATI Catalyst ones. Aside from that, it's been smooth sailing.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

School: The E-Z way out

Studying for Monday's Criminal Procedure exam was starting to wear thin, so I picked up a couple of secret weapons from the Levin College of Law bookstore's bargain rack:

The E-Z Review: Criminal Procedure &

Casenote Legal Briefs: Criminal Procedure

I've never used any kind of outside supplement or outline before. Up to this point, I've relied on my book, the notes scribbled in my book's margins, and the spoken word of the professor to get me through law school. I felt different about this one, though. Maybe it was the scattershot way Baldwin lectured on the various topics, maybe it was the strange organization of the book itself, but I've been really slow constructing my outline, and unlike other courses, the outline hasn't been as helpful. So let's turn to these Cliff's Notes-like crutches:

The "E-Z Review" is what it sounds like - an outline that reviews most of the stuff a criminal procedure course covers. The version I bought was hopelessly out of date (in the field of criminal procedure, anything before 9/11 and the PATRIOT Act is now out of date). Thankfully, the various standards for Terry stops, warrantless searches, assistance of counsel, and other concepts haven't changed much. The book is pretty concise, but it would not be helpful at all to someone who hasn't at least attempted to write their own outline.

The legal briefs book contains briefs (that is, short summaries) of all the cases in a particular textbook. Unfortunately, my book isn't covered here. On the other hand, most of these cases are common to all criminal procedure textbooks (Miranda, Terry, Gates, Katz, etc.). Then again, you can get similar summaries for free off of Westlaw or LexisNexis. Oh well - the Casenote book only cost $5.

Guns: Best buys in surplus handguns

*** The Makarov ***

I once had a chance to pick up a Bulgarian Makarov, and I've kicked myself ever since for passing it up. By and large, these classic guns (regardless of the country of origin) are reliable, easy to feed, and have a big following (ensuring relatively easy holster and parts availability). The Mak is one of the few sub-$200 handguns I'd trust for self-defense.

Although Makarovs are chambered in 9mm Makarov (equivalent to a hot .380 ACP), they served as the official Soviet sidearm for many years (Internet gunnie lore has it that this was because Maks were used primarily for executing people and not for self-defense). They have a snappy but light recoil, and are fairly easy to carry, especially in a hip or shoulder holster.

*** The CZ-52 ***

On the other end of the spectrum is the CZ-52, chambered in 7.62x25 TT (i.e. the Tokarev round). I've only fired one once, but it was a memorable experience. I think people purposely load mags with hot Czech ammunition and hand them to newbies to watch the reaction. The gun is surprisingly thin, but that doesn't make it any more graceful or comfortable.

They're fairly powerful, fairly large, and still pretty cheap. I'm not sure I'd ever carry one, but a CZ-52 would make a decent house gun or range gun. Some of the parts (particularly the firing pin) might be fragile. As is usually the case with surplus guns, however, replacement parts are just another gun away...

News: Only in Vegas, I guess

So, if some deranged lunatic starts randomly putting bullets into the floor of your shiny "New York-New York" casino (incidentally, this was the casino I stayed at during my first trip to Vegas), what do you do? Call the cops? Shut down the casino temporarily?

Interestingly enough, I've always thought casinos as fascinating alternate realities. There aren't any clocks, there usually aren't any windows, and people are watching you constantly. You're essentially paying money for the chance of losing even more money, which has a quirky appeal all its own, I suppose. I mean, I don't mind the occasional poker night, but it seems like a slot machine is less engaging than that.

One thing I did like from my Vegas vacation was the insane quality of the buffets, and the limitless amounts of food available. Gnoshing on a roast leg of lamb while in the middle of what is basically a desert seems almost unfair to the rest of humanity. But, then again, you pay dearly for the privilege.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Movies: Batman

There are some movies that you see as a child that just don't hold up well upon later viewing. I hadn't seen the original "Batman" movie in its entirety for many years. It was on TV recently and I decided I'd see how it held up. Widely regarded as the work that brought Batman back from the campy Adam West series into the mainstream, it's certainly one of Tim Burton's most popular films.

The reasons I didn't really get into the movie are hard to pin down. The effects, performances, and even the plot are about how I remembered them. I didn't let the middling "Batman Forever" and straight-up awful "Batman & Robin" influence me, and I put "Batman Begins" out of my mind.

