Friday, November 30, 2007

News: Evel Knievel, 1938-2007

When I was growing up, I always though his first name was "Evil," not "Evel." And I think it fits better anyway. In any event, a legendary daredevil passed away today. Here's a quick look back at some of the highlights of his career, and his influence:

And of course, what could always happen with these stunts:

Books: Holiday Reading (Unfinished Business Edition)

While I am in the thick of exam prep right now, I still look forward to the time I'll have on vacation - specifically, the chance to catch up on my reading. It's sad that law students typically stop reading for pleasure, because the rewards of reading are probably what lead many of us to this profession in the first place.

This holiday season, I've chosen to finish up a bunch of books that I either haven't read in years or stopped reading somewhere in the middle - full reviews will follow in the coming weeks:

Dune - Yes, that Dune. I last read it when I was ten or eleven years old, and by now the original sci-fi text is hopelessly mixed up with that movie with Sting in it.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - I borrowed this Pulitzer Prize winner from the library some years back. Great story - just never got past the first act.

Tigana - Epic fantasy from a Canadian author, and another library loan I never completed. As I recall, the couple hundred pages I read were full of crowd-pleasing moments. Not "heavy" fantasy, but it was pleasant enough.

Guns: Urban Operations

Anarchy is often used as a synonym for chaos, but in reality, I think it only degenerates into such when you have a large crowd of people in one place who are in the mood to fight. Unfortunately, that condition occurred in the L.A. riots of 1992, when for several days the city of Los Angeles was wracked by looting and lawlessness. I was reminded of that fateful time since the catalyst for the riots, Rodney King, was in the news recently.

As the violence spread, Korean-American shopkeepers took to the streets to protect their stores from looters. Aside from Hurricane Katrina, this is the best-televised instance of open gun battles on American soil that I'm aware of:

The breakdown of law and order is a convenient excuse for thugs and criminals to start taking advantage of people - notice that most of the actual crime is done by a small group of people, while others just stand by watching, not aiding but not restraining them. In these situations, the game plan for survival, I think, should be "get the heck outta Dodge." A firearm, as the Koreatown video shows, is small comfort when confronting a mob of attackers. But it might be able to help get you out safely.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

School: The Roar of the Crowd

One odd thing the uninitiated might not know about law school is that invariably, during the last class for a course in a given semester, there's a round of applause for the professor. This cheering is usually preceded by an upbeat "I enjoyed teaching this class" sermon from said professor.

It was cute during our first semester as 1Ls. Hell, it was even tolerable for the second semester. But now, it just seems more like an affectation than anything else. After all, it's not like the professors are teaching us for free - every single student pays around $1000 for the course, so why should we applaud getting what we paid for? And what if the professor was genuinely bad? Granted, this has only happened once during my stint here at Levin (any of my friends reading this will know the one).

Of course, another common belief among prospective law school students is that law school is like high school. And yes, for the first year, at least, it is:

Tech: Super Mario Galaxy review

"Super Mario Galaxy," the latest entry in the famous video game series from Nintendo, is a return to form. 2002's "Super Mario Sunshine" was considered too watered-down and tedious for Mario purists, and while the sunny tropical environments were visually impressive, they sometimes lacked imagination. Galaxy fixes this problem by hurling Mario through dozens of different "galaxies" (that is, levels), all with unique themes:

The gameplay is a platforming fan's delight - if you liked the N64's "Super Mario 64" in the least, you'll have just as many "Wow!" moments during our mustachioed hero's journey through the cosmos. Whether it's surfing on top of a manta ray, catching a ride on a dandelion puff, or battling one of the many sub-bosses, "Super Mario Galaxy" is consistently entertaining. The game also plays with gravity on a regular basis; while most of the challenges are not difficult (caveat - I've played every Mario game ever made), they have enough variety that you're too busy to care.

The graphics here are the best you've seen on Wii, bar none. The Wii doesn't output in HD, and most of the textures don't look great when zoomed-in, but overall, the game is gorgeous and runs smoothly. The music is decadently orchestrated in most levels, with the final battle with Bowser featuring a full chorus for that apocalyptic feel.

If there's any criticism to be made, it's that "Super Mario Galaxy" is merely an evolution of Mario 64. And some people may genuinely prefer Mario 64's large sandbox style of level design instead of Galaxy's more linear course pathway system. This holiday season, though, it's pretty clear which game Wii owners will be snatching up.

Rating: 95/100

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Politics: The Republican CNN/YouTube Debate

I dislike televised debates. I think it's generally agreed that they are contests to see who can throw out the best 30-second soundbite or who can act the most congenial on national television. When you have an issue like the Iraq war or illegal immigration, asking for a simple solution is like trying to cook a Thanksgiving turkey in ten minutes - it can be done, but the results won't be very satisfying.

I did watch tonight's Republican presidential debate, though, mostly to see what kind of questions people asked about gun rights, and how the candidates answered. Predictably, Giuliani spouted off his "I support the Second Amendment" nonsense. Tonight, he also added that he agreed with the Court of Appeals' opinion in Heller striking down D.C.'s gun ban.

This is a conundrum, given that NYC's gun laws are about as restrictive as D.C.'s. What's really ironic is that Rudy admitted to having 24/7 armed security earlier in the debate - some animals are more equal than others, I guess.

The other notable gun rights question was simple - do you own guns, and what kind do you own?

Some candidates were coy, but none admitted to having NFA stuff. My ideal candidate's response to the question above?

"I do own firearms. The most important gun I own, however, is a (insert name of pistol/revolver here). It's not used for hunting, but to protect myself and my family. I'm carrying it right now in a strongside holster, and I support the right of all people to carry guns for defense."

News: Lessons from a Murder

Early Sunday morning, when the UF-FSU postgame celebrations were starting to fade, Andrew Arosemena was stuck in traffic inside the downtown parking garage here in Gainesville. He asked the blue car ahead of him to move; that car was stopped because its passengers were talking with some people who were standing outside the car. Moments later, the people outside the blue car approached and shot Arosemena without saying a word. He later died at Shands Hospital.

The hidden camera footage was grainy, blurred. But what could be pieced together from the testimony of witnesses and the people inside Arosemena's car is that two men approached the car with guns. With seemingly no motive (there was no threat of robbery and no argument between Arosemena and his attackers), a man was killed. Authorities pursued the suspects, finding a potential murder weapon in a lake and convincing one of the suspects to come forward.

I think there are some valuable lessons to learn from a tragedy like this. Violence can happen at any time, in any place. It is likely that Arosemena was literally surrounded by people exiting Gainesville's bars at the time of the shooting, yet that did not stop someone from drawing a gun. Video surveillance and police patrols are not perfect deterrents; as you can see, the parking garage has excellent camera coverage of all the garage, but people do not take that into account when committing a crime.

The most important lesson is this - that you are completely vulnerable inside a stopped car. There was literally nowhere to run for Arosemena, and the car doors and windows offer almost no resistance to a bullet. Once his assailants turned off that mental switch, that inhibition against killing a fellow human being, violence was inevitable - indeed, no heated words were exchanged, no negotiation, no fighting - just an attack. It seems to me that Arosemena's only chance, his only shot at survival, would have been to recognize his attackers' intentions and respond in kind.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Music: Coffee & TV

Like many people, I tend to develop fairly strong associations between songs and events. One of the happiest of these pairings is the song "Coffee & TV," by Blur, and our family's first trip to Europe. For some odd reason, this music video was playing nonstop on "The Box" all throughout our journey:

It's a great video for a catchy Britpop song (the rest of the album, while good, is very different). I'm not really a huge Blur fan, but this song always brings pleasant memories whenever I hear it playing somewhere.

Food: McAlister's Deli

If there's one thing you'll never have a shortage of here in Gainesville, it's sweet tea. Almost every fast food place serves it, even the dingy old McDonald's out on Archer near I-75. All the barbecue places have sweet tea on tap, too. And yes, Publix sells it by the gallon. But by far the most picturesque sweet tea comes from "McAlister's Deli," a chain of fast-casual restaurants. They even bill themselves as the "home of McAlister's famous sweet tea."

McAlister's Deli is a place that doesn't really have any standout dishes, but chances are what you order won't completely disgust you. The basic sandwiches, including the classic reuben, are prepared well enough, though they don't give you as much meat as a true Jewish deli (and trust me, I'm from South Florida - I know what deli food is supposed to taste like). The other dishes are hit or miss - the chili is pretty good, but the salads and baked potatoes can get iffy. And the prices are definitely high (6 bucks for a smallish sandwich and a bag of chips?)

The real star here, though, is the sweet tea. They give you free refills, of course, but the draw is in the presentation. Other places dump their sweet tea in Styrofoam cups or regular drinking glasses, but McAlister's piles a whole bunch of ice into an attractive clear plastic cup that inevitably collects condensed water on the outside - pretty as a picture. While the tea itself is nothing out of this world, they say the first bite is with the eyes, and the same holds true for beverages.

Rating: 2/4 stars (decent)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Book: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

There are books that, regardless of the objective quality of their contents, have messages that are so agreeable on a personal level that it's hard for you not to like them. I have a feeling that "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," written by Robert Heinlein, falls into this category. In my opinion, there are few better introductions to libertarian ideas than this novel ("Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand made me want to drive an icepick through my foot). It is widely considered to be one of Heinlein's masterworks.

The former penal colony of Luna (Earth's moon) is the home of a unique society where individual rights and free enterprise thrive without a real government. Disputes are resolved privately, markets use the gold standard, and crime is generally low (the families of any victims can easily toss the offender out of the nearest airlock).

The only fly in the ointment is Earth herself, who oversees the Luna colony indirectly and maintains a monopoly over what is bought and sold from the colony; the people of Luna ship thousands of tons of materials to Earth, while receiving less and less mass in return. The emerging sentience of a computer sparks a revolution seeking to overthrow Earth control - but how can a ragtag group of colonists fend off against the military might of an entire planet?

It's a pulpish book in some places, and the writing is sometimes not very good - the character of Wyoh is so idealized it borders on caricature - but the overall plot and speculative society of Luna is a fun read. The novel, while being a tale of revolution, is deeply distrustful of revolutionary governments, which is an observation that has proven to be correct, at least in the 20th century. "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" is one of my favorite books - here's a quote:

The power to tax, once conceded, has no limits; it contains until it destroys. I was not joking when I told them to dig into their own pouches. It may not be possible to do away with government— sometimes I think that government is an inescapable disease of human beings. But it may be possible to keep it small and starved and inoffensive— and can you think of a better way than by requiring the governors themselves to pay the costs of their antisocial hobby?

TV: Terminator - The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Breda previewed it, but I didn't realize how much of a push "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" was receiving from FOX until I sat through a dozen ads for it, all running during new episodes of "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy." Here's a clip from the pilot:

I'm a huge fan of both "The Terminator" and its first sequel, but in my opinion the story was pretty much over when T2 was done - anything else that comes down the pike feels tacked-on and pointless (watch T2 and T3 back-to-back, and you'll see how poorly the latter fares without James Cameron's brilliance).

This series looks like it's going to tread some very familiar territory. Looking at the other clips on YouTube, the whole affair feels like a low-budget remake of T2. And the Terminator universe, which already includes sentient machines and time travel, is looking to become even more far-fetched - exactly how many Terminators is SkyNet going to send back? And how does the human resistance keep sending back people to protect John?

I've always liked Thomas Dekker (he was in the "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" TV series) and Summer Glau (a refugee from "Firefly"), but I predict this thing's gonna sink. Oh's Summer (playing River Tam) kicking some ass in "Serenity":

Sunday, November 25, 2007

School: December Rush

It's law school exam season again - this time my schedule is heavily front-loaded, with two exams coming up next week and a Legal Drafting final contract due, too. Needless to say, there's going to be some light blogging ahead. But, I'm sure this is cake compared to the preparation needed for the bar exam:

Links: Animal Crossing, plus a plug for Child's Play

This is from a fairly sad story involving a mother, a daughter, and "Animal Crossing," a Nintendo game where you interact with a virtual world and can send messages and gifts to other people playing the game. Here's a YTMND featuring the comic, with some plaintive music (+10 nerd points if you can ID the track).

Anyway, the real reason I'm bringing all of this up is to remind people that the 2008 Child's Play charity drive is going on right now. I've always believed video games were a huge boon to people who are otherwise bedridden or disabled. Donate, and help some sick kids have a better holiday season.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Guns: Suppressors

There are a lot of misconceptions about suppressors (AKA "silencers" - you know, those big cans people attach to the ends of firearms to reduce the noise of firing). In most cases, a suppressor doesn't actually "silence" a firearm - attach a suppressor to a 9mm handgun and it's still about as loud as a car door slamming, depending on how it's designed. Suppressors are not illegal to own here in the U.S. in most states, but you have to pay a steep $200 tax and undergo the excruciating NFA process for what is essentially a $40 tube of metal.

The first time I ever went to a rifle range, I was lucky enough to shoot a suppressed 10/22. An older gentleman, obviously well-to-do, invited us to try it out, and it was not only an incredibly accurate gun, it was also whisper-quiet. The clack-clack-clack of the bolt moving back and forth was much louder than the report of the gun. It was very quiet, but keep in mind this was subsonic .22 LR coming out of an integrated suppressor.

So why doesn't every military use suppressed guns? Well, aside from the increased size and weight suppressors add, they do not last forever and present another maintenance headache for quartermasters. And, to be frank, the probable future hearing loss that many soldiers face is not much of a concern for most militaries.

Movies: No Country For Old Men

Your enjoyment of the Coen brothers' latest film, "No Country For Old Men" (based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name), depends chiefly on how much pleasure you derive from a very particular worldview; the movie can be summed up as "Gnostic dualism with firepower." The characters, including blue-collar protagonist Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin, who is having a career-making year), are trapped inside a material world that doesn't take bravery or goodness into the equation.

Moss stumbles upon a failed drug deal and a big bag filled with unmarked bills while hunting out in the desolate Texas plains. Rather than leave well enough alone, he takes the money, bringing the inevitable attention of a whole bunch of folks, among them Chigurh (a remorseless killer tracking the money, played expertly by Javier Bardem), angry Mexican drug dealers, and a Texas sherriff (Tommy Lee Jones, essentially playing the same role he's played in every other movie - a weathered law enforcement officer). It's typical Coen brothers territory - money, greed, and sporadic bouts of extreme violence.

What isn't typical is the worldview. This movie is the polar opposite of "Fargo," both in setting and in its larger meaning. "Fargo" had Frances McDormand's "Margie," a paragon of virtue in a horrible world. "No Country" is far more bleak in its assessment of what happens when a good cop meets unspeakable, almost insane violence. It wasn't really effective for me, but your mileage may vary.

The standout role in the movie is Chigurh. Bardem gifts the character with an unwavering, almost predatorial intensity - you feel that even if Chigurh got the money, he wouldn't really know what to do with it. Chigurh is a sociopath in the strict, DSM-IV sense - he does not follow society's norms, but he is not irrational or wild. And yes, he carries the coolest movie weapons I've seen in awhile - a suppressed shotgun and a cattle gun.

Rating: 7/10

Friday, November 23, 2007

Music: Hurray

You've probably never heard of Kalan Porter if you're not a fan of "Canadian Idol." I had certainly never heard of him - until I saw the music video featured below. It's often a rough life for Idol winners, and the music they turn out is seldom noteworthy. But I think "Hurray," and the accompanying music video, is pretty nifty.

News: An observation regarding international diplomacy

Our family has some friends who are from Lebanon, so whenever things get hairy over there, I take special notice. The 2006 Israel-Lebanon flap was primetime news for about a month, but the country seems poised to retake the headline spotlight with the recent failure of the political parties to find a new president.

My observation: when the U.N. Secretary-General urges all parties to remain calm, it's a sure sign that all hell's about to break loose.

Miscellany: A Not-So-Black Friday

Usually, Mom and I wake up early the day after Thanksgiving to stand in line (often in frigid weather) to take advantage of the sales that occur on "Black Friday." It's sort of a bonding experience for her and me - mothers and sons usually don't shop together, so it's nice to have one day a year where we partake in a frenzied display of consumerism as a duo. When other members of our extended family join in, the atmosphere gets even more ridiculous.

This year, unfortunately, I'm in the midst of preparing for exams and there's literally nothing to buy. All our material needs are fulfilled, and there's no reason to wake up at 4 AM and stand in a 200-person line just to save $150 on some stupid HDTV. It's a strange position to find ourselves, being able to sleep in the fourth Friday of November.

My new plan of attack? Have a relaxing breakfast at John G's, stop for some stuff in the mall afterwards (I need a new Scrabble set), and study the day away. Not exactly bliss, but it's better than fighting over a $200 laptop.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

I can't quite pinpoint when we started to make all of our traditional American-style Thanksgiving dinners from scratch. Ironically, there's a certain level of affluence required to do such a thing nowadays; I imagine it's easier for someone living paycheck to paycheck to just grab some quick stuff from the grocery store rather than blow the entire day off cooking, eating, and cleaning up afterward.

In any event, I'm thankful for my family and my friends. I'm also partial to cranberry sauce (where we start from actual cranberries and spices, not a can), mashed potatoes (cooked potatoes that are then mashed by hand), and turkey (we're brining the sucker as I type this). It's a little shallow, but it's also senseless not to commemorate such things, for they come only once a year.

And I know this is a rerun, but if you haven't seen the "Thanksgiving with the Kranzes" Apollo 13 parody, you need to:

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

TV: Two Dudes Catering

I'm a sucker for reality TV stuff on the "Food Network." Maybe it's the fact that petty disagreements are more entertaining when people are in the kitchen, or maybe it's the elaborate culinary creations that you get to gawk at. That's why I tuned in for an episode of "Two Dudes Catering" yesterday.

Yeah, we've seen this shtick before. Indie renegade chefs, high-dollar clientele, lots of drama - it's just like "Ace of Cakes." Unlike AoC, however, the end product here is often fairly tepid - no cakes shaped like flamingoes or Wrigley Field, simply plates and plates of food. It's less fun and less far out, and I wouldn't be inclined to watch another episode.

One thing the show demonstrated was how outside the mainstream these shows go. AoC often feature cakes that cost more than most people make in a month, and "Two Dudes Catering" recently did a sushi dinner where the fish alone cost $1000 - to feed 15 people. It's entertaining to a point, but sometimes the eye-rolling excess does get annoying. It's not like there's an unlimited amount of fish in the sea.

Guns: Supreme Court grants cert in Heller v. D.C.

This is big, probably the biggest news for gun rights in, oh, I don't know, seventy years. The Supreme Court has accepted the D.C. gun ban case - oral arguments begin in the spring.

The actual decision won't come until summer 2008. Whichever way it goes, expect a whole lot of handwringing (actually, I wouldn't be surprised if they don't even get a majority opinion - wouldn't that be frustrating?). And the outcome of the 2008 election may very well be affected by how the court rules.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Miscellany: Down with the sickness

I suppose it's reassuring that some things never change, and the one thing that's constant about the common cold is that it's always mutating. Caused by a variety of different viruses, the common cold is nature's version of a stress test for the human immune system. From the moment you are infected, you body mobilizes forces that will eventually destroy the viruses, but not before you feel miserable for a few days.

I've got a runny nose and a sore throat. Thankfully, my immune system is ready to rumble.

Guns: Ruger 10/22 carbine

In my opinion, the best firearm for teaching basic marksmanship is the .22 rifle, and without a doubt one of the most ubiquitous .22 rifles is the Ruger 10/22. The 10/22 is a semiautomatic design that has been manufactured since the 1960s. Many writers more experienced than myself have recommended it as part of a beginner's arsenal.

The unique thing about the 10/22 is that every single part of the rifle is available as an aftermarket replacement - you can literally build a 10/22 with no Ruger parts at all. There are overmolded stocks, bull barrels, target trigger groups, sights, and even fresh receivers that can be purchased to customize a 10/22 to your liking. It's the 1911/AR/small block Chevy of the rimfire rifle world.

To be honest, out of the box, I wasn't very impressed with the 10/22. While the fit and finish wasn't bad for a sub-$200 rifle, the rifle seemed primitive compared to, say, a Marlin Model 60. There's no last shot bolt hold-open, for example - unless you count each shot, you'll hear a *click* as you inadvertently pull the trigger on an empty chamber. The stock, by default, is clumsy and fat, and almost too big for a young person to easily handle.

Accuracy-wise, the default Ruger parts aren't going to win any awards. A lot of people have slammed the factory trigger, but I don't think that's the problem. Unless you get the target models, the lower-tier 10/22 carbine will have a barrel band that probably isn't aces for shooting. All in all, it's not my favorite .22 rifle, but it does offer the unique ability to upgrade.

Monday, November 19, 2007

School: Notice and Comment

Administrative Law is a very practical class. While it's unlikely you'll ever be faced with the kinds of issues raised in Criminal Law (that is, unless you're a criminal lawyer or a criminal defendant), the agency procedures covered during an admin law course are the foundations of modern government in America. Like it or not, all citizens are subject to countless agency decisions and rule changes, like NHTSA tightening the standards for school buses.

The big advantage people have in the U.S. that the average North Korean "citizen" doesn't have is the ability to see what these agencies are doing (and stop it, in some cases). In the informal rulemaking cases, generally you have a notice and comment period where the public (and powerful special interests) get to chime in. There's one undeniable benefit to big corporations and lobbying groups - they counterbalance that whole "New Deal" alphabet soup very nicely.

Miscellany: Crossroads Guitar Duel (spoiler)

I've never seen the movie "Crossroads," but I understand it has a very similar plot to "Guitar Hero III." Young guitarist tries to go on the road to make good, but he ends up running into "Old Scratch" and has a head-cutting duel with an insanely talented guitarist...for his soul. Ralph Macchio is the young kid battling demons, both real and figurative, and Steve Vai plays the guitarist with the Devil's own skill:

(This should probably go under "Music," or "Movies," but whatever.)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Miscellany: There'll be a change in the weather...

Autumn is in full swing here in Gainesville. We've passed the point where it's cool during the morning and warm through the rest of the day - now it's just brisk all the time (temperature never gets above 80 degrees). This is fantastic weather for doing almost anything outside, but it also necessitates some changes in wardrobe.

My outerwear of choice for these conditions is a jacket that I've owned for about a decade. It's khaki-colored cotton, with a leather-lined collar, a bunch of pockets, and plaid cotton interior lining. It's really thin, meaning that it's no good for truly cold weather, but just about perfect for Florida winters.

Looking back, though, this jacket has seen me through many dangers. It's been to Seattle, Chicago, Houston...not to mention the hard knocks of daily wear and tear every winter when I carted it out. It's a minor miracle that such a garment hasn't been lost or misplaced through the years, and it's become my favorite jacket. Possessions are transient, but once in awhile, it's nice to have things that stick around.

Tech: The Future of Reading

This article describes the new device being spearheaded by CEO Jeff Bezos - the Kindle. Using a new form of screen technology that mimics a written page, the Kindle aims to replace traditional books by having better functionality - it's always connected to the Net, it can download new books wirelessly, and it can search and cross-reference stuff in the text. It sounds great.

Until you hit the $400 price tag for the darn thing.

The book has survived for so long (in an era when magazines, especially gaming magazines, are going under faster than the Hesperus) because it's essentially disposable information. It's popularity is not linked to ease of reading, or being able to curl up in a bed to read, or not using power - modern laptops solve pretty much all these issues already (how many people browse blogs and websites for hours at a time?).

What if you left your paperback copy of Charles Dickens' classic, "Great Expectations," on a plane? No big deal, just grab another $6 copy from a bookstore. Heck, what if you wanted to cut up the passages for use in an art project? No problem, it's only paper.

Until the e-book is almost as cheap as a real book, it's never going to be popular.

Miscellany: Tonk

I didn't have anything to write about today, but a random memory from high school did pop into my head:

High school lunch time is one of the major socializing periods you get during the packed school day. While there were many days when I used the time to catch up on class work, most lunch hours were spent talking with friends. Eventually, a lot of us started playing "Tonk," a less complex form of rummy.

It's hard for me to remember the rules, but one aspect of the card game that I do remember was "eating" - where a player could literally snatch cards up that were needed in order to form a spread. This added an important dexterity element to the game, as a skilled player could win even with an unlucky draw by being fast. Looking back, we were pretty much doing the same thing we're doing now in law school with poker night, which is interesting when you really think about it...

Friday, November 16, 2007

Guns: Disarm the Negroes. - The Racist Roots of Georgia's Gun Laws

I have to admit, if there's one thing law school can provide to prospective lawyers, it's perspective. In the course of doing legal research, you realize that cases from literally 200 years ago are neatly catalogued and easily found. This means you can easily see where trends in the law began, though sometimes, these origins are ugly indeed. has put up a great article highlighting the origins of gun control in Georgia. Like most states in the South, these laws were designed to disarm freedmen or to keep the slave population in check. Following Reconstruction, even supposedly "race-neutral" gun control laws were routinely enforced only against black people. It's a sad irony that the gun control supported today by Al Sharpton and others is a direct descendant of laws intended to keep black people defenseless.

Now, the article is a bit rough. The citation is definitely not up to par for a law review (never cite Wikipedia, for example), but the veracity of the arguments and quotes is undeniable. Well worth a look.

Food: Newberry's Backyard Bar-BQ

About 15 minutes away from the hustle and bustle of Gainesville is the sleepy town of Newberry. It's a quaint little place, a boomtown that started up when phosphates were in high demand. The city hall is small enough to be mistaken for a neighborhood church, the main road through downtown is two lanes wide, and parking isn't hard to find. And here, in the heart of Newberry, is "Newberry's Backyard Bar-BQ."

The food is decent, though it's nothing to fawn over. The sides are actually the best thing on the menu - perfectly cooked corn-on-the-cob, good fried okra, fresh fries, and more. The ribs are smoked in the "Sonny's" North Florida style, and while they are tasty, I have a feeling they're overcooked (AFAIK, rib meat isn't supposed to fall right off the bone). In any event, they give you smaller portions than Tori's Bar-B-Q or David's Real Pit BBQ.

I only eat here once in a blue moon (mostly when I'm browsing Pickett Weaponry to see if they have lowered their prices - they never do :-P ), but I have to admit, it's always been a good meal. The town itself is very peaceful, and strolling around on a brisk fall day, stomach full of sweet tea and pork, is as pleasant as you'd think it'd be.

Rating: 2/4 stars

Music: The Sandman

"America" has never been more than a footnote in rock history. When your breakout hit, "A Horse With No Name," is often mistaken for a Neil Young song, and your "comeback" single is the gimmicky "You Can Do Magic," than you know that people probably aren't going to remember you as a rock legend. I've always had a soft spot for their stuff, though, especially because they're a fixture on pop and soft pop music stations.

Recently, "The Sandman" has been stuck in my head (mostly the chorus):

"I understand
you've been running from a man
that goes by the name
of the Sandman..."

Here's a nice cover dedicated to our troops overseas (belated Veterans Day):

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Books: The Best of Lester Del Rey

A magazine editor, like a movie producer, is often forgotten. Most people know who directed "Jaws," but how many can name the producers? In the same vein, not many people have read the works of Lester Del Rey. As a magazine editor and as a co-founder of the Del Rey imprint of Ballantine, Lester had an eye for talent, helping to publish authors like Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and Terry Brooks. Not suprisingly, he could write pretty well, too.

I saw "The Best of Lester Del Rey" in a Half Price Books while on vacation, and I knew it was going to be worth the $2.00 asking price, and then some. Now, I'm not saying Del Rey is or was a great sci-fi writer - frankly, he was an editor for a reason. Many of the stories here are okay, but not memorable or noteworthy. But there are some gems, including the famous "Helen O'Loy" (a touching story about an android wife).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sports: Last Chances in the NFL?

If you don't follow professional American football, you probably don't know about Ricky Williams. This is a running back who won the Heisman Trophy (among others) while playing in college, and was picked 5th in the NFL Draft (A Big Deal). He languished at the New Orleans Saints for three seasons, but when he came to play for the Dolphins, he became the leading rusher in the NFL in 2002.

Then came the problems. Ricky, who smokes pot and thus violates the league's drug policy, announced an early retirement and a series of positive drug tests kept him out of the NFL, not to mention the psychological problems Williams has been diagnosed with. Now, this is just my opinion, but if a player smokes a joint, isn't that less serious than someone using steroids? It's not like marijuana makes you any stronger or faster on the field. Anyway, the NFL has reinstated Ricky and the Dolphins have taken him back, so he'll have one last chance to make good before he's traded at the end of the season.

Additionally, there's word that former UF quarterback "Sexy Rexy" Rex Grossman is going to start for the Bears again. Here is a rollercoaster ride of a career - some success at Florida, a notorious "good Rex, bad Rex" season that ended in a spot in the Super Bowl, and a disappointing start that ended with Grossman getting benched. The former first round pick is going to have a helluva time, but good luck, Rex.

TV: The Munsters

In 1964, a curious thing happened. Two sitcoms debuted, both featuring families with a touch of horror - "The Addams Family" and "The Munsters." Both ran for only two seasons, with their last episodes coming within a week of each other. But only one would burn itself into my subconscious:

If you've never seen an episode of "The Munsters," imagine a family composed of classic monsters - Dracula (Grandpa), Frankenstein's Monster (Herman), The Wolf Man (Eddie), and Frankenstein's Bride (Lily) - that thinks it's a completely normal member of suburbia. Headed by Herman, the pater familias, the easy jokes come fast - Herman cracks every mirror he looks into, Grandpa always comes up with zany experiments, etc. Delving deeper, however, you can see a complicated look at the experience of an immigrant or minority family trying to blend in with society. I'm not sure it was the writer's intention, but "The Munsters" has a lot of meaning for any transplanted family dealing with a foreign land.

As a kid, though, I watched the Munsters' adventures at 1313 Mockingbird Lane because it was slapstick entertainment. The actors were veterans, and every situation was played for maximum laughs. It's tough to have truly romantic sitcom scenes when you're covered in makeup, but by golly, Fred Gwynne and Yvonne De Carlo made it work.

My favorite character was Marilyn, played by Pat Priest. As a beautiful blonde-haired woman in a family of monsters, she was constantly loved but pitied by everyone else for her "plain" looks. Priest really managed to sell it; Marilyn looked resigned to her fate, but was always supportive of the rest of the family. A lot of people are unaware that for the first 13 episodes, there was a different actress playing Marilyn. 13 episodes. Hmm. I wonder what happened to her?

Movies: 1408

They say every PG-13 movie gets two or three nonsexual uses of the F-word. "1408" knows how to use 'em wisely:

Olin (played by none other than Samuel L. Jackson): "It's an evil f---ing room."

"1408" is the most recent vehicle for John Cusack, who has a penchant for playing characters who are too witty for their own good. You've seen this kind of performance from him before - if you queue up "Identity" or "Being John Malkovich," you'll quickly grasp the psychosis Cusack is aiming for. The run-up to the actual room is probably the film's best part.

The script, as so many reviewers have pointed out, eschews gore and violence for more subtle menace. At first, the room seems fine, but things start to spiral out of control. Soon it's less about surviving and more about maintaining your sanity in the face of a hostility that is all too personal. Is this Hell? Is there an evil in the room? Is Cusack's character merely going insane? Is this a dream? The answers never really come (heck, the movie has two equally fitting endings), and that's a good thing.

What keeps "1408" from being another "The Shining" are the sometimes-ridiculous turns of plot that occur midway to keep the audience occupied. This is, after all, a movie about a man in a room, so it's evident that the filmmakers had to relieve the claustrophobia somehow, and this is not always entirely successful. Additionally, while the score, cinematography, and effects are all serviceable, they aren't as striking as Kubrick's masterpiece.

Rating: 7/10

A little in-joke for those who've seen the movie: "We've Only Just Begun" performed by The Carpenters. And man, Karen can drum:

Miscellany: Top 5 Airplanes

I've always loved aviation, so the "5 favorite airplanes" meme going around the blogs is a perfect fit. Here's a few of the planes that stick out in my mind (if we included helicopters, the Huey would be on there, too). Keep in mind I'm not a pilot, so most of this stuff is by reputation and notoriety rather than effectiveness in flight:

5. Boeing X-32

If you've ever watched the "Battle of the X-Planes" episode of "Nova," you can probably guess why this one is here. The X-32, which competed with Lockheed Martin's F-35, was and is ugly, unsightly, and bulbous (the chin made it look like a flying whale). It couldn't even achieve supersonic flight in the same trim as it did a STOVL sequence with. Still, it was a very different design in a world saturated by look-alike fighter planes.

4. Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress

The B-17, for me, is a symbol of how quickly technology moves. Less than forty years from the wooden frame flying at Kitty Hawk, we have a strategic bomber that can carry 20,000 pounds, and in numbers, can level entire cities. The B-17 was also a great symbol of American air superiority (check out "Twelve O'Clock High with Gregory Peck - it's essentially a two hour-long Hollywood advertisment for the B-17).

3. Douglas DC-3

Another classic plane which saw heavy use during WWII. I'm familiar with it mostly because I once received an incredible die-cast version of the plane as a gift - it was a mail plane, with brown and tan trim that looked awfully sharp to a young boy's eyes. Only later did I read about how the Dc-3 revolutionized air travel.

2. Grumman F-14 Tomcat

The U.S. military and Hollywood have a symbiotic relationship that is probably unique. When "Top Gun" came out on video, it made everyone want to be an ace fighter pilot - until they realized how much training and screening is needed before someone lets you control a 30 million dollar aircraft bristling with expensive weaponry. The plane itself served fairly well, although I wouldn't want to fly an F-14 equipped with the crappy TF-30 engines in a dogfight.

1. Stearman Model 75

A classic biplane, and a rugged one - this is the kind of plane you fly in to remember how cool it is that human beings can fly in the first place. A regular performer at air shows across the country, the Stearman is nimble and agile, which is probably not what you'd expect out of 60 year-old technology. While the other planes on this list might be "better" in some sense, this is the only one you could ever hope to maintain yourself.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Guns: I can't stand the suspense

Everyone and their mother was waiting for the Supreme Court's decision today to deny or grant certiorari to D.C. v. Heller, the landmark Second Amendment case striking down D.C.'s draconian gun ban. Showing that even 9 people robed in black have a sense of humor, the Court did not issue any order one way or the other today. The next time they could possibly decide whether to take up the case is November 26.

My take on it is that the Justices simply needed more time to review the case. It's not the simplest case in the world (especially because of D.C.'s disingenuous re-imagining of its own gun ban to only include handguns), and U.S. v. Miller is one of the vaguest precedents you can imagine. But, I trust everything will eventually turn out okay.

Here's a random gun-related quote. Thomas Jefferson once wrote:

"A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body, and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks."

Miscellany: The Wages of Procrastination

I've been a procrastinator my entire life. I think the earliest example I can recall offhand was when I had to do a poster about plant seeds in the third grade. The weekend before the darn thing was due, I had my parents take me to MOUNTS Botanical Garden in a last-ditch effort to collect enough seeds to pass muster. It worked well enough, though I remember getting really distressed when Ms. Youngberg recognized the source of the seeds (I thought she was accusing me of cheating).

In middle school, I can still recall furiously typing away on an old copy of WordPerfect (which used to be the dominant word processing program) in my Dad's office for my science fair project. I was cobbling together data I had just collected the afternoon before on the effects of magnets on car radio antennas (hint - they don't), and "Time" by Pink Floyd was playing in the office. Fairly apropos, I thought:

High school was even more fun, because we had tons of work (thanks, IB program). All those World Lit papers? The Extended Essay? Last minute jobs. And every time, I passed with flying colors.

College has been fine, with all-night cram sessions resulting in mostly A's (with some *cough* B+'s). I think in law school, though, I've finally met my match. The JTLP paper is due in 14 hours, and I don't think I can finish it in time. Thankfully, it's optional, and I can grade on later anyway. I guess the procrastination will continue ;-)

Monday, November 12, 2007

News: The writers strike

The WGA strike is entering its second week, and to be hoenst, I haven't even noticed. I mean, it's not like Breda or James or Tam or any of the other writers I actually read are on strike. I can't even remember when I last followed a primetime network TV show, either. I do admire the WGA, though, for its prescience - TV as we know it is going to radically change in the next couple of decades, and it would suck to be left out in the cold.

It did get me to thinking, though - what exactly are my rights to Shangrila Towers? Let's see:

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Not as bad as I thought, but I wonder if Google will provide a backup copy of my blog if they ever stop providing Blogger?...

Miscellany: Minority Report interface on the Wii

I'm deep into writing my paper for school, so only a quick post today. If you've ever seen "Minority Report," you'll probably remember this part:

Now check this out:

Books: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Some of my favorite children's books are Newberry Medal winners, including classics like "The Giver," "Maniac Magee," and "A Wrinkle in Time." I've found that in general, these books hold up even when you read them as an adult, which is a pretty special quality when you think about it. Of all the Newberry winners I've read, the book with the most flat-out fun premise is "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" by E.L. Konigsburg.

It's about two children named Claudia and Jamie who run away - but they aren't running away from their home, they're running to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The plan is ambitious, and every detail of their escape is gleefully set to paper by Konigsburg. From their grey-washed underwear, to the coins in the fountain they scavenge, to the cheap sandwiches they buy for lunch...these images are almost guaranteed to stick into a kid's head.

Often children's literature has elements of fantasy or the supernatural (most people, kids included, don't want to read about the real world when they read fiction), but this is one story that's pretty firmly grounded. There are some implausible events and lucky coincidences, but overall, you could almost picture yourself hiding in a museum along with Claudia and Jamie. Of course, that's half the fun.

There have been some film adaptations, with the most recent being a 1995 made-for-TV movie that I remember mostly because the girl who played Jamie looked nothing like the character in the book. Here's a clip from the 1973 film version:

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Tech: Mass Effect preview

BioWare's upcoming action-RPG game, "Mass Effect," is being billed as a spiritual sequel to KOTOR, and it's not hard to see why. The conversation scenes are highly reminiscent of BioWare's previous Star Wars-themed effort, and the futuristic settings and alien planets seem calculated to generate approval from sci-fi fans, as opposed to the sometimes hard-to-swallow milieu of Jade Empire:

You know the drill - big galaxy to explore, ancient evil, lots of NPCs, etc. While it's nice to see another great BioWare game in the works, I can't help but think that maybe they've gone to the well one too many times. I'm just hoping they fix the most basic issues with the Baldur's Gate/NWN/KOTOR formula - friendly AI (pathfinding, combat, etc.), bugs, and what I like to call the "Endless Inventory" problem - where you get so much minor loot that you feel more like a pawn shop than a hero.

Some of the dialogue outcomes are...interesting, to say the least:

Veterans Day

The Constitution of the United States America, for all its virtues, does contain several blemishes. There's the obvious reference to slavery in Article I, Section 2, which was of course a dark compromise made by many who were behind the ratification. But another part of the document often is looked over - the power of Congress to declare War.

In a perfect world, we wouldn't need War to "insure domestic Tranquility," but thankfully, the U.S. Armed Forces have been around since 1775. Today, as most of America ignores the end of the Armistice of WWI in favor of getting a three-day weekend, I'd like to pay special attention to the ethics and moral character of our soldiers overseas.

Paul Christopher once said:

"The thin veneer of culture in which each of us cloaks ourself, all our grand trappings, our wealth, our social status, our titles, our degrees, our investments, the prestige or power we have over other, all these things can quickly disappear; and if they do, who is left? Who is really there when the paper-thin veneer of culture is peeled away?...The linkage of men's character, reputation, and integrity is exposed in glaring detail as soon as the thin veneer of society is peeled away ... "

And it's true. In war, the gloves come off, and all the thousands of years of civilization can be forgotten in seconds. What is left makes someone a hero, a villain, or something in-between. From all the vets I know personally, though, it's evident that most American soldiers are made of stern stuff. A sincere thanks for representing the best parts of our country.

Music: Ain't No Mountain High Enough

The most inspiring piece of feel-good, let's-stay-together music that I've heard is Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's rendition of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and even 40 years later, it continues to impress:

It's been used in a heck of a lot of movies, including this cute scene from "Stepmom":

And this one from "Remember the Titans":

Miscellany: Scrabble Game Folio

If you're going to buy one edition of the Scrabble game, this is probably the one to get. The Scrabble Game Folio is a travel-friendly version of the bestselling crossword game, and it's obviously been constructed by people who like to get their Scrabble on. There's neat snap-in letters, a plastic grid that keeps all the tiles in place, and even snap-in tile racks. The whole affair zips up handily, and there's ample space for a pencil and scorepad.

Many of these travel editions of games are too small to be really useful, but the Folio is a good size - yeah, it won't fit in your pocket or purse, but it is handy enough to be stowed in a car door slot, and small enough to fit on the folding tray of an airplane. It's also big enough not to get lost easily, which is a plus when you're trying to check out of a hotel room in a hurry.

The tiles themselves are easily lost, however, so be very, very careful when you start to actually play letters. Sometimes, if you don't put in a tile correctly, it will not only pop out of the plastic snap grid, but it will pop out other tiles adjacent to the area, causing much consternation. Imagine two teenage kids, groping about the bottom of a 737 for the letters I and G, and you have an idea of what problems lie in store for careless fingers.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Guns (sorta): Impromptu Gun Battle

Yeah, I've done this, especially with my cousins:

Miscellany: Running a "Call of Cthulhu" campaign, part 11

Even with the best players and game masters, running any pen and paper role-playing game can eventually turn into a grind. Combat soon boils down into the abstract, with people announcing numbers and getting more thrilled at the result of a roll than in the DM's description of the action. While this is certainly not a wrong way to play, it does give a computer-game feel to what is supposed to be an interpersonal experience.

My players recently expressed an interest in alternative forms of plot resolution (AKA getting away from the dice), so I decided to work the concepts discussed in this post at Socratic Design into my next session. Enter...Jenga:

I realize it's a bit LARP-y, but here's the idea. Every time a player wants to boost or reduce a die roll by 1d6 (which could be critical in a gunfight with evil Mythos cultists), I'll have them remove a block from the bottom of the tower and place it on the top. A skilled player can usually build up 36 stories or more, but I'll assume for the sake of argument that my players are klutzes - probably no more than 30 or so moves until the tower collapses." The kicker is, though, that failing a Sanity Roll will also make them remove a block. Upon total collapse, something...bad...happens to everyone in the party.

Tech: Gears of War

Every "Gears of War" review nowadays mentions the memorable TV spot (featuring the "Donnie Darko" cover of "Mad World"). I think the ad is actually cooler than the game, personally:

"Gears of War" is a third-person shooter that was recently released for the PC (it came onto the Xbox 360 a year ago). It's certainly the most tactical game Epic's ever made, in the sense that while you're behind cover, you're essentially invincible to everything but a grenade, but if you're out of cover, you die ridiculously fast. This is exacerbated by fairly cheesy one-hit kills (the Boomshot, Longshot, and Torque Bow are all capable of ending your game with one unlucky strike) and the vulnerability of your character in close combat.

This all feeds into the main problem with the game - the repetitive battles. Since getting close to enemies is almost always suicide, you tend to stick to cover and just wail on enemies with the assault rifle until they drop. Epic still hasn't mastered the art of pacing; whereas the Half-Life series effortlessly interlaces battles with puzzles and narrative, "Gears" doesn't really have any puzzles and the narrative is about as flimsy as a Dixie cup. With such a wonderful-looking apocalyptic environment to mull around in, it's a shame that your methods of interacting with it begin and end with you using a concrete block as cover.

The production values of the game are staggering, which is probably why the game got so many high review scores initially. Even today, with the next-generation of shooters being released, "Gears" still holds its own in the graphical department. The orchestral soundtrack could've come straight out of a big-budget summer action movie, and the gruff voice acting (especially Gus "Cole Train" Cole) is almost laughably over-the-top.

I played the PC version, which has its own unique advantages and disadvantages compared to Xbox 360 experience. For one thing, being able to aim with a mouse makes the game much, much easier. There's also some new content involving the monstrous Brumak which mixes in well with what was already there for the 360, making me think that Epic was a bit hurried in making the original 360 release date, if you know what I mean.

Rating: 80/100

Movies: The Condemned

There's something seedy about a WWE-produced flick that I just can't put my finger on. Maybe it's the fact that all the women are not only photogenic (as would be expected in a major motion picture), but have inordinately large breasts; maybe it's that every guy looks like he's been pumping iron (and 'roids) for a while. It's probably just the inane story that does it, though:

Starring "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, "The Condemned" is a near-remake of the film "Battle Royale." Everything from the cult Japanese film is duplicated here - the time limit, the exploding collars for disobedience, and even some of the characters (there's a good guy, a sadistic killer, and a femme fatale). Unfortunately, where the Japanese film was uncompromising in its violence and depravity (the scene where a bunch of paranoid schoolgirls start shooting each other up is insanely funny, if you enjoy dark humor), "The Condemned" plays out so predictably that it's tedious.

Stone Cold's in no danger of winning an Oscar here, and the smile he ends the movie on is hilarious because it's so forced and awkward. And hey, you knew he was going to survive the whole movie, since it's a WWE flick, and they wouldn't dream of killing off their pro wrestler headliner. Vinnie Jones has made a career out of being a tough SOB, too, so he works pretty well as an antagonist in the story. Honestly, though, without these two heavies chewing up the screen, the movie would be pretty much unwatchable.

Rating: 4/10

Friday, November 09, 2007

Food: Mildred's Big City Food

There's a curious culinary divide here in Gainesville. East of 13th, you do have some interesting places to eat - Book Lover's Cafe, Juniors, and the smattering of places that crowd downtown. West of 13th, though, you'll be hard-pressed to find anything that isn't a big chain (Archer Road is particularly clogged with them). Mildred's Big City Food is a nice exception to this rule.

Nestled in the corner of shopping center of the University-and-34th intersection, it's a standard bistro (much like Bistro 1245 next to Leonardo's pizza), except the atmosphere is a little more laid back and parking is much easier to find. While you won't have a dedicated waiter, I found the service to be pretty good nonetheless. But the real star is the food.

I had a spinach feta quiche that was pretty good - a thick pie slice with a soft, eggy filling. Along with the quiche comes a good portion of mulligatawny soup, which had lots of spiced shredded chicken inside. Since I knew one plate wouldn't be enough, I also tried the grilled fontina cheese sandwich, which would have been better with more avocado and bigger slices of bread.

In fact, the only serious complaint I have about the place are the tiny portions (okay, it's a big complaint). Many of these bistros simply aren't geared toward providing enough food for an active person who's burning way more calories than the standard 2k. If I were an anorexic supermodel, I'd guess I'd appreciate it, but as it stands it knocks the place down a full notch.

2/4 stars (that is, good enough to eat there again)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

TV: The Incredible Hulk

Adapting a comic book superhero series into a television show can be a risky business. While sometimes these translations hold up pretty well ("Lois and Clark"), many series simply never get off the ground ("The Flash"). The central problem in all of these versions is the balance between seriousness and camp - do we want "The Joker" to be Heath Ledger or Cesar Romero? "The Incredible Hulk," one of the finest comic book TV series, falls firmly into the former category:

The protagonist is David Banner, not Bruce Banner (eschewing the cheesy alliterative comic book name for the Hulk's alter-ego), and Bill Bixby gives a performance that would come to define the character for decades - emotionally withdrawn, brilliant, but ultimately good-hearted. Lou Ferrigno's Hulk is actually more effective than the cartoony CG version in the Ang Lee feature film, mostly because of the earnest menace exuded from his body language. This Hulk might not be able to throw tanks into the air or leap into low Earth orbit, but he sure doesn't mind whipping the bad guys in glorious slow motion:

The focus on drama meant some effective storylines and almost zero interference from the rest of the Marvel universe (fantasy and superhuman events were mostly limited to the Hulk himself). For most people, the scene of Bixby hitchhiking away from another town (along with the theme "The Lonely Man") is etched in memory, and thus parodied relentlessly:

School: Your Heart's Not In It

For Legal Drafting we had to create a fictional ordinance requiring people to put up barriers preventing access to their swimming pools. While I didn't find the assignment very difficult, it was a bit strange to me on philosophical grounds. It occurred to me that this might happen on a regular basis once I begin practicing law, so maybe it's useful to work through it...

There are any number of things on the average suburban property that will cause injury or death to an unattended child. How many people just leave playground equipment lying around, or even worse, fertilizer or pesticides? With that in mind, it's hard for me to rationalize just why people need the government breathing down their necks whenever they want to construct a private swimming pool. It's not like the pool is a nuclear reactor or a coal plant - there's simply very little impact on the public at large.

The ordinance we had to write required us to set up a permitting system - if someone wanted to build a pool, they'd first have to get permits for both the pool and the barrier around the pool, as well as a final inspection by the county. To me, it's the equivalent of having to get a permit for a television.

Guns: Some are more equal than others

This video shows various law enforcement officers and their stances on gun control in general, and concealed carry in particular. Most telling is when Los Angeles Sheriff Baca tells you what you need to get a permit in LA - assuming you aren't an ex-cop or a judge, you need to be a victim of violent crime already. That's right, in order for you to be able to defend yourself with a firearm, you have to be attacked first. Some comfort that must be for anyone who's receiving death threats from a stalker:

Miscellany: Half-Life and Half-Life 2 in 60 seconds

Contains mild spoilers, but the whole video will be mostly indecipherable to people who haven't played the "Half-Life" PC games. For people who have, prepare to crack a smile:

Sports: Back in Business

Tennis player David Nalbandian hasn't hit the final of a Grand Slam since 2002 (although injuries are partly to blame), but lately his career has been seeing something of a resurgence. He's just won two Masters series titles (Madrid, Paris), beating some of the world's top-ranked players, including Roger Federer, multiple times. There's something marvelous about somebody struggling and struggling and finally making it.

His sense of humor needs work, though. Here he is singing in Argentina:

News: Finland School Shooting

Normally I wouldn't post something like this, since it tends to glorify these types of murders, but I figured it would be all over the news anyway. This is the Finland school shooter's video, posted before the murders:

Here's an open letter to any would-be mass murder types, now and forever:

It won't end well. There will be no "revolution." There will be no apocalypse. In fact, you won't even be remembered a couple decades down the line.

This killer, for example, shot a bunch of innocent people. The sky didn't open up. Nothing changed around the world. Babies were still being born, kids were still riding bikes for the first time, the air was still cold around here.

The world won't change, thankfully. But it will be rid of another insane human being, because inevitably, the only guaranteed death in almost all of these senseless shootings ... is yours.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Miscellany: Adventures in Retail Mismanagement

If you read my blog, you've probably figured out I'm an electronics geek - whether it's digital cameras, MP3 players, HDTVs, or high-end PCs, it's always exciting to grab a new gadget. Unlike most of my friends, however, I still buy things in brick and mortar retail stores, if only because I like the security and convenience of being able to return defective products in person, instead of through a long, drawn-out warranty process.

Circuit City has had its share of problems, and, from my experience today, it's not hard to see why. The local Gainesville Circuit City could be a case study in how NOT to run a big box electronics store - my visit there to purchase some computer software showed me how many things can go wrong if all your crap isn't together.

It started before I even set foot in the place. I called the store to see if the item was in stock - after wading through three or four levels of automated "customer service," I finally managed to get the phone to ring in the PC software department. Only problem was, no one ever picked up.

Against my better judgment, I decided to go out to the store and just see if they had it in person. They didn't have any in the rack, but it turned out they might have had some copies right near the register, so the salesperson started hunting through piles and piles of DVDs and boxes to find my stuff. Then, once she located the item, it took another ten minutes just to enter it into the system so she could sell it to me.

That's right, I had money in my hands, I was willing to buy the software, and they had trouble selling it to me. During the wait, a bunch of teenagers in typical "gangsta-style" baggy clothes walked out the door, setting off the inventory-control alarms. No one, not even the clerks, lifted a finger to stop them. I mused on my way out the door that the store catered more toward the shoplifters than the actual paying customer.

On the off chance the CEO of Circuit City reads this blog, let me give him or her a word of advice: When you won't take care of your customers, your customers won't take care of you.

Politics: A Ron Paul Revolution?

It's no secret that I think most of the Republican frontrunners are a joke (especially when it comes to safeguarding the right to keep and bear arms), so it wasn't surprising to me that Ron Paul managed to raise more than $4 million in one day. As a libertarian-in-Republican's-clothing, Ron Paul is about as different from Giuliani as he is from Hillary. Reading off his policy positions is bound to be confusing for dyed-in-the-wool D's and R's: pro-gun, anti-war, pro-life, anti-PATRIOT Act.

I don't agree with all his positions, but it's hard to find a presidential candidate with the record to back up their rhetoric. If you're talking principles, you're talking Ron Paul:

Books: Everything Scrabble

While the millions of Scrabble sets sold throughout the world come with cute little rules printed on the top cover, the real authority on Scrabble is the book "Everything Scrabble," a fairly comprehensive work covering just about 95% of the skills you need to play Scrabble at a high level.

The book is divided into four parts - the first part details basic strategy (master this, and you'll consistently beat casual players), the second part goes into advanced strategy (good advice for anyone making the jump into club play), the third part presents more Scrabble puzzles than you can shake a stick at, and the fourth part details Scrabble tournament play and some notable games.

Scrabble is one of the few board games that tests a wide suite of abilities: pattern recognition, mathematical calculation, spatial visualization, probability estimation, and memory (vocabulary, to be precise). There's even a mild bluffing mechanic - unless you're playing a computer, it's possible to play a phony word and get away with it, depending on who your opponent is and how he plays.

The only real downside to this volume is that it's already a little out-of-date. This also brings up a larger issue, one endemic to the game itself. Competitive Scrabble, for all its virtues, does not change as frequently as the English language does, which is why words like "texting" and "internet" are not valid in the tournament word list of 2006. Strange, no?

Movies: Dan in Real Life

You're probably familiar with the phrase "romantic comedy," and all the baggage that term carries with it - the star-crossed lovers meeting, the "twist" that puts a schism in the relationship, and the resolution. You might have also heard the word "dramedy," a drama with some comedic elements. I assert that "Dan in Real Life," starring the ubiquitous Steve Carrell, is a romantic dramedy.

Carrell plays Dan, a widower who is raising three girls. While out and about, he meets Marie (a somewhat miscast Juliette Binoche), whom he is instantly smitten with. Unfortunately, Marie turns out to be the new girlfriend of Dan's brother, and a whole cavalcade of predictably awkward situations ensues - Dan and family at dinner, Dan and family playing football, etc.

The movie's directed by Peter Hedges (he wrote "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?"), but frankly, there's a whole lot of things wrong with it. The chemistry between Dan and Marie never feels quite right, for one thing - you just don't believe Dan would act like a complete jerk to his whole family for this woman. While there are some funny parts to lighten the mood, the normally likable Carrell feels a bit too sullen here, almost as if he was making a conscious attempt to separate himself from "Evan Almighty"-type silliness and overshot the mark.

In effect then, this is a romantic dramedy with a tepid romance, uninteresting drama, and sporadic comedy. Neat idea, I suppose, but it just doesn't add up.

Rating: 5/10

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Music: When You Were Young

If you look back, most of my featured songs have been from bands whose output I generally enjoy. While I listed Heart's "Crazy on You" as one of my favorites, for example, that doesn't mean the rest of "Dreamboat Annie" isn't great.

Today's entry is a little different. I've been playing a whole lot of Guitar Hero III (along with everyone else in America, it seems), and one track in particular from the game has been stuck in my head. It's "When You Were Young," by The Killers. I've never heard anything from The Killers before (heck, I had never heard of them before), but this song is pretty good. Here's the music video, featuring a tale of romance and betrayal:

And here's someone playing it in GHIII: