Thursday, January 31, 2008

Miscellany: Fury of Dracula first impressions

I learned from my recent Tigris and Euphrates review that it's difficult to truly rate a new board game after only a few playthroughs, hence the cautious title of this post. The first few times you play a complex board game, you'll inevitably mess up many rules, all of which can change the play experience dramatically (that's what happened with T&E - we even misread one of the game's ending conditions). So, here's a first look at Fantasy Flight Games' remake of "Fury of Dracula."

The basic conceit is that one player controls the legendary Count Dracula, while the other players are vampire hunters trying to kill him - people like Van Helsing and Mina Harper. Dracula moves in secret through fin de si├Ęcle Europe, and the hunters track him through both the day - and the night. All the while, Dracula is laying traps and encounters to hamper the players. Should he survive long enough to gain 6 victory points, he wins the game.

Thankfully for humanity, the hunters can draw Event Cards when they explore new cities. While these can actually help Dracula, most of the time, they have beneficial effects for the hunters. Some of them reveal part of Dracula's trail, others hamper Dracula, and still others grant powerful special abilities to be used during combat. Check out the excellent Board Games With Scott video review for a more thorough rundown of the rules.

One potential problem I see is that it's very difficult for the Dracula player to actually kill the hunters in combat. Of course, if Drac manages to pull it off, he gets 2 victory points immediately, but it's insanely difficult - the hunters have tons of health and generally have several potent items that can mess Dracula up badly (stakes, crosses, holy water, etc.). Combat itself is mostly a crapshoot, since the initial opposed six-sided die roll is so random, and the attack-defense outcomes are mystifying at first.

On the plus side, the game is a lavish production, with a beautiful sturdy box and nice thick cardboard counters tracking everything. The actual game map is very pretty, as well as being easy to read. There's even a handy mini-map card for the Dracula player so he doesn't have to look at spots on the board while plotting his moves. Though the plastic figures that represent Drac and the hunters are somewhat underwhelming, the Magic-style flavor text on most of the cards injects a lot of Bram Stoker's original mood into the game. A big, full-color instruction manual rounds out the contents of the game box.

It's also a game that truly mirrors its theme. When a player gets delayed by train, only to miss Dracula by a turn or two, or when Van Helsing faces off with the Count in mano a vampiro combat, there's a certain tension there, since the luck of the rolls plays a large part in whether anyone wins or loses. Some may decry this injection of fortune, but given that this game isn't supposed to be a true strategy game like chess, it doesn't really hurt the whole package too much in my opinion.

Food: La Tienda

The full name of this interesting restaurant is "La Tienda Latina," but it's probably confusing enough already, given that "tienda" means "store." La Tienda is located on 13th, a half-mile or so from the southeast corner of UF. And if you're cruising around for some fast Mexican food in Gainesville, it's probably the place to visit.

The first sign that this is going to be a decent meal is probably the crowds that inevitably form during lunch and dinner time. And - surprise - many of the diners are Mexican, which is a marked departure from gringo-friendly fare like Las Margaritas. Service is simple - you order at the counter (nobody there speaks English very well, so if you have a Mexican friend, bring him), you chill out at a table (perhaps taking in a soccer game or a Spanish talk show), and you chow down when they bring your food.

It's back-to-basics, mole and enchiladas Mexican. Portion sizes for the price are usually good, but they range from superb (the burritos) to the skimpy (the taquitos). I prefer the chorizo to anything else, and the overall value and atmosphere are hard to beat, especially considering your location. They even have Coke imported from Mexico (where they still use cane sugar to sweeten it) and a large selection of Mexican drinks and beers. It all makes for a pretty fun meal.

Rating: 3/4 stars

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Movies: Pee-Wee's Big Adventure

In a lot of ways, I think Paul Reubens was unfairly railroaded during his early '90s scandal because of his status as a children's TV show star. When he was caught masturbating in an adult movie theater, it was embarrassing, but the repercussions one small indiscretion would have on his career were far-reaching (compare and contrast with other, more serious breaches of the law by other Hollywood stars, and the hypocrisy becomes evident).

"Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" is from a halcyon time, though, when everything was happier. Reuben plays Pee-Wee Herman, a perpetual man-child who, though annoying, is mostly the good guy. The film concerns Pee-Wee's search for his missing bicycle, which takes him on a cross-country journey meeting a motley crew of characters. It's Tim Burton's directorial debut, which already makes it special, but the added performance of Paul Reubens is what really makes this movie work. In many scenes, Reuben displays throwback form, evoking the great silent film stars in his facial energy and body language:

To be honest, I didn't really enjoy the movie as a child, but it was memorable, that's for sure. The final chase scene, where Pee-Wee eludes dozens of Warner Bros. studio security guards across a madcap backlot, is both a breezy finale and a tongue-in-cheek nod to the film's limited budget. And the ending, which features one of the best James Bond parodies ever made, wraps up the whole affair neatly.

Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Guns: AR sights, past and present

(Note - for more info about rifle sights and rifles in general, check out THR's comprehensive post listing)

The AR family of rifles is firmly entrenched in today's shooting community - they're fun to shoot, fun to build, and fun to talk about. But a rifle is nothing without sights, so I thought it'd be interesting to take a look at how AR sights have evolved over the years.

I suppose the original AR-15 sights were similar to Vietnam-era M16s - that is, the "A1 sight." The rear sight is integrated into the carry handle of the rifle, and it has no adjustments for elevation (up-and-down), only windage (side-to-side). Still, the simplified design means fewer parts and less stuff to break; A1 sights are still popular for people who want something simple and rugged. The sight's main aperture is also noticeably smaller than later versions - a throwback to a different kind of rifle sight for a different kind of fighting.
Most modern stock ARs come with either a regular carry handle or a detachable one, and each features an "A2 sight." The rear sight of the A2 style has a second dial for adjusting windage, and the rear aperture has both a very large ghost ring (excellent for short-range shots) and a small peephole (for longer range work and formal target shooting).

Much more popular nowadays is to mount some kind of optic onto an AR carbine. The most famous (and one of the most expensive) of these is the compact telescopic ACOG line of scopes manufactured by Trijicon. These are lit either by tritium at night or a fiber-optic in the day. I'm most familiar with the donut-style reticle shown above - nicknamed the "donut of death" by its owners.

I've also used EOTechs and Aimpoint red dot scopes with much success. These sights are FAST when you're shooting at targets less than 50 yards away - almost like playing a video game. At longer ranges, though, they're not as precise. And in the fairly unlikely event the batteries give out, you'll be relegated to either flip-up back-up irons or using the scope itself as a crude sight.

Links: The Animation of Paul Robertson

Paul Robertson is an artist who's done some interesting animation inspired from anime and video games. Anyone who's played a classic 2D sidescroller like "Metal Slug" or "Final Fight" will appreciate the following video. Be sure to stick around for some incredible sight gags (one special attack summons the entire cast of "Predator" to lay into foes, and one enemy is a cuttlefish dressed up as Chun Li, ox horns and all):

Some of his later works have vocals and are in color, which sounds good in theory, but quickly becomes annoying in practice. Then again, maybe that's the point:

Miscellany: Sick Again

I woke up this morning with that old familiar feeling - raspy throat, headache, and a runny nose. Now, the structure of law school prompts some funny choices - do I shamble off to class, miserable, and infect everyone around me? Or do I stay home and miss class, causing me to get one absence closer to oblivion? (most of my courses automatically kick you if you have a certain number of absences)

I decided against going to school. A few cold-medicine-groggy hours of sleep later, here I am, typing wearily on the old blog.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Music: A Tribute to Buddy Rich

Who said video games weren't educational? It just so happens that playing the fake drums in "Rock Band" has given me a whole new appreciation for drummers. I felt compelled to research the history of rock drumming, including its roots in jazz and blues drumming. I had heard of Keith Moon, Neil Peart, and John Bonham before. I had never heard of Buddy Rich.

Rich was a very famous jazz drummer - his hallmarks were his stick speed and ability to drift into and out of the rim of his snare, creating a unique sound. Perhaps his most famous TV performance was his drum battle with "Tonight Show" drummer Ed Shaughnessy. It's clear from their faces that these guys were having a ball:

Rich also participated in several other, more lighthearted battles. First up is this duel with Jerry Lewis:

And this one with Animal (it's obviously Rich playing Animal's part, but the puppeteer is fairly talented to get Animal's part looking so realistic):

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Movies: The Way of the Gun

Continuing the theme of impulse buys for today, a long time ago in a faraway Best Buy checkout line I picked up "The Way of the Gun," a film directed by Christopher McQuarrie. The DVD was in the bargain bin with a bunch of other movies, some decent and some not-so-decent. I had heard of the flick before, so I decided to take the plunge and plunk down a fiver.

"The Way of the Gun" stars Ryan Phillippe and Benicio del Toro as drifters who hatch a plot to kidnap the surrogate mother of a wealthy gangster. Things go south when the gangster's bodyguards, as well as his righthand man, become embroiled in the plot, with $15 million in cash up for grabs. While the movie has some decent ideas, it just doesn't ever come together like in McQuarrie's previous script, "The Usual Suspects."

It's said that McQuarrie's brother was a former Navy SEAL who helped choreograph the action sequences, and it's not hard to believe. The shootout embedded above has only minor flashes of this influence (the one-handed reloads and injured shooter drills). I'm pretty sure the whole M1911 fusillade sequence was put in by someone else (someone who drastically overestimates how many .45 mags one can carry on the body). A scene earlier in the film, though, accurately portrays the delayed report from a rifle shot, not to mention the recoil that jumps a rifle scope up.

Rating: 6/10

Books: Shangri La

There are such things as impulse purchases, and the clearance rack of the Florida Bookstore Volume II is a perfect place for allowing your inner spendthrift to thrive. They usually have a bunch of comics and games at a clearance price (50% off is nothing to sneeze at). I picked up "Shangri La," a 72-page one-shot comic from Marc Bryant and Shepherd Hendrix, mostly because the title of the work dovetailed rather well with the name of this blog. For the $4 I spent on it, I'd say it's worth taking a look at.

In a world of bloated graphic novels, "Shangri La" is a breezy short story. It's one part "Smokin' Aces," and one part "Grosse Pointe Blank." When hitman-with-a-conscience Jetta Helm refuses to kill washed-up rocker Correy Stinson, the duo end up on the road and on the run from a rival hitman. There's lots of humor, lots of slapstick action, and a whole bunch of ridiculous occurrences before the ride is over (ever see someone get beaten to death by a lawn ornament? How about a four on one fight involving soap on a rope?). It's not a masterpiece or anything, but it'd be a great movie.

Friday, January 25, 2008

TV: Lowest Common Denominator

Bravo used to be mostly about the performing arts, but in the past decade they've switched over to reality shows. That's okay, I suppose, because many of these are fun to watch (I'm a hopeless "Project Runway" addict - it's a guilty pleasure). I've noticed that Bravo's new shows, though, are moving away from the witty or sorta-highbrow subjects to stuff designed for mass consumption, like "The Millionaire Matchmaker" or "Make Me a Supermodel."

I'm no prude, and it's hard to complain when you see attractive people lounging around in bed, but it does (or should) make a person blush at the sheer audacity of what passes for programming these days. I used to be a drama geek, and seeing the network get taken over by the pretty people is disheartening:

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Links: Dave's Lounge

Since I'm often at law school all day, I've taken to bringing my PSP with me so I can listen to music during those long study sessions in the library. The PSP can catch podcasts pretty easily via its RSS reader and its built-in WiFi, though I haven't figured out how to download stuff while using the school's network yet. I generally listen to music podcasts (talk show stuff is too distracting), and one of the best ones I've come across is Dave's Lounge.

This is truly great music for kicking back and reading some cases. I would have never come across acts like Science For Girls if it weren't for the show. There is little in the way of mindless chatter or commentary on Dave's Lounge; it's all about the music. I do wish new shows came along more frequently (and the shows are only half an hour), but if you like indie lounge or downtempo trip hop, the show'll be right up your alley.

Miscellany: Tigris and Euphrates

Reiner Knizia has made a lot of great board games, but perhaps none as celebrated as "Tigris and Euphrates," a game about the clash of civilizations in ancient Mesopotamia. It's been ranked as high as #2 on, and it won the Deutscher Spiele Preis, one of the most prestigious game design prizes around. My friends and I finally got around to playing it this evening, and I think I see why it's such a big hit.

The concept of T&E is pretty straightforward - you place tiles and leaders of various colors on a gridded board, much like Go. As you butt heads with rival civilizations of those same colors, you'll start to wage wars and put down revolutions (external and internal conflicts). You have a reserve stock of tiles that you can use to bolster your deployed forces; since these are hidden from the other players, they provide a poker-like element to conflict resolution that makes rolling dice seem primitive and random. While the rules are a bit complex (nothing as bad as "Puerto Rico," though), almost anyone should be able to get the idea after a few plays.

Scoring is interesting in that your worst area of civilization development is your final score. Unless you acquire victory points in a balanced fashion, you'll never win. There's just a lot to think about here, from simple tactics to grand strategy. On the turn-to-turn level, you're concerned with shoring up your weak areas and gathering points (the fact that you get two actions per turn means you can mount rather vicious surprise attacks). Over the course of a game, though, you'll switch from peaceful building to aggression and back, sometimes co-existing with other players' leaders, and sometimes ousting them. An entire game only takes about 90 minutes (really!), which is astonishing for a game with this much thought involved.

Some have criticized "Tigris and Euphrates" as overly abstract, but I think the theme of kingdoms rising and falling is well depicted here. Building a big monument, for example, can net you a lot of points, but it also weakens you and presents a fat, juicy target for rivals to take. The conflict system, which favors defenders, encourages a style of play more reminiscent of Cold War brinkmanship than anything else - you'll keep building and building, inches away from each other, until one player finally decides to pull the trigger and attack. "The cradle of civilization will also be its grave," one of my friends remarked, and in T&E, defeated kingdoms are typically wiped off the map like Sodom and Gomorrah.

All in all, this is a great game and a wonderful entry into the world of German-style board games. The only major downside is the price ($40), but the depth and replayability of the strategy make the game well worth the cost.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Guns: Calling 911 Doesn't Always Work

Xavier posted this (I'm not sure who originally created it), and I've been meaning to put it up myself. It's a 911 call.

Pretty sobering, I'd say.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

News: Heath Ledger, 1979-2008

Heath Ledger was found dead today. It's pretty big news, since he was a promising young actor who'd already been nominated for an Oscar two years ago for his performance in "Brokeback Mountain" (I remember him from his role as Mel Gibson's oldest son in "The Patriot"). Whatever the circumstances surrounding his tragic death, it's safe to say he will be missed by many.

Unfortunately, Heath Ledger also indirectly provided an object lesson on human nature today. Several major news sources, including CNN, show Ledger's body being taken from his SoHo apartment to a waiting ambulance. During the span of twenty yards, literally hundreds of pictures were taken by eager paparazzi - the event looked more like a red carpet premiere than anything else. I suspect we'll be seeing some exploitative "remembrances" of Mr. Ledger for weeks to come.

One of my friends surmised that Heath Ledger will be enshrined as an icon, much like Aaliyah or James Dean. Death at a young age may make you a legend, but it's still hollow recompense for his family and especially his daughter.

"Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality."

- Emily Dickinson

Tech: LocoRoco review

"LocoRoco," a game developed by Sony for its PSP handheld video game system, seems at all times like the answer to some kind of twisted game designer bet - "Could you make an engaging game in the year 2006 that uses only three buttons?" Surprisingly, for the most part, the answer is yes.

You control a small blob, or, more precisely, you control the world the small blob resides on. The shoulder buttons tilt the playfield left and right, you can "jump" the blob by holding and releasing both shoulder buttons. You can also press a button to split up and rejoin the blob, a la the T-1000. That's it. While "LocoRoco" is ostensibly a platformer, there's no run function, no weapons, no gizmos - the game is refreshing in its simplicity. At times it'll feel a bit like pinball, at others, pachinko, and at still others, Pitfall.

The worlds you'll be traveling through are charming, to say the least. The sharp, cartoony levels pop with detail, and the ever-present musical score can be either upbeat, ethereal, or even a bit spooky. The cute art style might turn off some, but even the most jaded gamer can appreciate the super-sharp sprites and a good framerate.

Given all the game's strengths, it's a huge disappointment that the play mechanics and blob physics aren't used for more puzzles and platforming challenges. In general, the game is a cakewalk to complete, although that difficulty rises quite a bit if you decide to unlock all the hidden items and get the highest score. And before the end, you'll find yourself a bit surprised that the core gameplay doesn't change much from level 1 to level 40.

Rating: 76/100

Monday, January 21, 2008

Martin Luther King Day

We were covering the fight over the "I Have a Dream" speech in Copyright Law. While I agree intellectually that King's estate should be able to reap the fruits of what it owns, it does seem a bit disingenuous to both advocate the spread of King's message of racial equality and simultaneously clamp down on anyone who uses the speech without your permission. In any event, I doubt they'd sue charitable organizations or the average Joe much anyway.

My favorite Martin Luther King speech, though, is his prophetic last speech, right before his assassination. It takes a lot of gumption to keep going out in public when you know there's a chance you'll be killed:

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sports: To The Limit

I know a lot of sports fans are going to watch the NFC and AFC Championships today (I'll probably tune in, too) but internationally, one of the biggest sports events going on right now is the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam in tennis for the calendar year. The undisputed favorite and world No. 1 player, Roger Federer, has just barely survived a five-set marathon against a relatively obscure Serbian player, Janko Tipsarevic.

I didn't get to see the match, but from the highlights, it looks like a classic. Sports pundits have been predicting the decline of Federer for awhile now, but until he actually loses before a Grand Slam final (he's made the last 10 or so), he's still the guy to beat in my opinion.

Politics: An Old, Strikingly Libertarian Cartoon

[credit to Richard Disney at Conservablogs]

"When anybody preaches disunity, tries to pit one of us against the other through class warfare, race hatred, or religious intolerance, you know that person seeks to rob us of our freedom and destroy our very lives. And...we know what to do about it!"

Some of the content is dated (this was supposed to be an anti-Communist cartoon, after all), but its heart is in the right place.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

TV: Best Motoring

Unless you're into cars, you've probably never seen Best Motoring. I don't believe they air Japan's number one automobile video magazine very much here in the States, and I would be unaware of the show if it weren't for my petrolhead friends. Fortunately, I've managed to watch quite a few of these interesting shows.

Not surprisingly, they focus on Japanese cars. The basic show is similar to the "Car and Driver" TV show but with an eye towards performance and handling more than price or features. Several side volumes, including "Hot Version," deal with exotic supercars or heavily tuned production models. Often you can view entertaining downhill races that really show what $20,000 and a good tuning shop can do to a stock import car. All in all, it's fun to watch and I'd love it if more auto dealers and mechanics played this instead of daytime soaps in their waiting rooms.

Best Motoring has ventured here to the U.S. from time to time, where they test some of our domestic vehicles:

Occasionally, they feature some exciting races with some of Japan's best race car drivers, like the legendary Keiichi Tsuchiya:

Friday, January 18, 2008

Miscellany: Rhis' equipment, Level 9

We're gearing up for a big battle in our D&D campaign, so I thought it'd be fun to examine what a sample 9th level D&D character brings to the party. I realize this kind of thing is inscrutable to non RPG players, so don't worry - I won't do this kind of thing too often.

The character's name is Rhis. He is a Fighter 2/Rogue 4/Assassin 1/Warshaper 2. This is all in the Eberron campaign setting...


Traitor's Blade (a deadly double-bladed magic sword that can be drawn instantly)
Bloodstone Dagger +1 (can hold a spell that discharges upon striking)
Heavy Flail +1
Long Spear +1
Masterwork composite longbow, silver dagger, & silver greatsword

Armor & Worn Magic Items

Mythril Chain Shirt +1 w/ Glamor of Shapeshifting
Headband +2 INT
Monacle of Construct Destruction
Necklace SR 11
Ring of Protection +2
Belt +4 CON
Boots of Swiftness

Expendable Magic Items

Wand of Command Undead (7 charges)
Scrolls of Fireball, Invisibility, Mirror Image, Lightning Bolt, False Life, Protection from (Good, Evil, Chaos, Law)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Food: New Deal Cafe

I've blogged about Mildred's Big City Food, but Mildred's has a sister restaurant, the New Deal Cafe. It's located right next to Mildred's in a shopping center off Newberry and 34th. By and large, I think the New Deal Cafe is a better value than its sibling, which is reflected in my final score.

My favorite dish there is the "Basket of Fries." For $4, you get a whole bucket of meaty french fries - enough to feed a half-dozen folks as a side dish with no problems. The fries are hot, crisp, and come with an aioli dipping sauce that can only be described as "guiltily delicious."

There are other treats. I found the various salads tasty, and even a half salad is a decent portion. The main draw here, though, has got to be the various burgers, which are served with even more fries. Add in a nice patio seating area and efficient service, and you have a great little place cafe.

3/4 stars

News: Scrabulous under fire

When I first played "Scrabulous," I knew it was strange that there was no official branding. It turned out, of course, that the game isn't an authorized version of Scrabble. And now, the popularity of the application has finally prompted Hasbro and Mattel to ask Facebook to shut it down.

It's not surprising, really. While there's no way the owners of the Scrabble game could possibly stop every single letter tile-based game, it's pretty clear that Scrabulous is essentially a carbon copy of Scrabble, to the point of using the familiar red, pink, and blue bonus squares. The makers of Scrabulous, two guys from India, were probably blithely aware of their infringement of Hasbro and co.'s intellectual property rights, but I suppose they figured no one would care.

We'll see how this unfolds. It should be great grist for our Copyrights class.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Tech: Mass Effect review

"Mass Effect" is an action RPG from the folks at BioWare. I previewed it awhile back, and now I've finally finished the game. As I expected, it's a mixed bag with some dizzying highs and stupefying lows. In ME, you play as Commander Shepard, a human who has come into contact with an ancient alien artifact, and you are soon fighting to save the entire galaxy.

First, the good - this is one of the best original sci-fi settings in recent memory. There's some great backstory that can be examined here, and filling your in-game encyclopedia with new entries becomes as much a payoff as getting that new piece of armor. Sure, it doesn't stray too far from the mold of your standard space operas, but it's nice to get a galactic storyline in a place with no Jedi and no phasers.

Your companions are also fairly well-drawn (though your two human sidekicks are bland and uninteresting). There are ample chances for Shepard to play a goodie-two-shoes, a ruthless bastard, or someone in-between. While there's no actual "evil" path, some of the choices that the "Renegade" path offers can be pretty heartless...and fun.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of flies in this particular ointment. Chief among them are the numerous and mandatory driving sequences where you pilot a rover on planet surfaces. These parts are just plain broken - the control is awful, your rover often ends up nearly vertical if you take an incline the wrong way, and the whole thing ends up feeling ridiculous. Most irksome is that the game contains what amounts to an entire treatise on interstellar starship combat, but never seems to use any of it in the game. Maybe they're planning a "Mass Effect" RTS?

The combat in the game is also a bit disappointing. Your enemies generally have moronic AI (most evident if you like to use the sniper rifle), and while the special skills are fun to use, the game balance is heavily tilted in favor of simply shooting people with ultrapowerful guns instead of using tech or biotic skills. There's a rudimentary cover system a la "Gears of War," but it feels clunky and slow.

It may sound like I'm ragging on "Mass Effect," but it just shows how much potential the inevitable sequel has. If BioWare can address these issues and keep the immersive storyline and setting, they have yet another hit franchise on their hands.

Rating: 88/100

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Guns: The Myth of the Bullet-Resistant Car

After watching the newest Terminator series on FOX, I noticed there was a scene where our heroes speed off in a car while the evil Terminator fills it with bullets from an M16 rifle. Naturally, the back window shatters, our heroes perform a perfunctory duck-and-cover routine, but nobody seems harmed by the fusillade. But is this what happens in real life?

The Buick O' Truth site does have some answers to this quandary. In their tests, the only thing that can reliably deflect a bullet is the engine block, and almost every part of a car (the doors, the trunk, the windows) can be easily penetrated with an ordinary handgun bullet. This is backed up by U.S. military doctrine which has soldiers hiding behind either the engine or at least the rear axle. Moral of the story? A car quickly turns into a deathtrap against a rifle, and in real life, Sarah and John would have been shot many times.

Of course, it's not as crazily unrealistic as this Top Gear video (if Jeremy Clarkson can hit a car in mid-air with a Carl Gustav, I'm the Tooth Fairy).

Music: Last Train to Clarksville

The Monkees were, in some ways, victims of history. They rose to popularity in a time when other performers, like The Beatles, were not only singing but writing their own songs and playing their own instruments. When the news broke out that they didn't play their instruments on their albums, it caused a major stir, and their legacy has been associated with musical fakery and corporate control.

It's unfair to lump them in with frauds like Milli Vanilli, however; The Monkees were no less "genuine" than modern boy bands, and eventually, they did gain creative control of their music. Their rebellion against music supervisor Don Kirshner has also endeared them to the punk rock crowd. To be fair, though, Kirshner did hire some of the best songwriting talent of the era to write Monkees songs, including "Last Train to Clarksville," written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. It's a catchy song, and the underlying anti-war subtext is suprisingly edgy for a manufactured piece of pop music:

Sunday, January 13, 2008

TV: Terminator - The Sarah Connor Chronicles premiere impressions

After watching the first two hours of the new "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" series on FOX, I have to say, I'm pleasantly surprised and retract my previous misgivings - mostly. The creator, Josh Friedman, is largely reverent to James Cameron's Terminator universe without being enslaved to it (and thankfully, this TV series pretends the execrable third film never happened). I thought I'd give my impressions, since I am a diehard fan of the first two films.

Right away, Lena Headey isn't afraid to take Sarah to a different place than the tough-as-nails commando Linda Hamilton played in T2. This Sarah is less haunted, more motherly, more affectionate. Summer Glau's portrayal of the protector terminator, Cameron, also deserves merit - her relationship with both the future and present John Connor should be fun to see unfold. Dekker's Connor, by the way, is a little less commanding and a little less mature than what we saw in T2, which is irksome but not too jarring.

There are some potential problems. The series is still in danger of being a "Terminator of the Week" show, with implausible new cybernetic threats being heaped upon the Connor family just for the sake of having something to show on screen. I'm hoping the focus goes to the struggle against SkyNet - and stopping it this time seems like it won't be as simple as blowing up a building.

Movies: Gymkata

How do you rate a movie that is in many ways objectively horrible, but so hilariously over-the-top that it provides more entertainment than actual purpose-built comedies? I'm referring to "Gymkata," the infamous low-budget action movie starring World Champion gymnast Kurt Thomas. The trailer pretty much says it all:

It's a thoroughly ridiculous premise, although the actors all play it pretty straight. And while I have no doubt that a real Olympic gymnast could make an excellent martial artist, the sheer lunacy of some of the fight scenes in the movie make it clear that the whole concept had gone horribly off the rails. Take this famous fight, for example. Our hero is attacked by a mob of crazed townspeople - thankfuklly, there's a conveniently placed pommel horse!

So you see why I'm so conflicted. This is the kind of movie that's absolutely brilliant for when you have a couple of beers in you and you can joke along with it amongst your friends. Unlike many "bad" movies, it's not talky or slow, and the plot, while totally bizarre, is pretty easy to follow. All the characters are memorable, if for all the wrong reasons. Just don't pay too much to see it.

Rating: 6/10

Books: Death Note

"Death Note" is a manga series from Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata (of "Hikaru no Go" fame) that has a singularly strong premise - what if you found a notebook that caused anyone whose name was written in it to die? Would you use this power for good, or evil? Could you even tell the difference?

The titular "Death Note" falls into the hands of genius high-school student Light Yagami, a bored young man who soon finds himself with a new purpose - systematically ridding the world of evil by killing criminals he sees on the news. Along the way, though, Light soon finds himself losing his humanity as he is forced to kill the police who are trying to find the mysterious killer behind these deaths. He is also pursued by a genius detective called "L." Each tracks the other - if L finds out who Light is, Light will be killed, and vice versa.

If you like cat-and-mouse games, there's a big one here for readers to follow. The attack, counterattack, and counter-counterattack nature of this battle of wits make it entertaining where it could have been dreary. Light has numerous clever tricks up his sleeve, including hiding a miniature TV in a bag of potato chips, but then, so does L. The series never quite regains its footing after the battle between Light and L is concluded, and the eventual ending is disappointing, but it's still worth a look.

Movies: Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I was a drama geek in high school, and it was during this time that I became well acquainted with the work of Stephen Sondheim, a Broadway composer and lyricist. Sondheim's music typically has a sing-songy, syncopated feel, and the memory of Bernadette Peters belting out words almost as fast as she could breathe in the musical "Into the Woods" still endures in my mind. Now, Sondheim's work has been adapted into a movie by Tim Burton - "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

The film, like the musical, is a tale of revenge and madness. Todd (played by Tim Burton's muse, Johnny Depp), a barber who has been in exile for 15 years, returns to avenge not only his dead wife and captive child but himself. I'll leave the particulars to be discovered, but it's safe to say that most people will be entertained by the dark, tragic plot and the Giallo-like amounts of blood that eventually flow on the screen. That's not to say it's not a predictable story, but Sondheim's music and Burton's imagery keep the film approachable.

At once, the movie doesn't shy away from the fact that it's a musical - the opening scenes of a dreary, suitably Tim Burton-y London are indeed rich, but they never overpower the score or the libretto. Depp and Helena Bonham Carter (who plays his nominal partner in crime), while obviously not Broadway-trained singers, do a decent job. The only real problem is the one all film musicals face - it's very difficult to act and sing at the same time, so the story does sometimes feel like a Disney-esque caricature of itself.

Rating: 8/10

Friday, January 11, 2008

News: Sir Edmund Hillary, 1919-2008

It's a bit surprising to some that the peak of Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain, was first reached only 50-odd years ago by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary. Of course, since then, the summit has been reached by plenty of people, although the mountain has also claimed hundreds of lives. Now Hillary has passed away.

Modern climbers of the peak could learn a lot from Hillary's example. Most know about his monumental climbing achievement, but few ever heard of his decades of charitable work for the people of Nepal. Hillary, perhaps one fo the 20th century's greatest adventurers, was also one fo its most responsible.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Food: Gyro Plus

Finding a good deal on lunch in Gainesville can be difficult. Finding a good price on lunch near the UF campus can be damn near impossible. But I've just added another place to my usual list of spots to eat, and I'm betting it'll satisfy anyone with a craving for Mediterranean food. The place? - Gyro Plus.

Now, it can often be hard to distinguish one gyro or falafel from another. Aside from exceptional restaurants like Chris' Greek Taverna (I'll do a review of that place later),
most of them taste the same. The great irony of Gyro Plus is that while their gyros and their falafel are both fairly standard, their french fries are excellent. Not the best I've ever had, but way above-average for a gyro shack.

It's only around $7.50 for a decent-sized falafel sandwich, fries, and a soda, which is a pretty good deal in my book. The restaurant staff (most are seemingly from Lebanon) are curt but polite, and the place has ample outdoor seating for when the weather's nice. If you ever find yourself around the corner of 13th and University with a hankering for some great french fries (and perhaps a sandwich on the side), you know where to look now.

Rating: 2/4 stars

Guns: Finding the Lewis Gun

We're studying the aftermath of WWI and the much-maligned Treaty of Versailles in International Criminal Law, and one of the most striking legal aspects of the treaty was the (pseudo) demand for the personal criminal liability of the Kaiser. A major reason for this uproar was the unparalleled loss of human life caused by the fighting, and much of that loss was due to the rise of modern firearms.

Only a century ago, the Europeans had been fighting the Napoleonic Wars. In this latest fracas, I imagine everyone initially thought long battle lines and mass infantry maneuvers in formation might still work. After all, hadn't those same tactics been used only 50 years ago in the American Civil War?

That was until everyone got introduced to machine guns, such as the Belgian Rattlesnake. Here's a rather entertaining amateur documentary about both the Lewis gun's place in history and one family's journey to shoot it:

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Politics: Primary colors

It's presidential primary season, which means endless debates stuffed with people trying to get a word in edgewise, and lots of punditry as to who has momentum and who's losing it.

If there's one thing the French system of politics has over us, though, it's that their debates are actually fun to watch. In the most recent presidential election, for example, Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal had a debate that lasted two hours. Two hours. Just the two of them arguing with each other. Granted, they're mostly arguing how extreme they want their socialism to be, but it's still a welcome change from our debate system (which has enough grandstanding and soundbites to last a lifetime).

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Movies: The Fountain

If there was a reward for "Most Pretentious Filmmaker," one of the nominees would have to be Darren Aronofsky. And that's not "pretentious" in the wholly bad, snotty sense, either - Aronofsky's movies, whether hits ("Pi") or misses ("Requiem for a Dream") do at least try to be something different, which is a gutsy move for any filmmaker. It's a shame, then, that "The Fountain" remains yet another failed opportunity.

On paper, it's the perfect indie art film. Three parallel stories (a Spanish Conquistador searching for the fountain of youth, a researcher looking for the cure for his wife's cancer, and an astronaut in the far future) that may or may not be connected, lots of striking images, and plenty of religious imagery (hell, a bald Hugh Jackman meditates in a lotus position). This is the kind of movie that is bound to have production and marketing difficulties - is it sci-fi? A drama? Romance?

The movie moves along briskly enough and has some nice emotional moments (Jackman turns in a good performance here), but in the end, the playful nature of cause and effect and the deeper ruminations about what it means to live and die simply don't resonate like they should.

Rating: 6/10

Monday, January 07, 2008

Books: Ender's Game

"Ender's Game" is a novel by Orson Scott Card, and it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. It's easily his most popular work, and, much like George Lucas was eventually consumed by the "Star Wars" saga, Card has devoted most of his subsequent time to writing sequels and spinoffs, including the "Shadow of the Giant" series. Like many people, I first read this as a kid, and I definitely have mixed feelings about it now.

The book concerns a young boy named Ender Wiggin, a boy who is training with other similarly gifted children to become Earth's future military leaders in a savage war against an alien race. In order to cultivate their skills, the military sends the children into space and has them fight mock battles in a microgravity environment. Ender has to overcome bullies, the school's machinations, and his own doubts in order to survive.

In a way, the entire book is an embellishment of the original short story, which only included the Battle School and Command School parts. This is a shame, because that stuff is easily the most compelling part of the narrative. I never was fond of the space devoted to Ender's sister and brother, nor the final ending which completely gutted the feeling of guilt Ender was supposed to feel (this ending was the bridge to the numerous sequels, of course). If you like competitive zero-gee combat with schoolkids, this is the book to read.

School: Books and such

It's back to school time for me, and that means spending a load of cash on those boondoggles known as law school textbooks. It's probably more convenient than logging on to Westlaw and printing out the hundreds of cases you read in a semester, but it's still expensive. As far as I know, there are three main ways of buying textbooks:

1) Get 'em from a local bookstore - The most expensive but most convenient option. Perfect when you need a book immediately to start reading. You can also often pick and choose from their used books to avoid the ones that are all marked up in an annoying fashion.

2) Get 'em from an online bookseller - Another convenient method. Book searching sites like make it easy to find books by ISBN. Although the prices tend to be considerably lower than a local store, you pay for shipping, and your book may not come for a week (or more...).

3) Get 'em from another student - Ah, the wildcard. Some schools have book exchange programs, but most of the time, you'll be relegated to Craigslist or the like. This almost always gets you rock-bottom prices (you'll never pay less than a local store's buyback value of the book, though), but you have to deal with another student - could be a blessing or a curse, depending on how diligent they are about getting your book to you.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Music: My Sharona

"Rock Band," Harmonix's latest and greatest music game, is occupying a lot of time here at Shangrila Towers. One of the neat things about the game is that you can continually download new tracks to play, meaning the game really never has to end. There is a slow trickle of new music that comes out every week, and one of the songs I just had to pick up was a cover of "My Sharona."

Originally recorded by "The Knack," the song has one of the most obnoxiously catchy guitar riffs every captured on tape, as well as fun lyrics and drum parts, so it's a no-brainer for the co-operative play of "Rock Band." "Sharona" is actually a real person, too (at least they didn't give out her phone number like in "867-5309") I don't believe "The Knack" ever recovered from the runaway success of this breakout song, but c'est la vie:

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Miscellany: Snooze Button Rant

You're might be familiar with the "Snooze Button" - a button that temporarily stops an alarm to give you a few minutes more sleep (the time can vary, but it's rarely more than 15 minutes). I submit that this is a stupid invention. Let's go over the possible situations where a "snooze" function might be employed:

1) You set an alarm and you need to be somewhere at a certain time

Why on Earth would you want to ignore the alarm that you set yourself? If waking up at that exact time wasn't important, why not just set the alarm back a half-hour?

2) You set an alarm and you have nowhere you need to be (say, an 8:00AM alarm intended for work days only, but it goes off on a Saturday)

If you don't have any kind of time limit on your sleep, is it too hard to just turn the alarm off and sleep in for an hour or two? Certainly no snooze button I know of lets you snooze for that long.

3) You didn't set the alarm, it's not your alarm clock, you don't know it's a snooze button as you press it, and you go back to sleep, only to be jarred out of sleep ten minutes later.

This was me, at 5:00AM, in my roommate's room. Ulgh.

Links: Nigoro Games

Flash games tend to be hastily programmed, with very little in the way of polish or refinement. This is understandable, I suppose, given the limitations of the medium, but even a simple game can sometimes be made enjoyable by using high production values. Nigoro Games' wildly popular Flash titles (the site is in Japanese, but it's not hard to navigate) are a good example of how to leverage good art and music to enhance a game.

Take "Rose & Camellia", a game that thrusts you into "womanly combat" - slap battles! The concept is strange, but once you start slapping people, the laughs begin.

"Death Village" (think "Lemmings" mixed with a bit of goofy horror) is even more finished - it even has a multi-stage tutorial.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Guns: A Tale of Two Shooting Ranges

It's interesting shooting away from where you normally do. It's not unlike playing away from your favorite tennis court or working out in a new gym - the experience is mostly the same, but different enough to be disconcerting at first. I usually shoot in the only indoor range in Gainesville, Micanopy Shooting Sports. I tried out the Palm Beach Shooting Center this week, and reconfirmed the old adage: "There's no place like home."

At first blush, everything is copacetic. The PBSC is well-lit, clean, and the range itself is nicer than MSS - more modern air filtration, better target holders, a tile floor that makes policing your brass easy. The place is right off of I-95, so it's pretty easy to get to from anywhere in south Florida. Best of all, the range fee is only $6 for all the shooting you care to do - much better than the $6 per half-hour MSS charges non-members.

Alas, every rose has its thorns. For some reason, you have to sign a waiver and leave your driver's license with the range officers before you shoot - an inconvenience at best, an invasion of your rights at worst. The people working there didn't seem to know as much about guns as the staff at MSS (understandable, I suppose), and the selection and prices of the firearms on sale are much poorer.

Most damning, though, is the fact that you can't shoot your own ammo at the range - you have to buy ammo from them. I can't believe they're telling me that their bulkpack Federal "American Eagle" 9mm is somehow safer than my bulkpack Winchester 9mm, but that's their excuse (any shooter with half a brain will tell you the real reason - they mark up every box of ammo they sell). I don't have a problem with a range restricting what can be shot out of their rental guns, but making people shoot range-bought ammo out of their personal firearms (especially when those people have already signed a waiver) borders on insulting.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Miscellany: The battle of the bulge, one year later

I posted some advice about a year ago regarding what seems to shed weight, as least in my experience. During the holidays, though, it's tough for me to follow my own advice. I've put on maybe 8-10 pounds since the beginning of the winter exams, mostly by overeating and not being active enough. Sure, it's easy to resolve to run four hours a week when you're writing on a blog, but getting your butt out there on a cold, windy day is another story.

The food choices on display during winter break are disheartening, too. When you make almond meltaways that have two sticks of butter in them and almost as much sugar and white flour, they'll taste fantastic, but they'll also break any diet known to man. There were times my stomach actually hurt slightly from all the pigging out, a clear sign from my body to stop eating so much.

In any case, I'll be driving back up to school soon, so hopefully things will return to normal.

Food: New Year's Sangria

I made this for my folks during over New Year's Eve dinner, based on a recipe from Sara Moulton. It's strong due to all the liquor (essentially, it's like spiking the punch at a party, except this punch is 10% alcohol by volume), but perhaps not as crazy as other sangria recipes, where they throw in stuff like pineapples.

1 orange, sliced thinly
1 lemon, sliced thinly
2 tablespoons sugar (more or less depending on how sweet you want it)
1/2 cup cognac
1/4 cup orange liqueur (like Grand Marnier)
1 bottle dry red wine (the better the wine, the better the sangria)
1 cup club soda
Lots of ice cubes

Muddle the fruit and sugar together. Add the cognac, orange liqueur, and red wine and put the whole deal into the fridge for a few hours (ideally, you make this part in the morning and let it sit until your evening party). When you're ready to serve, add the ice cubes and the club soda. Makes around 8 glasses.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Movies: National Treasure - Book of Secrets

Hollywood has often been accused of turning out sequel after sequel, and "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" is a good piece of evidence for the prosecution. How can a movie featuring the likes of Nicolas Cage, Harvey Keitel, Ed Harris, Jon Voight, and Helen Mirren (who between them have three Oscar wins and 9 nominations) possibly be disappointing?

"Book of Secrets" follows right up from where the original "National Treasure" movie left off. Cage plays a treasure hunter who is determined to find the missing page of John Wilkes Booth's diary to clear his family's name. The movie plays out almost exactly like its predecessor - there's a long string of absurdly placed clues, a rival treasure hunter team, several high-tech break-ins, and a final action setpiece in a Big Dumb Ancient Place.

The laziness isn't just apparent from the story. There are some moments of overacting and arch camp, and the special effects in the end sequence are underwhelming. On the bright side, the obligatory car chases aren't bad, and the movie moves along briskly enough.

Rating: 6/10

Sports: The Executive Course - a golf microcosm

An "Executive" or "Par 3" golf course is one where the distances to all the holes have been shrunken down from normal golf sizes (200, 300, 400-odd yards) to usually nothing over 100 yards. It's an exceptional example of how to boil down the essence of a game into something that requires much less resources but still requires the strategy and skills of the original version. For an amateur game designer like myself, there are some interesting consequences that result from the size reduction.

The most apparent is time commitment - a course like this can be played in an hour and a half, instead of half a day. While a lot of this is because there is simply less distance to walk, the fact that holes take fewer strokes to complete also means that a small course like this can handle bigger crowds better, leading to less waiting. You see this aspect of design mostly in MMORPG settings - when a bunch of people are in a cave trying to do something simple, like kill X monster, instead of the convoluted missions of normal RPGs.

Another nice characteristic of an executive course is that you require fewer clubs. In regular golf, you usually haul around a bunch of clubs to deal with the myriad situations you might encounter - very long drives, driving up and over obstructions, multiple irons to get to the green from a variety of distances, etc. For most executive courses, you'll only need a putter, a wedge, and maybe a 9-iron. This is analogous to a handheld video game port of a more complicated console game - since the game is often simplified to be more suited to portable play, you have fewer controls to work with.

Why isn't miniature golf an even better condensing of golf? I submit that mini golf ignores one very important part of regular golf - the notion that the ball is going through the air, and all the subtleties that accompany that action. In mini golf, there is seldom any jumping the ball over an obstacle, and the limitations of putting mean that you'll probably never deal with deep rough or a bunker, even on a serious mini golf course. Of course, mini golf is extremely cheap to play and thus is much more popular than regular golf, but it's less like "golf" and more like its own separate game.