The real problem, I think, is that between the time I was dressing up as Batman for Halloween and the time I sat down to watch Burton's "Batman" again, I had seen a sizable portion of the fabulous "Batman" animated series. Michael Keaton was a respectable Batman, but Kevin Conroy's dark voice is pretty much the epitome of the Batman character. Jack Nicholson played the Joker mostly as a deranged criminal, but Mark Hamill's delightfully psychotic Joker was both a true clown and a dangerous killer. Even the structure of the animated series was closer in line with Batman's status as a master detective. In any case, a quick peek at IMDB reveals which Batman work the fans favor.

Rating: 7/10

Miscellany: U.S. Passports, past and present

I received my new passport in the mail yesterday. Well, to be precise, I had to go to the post office to pick it up. I had opted for the expedited option, which cost quite a chunk of extra dough, but I got my passport in a month instead of several months (there's a backlog in processing because of new rules regarding travel). I had to go to the post office because I needed to sign for the package.

These newfangled passports are interesting. Besides a pretty swanky design and lots of quotable quotes from the Declaration, the Constitution, and some of the big historical figures, there's a little chip woven inside the cover that I presume works in a manner similar to RFID chips. This new electronic system stores your personal information and can be scanned by passing the passport over a plate, making it easier and faster to zip through customs.

I suppose it's the prerogative of a people to be able to keep travellers out, but it does still smack of an outdated system of feudal regulations. It's not like passports have always been around - prior to WWI Europe had all but done away with passports, and free movement between the countries made for easy tourism and commerce. I may be wrong on this, but the saying "When people can't cross borders, armies will" seems to have proven itself to be true many times in history.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Tech: Stopping the Bleeding

If you play video games, you've probably heard all the "rumors" of Xbox 360 hardware malfunctions. Some 360 owners tell of mysterious disc drive errors, strange glitches in gameplay, and most of all, the dreaded red ring of death. My Super Nintendo from 1991 still works fine, even after several years of daily use and a decade of being mothballed. I'm not sure why Microsoft, the world's largest software company and one of the world's largest companies period, can't get its act together.

The Sony PlayStation 3 has also had its troubles. Besides the scarcity of games (which has been a problem for all three of the major video game console makers), the PS3 launched at the high price of $600. Supplies were limited for the Christmas rush, but afterwards, PS3 demand predictably dropped sharply (call me crazy, but second-rate games like Motorstorm and Resistance aren't system sellers).

It comes as no surprise, then, that before E3, the industry's largest trade convention, both companies made big announcements. Microsoft will extend all Xbox 360 warranties by 3 years, and Sony will cut PS3 prices in North America by $100. While this is great news for gamers, it's not very good news for either company, since the warranty extension will cost an estimated 1 billion dollars for MS and Sony's already taking a loss on each PS3 sold.

Microsoft has been telling gamers for months now that there's no problem with the 360, when it's been apparent to everybody that an inordinate number of 360s are failing. Offering to extend warranties a year and a half after launch seems like a slap in the face, or at least a calculated move to avoid a massive lawsuit. Sony's stance on the PS3's price has been stubborn at best and arrogant at worst, so their $100 price drop six months after launch seems like a forced move.

I suppose the numbers don't lie. Microsoft has sold about 12 million 360s worldwide in 1-1/2 years. Sony has sold 4 million PS3s in 6 months. Nintendo has sold 8 million Wiis in 6 months. This next round of the console war should be very interesting...

Books: The Way Things Work

My sister's friend originally wanted to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, or "Ris-dee" as the hip people pronounce it. And looking at RISD alumnus and faculty member David Macaulay's artwork, it's not hard to see why.

Macaulay is an award-winning illustrator and author, and his masterwork is "The Way Things Work," a broad and brilliant explanation of how various machines and physical principles govern our universe. I remember seeing this attractive volume in grade school and begging my Dad to get it for me; I devoured the whole thing that very weekend. From screws to nuclear reactors, zippers to hydrofoils, all sorts of machines are covered here.

The best parts of the book, though, are the fictional accounts of the interactions between mammoths and humans, complete with often hilarious pictures. Through Macaulay's adept, architect's-style illustrations and Neil Ardley's clear and fairly accurate descriptions, you get a sense of the complexity of how things work without all the mathematics getting in the way. If you can get a kid interested in this book, he or she just might become an engineer or a scientist.

Guns: CCW Application

It occured to me that amidst all my posts regarding lawfully carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense, there's been no discussion of what you may have to do to obtain a CCW permit. The process varies by jurisdiction, but since Florida was at the forefront of the modern concealed carry movement, many states have modeled their programs after ours (which is also one of the main reasons Florida has reciprocity with other states). In any event, I advise getting a CCW as soon as is feasible if you're comfortable with the idea, since you may need a gun in a hurry.

Philosophically, I'd prefer Alaska or Vermont style carry (that is, no permits required). I'm uncomfortable with the idea that a government can even control how you can defend yourself. Preventing or restricting people from carrying guns in order to stop crimes committed with guns makes about as much logical sense as preventing people from having gasoline since they might commit arson. Realistically, though, if you wish to defend yourself with any kind of weapon in this state outside of your home or business, you're going to need a CCW permit.

Here's a general overview of what to expect (IANAL, BTW):

1) You'll probably need a form

Many states have applications that can be downloaded or requested online. Here in FL, the packets for permit applications are available in almost every gun shop and target range in the state, as well as a host of government buildings. The packet should contain detailed instructions about what sorts of ID and such are needed.

2) You'll probably have to take a class

Most states have some sort of training requirement, and perhaps even mandatory levels of performance/accuracy on the range. This can vary - there's a huge difference between some quickie class taught at a gunshow and a truly in-depth class provided by a local range (MSS offers a good one in my area, for example). Some of the states that don't have reciprocity with FL argue that FL's standards are too lax, but c'est la vie. If you are active-duty armed forces or have other sorts of experience,you may be exempt from this requirement, depending on the state.

3) You'll probably have to have a background check

Almost all states have some sort of background check in place. If you're a felon or have some other kind of criminal record, you are most definitely going to need to do some extra legwork to get a permit, if you can even get a gun at all.

4) You'll probably have to wait awhile

A lot of states take at least a month to process applications, with times sometimes approaching 3 months. Much of this time is spent processing fingerprints, since many states require you to be fingerprinted in order to get a permit. In FL, we have an electronic fingerprinting service that reduces the wait time considerably - I got my permit in about a week since I had electronically submitted by prints at a sheriff's office.

5) You'll probably have to renew it after a period of time

Obviously, there are plenty of violations that can cause your permit to be revoked. Most states have some sort of renewal program, but in some, you may have to keep taking classes or otherwise requalifying to keep your permit. In FL, CCWs last 5 years, which seems to be a typical time interval.


So there you have it. After jumping through some hoops, you can now carry a gun legally. I know it seems like quite a bit of stuff to go through, but compared to other nations (both First World and otherwise), legally carrying a gun is easy in the vast majority of the U.S. I can't imagine people living in less free countries (*cough* China *cough* Vietnam *cough* Japan etc...) ever being able to legally carry handguns for defense. And that's a bit sad, when you think about it, that most of humanity is disarmed - almost a step backwards from our Neolithic days.

TV: The Twilight Zone

In the world of television, shows often have a shelf-life measured in months. Even relatively popular series can fade away into obscurity a decade later. "The Twilight Zone," the archetypical TV sci-fi anthology show, is one of the few shows from the early 1960s that is still on the air. No "Twilight Zone" tribute would be complete without the classic opening sequence:

My first real exposure to TZ comes from the marathons that were run regularly, usually around New Year's Eve. There's just something about watching a huge block of TZ episodes that is different from watching them piecemeal, especially when said viewing is done late into the night (I think New Year's Eve is the one night when grade-school kids are commonly allowed to stay awake into the wee hours of the night). I remember curling up in a small bedroom in my Grandpa's old house to watch the TZ marathons, with the sounds of the adults' party outside.

The first three seasons were the best, of course - most of these were written by Rod Serling himself, before the fatigue of writing for the show got to him. The fourth season's hourlong episodes, with the exception of "On Thursday We Leave for Home," were mostly misses, and many of the stories frankly didn't hold up to a full hourlong treatment (contrast this with "The Outer Limits"). The fifth season was mostly garbage.

Like any truly popular show, TZ has spawned innumerable parodies and homages. Some of the funniest of these are animated, from "The Simpsons" and "Futurama."

The Simpson's "Treehouse of Horror" parody of "Little Girl Lost:

Futurama's "The Scary Door" TZ parodies: