Thursday, August 30, 2007

Guns (sorta): The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

While some movie gunfights are fairly realistic, there are quite a few that take *ahem* dramatic license with the physics of firearms. Sometimes, though, a movie intentionally portrays a wacky gunfight, and the movie "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is a good example of where it works well.

The scenario? Steve Zissou (Bill Murray's character) and his ship have just been taken over, and now he has to defeat his captors:

Steve Zissou: Anne-Marie, do all the interns get Glocks?
Anne-Marie Sakowitz: No, they all share one

Politics: A YouTube Debate Question

This is spreading round the gun blogs, so I thought I'd do my part.

(Ripped from Joe's Crabby Shack)

The Republican YouTube debate is coming up soon and two of my most favorite people have submitted the mother of all Second Amendment questions. Clint Smith and Tom Gresham have a YouTube post asking Tom's favorite question of politicians.

"You say you support the Second Amendment, so name the first three of the 20,000 gun laws in the country that you will work to repeal."

Here's the assignment/request/bleg... It will literally take ONE MINUTE of your time. Go to CNN's comment page LINK HERE and post the following message:

Please play Tom Gresham and Clint Smith's question for the GOP candidates!!

That's it. Just send that. One tip, choose "positive comment" as everyone loves to read good stuff.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

School: Organization Blues

Law school is quite similar to regular college undergrad in a way - the students always seem to want to organize to do things together. Whether it's bringing in speakers, holding events (with food, mostly of the "free" variety), or just shooting the breeze, every day there's some student organization (read: club) that meets.

I used to be like them. I thought my student organization could change the world.

That was before I met "The Machine." Much more threatening than "The Man," the sheer weight of Student Government bureaucracy is almost stupefying in its scope. Here we have a structure with a budget in the millions - every UF student's tuition is raised slightly to pay for this stuff. In almost any private company, even with a budget that big, there are ways to allocate money fast. "I need to set up a company barbecue for this weekend -- No problem, use expense account #XXXXX, Joe'll handle the details tomorrow."

The upshot is that to request money from SG, you need literally a month's advance notice, even if it's just to fund something that's already been funded before. You need to fill out all sorts of forms, both in meatspace and online. All to get at money that supposedly belongs to everybody.

I guess Student Government really is teaching kids about how government works.

Miscellany: A Life-Size Bananas Foster

The first clip in this series is my favorite. There's nothing that says "schadenfreude" like seeing some guy light himself on fire in a banana suit.

Tech: Day of Defeat - a tribute

There are a bunch of WWII-themed games, running the gamut from flight sims to strategy games. My favorite first-person shooter that covers the era is "Day of Defeat." It's a team-based multiplayer shooter that used the Half-Life engine (the current version uses the Half-Life 2 "Source" engine, as well). Perhaps a music video will express some typical gameplay (slightly NSFW):

Yeah, there are classes, and there are flags to capture, but what makes DoD so unique is the uncompromising lethality of all the weapons. A single hit from a K98, and you're dead. A headshot with any of the weapons spells instant death, and at most, you'll only be able to take 2 or 3 shots before going down. Even the last-ditch melee attacks (knives for the Allies, trench shovels for the Axis) easily kill opponents.

Additionally, you have enhanced mobility compared to most shooters - you can sprint and lay prone, which makes for some interesting tactics. For example, suppressing fire in this game works much like in real life, since a bullet hit will slow down a player sprinting past, making him an easy target. Also, recoil (though still rather unrealistically light) is simulated better here than in most games.

The new "Source" engine also makes for some fairly cinematic scenes:

TV: The TV Guide Channel

Our cable system and TV combination make channel surfing a chore (the picture takes a couple seconds to refresh every time you flip to a new station). The easiest way to find out what's on, short of going on the Web or buying a newspaper, is to watch the TV Guide channel that constantly scrolls listings at the bottom of the screen.

In olden days, this space used to be filled with commercials or infomercials, but the TV Guide Network now pipes in entertainment for the attention-span-starved masses while they browse for something they really want to watch. I caught myself actually enjoying the "Look-a-Like" portions, where an average person is made up to look like a celebrity. It's a weird little show, and I'm pretty certain it'd fail miserably if it were a standalone series, but somehow, in that small space, it works:

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Food: Uncle Ben's Ready Rice

For someone who's used to cooking rice in a rice cooker, "Uncle Ben's Ready Rice" is a small miracle. You'd think microwaved rice in a bag would be undercooked, overcooked, or generally gross, but the rice that comes out of the "Ready Rice" bag is frankly better than you'll find on a lot of restaurant buffets. I tried the long grain/wild rice mix, and it gives you 500 calories worth of hot carbs, as well as 10 grams of protein.

It's definitely an expensive, lazy way to go. There's also a lot of sodium included in the package (but this also means you can eat the stuff straight from the bag and it'll still taste good). If you cook rice the traditional way, it'll take twenty minutes and some prewashing, as well as washing the rice pot afterwards. This comes in a 90-second cooking bag that you can toss out when you're done.

Miscellany: Leveling Up

One feature most RPGs share is "leveling up," but in most pen-and-paper RPGs, the process can get almost ridiculously complicated as time goes on.

A typical Japanese-style console RPG (Final Fantasy) handles most of the stat-boosting automatically, with perhaps a few meaningful choices in terms of character development.

A typical MMORPG (World of Warcraft) allows only minor deviations from the accepted template of a class - there are certain skills and talents that can be developed, but all in all, most Hunters will play the same, most Paladins will be interchangeable, etc.

In Dungeons & Dragons, though, the process can get tortuously complicated. First, you have to decide which character class to level up, and there are literally hundreds to choose from if you count all the optional "prestige classes" and such available from splatbooks. Then, you may have to choose "feats" (permanent benefits to an aspect of your character - say, enhanced swordfighting) - again, there are hundreds to choose from, all with wildly different effects. You add in skill points, which are allocated to one of the dozens of non-combat skills available (although most classes will end up pumping only a few). You have to consult tables and charts to bump up character stats - your base attack bonus may or may not go up, your saving throws may or may not go up, and depending on the level, you may get even more bonuses to your stats. Finally, you roll up some more hitpoints and off you go.

A daunting process, especially for a new player.

Music: Stairways to Heaven

"Stairway to Heaven," the Led Zeppelin song everyone has heard, reminds me of two distinct memories. The first was hearing it for the first time during a nighttime drive over the mountains near Lake Tahoe. As the eerie peaks stretched into the night, and our rental car ascended winding mountain slopes, it wasn't hard at all to picture the abstract goings-ons that the song's lyrics suggest.

The second thing that flashes into my head is the DVD extra from the film "Almost Famous." Since they couldn't get the license for "Stairway" in time for the theatrical release, they cut a scene where the entire song is played, without interruption, and the characters on-screen react to it. It's a riot:

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Guns: Southern Classic Gun & Knife Show

The biggest gun show I can attend on a regular basis is the Southern Classic, a family-run gun show that cycles through Florida every few months. They regularly occupy the Central Florida Fairgrounds, which is fairly convenient if you live in Orlando. Parking is free, but admission has now gone up to eight bucks.

If you've never been to a gun show, it's easy to sum up the experience - it's like a flea market where all they sell is guns, ammo, knives, beef jerky, "tactical" gear, and the occasional oddity. Prices fluctuate - since mostly dealers and gun stores sell at these shows, you may or may not get a better value than you would elsewhere, but the close proximity forces everyone to at least be competitive.

Someday I'm going to offer somebody "two tickets to the gun show" and when they expect me to flex my biceps, I'll give them two actual tickets to the gun show instead.

Tech: A difficult install

It used to be easy to install a new video card. I remember plugging in my VooDoo II without much trouble - open the case, pop it in to an open slot, and plug it into your existing 2D card. Install the drivers and cracka-BAM! - you're running Half-Life in glorious 16-bit color, 800x600 resolution.

The GeForce 8800 GTS proved to be a little more trouble than that.

First, modern GPUs are power-thirsty monsters. The 8800 takes up two expansion slots, and the GTS even requires a separate 6-pin PCIE connection to the power supply. I didn't have that much power to spare - time for another power supply.

Installing the power supply in my cramped case was harder than it should have been. We had to take out the fan assembly from the CPU, install the PSU, and then re-install the fan assembly (this necessitates some thermal paste application - try Arctic Silver). Thankfully, my new Corsair 520W supply is modular, which makes cabling a snap.

Putting in the GTS wasn't easy, either. The card is so massive it barely fits in the case, and I actually had to disconnect a minor connection to enable the card to slide in. The card runs hot - very hot. Typical operating temperatures are well north of 70 degrees Celsius (hot enough to burn your hand, in other words). Using the EVGA drivers seems to introduce some kind of performance problems once it gets hot, but the default Nvidia drivers seem to prevent this. But, it's all worth it, I guess - this thing tears up most of the games on the shelves today.

Miscellany: Disney in a Day

There are very few vacations that cannot be condensed into a day. In that span, I've had fairly memorable trips to Key West, Schlitterbahn, and now Walt Disney World. Like most Floridians, I've been to Disney more times than I can count. The rides keep changing though, which is a blessing and a curse - it's nice Disney wants to keep everything fresh, but it's always distressing when an old favorite has to be mothballed.

"Test Track" is billed as Disney's longest and fastest ride, and, indeed, you do get going faster than 60 MPH in the final turns. The simulated car ride is slathered in GM propaganda, which is unintentionally hilarious at times. The end of the ride even exits into a full-sized GM showroom.

"Mission: Space" simulates a trip to Mars, and it's hosted by Gary Sinise (why Disney hired an actor who's played an astronaut in "Apollo 13," rather than an actual astronaut, is beyond me). This ride nauseated the tar out of me, and the Wikipedia page hints that the ride had to be toned down since it was making too many people sick.

"Dinosaur" takes a rather traditional theme park ride premise (you're going on a trip through time) and mixes in the computerized enhanced car motion system used in other attractions (think "Spider-Man" in Universal Studios Orlando). Oddly enough, Phylicia Rashad ("Claire Huxtable" herself) is one of the hosts.

"Expedition: Everest" is probably the best new Disney ride in awhile. The theming of the pre-ride, including a lavishly decorated Yeti museum and a mandir, is fantastic, and the actual mountain peak is quite foreboding given the right weather conditions. The ride itself is a roller coaster, and a fairly tame one by most standards (no inversions), but again, you visit Disney to enjoy the artistry and attention to detail on their rides.

There were some disappointments. "Pirates of the Caribbean" has been predictably updated to include copious amounts of Captain Jack Sparrow, and "The Living Seas" has been "Finding Nemo"-ized in a fairly embarrassing fashion. "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" is also gone, and here's a video tribute to that classic ride:

Movies: Criminal

There's a whole cottage industry in Hollywood of taking foreign films and adapting them to American tastes. Sometimes this approach is successful (like "The Ring," a beat-for-beat remake of the Japanese horror film "Ringu"), and sometimes, it leads to movies like "Criminal."

"Criminal" is a story about two con artists who happen to meet and decide to "cooperate" on a big score. There's lots of twists and turns, lots of small-time cons, and plenty of decent performances on display. I've never seen the award-winning Argentinian film "Nine Queens," which the movie is supposedly based on, but I doubt it had the cultural tension that exists between the two leads here - John C. Reily and Diego Luna (of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" fame).

Ultimately, though, a lot of things happen that begin to feel more cartoonish than real. And the finale, where all the trickery and fraud comes to a head, seems to beg the question - how hard is it to con someone when literally everyone plays along?

Rating: 6/10

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Books: Duel

I've already pimped out one set of short stories by Richard Matheson, so I might as well do another one. "Duel" is a short story concerning a lone Everyman driving across a lonely highway. What happens next channels some of the most primal human emotions - fear, anger, and even the thrill of the kill. Here's a fanmade trailer from Steven Spielberg's TV adaptation of the short story:

Also included in the collection is one of my favorite Matheson stories, "Steel," set some time in the future. The story follows a down-and-out duo of boxing managers - only their boxer is a robot. Eventually, when the robot breaks down and a fight is imminent, one of the managers has to do the unthinkable - get in the ring with another robot in a battle that can't possibly be won.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Miscellany: More Random Videos

I'll get around to posting some actual content soon.

Here's a fairly interesting video - it's a rap cartoon, complete with profanity, that aired on BET. It satirizes today's gangsta hip-hop culture perfectly (warning - NSFW):

Another Stark Trek video:

Miscellany: Star Trek Frasier

Just ran across this amusing chestnut while browsing the Interwebz...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

News: We're Number Four! We're Number Four!

Yes, UF is ranked #4 in the Princeton Review's list of the top 20 party schools.

Obviously, a lot of that revelry comes from the fact that we have such a strong athletic program. Here's some video of the football championship, where, as is tradition, UF students flooded the streets of downtown Gainesville.

And if you do find yourself in such a situation, dress cool. There's nothing like the body heat of thousands of sweaty, drunken college students packed standing-room-only to make things uncomfortable.

TV: Body Story

Most documentary programs about the human body are clinical, detached, and altogether divorced from everyday life. It's easy to see some poor soul on a high-tech operating table and forget that everyone, every human being, has basically the same parts. It's not just the patients that you see on the show that have all those complex, 3D-rendered organs - you have them, too.

"Body Story" is a neat twist on all of that - it follows the lives of fictional average people as things happen to their bodies. From an invading flu virus to old age, various maladies and conditions of the body are explored in a visceral, down-to-earth way. My particular favorite is the episode that follows the internal injuries caused by a car crash - you literally wince at some of the stuff that is going wrong.

In some ways, it reminds me of the classic "Body Wars" ride in Disney World. The body, and its repair and defense machanisms, are your soldiers in the neverending struggle for survival. It's a struggle that everyone loses eventually, I suppose, but the important thing is to try.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Music: Utopia

Alison Goldfrapp's album "Felt Mountain" is very different from her subsequent works, but I like it nonetheless. Opting for an ambient Bjork-ish electronic vibe, there are a lot of slow songs, whistling, and even some yodeling. Check out this music video of my favorite song from the album, "Utopia":

I always thought that the high-pitched voice in the song was either a sample or some kind of effect, until I saw this live performance:

School: Day One Exhaustion

Coming back to law school on day one is always a hassle. I've experienced it twice already - once for spring semester and once for summer - and this fall turned out to be just as fatiguing. Like in previous semesters, I biked to school, and the way was longer, harder, hotter, and sweatier than I remember.

It was nice seeing old friends, but the pleasantries exchanged had the earmarks of relationships resumed after a long absence. "How was your summer? How are your classes?" More problematic is the fact that my former section mates are now in all sorts of different classes, which means even talking to them will be a chore.

Classes were standard introductory stuff, which must be as uninteresting for the professor as it is for us. I'll do a "Meet the Professors" post one of these days, but to be honest, it looks like I'm going to be very, very busy this semester; no telling how it'll affect the old blog. Time to draft a slip-and-fall complaint...*sigh*

Guns: A Blast from the Past

I had a chance to read "No Second Place Winner" by Bill Jordan. It's one of the seminal works of marksmanship and firearms handling, written by a man who could drop a ping pong ball from the top of his head, draw from his holster, and shoot the ball before it hit the ground. Bill Jordan served in WWII and Korea, and was on the Border Patrol for decades before he retired, so this is one cat who has "been there and done that."

What's most interesting, though, is how old-fashioned most of the advice in the book is. The book was written forty years ago, and it shows in some parts. For example, Jordan advocates a plain old 4" .357 as the best choice for a duty sidearm - mostly because .45 and 9mm JHPs didn't exist back then, nor were there reliable autoloaders to field those calibers in.

The one-handed point shooting on display will also be very controversial; I personally shy away from point shooting unless the target is so close you can literally touch it with your arm. Jordan also devotes a whole chapter to using wax bullets for practice, which I think is silly since drawing and shooting a .22 revolver pretty much practices the same skill - first round hits.

Not to say the book is useless. Far from it, in fact - all the tips, techniques, and equipment choices outlined in the book still work fine today. The advice on a fighting mindset (there are no second place winners in a gunfight - the loser will never get to see his or her loved ones again, so fight accordingly) is invaluable. Here's my favorite quote from the book:

"Almost invariably a man, provided he does not have too much time to think, will automatically do what he has been trained to do."

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Food: Mulliga's Mirepoix Spaghetti

We have a vegetarian guest here at my place, which means added challenges to cooking. I normally eat out quite a bit (as one could tell from my blog), but there are few options for vegetarians on the go sometimes - especially stuff that tastes good. So, I cooked up some vegetable spaghetti, mostly inspired by the vegetarian spaghetti that the Hare Krishnas cook up in the Plaza of the Americas.


2 stalks celery (perhaps 7" long each)
2 carrots (about same size as celery)
3 small onions or two big onions (you want to get a 2:1 ratio of onions to carrots+celery)
4 cloves garlic (less or more if you life, but I love garlic)
1 bottle storebought spaghetti sauce
Salt, pepper, other seasonings
Enough olive oil to cover the pan
2 or 3 tablespoons of butter
1 pound dry spaghetti


Dice up the carrots, celery, and onions (this'll take awhile if you're a klutz in the kitchen, like me). Start heating up the oil and butter in a saucepot on medium heat. Mince or thinly slice the garlic. Toss half the onions and all the garlic into the saucepot. After onion gets soft, toss in all the veggies. You may need more olive oil to cover the veggies - make sure the ones at the top don't look "dry." Keep cooking them, with lid on and stirring occasionally, until the carrots stop being rock hard.

At this point, start boiling water in a big pot (~5 quarts). I like to toss some salt in, and if your pot often boils over when cooking dried pasta, you might want to throw in some olive oil to prevent this. Pour in the bottled spaghetti sauce (you could also used diced canned tomatoes and tomato paste) into the saucepot and cover, and keep stirring from time to time. By the time the pasta is al dente (follow the directions on the box to cook), the sauce should be almost done. Make sure nothing's too hard (but don't cook it into a mush), and serve on top of the drained spaghetti.

The mirepoix itself (onions, celery, carrots) can tend to be sweet, so be sure to use enough salt, garlic, and/or seasonings to counteract this.

Serves three. You can feed four if you have side dishes or salads.

Miscellany: The Poor Man's Proactiv

Proactiv, a fairly popular acne treatment, has all sorts of infomercials and celebrity spokesmen. Diddy, Vanessa Williams, Jessica Simpson - all have pimped out the relatively expensive system of skin treatment. They even have vending machines in malls that dispense Proactiv - no employees, no overhead, and people get the product instantly and on demand.

Here's an example of all that marketing money at work:

I have some mild acne, so I wondered what Proactiv could do for me. Now, I don't have $50 to blow on an acne treatment system, especially when the active ingredients are available elsewhere. Proactiv is basically a combo of salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, both of which help clear off layers of skin and dry the skin out. I bought a Neutrogena brand "Proactiv-alike" and immediately started using it instead.

After a few weeks of use, I can't say this stuff has made much difference. In fact, my acne might be getting even worse - I have a big ole red zit on my cheek right now. I suppose I'll use up the rest of the package, and then go back to my old standby salicylic acid pads. At least my results weren't as bad as this poor fellow:

Food: The Burrito Circuit

After seeing all the doe-eyed freshman streaming into Gainesville, it's frightening to think that I've been here for such a long time. One thing most of these new students will eventually run is what I call "the Burrito Circuit" - all the fast-casual Tex-Mex burrito places in and around town. Here's the rundown:

1) Moe's Southwest Grill - This is a pretty big chain of restaurants, with hundreds of locations in 35 states and many more on the way. The food is okay (they offer tofu as an alternative to meat, which is helpful for vegans and vegetarians), but it's nothing to write home about. Their burritos are pretty filling, especially if you tell them to stuff it with toppings.

As far as value goes, Moe's isn't bad. They throw in some tortilla chips for free with every entree, and several salsas are also free. They offer a frequent-buyer card, too. My go-to meal at Moe's is a "Triple Lindy" burrito with some San Pellegrino mineral water.

2/4 stars

2) Chipotle - Another huge chain. Fewer menu items than Moe's, and less variety, but the rice and meat quality is slightly better, methinks. They don't offer free salsa or chips, though the chips that are available do taste pretty good (good enough to eat by themselves). Chipotle advertises itself as being more socially conscious ("natural" meat, recycled food packaging, etc.), if that means anything to you. I tend to go for a carnitas/barbacoa burrito with a soft drink.

2/4 stars

3) Burrito Brothers - A pretty famous Gainesville standby. Some love the food here and some hate it, but no one can deny it's unique. The burritos themselves use ground beef that is steamed, which makes for an interesting taste. Probably the least-filling meal of all the places on this list, which can be a good or a bad thing. again, I usually grab a beef burrito here with a drink.

2/4 stars

4) Tijuana Flats - A medium size chain mostly in the southeast. Their claim to fame is the chimichanga, a fried tortilla filled with beef and cheese. Fewer veggies and other fixins for the chimichanga mean it's less fillign than Moe's or Chipotle. Lots of free hot sauces to try at their hot sauce bar, which is a great feature.

2/4 stars

News: D&D 4th Edition

Check out the Gen Con video announcment of the 4th Edition of "Dungeons and Dragons," the most popular tabletop RPG:

A new edition? But isn't 3.5E only about 4 years old? Is it time to buy all new books?

The computer integration is leaving me cold. Admittedly, most modern DMs use a laptop to hold their adventures and campaigns. But quite frankly, the 3D "game table" and "character builder" have a tacked-on feel - they look like second-rate PC games and not polished products. Additionally, we're going to have to pay a monthly fee to even access these applications.

The rules system itself is rumored to be following the path of the "Star Wars" RPG - simplified character classes with "talent trees" and streamlined skills. That's all well and good, I suppose. I just hope that they aren't trying to be different just for the sake of being different.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Movies: Hairspray

"Hairspray" is a movie based on a musical that's based on a movie. Set in the '60s, it's part feel-good musical, part segregation-era racial prejudice parable, and part goofball comedy. I've never seen the original John Waters film, nor the Tony-winning Broadway show, so I have no way of comparing how this version stacks up:

The movie's about Tracy Turnblad, a high school gal who dreams of dancing on "The Corny Collins Show." Along the way, she battles the disdain of others (she's overweight, but still a capable dancer) and racial segregation. Along for the ride are John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah, and Michelle Pfeiffer.

It's a funny movie, at least when you're seeing it with a group of friends. A lot of the humor emanates from the lead actress, Nikki Blonsky, who has a pretty face to go along with her "pleasantly plump" figure. There's quite a few retro jokes (nothing like seeing pregnant women smoking and having martinis) that should make most people laugh.

There are some problems, of course. The wickedly self-conscious '60s treatment of segregation ("Negro Day" and "Nap-away") is funny for awhile, but it starts to get grating when you hear the whole "we-shall-overcome" business again and again. Additionally, much of the cast just aren't very good singers - when Queen Latifah and Pfeiffer have a split-screen musical number, it's pretty obvious Pfeiffer can't keep up with the likes of the Queen.

Rating: 8/10

School: Buy Early

It's back-to-school time here in Gainesville, and that means crowds. When you consider that thousands of students will be moving in, along with help from Mom, Dad, and sibling(s), you can see that something as simple as getting groceries can get very complicated the weekend before school starts. Like most people, I tend to dread standing in line or fighting in traffic.

I avoided the rush today, though - went to Publix at 8 AM to pick up supplies for Mulliga's Famous Vegetable Spaghetti (AKA the poor man's spaghetti, since ground beef is relatively expensive). 8 AM may not sound early, but it is in a college town. I got the closest parking space, didn't have to wait for anything (no line at the deli or the cashier), and got my pick of the litter for vegetables.

It's good being a morning person. :-)

Friday, August 17, 2007

Tech: The Price of Rapture

"Bioshock" is a much-hyped PC game coming out next week. It's the spiritual successor to "System Shock 2," one of my favorite games ever. Taking place in an underwater city called Rapture, the game thrusts the nameless protagonist into a world of genetically mutated human beings. Naturally, quite a few of them are hostile. Check it out:

The only problem is, it requires a beast of a machine to render all the eye-candy on display. My piddly little Radeon X1650 graphics card isn't going to cut it - it's time to upgrade to a GeForce 8800 GTS. Unfortunately, the power supply in my PC isn't big enough to even support the new card (only 300W). So all in all, I'm probably going to end up spending $350 just to get my PC up to snuff.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Guns: Gator Skeet and Trap

If sporting clays is akin to golf with a shotgun, skeet and trap are the driving range and putting green, respectively. The best place I know of in Gainesville to hone your skills in busting those clay pigeons is "Gator Skeet and Trap," located behind the Gainesville airport. It's a friendly place, with shotgun rentals available and the various ranges open to the public for reasonable fees. It's also only about 15 minutes away from the University of Florida, which is convenient.

Playing these clay games is a lot of fun in and of itself. There's a visceral thrill in seeing those orange discs evaporate into powder from a well-placed load of shot, a kind of immediate feedback that you don't necessarily get from other types of recreational shooting. Additionally, though, skeet and trap are good ways to make sure your self-defense skills with a shotgun are up to par, as Oleg's picture here demonstrates:

I haven't been back there in a long time, but I do recall their fantastic Olympic-style bunker trap system. Hitting those clays as they rocketed away from you was quite a challenge:

Sports: Urban Meyer

We're at the brink of a new football season here in UF (complete with obligatory home game with a pushover opponent), so I thought it was appropriate to highlight probably the biggest reason that UF won the national championship last year - head coach Urban Meyer. Here's Meyer during his very first spring training period before the 2005 season:

I think all Gators fans have kind of latched onto him as a savior - and that's partially because of commercials like these:

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Miscellany: Power-gaming vs. Role-playing

In nearly every RPG, there is a conflict between the "role-playing" and "game" portions. Take "Fallout," for instance, the classic post-apocalyptic computer game. When creating your character, you inevitably lay down the character's concept - is he or she a tough, no holds-barred type who shoots first? A master manipulator? Skilled in repairing and troubleshooting things?

Few people, though, would choose to play a complete wimp, since that kind of character would die quickly in the game, even though he or she might be fun to role-play. Players are even loathe to have their characters have weaknesses of any kind - I'm reminded of the constant rolling and rerolling of stats that some of my friends employed, just so they could play a paladin in AD&D 2nd Edition. Between these two extremes, there's the normal optimization that most players like in their characters, called "min-maxing."

I'm creating a new character for Dave's "plain vanilla" D&D campaign (he's just running some published adventures, so no splatbooks and no craziness). She's Jillian Underthorn, a halfling wizard specializing in transmutation, so she has a set number of spells that she can dish out. To be honest, I found myself min-maxing when looking at the spell list - "This sounds like a cool spell, and Jillian may have learned it in her travels, but it doesn't do as much damage as the good old fireball."

Oh well. I guess it's better than *gasp* dying in the campaign.

Music: What Makes It Go? (album)

One thing I like about living in information age is that you get to hear musical acts that you would have never been exposed to even a century before. Take Swedish pop band Komeda and their excellent album "What Makes It Go?" - normally I don't give albums any review, since everyone's taste in music is so disparate, but I can safely say any fan of pop will enjoy at least a few of the tracks on this one.

Links: Dungeon Majesty

"Dungeon Majesty" is probably the nerdiest thing I've ever seen. I mean, it's one thing to play D&D, it's quite another to film yourself as your character in front of a green screen and act out silly skits:

I mean, I know it's supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but that's a pretty geeky tongue in a pretty dorky cheek. But, who am I to talk? I like RPGs, too, so more power to 'em, I guess. Check out the infamous Willow tribute, featuring Leslie Hall:

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Movies: Night Watch

I can count the number of Russian blockbusters I've seen on one hand, and now "Night Watch" joins the list:

As the trailer indicated, "Night Watch" is all about the fight between Light and Dark, though the side of Light is not perfectly good and the side of Dark not perfectly evil. There is a truce between them, with a Night Watch to police the Dark and a Day Watch to police the Light. Into this world steps our protagonist, Anton, a member of the Night Watch with some of his own personal demons in his past to confront.

It's hard to review a movie like this. It's definitely not a typical horror movie - it skews more closely to an adventure/drama with horror elements than anything else. Also complicating matters is the fact that I could only get my hands on the dubbed version, not the original Russian language track, which obviously makes a huge difference in terms of performance and mood.

The movie is stylish, with an appealing visual sensibility despite the shoestring (by Hollywood standards) budget. The flipside of this, though, is that there might not be as much action or supernatural events as you mgiht expect from this kind of movie. In fact, the opening scene of "Blade" contains more fighting than this entire film. Additionally, few of the characters get developed besides Anton.

Rating: 7/10

School: Interview time

I signed up for on-campus interviews with employers here at my law school. Unnervingly enough, they begin the interviews a week before school actually starts. I have to admit, I am nervous. I've never actually participated in a "real" job interview before (my previous jobs were only procured because of family connections).

The law school interview process doesn't seem much different from other job interviews, thankfully. You research your employer, and get ready to field questions that get thrown at you, all the while trying to see if you'll fit into the firm. My uncle, who is also an attorney, tells me that sometimes interviewers differentiate between candidates by the smallest things - if your tie isn't right, or your voice sounds too grating, you might be passed over in favor of someone else.

It'll be interesting, to say the least.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Guns: Mexican Carry

If the "Guns Magazine" article is correct, there's nothing racist or pejorative about the term "Mexican carry." Anyway, it's the term most people use for carrying a handgun without a holster, and it's the term I use, too. Ironically enough, Mexico has fairly restrictive gun laws, so the average Mexican citizen wishing to carry a gun for self-defense cannot do so legally.

The interesting FBI report posted at Xavier's place highlights what most people already know - the vast majority of criminals carry guns in their waistbands or tucked behind their backs, without any proper holster. I've often wondered how anybody could reasonably carry a gun like that for any length of time - my furtive attempts at carrying without a holster usually ended up with the gun beginning to slide down my pant leg.

I suspect that the main reason offenders carry weapons like that is because holsters, even the cheap nylon kind, are viewed as an unnecessary expense or perhaps even a source of social stigma (carrying a gun "like a pig does"). The actual position that the report cites as being the most common - tucked near the groin area (imagine a clock dial - if 12:00 was right in front of you, they'd probably carry at 1:00 or 2:00) - is a fairly handy position to draw a gun from, especially while seated in a car.

The "how to spot a gun" chart someone posted seems impractical. I'd rather police watch people's body language and hands to get information on an impending attack, not try to spot them running in the rain.

TV: Everyday Edisons

I have to admit that even though PBS in high-definition is pleasant to watch, there sometimes isn't very compelling content available. A borderline concept for an HD show is "Everyday Edisons," a sort of reality TV feature that follows inventors who are helped through the process of obtaining a patent, designing a product, and going to market. See for yourself:

Frankly, it's kind of an odd show for HD. There aren't any stunning vistas, fast action, or even dramatic closeups. Still though, the concept is a good one, if only to make you realize how crushingly expensive it is to get a product on store shelves. Other invention contests (most notably ABC's "American Inventor") seem to be less detailed and less interesting, at least from a practical perspective.

Some of the actual inventions are of course unimpressive, but some are fairly neat (the Murtagh cement mixing hoe is so simple that it's a wonder no one's made something like that before). The USPTO is stuffed to the gills with frivolous patents and copycat ideas, so it's no surprise that some clunkers are featured on the show.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Miscellany: Levenger

It takes a bold store to elevate stationary into a status symbol, but Levenger, a company that sells "tools for serious readers" through various stores located throughout the country, has an undeniably patrician feel to all of its products and advertising. There's just something vaguely snobbish about ordering notepads and pencils from a glossy, attractive sales catalog. You know that you're basically paying exorbitant prices for office supplies, but there's a part of you that doesn't care.

My first introduction to the place came from an odd marketing trip they paid to my middle school. They had some kind of deal with the school or the teachers where they'd come in, get to shill their products and pass out their catalogs, and we'd all get free fountain pens and bound notebooks. To be fair to Levenger, the stuff they handed out was pretty good quality, and it was a real luxury to be able to write with a fountain pen. The whole thing was odd, nonetheless.

Food: Innocenzio's - an "A" for effort

Finding a good Italian restaurant can be a difficult proposition. As ubiquitous as the cuisine is, there are so many hundreds of thousands of two-bit pizzerias and spaghetti joints that even an above-average place can get lost in the shuffle. "Innocenzio's" restaurant, located in Lake Worth, isn't exactly great Italian food, or even particularly good Italian food, but it shows that even effort can count.

It's always little things at Innocenzio's. For instance, when the person who cooks your food actually comes out and talks to you about how you liked it. Having a separate cup holding your vinaigrette with your salad so you can decide how much you like. Swirls of chocolate sauce decorating your tiramisu plate. And so it goes.

The food itself was competent, too. Our salads, consisting of mostly field greens, tasted good, and the Italian sub and spaghetti were at least as good as most Italian joints. The restaurant could use a little lesson in ambiance - having CNN blaring through LCD flatscreens mounted overhead is not the most calming atmosphere. But, all in all, I'd go there again.

2/4 stars

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Music: Everybody Wants to Rule the World

It's definitely not my favorite "Tears for Fears" song, but the shambling beat and melancholy lyrics of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" are easy to get stuck in your head:

And of course, it was the theme for "Dennis Miller Live."

Movies: Stardust

There are some movies that give a bad first impression from their preview trailers. Take "Stardust," for example:

At first glance, this appears to be another me-too fantasy film in the vein of "Eragon." Epic fantasy movies are a dime a dozen nowadays, after all. What the trailer doesn't show, however, is the cheeky humor of the story (Robert De Niro plays a gay pirate) and charming performances from the cast, the two things that lift this adaptation of Neil Gaiman's work past other fantasy movies.

A lot of Neil Gaiman's work deals with coming-of-age, and "Stardust" is merely one good example. Tristan, a young man seeking a fallen star for his romantic infatuation, soon becomes tangled up in events that teach him a great deal about love. "Stardust" follows the path of whimsical, irreverent fantasies like "The Princess Bride," and it's worth a look if you need some family-friendly entertainment. Michelle Pfeiffer and Claire Danes in particular are inspired casting choices, and give pretty good performances for the genre.

Rating: 7/10

Friday, August 10, 2007

Tech: WWII, The Silly Version

The best explanation of the term "gamey" can probably be had by playing "Battlefield 1942," Digital Illusions' ambitious WWII FPS computer game released in 2002:

Looks great in theory, doesn't it? Land, sea, and air combat all combining together in one exciting melee. You could pilot a bomber, blast apart a bunker with a tank, fight as an infantrymen in urban combat, and even sail a battleship. The Internet being the Internet, though, this was what usually happened in a typical Battlefield 1942 match:

You'd spawn on board a Japanese aircraft carrier. All your "teammates" would be there, too, instead of going out and fighting the enemy. The reason? Everybody wanted to fly the airplanes, everybody camped the carrier.

An airplane appears! You jump in, and start accelerating for takeoff. Suddenly, the clattering of bullets rings off your hull. Has the enemy penetrated your aircraft carrier? Nope, your own teammates are shooting your plane down - they want to fly the airplane, and destroying yours (with you in it) is the quickest way to get the plane to respawn on the carrier.

You respawn, and all bets are off. You frag the teammate who killed you, but this starts a firefight on the deck of the carrier. For one absurd moment, a half-dozen Japanese sailors are shooting at each other over what is essentially empty space. You get killed.

You respawn, and decide not to go for the plane again. Another player grabs it, and takes off, managing to evade the deadly fire of his teammates. The Allies, unfortunately, have a flak cannon aimed at the plane, and both pilot and vehicle explode about ten seconds into the flight.

Another plane spawns, and another player attempts to fly it. Unfortunately, the pilot does not know the controls for controlling the plane, and he quickly nosedives into the carrier, which causes enough damage to actually sink the aircraft carrier. You abandon ship as the carrier sinks into the sea.

And that's Battlefield 1942 in a nutshell.

Guns: Loading magazines

Check out this video of a rather unique idea for an AR mag (posted by SayUncle):

I can't count how many magazine loaders, stripper clips, and other sundry devices have been invented to help speed up magazine loading. Back when I had a stack full of AK and AR mags, I'd spend the better part of an episode of "Futurama" just loading the darn things up with ammo. It was easy, it wasn't painful, but it might get old fast for some people.

On the range, however, I think loading magazines is a good way to space out the stress you put on a particular firearm's barrel. You don't normally pop mag after mag of 9mm downrange; taking a break between strings of shots is just common sense. Loading magazines is a good way to pass this extra time.

None of this applies, however, to unloading magazines. I hate unloading AR mags, for example, so a LULA might be just the ticket.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

TV: GEICO Ad tribute

The amount of car insurance advertising on the airwaves sometimes borders on the ridiculous. In terms of marketing savvy, though, there's only one real winner. GEICO, the insurance company that spawned the popular GEICO gekko and GEICO cavemen, has long flooded TV with its commercials, many created by "The Martin Agency."

Some were stupid, some were forgettable, but all were played several hundred million times. Indeed, the cavemen were so popular that ABC is launching a sitcom with a similar premise (which marks one of the rare occasions when a TV commercial gets turned into a show).

(With credit to the so-comprehensive-it's-scary Wikipedia page):

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Music: Gone Away

This was playing over K-BAHN, Schlitterbahn's music system throughout the park. I'm not a big "Offspring" fan, but this song always takes me back to middle school in the late '90s:

Food: Fancy Thai vs. Plain Thai

There are certain discernible levels of quality present in almost any category of restaurant ethnic food. At the lowest levels are the dives and takeout joints, somewhere in-between are the normal restaurants that crowd the strip malls, and still higher up are the high-falutin' places that strive for Zagat ratings and nice "ambiance." "Tub Tim," a local Thai place we go to occasionally, fits in the latter category, so we have dubbed it 'Fancy Thai."

"Fancy Thai" serves its Thai iced teas in elegant curved glasses, complete with a fresh orchid as a garnish. The interior of the restaurant is clean and tastefully decorated, as are the restrooms. All the plates are similarly attractive visually - they actually try to "plate" some of their dishes, rather than just plop them on and spit them out.

All this, of course, comes at a price, and "Fancy Thai" is quite expensive. Additionally, since the restaurant is frequented primarily by white retirees, the food often becomes fairly Americanized (the pad thai, for example, is of the sickly-sweet peanut-buttery variety). All in all, though, it's a decent place to eat if you're in "L Dub" (Lake Worth).

2/4 stars

Miscellany: Schlitterbahn

The first time I ever heard of Schlitterbahn was from a Travel Channel special featuring the "10 Best Waterparks." Being a waterpark afficionado, I had visited most of the top 10, including Disney's Blizzard Beach in Orlando, FL and Raging Waters in California. Number one, however, was Schlitterbahn, an oddly named park in central Texas that had an incredible uphill water coaster ride. Since it was three hours from Houston, though, I gave up on ever going. Here's a slideshow of someone else's family having fun there:

All that changed yesterday. After my Grandma's funeral was over, the kids needed a break. My aunts and uncles had me take their kids over to New Braunfels, Texas for a once-in-a-blue-moon trip to Schlitterbahn (which actually means "slippery road" in German). All my cousins piled into two cars and at 7 AM we set off on the blistering three hour trip to the park.

The journey was not uneventful, but suffice it to say we made it with all hands intact at Schlitterbahn. We immediately headed for the "Master Blaster," named the best water ride in America time and time again. Unfortunately, even an hour after the park opened, the wait for the ride was 2-1/2 hours, an obscene amount of time to stand in line. We aborted that venture and went to other, lesser slides and rides, hoping against hope we might find our way onto the Master Blaster eventually.

Schlitterbahn is a hard waterpark to review. I'm used to Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon, two very-polished Disney waterparks that will give most visitors a great amount of fun for the money. In comparison, the relative hamhandedness displayed in ride design, attraction queuing, and park layout in Schlitterbahn is disappointing.

For example, during the "Raging River," billed as the world's longest tube chute, there were frequent hangups in certain areas as too many inner tubes clogged the ride. On other tube chutes, currents actually sucked riders backwards instead of forwards, making actually completing the ride a sometimes arduous task. The difficulty or intensity of rides was also frequently suspect, as supposedly moderate "triangle"-level slides were often harder and faster than "diamond"-level rides.

The park itself is split into two halves - East and West. Schlitterbahn West is the original park, fed mostly by untreated spring water. The East half is newer, and it features most of the thrill rides including the "Master Blaster." Finding your way to a particular ride then, can often be a matter of hiking to a tram stop, taking a ride to the other half, and then hoofing it from the tram stop to the ride - not the most convenient thing in the world.

All sins were mostly forgiven, however - late in the day, close to closing time, we finally managed to wait in a reasonable line for the Master Blaster (only an hour long). It is, indeed, the best water ride I've ever been on, perfectly aping a traditional roller coaster, with enough speed and height to excite but not terrify. Check it out:

Would I go again? Probably not. The two Disney waterparks in Orlando are so easy to get to and are about as good as Schlitterbahn. Still, though, it was a lot of fun.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Books: Hellboy

Comic books can be an expensive hobby, and that's the primary reason I never read the "Hellboy" series by Mike Mignola. It's a shame, too, that the high price tag (nearly $20 for a slim, albeit attractive color volume) deters people from what is now a classic comic, but it's the truth. Fortunately, the local library had nearly the entire run of Hellboy, so I checked them out for free.

The opening volume, including Hellboy's origin, is heavily influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, complete with the requisite monstrous apocalyptic tentacled monstrosity. The art and writing is excellent, and even the competent 2004 film starring Ron Perlman has a hard time keeping up with the artistry on display here. Most surpisingly, Hellboy himself seems less gruff and more human in the comics, less of an anti-hero and more of a butt-kicking adventurer.

Further volumes feel diluted - it's weird how so many occult happenings have some kind of connection with Nazi Germany. And the writing never quite reaches the upper echelons of modern comic story plotting. But, this isn't a modern story - it's superhero fiction mixed with "Weird Tales" and other horror pulp, which is fine in and of itself. Still, though, the various books, taken as a whole, definitely cry out for some kind of reduced-price, anthology version.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Links: How It Should Have Ended

First, I'd like to thank everyone on the Web who has given their sympathy and support during this difficult time. Grandma's funeral is over, and life is starting to get back to the normal routine. The tone here at Shangrila Towers has been morose, and I realize it can be depressing to read, but I needed to get it out of my system and written down somewhere - my sincerest thanks for bearing with me.

How It Should Have Ended is a site featuring humorous alternate endings to films and other parody videos. Worth a visit if you like this sort of thing:

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Guns: Laser Tag, The Poor Man's Force-on-Force Exercise

During a lull during the funeral ceremonies, we took the kids outside to get some fresh air. Unfortunately, rain clouds closed in on us, so we took refuge in a laser tag center near my Grandpa's house. About 7 bucks a kid and 20 minutes later, we were ready for a little slice of urban combat.

In many ways, playing laser tag with two dozen screaming children nicely illustrates principles of close quarters combat with firearms. The first thing you notice is that it's very, very easy to get hit - with snipers and lone wolf kamikaze-types laying in wait around every corner, the time between getting hit is often measured in seconds, not minutes. Extrapolate this to a real combat zone, with modern carbines and optics, and you see what a nightmare this type of experience can be.

The second truism I saw in my time there was the fact that an organized team is almost always more effective than a group of scattered individuals. Working with the cousins under my care, we stormed positions, covered retreats, and sticked together with at least some semblance of effectiveness. With me being the best shot (not hard to see why, given that none of my cousins have ever even fired a real gun), I often had plenty of time to down entire opposing teams while my underlings drew their fire.

Finally, I think many underestimate the importance of physical conditioning in this type of work. I was very sweaty even after a twenty minute session in an air-conditioned arena carrying a plastic laser gun and vest. It must not be fun for our soldiers to be kicking in a door in the middle of summer in Baghdad with full combat gear on - if you don't have the endurance for a mission like this, it could be life-threatening.

That's probably why our government uses fancy laser tag to train the Army:

Miscellany: A (Vietnamese) Buddhist Funeral

My Grandma was never a religious person, but nearly all people from Vietnam practice some elements of the uniquely Vietnamese Buddhist tradition that exists there. Thankfully, Houston has a huge Vietnamese population, so a nearby funeral home is fully stocked to take care of the ceremony in the manner passed down from generation to generation. These past few days have been trying, but it's always nice to know your loved one is going out in style.

Monks come in, and we kneel on the hard floor (which gets painful pretty fast). They start chanting and singing in rhythmical Vietnamese, with much bowing from everyone in the room to the shrines erected, one carrying an image of the Buddha, another with a portrait of Grandma. Every family member wears a plain white headband, tied a certain way depending on if the wearer has any dead parents. A monk rings a gong periodically.

Then the sermon begins. I'm told later that it's about the love a mother has for her children, a fitting subject. We're still on our knees, and the pain welling up from them is almost too much to bear for me. More and more singing, a ceremonial meal laid out in front of Grandma's shrine, and condolences from close relatives follow. A long day, to be sure, and there's more ceremonies to come...

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Grandma, 1928-2007

There was a time, Grandma, when you were the first and last face I saw every day. From taking care of my cousins, I now realize what a burden that must have been. In the carelessness of youth, I never really took the time to really thank you. Now it seems I've missed my chance. For that, I am sorry.

In a way, though, I do feel blessed. I saw you in your prime as a grandmother. We never spoke much (my halting attempts at basic Vietnamese still elicit laughter from the family), but I think that in our time together we managed to at least understand each other.

It is a cliche, but I will always remember the small things. Your smell (the smell of a grandmother), the funny way you pronounced my name, the way you spoiled me with special meals. Goodbye, Grandma, and thanks for everything.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Tech: Tetris DS

A reality of the hospital waiting room, as I've mentioned before, is boredom. Luckily, I brought my Nintendo DS Lite to keep me occupied, as the hours and days can just blend into each other sometimes. The DS has a ton of great puzzle games (including hits like "Brain Age" and "Puzzle Quest"), but the granddaddy of them all has to be "Tetris." The original Game Boy version helped sell millions of units for Nintendo, and it's been reborn for the DS.

The game has plenty of modes, 3 action-based and 3 more sedate endeavors. The Standard, Push, and Mission modes are all played using the standard Tetris controls and playfield, while the Touch, Puzzle, and Catch modes offer strange variations on standard Tetris. The game supports single-card multiplayer for 10 people, and you can play online. With all my cousins assembled to see Grandma, we managed to get a rousing six-player competitive game going.

There are some potential drawbacks, here. If you don't like Nintendo, you may not like the in-your-face 8-bit themes that adorn all the game's puzzle modes (the standard marathon mode, for example, is played to renditions of the NES "Super Mario Bros." music and to the "Legend of Zelda" overworld theme). The trappings of modern Tetris - infinite spin, previews of the next 6 pieces, a ghost block showing where the block will land - are here in force, but mostly can be turned off or ignored. For everyone else, this is a meaty package that will delight most Tetris fans.

Rating: 85/100

Movies: The Simpsons Movie

The marketing hype for "The Simpsons Movie" has approached iPhone-like levels in the past. Everything from 7-11s to websites to the Fox network itself has been turned into an organ of the gigantic Fox ad machine. Though my Grandma is peacefully resting through the last few days of her life, I just had to take a break with my family and see a movie, and it turned out to be Simpsons time.

The last few seasons of the Simpsons (okay, the last five or six seasons) haven't been very good. I think the show jumped the shark around Season 9, and my favorite episode remains "Itchy & Scratchy Land" for its brilliant send-up of modern amusement parks. Unlike many TV-show-turned-movies, however, "The Simpsons" is still popular and is still running, so any kind of big screen adaptation has different goals in mind.

Viewed in this light, the movie isn't disappointing. Sure, it feels like a 90-minute long episode of the show, and yes, the animation tends to use a whole lot of CGI. But the story is suitably epic, there are a number of chuckle-inducing bits (especially the full choral version of "Spider-Pig"), and everyone can leave the theatre happy if not satisfied.

Rating: 7/10