Friday, February 29, 2008

February 29th

Human beings work in abstractions, and time is one of them. For these abstractions to work, you need other people to share them, and that's what February 29th, a leap day, is all about. In a sense, it's kind of comforting that even though there are genocides, torture, heinous dictators, hatred, and all sorts of evil being strewn around the planet, at least we can all agree on what day it is.

Sort of.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Guns: 5.56 NATO

More so than most other rounds, the 5.56x45mm rifle cartridge is associated with a single country (the U.S.). Indeed, the fortunes of 5.56 NATO and the U.S. Armed Force's M16 have been forever linked, even though other nations' rifles fire the 5.56 cartridge and other calibers have been introduced for AR-type rifles. Part of this is simple geography - while you can find 7.62x39-chambered AKs and SKSs in almost every Third World mudhole, from Colombia to Darfur to Kosovo to East Timor, I'd wager that the majority of 5.56mm rifles are in the hands of U.S. civilians in the form of semiautomatic AR-15s.

The cartridge itself is an unassuming little thing, and its overall diameter will probably surprise people who might expect something bigger from the primary infantry weapon of the most advanced military in history. There have been many supporters and detractors of the 5.56mm over the years (step over to the AR-15 Ammo Oracle for more info than you can shake a stick at), but it's definitely been rising in popularity over the past couple decades. In my opinion, for ranges up to about 200 yards, a 5.56-chambered carbine will do about as well as anything available right now.

One big problem, though, is supply. Since many militaries use 5.56 NATO, high prices and absurdly limited supply are sometimes the norm. I remember when you could get a case of XM193 surplus for $130 - those days are LONG gone. In a pinch, though, I suppose you could use commercial softpoint hunting ammo for your AR. The velocity is going to be quite different, and the gun may cycle differently, but at least you'll have something to shoot.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Music: Flagpole Sitta

Some songs just bring back the 1990s in full force for me, and Harvey Danger's "Flagpole Sitta" is one of those. You may not recognize the title, but once you hear it, I guarantee that if you were between the ages of 10-35 sometime in the '90s, you'll remember it. Most importantly, this song was used prominently in the trailer for "Disturbing Behavior," a Katie Holmes horror vehicle that exemplified the concept of the "teen movie."

News: When the lights go down in the city

There was a blackout yesterday that hit many parts of Florida (thankfully, no effect here at Shangrila Towers). According to the news report, only about 5% of the electrical power Florida generates on a peak day was lost, but that's still a whole lot of energy for a state where air conditioning is pretty much required in every occupied building. Most problematic, though, is that people at FPL are still puzzled at how a small malfunction could cause sporadic statewide outages.

We live in an age where you take for granted the fact that when you flip a switch, the lights come on. Make no mistake, though - electricity is still primarily generated by the burning of fossil fuels - lots of them. The small scale blackout yesterday was the loss of about 2,500 megawatts of power. That may not sound like much, until you consider that in Thomas Edison's time, that amount of electricity could probably power the Eastern Seaboard.

America, as well as the rest of the industrialized world, is completely dependent on electricity. Without it, we can't work, we can't produce food, and in some cases, like the traffic snarls experienced in southeast Florida yesterday, we can't even get from place to place. There's something sobering about that, I think.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

TV: Economics U$A

I took economics in high school, and I'll venture to say that my teacher, Mr. Davis, was pretty good. And while many people dread economics classes, I rather liked ours. A big reason for that was because Mr. Davis used "Economics U$A," one of the most famous and successful telecourses ever devised. As geeky as this sounds, we eventually came to love the wry commentary of Richard Gill and the corny '80s fanfares that punctuated each episode.

You can watch episodes of the show here for free (registration required, but it's pretty painless). Each episode deals with a specific economic concept or dilemma (e.g. "Supply and Demand," "Stagflation"). The series tends to skew libertarian (especially in episodes dealing with international trade), but, on a whole, it's way more balanced than you'll see on the network news. Most of the series was made in the '80s, so it's a bit dated, but a few episodes have been updated.

The popularity of the series has resulted in some parodies and homages from high-schoolers across the country:

Monday, February 25, 2008

Books (sorta): Klutz Building Cards - How to Build Castles

I have a strong sense of serendipity (it probably comes from my Dad). When, in the course of searching for something, I run across another item that looks like it would be perfect for some task, I usually snap it up. This willingness to snag incidental objects has netted me a fantastic CD case chess set, the best key chain multitool I've ever used, and a footbag or two. Last week, it also led me to buy a set of Klutz Building Cards for my D&D campaign.

I've had pretty good experiences with the Klutz series of books, so I knew the Building Cards (this particular one was titled "How to Build Castles") had to be decent. While the price is a bit steep ($12), you get enough cards to construct a fairly good size structure. They slide together easily enough, and it would make a fun toy for any grade schooler.

I bought them mostly because I wanted something slick to show off the third dimension in my D&D game. They didn't disappoint - the cards successfully stood in for an urban shanty town, a pile of ruins, a dank underground sewer and a submerged railway car fairly easily, as long as your group can use its imagination a bit. Best of all, they're actually to scale with standard D&D miniatures, which means your Lidda and Tordek minis can now climb towers and cross realistic bridges in exact, 5 ft. battle grid increments.

This isn't the only entry in the Building Cards line - they have a pirate ship-themed set, a spaceship set, and even a set that emulates the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. All of these are worth a look, for either an RPG player or a parent (not that those are mutually exclusive).

Politics: The Nader Hater

Ralph Nader recently announced that he's entering the presidential race, and as you might imagine, Obama and Clinton had some choice words to say about it. Now, a lot of Democrats blame Nader for spoiling the 2000 election (never mind that Pat Buchanan took votes away from Bush, or that Gore couldn't even win his home state). Republicans seem to be happy he's joining the race, as well they should.

Listening to Nader talk right now is like hearing the Bizarro version of reality. Here's a choice quote from the CNN article:
Nader, who turns 74 this week, complained about the "paralysis of the government," which he said is under the control of corporate executives and lobbyists.

Man, I wish the government were paralyzed. While government is surely influenced by corporations and lobbyists (who represent the interests of millions of people), it doesn't seem to stop the issuance of kooky legislation on a regular basis from the Capitol Dome. And it seems weird for someone to criticize corporations when he holds millions of dollars worth of stock in said corporations.

Miscellany: I Drink Your Milkshake

The Oscars were on tonight, and it was a relatively humdrum year - no big surprises, as "No Country for Old Men" took home all the important awards. Daniel Day-Lewis did win a well-deserved Oscar for his performance in "There Will Be Blood," though. Here's a funny SNL parody of the signature "I drink your milkshake" scene from the movie:

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Tech: A Half-Life Tribute

The original "Half-Life," a game developed by Valve Software, still brings back a lot of memories for me. I remember seeing the PC Gamer magazine review of the title and reeling in disbelief. "Half-Life" had been rated a 97%! A score that high was reserved for only the best of the best (the classic strategy game "Civilization II" had also been rated a 97%). Could "Half-Life" really be that good? With the impetuousness of youth, I handed over my $50 and picked up the game almost immediately.

The first moments of "Half-Life," especially back in early 1999, are some of the most immersive in gaming history. As you can see, there were opening credits similar to a big budget blockbuster. The big difference was that in "Half-Life," instead of watching a character on a screen, you were the character. And you weren't some muscle-bound soldier, either - you were Dr. Gordon Freeman, a nerdy MIT physicist (thankfully, in "Half-Life," it seems a degree in theoretical physics from MIT also makes you adept at shooting aliens).

This was one of the first PC games I ever played using a 3D accelerator card, and man oh man, did it make a difference. My jaw literally dropped when I saw the lighting and detail present in some of the environments. When I saw a construction robot lit up by eerie green radioactive waste, I knew I was in for something special.

But more than the graphics, "Half-Life" and its sequels are defined by their mastery of heavily-scripted cinematic events. Elevators crash, aliens attack, and things blow up in reaction to your presence in a manner that creates a convincing impression that you're the star of an action movie. If you ever want a primer on how to immerse someone in a virtual world, you could do worse than to look at "Half-Life."

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Food: Orange Juice

I was born and raised in Florida, which means that I've ingested a glass of orange juice at least once a week for pretty much my entire life. Now, a lot of people enjoy OJ, but when you live in Florida, it's practically a staple (it's also the official state beverage). And I'm not talking about that awful Minute Maid-type stuff that comes from concentrate, but the direct juice - about the only thing local producers do to it before it hits shelves is pasteurization.

I tend to buy one brand - Indian River Select. It's relatively expensive, but the fact that it often sells out in local supermarkets while other varieties are left untouched stands as mute testament to its quality. It tends to be a bit sweeter and fuller than the national brands, though obviously every batch is different. The other Florida brands are pretty good, too, such as Florida's Natural. Nothing is quite as good as going to an independent orange grove and buying direct, though, but those small time groves are often the victim of the aggressive development we have here in the state.

Orange juice itself is pretty good for you, except for the huge amounts of sugar it contains (almost as much as soda). It's obviously chock full of vitamin C, but you'll also get a healthy dose of potassium, too. As the above commercial shows, the citrus industry is a huge part of our economy, so they usually find ways to pimp out the product.

Friday, February 22, 2008

TV: Supermarionation

One of the nice things about television is that you can share an experience not merely with people in different places, but with people from different times in history. As a kid, I watched the marionette TV shows of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson on the Sci-Fi Channel. I didn't know it at the time, but I was enjoying shows that were at least thirty years old. It's weird to think that the childhood memories of an aging Baby Boomer and myself might feature the same characters and music.

My favorite, by a country mile, was Stingray. The opening credit sequence features bombastic, brassy '60s orchestral music wedded to some of the sweetest submarine model photography ever committed to film ("STANDY BY FOR ACTION!"):

Of course, most people are familiar with the more popular "Thunderbirds" series, which served as the inspiration for Trey Parker and Matt Stone's parody/homage in "Team America: World Police." I always felt that the avalanche of vehicles in "Thunderbirds," while cool, was a bit unfocused:

Marionette shows started to fall off in popularity, and I think they jumped the shark with "Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons." Improved technology allowed the puppets to have electronically motorized mouths but normal proportions, and the whole affair lost a lot of its charm without the bobble headed puppets keeping things lighthearted. Still, "Captain Scarlet" was a fun show, and the ending sequence had not only an incredible theme song, but neat paintings showing the indestructible Captain Scarlet in a variety of perilous situations:

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Music: Gimme Shelter

Unlike a lot of iconic rock and roll bands, the Rolling Stones' membership was and still is in flux. Whereas bands like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin never changed or dropped members, the Stones have seen a variety of musicians come and go, for reasons ranging from untimely death to personal friction. Fortunately, they've always been anchored by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

I'm not really a big Stones fan, but I've had the guitar intro to "Gimme Shelter" stuck in my head for about 12 hours now. :-P The best version of the song is the album version, since the Stones enlisted the help of Merry Clayton, whose high-pitched wailing ("RaaaaAAAPE...MuuurrrrDER!") outshines everything else. But, the various live versions aren't bad, either:

Guns: Any Colour You Like

All of my firearms are either basic black or stainless, but it's not uncommon for gun owners to coat their guns with another color finish, or to outfit them with different color grips or stocks. For example, one of my friends coated his Romak 3 with Aluma-Hyde to give it a camouflage pattern. This kind of refinishing merits some careful thought, however. Sometimes it can come out rather strange (credit to Xavier's awesome "Ugly Gun Sunday" series):

Yet sometimes you can come up with something neat (ninjas vs. pirates!):

In any event, recoloring a gun doesn't make it any more or less dangerous, mostly because a sane person wouldn't point or brandish a gun around in public unless his or her life depended on it. Yet just when I thought CNN's coverage of guns couldn't get any dumber, they go and do a report like this. If some idiot is holding up a liquor store with a pink and green gun, I doubt a cop is going to have to hesitate before opening fire.

Miscellany: A Different Kind of Campaign Trail, Part 2

My D&D campaign is now coming on to its second session, which is always where the real fun starts for a DM. After all, in the first session of any tabletop roleplaying game, you have to get all the background stuff out of the way. You tell the players about the setting and the plot, but until they actually start stepping in and messing up events, the game doesn't really come alive.

I decided on using a mutated version of the Eberron campaign setting. It's set more than two hundred years since the Last War, and I'm using the unexplained disappearance of magic to explain why I'm jumping the technology level of the world to something analogous to the Renaissance period. The problem with making such a drastic change to the setting is that you have to start using real world research, a la "Call of Cthulhu."

One nice resource I've found at my local games shop is the Osprey line of military history books. Unlike a regular RPG supplement, these books won't give you any stats or gameplay tips, but they do provide a wealth of historical detail and accurate photos/illustrations. A lot of things that existed in the real world, like the street fighting in the French Wars of Religion and the island city of Tenochtitlan, are as interesting and evocative as anything some fantasy writer has cooked up. Unfortunately, at the MSRP, they're kind of expensive, but my games shop was sellling them at 50% off.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Movies: The King of Kong

If you've never competed for a high score in a video game, you may not understand "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters." It's a documentary that follows schoolteacher Steve Wiebe (who's a bit of a dork but seems like an all-around nice guy) as he tries to beat the high score on "Donkey Kong," a classic Nintendo arcade game. The current high score is held by legendary arcade player Billy Mitchell, and it's stood for two decades.

It may seem like just a number, but to these players, the high score is significant - after all, it means you're the best in the world. Imagine if there was something you were so good at that no one, past or present, has ever been better - and now imagine what that would do to your ego. That fact, I think, explains a lot of the behavior you'll see in the movie.

There are some flaws, though. The documentary is rarely funny and pretty much never mocks gamers, so don't go in expecting laughs. The pacing is a bit off, and there's no real climax to the movie except for a tacked-on bit at the end. All in all, though, it's worth a look if you like competition.

Rating: 7/10

Books: Xenozoic Tales

"Xenozoic Tales," a comic series by Mark Schultz, is proudly secure in its pulp action-adventure roots. There's a dashing and muscular hero, a lithe and buxom heroine, and stories featuring dinosaurs that eat people in grusome ways. The issues collected in this anthology, which I picked up for a song at the local comics shop, are loosely connected and can be read in any order, but they always end with an EC Comics-like punchline.

The setting is a fictional far future, 500 years removed from our time. Through nuclear war, Man has brought on ecological disaster to himself. Civilization has fallen, coastal cities are under 30 feet of water, and some unknown mechanism has caused once extinct species, like dinosaurs, to reappear. Instead of being depressing, however, "Xenozoic Tales" embraces this wild and woolly new world.

There's a lot less dinosaur killing than you'd expect, mainly because our heroes, Jack "Cadillac" Tenrec and Hannah Dundee, are environmentalists who actually safeguard wildlife. In lieu of lurid pictures of dinos getting shot, you have some interesting intrahuman conflict and stories about lost relics of the 20th century. Jack is no less a badass, though, since he drives guano-powered cars and guides people through the rugged interior of North America.

You might know this series by another, more evocative name - "Cadillacs and Dinosaurs." There was even a TV series spawned by this comic:

Miscellany: Bringing Back "Magic: The Gathering"

I was a wee lad in middle school when I first played "Magic: The Gathering," a groundbreaking card game designed by Richard Garfield. "Magic" was and still is incredibly popular, since it effectively combines complicated strategy with the same collection impulse that drives people to pick up old stamps and coins. The flip side of this is that the best cards (both in terms of rarity and game power) are hard to track down, meaning that you'll have to spend a lot of cash in order to be able to play competitively.

The mechanics of Magic are ubiquitous now - literally dozens and dozens of games use the CCG (collectible card game) mechanic, from the physical copycats like Pokemon to electronic games like "Eye of Judgment." And while turn-based strategy on the PC is on the decline, CCG style games continue to be very popular. None of these successors, though, has quite the presence of the granddaddy of the genre, Magic.

I've managed to unearth my old Magic card collection, which fills up two whole shoeboxes - thousands of cards. Many are pretty worthless now, but I do have some old school classics like "Kismet" and "Jester's Mask." Thankfully, the game has wonderful continuity - since Wizards of the Coast has never changed the design of the back of the card, the newest cards from 2008 can be played right alongside the first cards from Alpha. I hope I can get a few games with my friends together soon.

One of the neatest parts of "Magic" is finding ways to combine cards and their effects in interesting ways. Here's a couple videos that show some of the absurd outcomes that can result:

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Movies: There Will Be Blood

"There Will Be Blood" is one of those movies that's sure to provoke mixed opinions. On the one hand, it's a quirky period film with enough violence and memorable moments of bizarreness to stay in the mind (if you're familiar with director Paul Thomas Anderson's other films, like "Magnolia" and "Punch-Drunk Love," you'll know what I mean). On the other, it's bloated and overlong, with the running time inflated by some needless subplots. In the end, though, the movie is saved by a great actor.

Daniel Day-Lewis (almost a shoe-in for the Oscar) delivers another fine performance here as Daniel Plainview, an oil man who is driven to compete with others. The movie depicts him as a hyper-capitalist, in the Baudrillard sense: he is so bent on conquering others and becoming successful that he is not motivated by wealth or greed (he is offered a million dollar buyout by Standard Oil but flatly refuses). The coda of the film takes the premise to its absurd conclusion (I guarantee you'll want a milkshake after watching this movie). In the end, the title, "There Will Be Blood," is both true and false (hint: "blood" has more than one meaning).

The soundtrack (consisting mostly of the piercing strings you hear in the trailer) is excellent, and all the trappings of the production, including the costumes and the sets, ring true to the turn-of-the-century rural America where the film is set. Visually, the stark California deserts provide plenty of punch, while the many closeups of Daniel Day-Lewis' grizzled face allow the actor to really hog the spotlight...much like his character.

Rating: 8/10

School: On Preparedness

Everyone at UF received an e-mail from President Machen in the wake of the NIU murders. Speaking as someone who has protested for the end of CCW restrictions on college campuses, I felt like responding to some of the e-mail's points:

We are all stunned by the shootings yesterday at Northern Illinois University west of Chicago. Sadly, it is only the latest in a horrific string of mass murders in academic settings. While we are shocked, we also find ourselves once again asking the question, "Are we prepared?"

Let me begin by updating you on some things that have occurred here at UF since the Virginia Tech incident last April...

I'd feel a lot more "prepared" if I could legally carry my CCW on campus, but whatever. I'm also irked by the reference to VA Tech as an "incident" - I hope in the future Machen can summon up some stronger language for an event where 32 people were murdered.

In January, we conducted the first test of our emergency text messaging system for students, faculty and staff. The test, performed in conjunction with Mobile Campus, showed that our text message reached 86 percent of its intended audience of more than 40,000 people within 50 minutes.

This is pretty curious. While it's true that in some anomalous cases (like VA Tech where the intial shootings happened long before the main attack) measures like this would help alert students, a lot of these mass murders are over and done with in less than a minute.

In addition, the University of Florida Police Department in December became the first university law enforcement agency in the country to accomplish the "Triple Crown" -- accreditation by the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA), the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) and the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation (CFA). This recognition speaks to the tremendous professionalism of UFPD and the quality of its officers.

As a reminder, UFPD,trains regularly for a variety of possible emergency situations, including just such a scenario: a gunman on campus. UFPD conducts exercises in conjunction with the Gainesville Police Department and the Alachua County Sheriff's Office and has a thorough and extensive response plan.

Well, it's nice the UPD is well-accredited and all, but I have no idea how they could actually prevent a tragedy. I don't care if police officers are on the scene in a minute - you could kill a dozen people in that time. It's telling that in most of these spree killings, the psycho takes his own life before anyone in uniform can respond. More and more, I think stopping these kinds of murderers requires a decentralized solution - the carrying of firearms by ordinary people.

Of course, you can't even legally carry a firearm for defense in Illinois. Not that anyone in the MSM would ever point out that the entire state is supposed to be a "gun-free zone."

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Miscellany: The management apologizes...

...for the slowdown in posting. I think it has something to do with this (and I'm aware this is boasting a bit, but I said to myself, "What the heck?"):

Anyhoo, normal posting will resume when Trial Team ceases the nightly 4 hour practices...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Music: Roxanne

The history of the Police could be the script of a typical rock-and-roll drama: talented musicians get together, they rise to stardom with a hit song, the lead singer gets more famous than his fellows, the band members' ambitions and goals clash, and finally they break apart. Decades later, with all the members older and wiser, they reunite for one last tour. What song do they play? The one that brought them to prominence in the first place. In the Police's case, that's "Roxanne."

My sister said she was forced to listen to this song almost every time she went to work (it played over the in-store loudspeakers). As such, it's a perennial favorite whenever we play "Rock Band" (for me, not her):

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

News: RIP Roy Scheider

Time finally caught up with Roy Scheider, who passed away Sunday. He played police chief Martin Brody in "Jaws":

But most people under the age of thirty will also recognize him from the failed sci-fi show, SeaQuest DSV:

(Confession - for the longest time, I thought he was named Roy Schneider, not Scheider).

Monday, February 11, 2008

Tech: Darkstone

I've talked about "Roguelike" hack-and-slash PC games before, but it's instructive to look at one particular example to see just what can go horribly wrong when you're designing a game about a character that goes around, kills things, and steals their loot. Today's hapless example is "Darkstone," an action-RPG developed by the now-defunct Delphine Software International. It was released for both the PC and the original PlayStation.

"Darkstone" had a cookie-cutter plot about destroying an evil lord, and you had to collect seven magical McGuffins before the way to the final battle was opened. You picked one of a number of different character classes, all of which stayed pretty much within the lines of Diablo - there's the melee-oriented fighter-type, the magic-focused Magey McMage-type, a Roguish ranged attacker, and a balanced cleric-clone.

If I could use one word to describe the game, it would be "vanilla." While "Darkstone" used a fairly passable 3D engine, the setting itself was so generic and bland that it's difficult to remember anything concrete about it now. There were very few ways to customize your character, and there was nothing akin to service. Most annoyingly, while there was an overworld that you could explore before delving into the dungeons, it paled in comparison to the overworld found in Diablo II.

For all of these reasons, Darkstone was soon displaced by the blockbuster "Diablo II" PC game, which is still being sold in stores 8 years later. Perhaps the only part of "Darkstone" worth remembering is this strange theme song and music video, performed by Audren:

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Guns: The California Legal Rifle

About the most absurd consequence of needlessly restrictive gun laws is the rise of "California legal" rifles. To understand this phenomenon, you need some background. You see, in nearly every other state in the U.S. (including Florida), the purchase of so-called "assault weapons" (that is, crippled semiautomatic versions of fully-automatic rifles) is legal. I used to have several myself. They're fun to shoot and are a decent choice for home defense, because their military lineage makes for a tough rifle. They are almost never used by criminals. These rifles, however, are banned under California law.

The thing is, since the only differences which separate a scary-looking "assault weapon" from Grandpa's semiauto deer rifle are cosmetic, the California ban is mostly concerned with various features (like pistol grips and folding stocks) that have nothing to do with how lethal a firearm is. Enterprising gun manufacturers have found ways to produce rifles that look and feel a lot like the banned rifles, pistol grips and all:

In some cases, though, like with the Kel-Tec SU-16CA, you get a semiautomatic rifle that accepts detachable magazines and is essentially just as effective as the "dangerous assault weapon":

It's a very curious phenomenon. Here, we have a rifle that accepts the same accessories, fires the same ammunition, and has the same firing rate as a rifle that can be purchased in Utah or Nevada. And yet, for some reason, Californians (or at least their government) think that those scary rifles across the border are so much worse than the rifles that can be bought legally in a California gun shop. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - the legislation is either very stupid or devilishly clever.

Links: English Cut

If you've ever wanted to learn about the art and science of bespoke Savile Row tailoring, you could probably do a lot worse than check out "English Cut," a blog written by Thomas Mahon. Thomas is a tailor who dishes out all sorts of commentary (and occasionally advice) about the rarefied world of fully custom men's suits. These are the kind of handmade garments that cost a small fortune but last a lifetime - kind of like buying a Ferrari that you can wear into a courtroom.

A tailored suit has a lot of man hours behind it, and Mahon's blog shows you exactly where your money goes. Instead of getting something off the rack and making alterations to it in order for it to fit your body, a new pattern is made from scratch, starting with the bare fabric. Often, multiple fittings are made, and the fine details (like lining up the stripes of the pocket of a herringbone suit with the main panel) also contribute to the feeling of comfortable, timeless luxury.

A lot of tailors are moving off the Row because of rising real estate prices. Obviously, tailoring a garment isn't location dependent, so it seems silly to waste money on a high-rent retail space. It's a bit sad, I suppose, that something so interesting can evaporate away because of the vagaries of the market. Then again, the continual repurposing of spaces in urban areas can be pretty neat in and of itself.

Miscellany: Dogs in the Vineyard first impressions

"Dogs in the Vineyard" is an independent tabletop RPG by D. Vincent Baker about a highly abstracted Old West "that never quite was." The setting is loosely reminiscent of pre-statehood Utah, and there's a lot of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints-tinged culture inhabiting these stark valleys and scrubby deserts. The players are the King's Watchdogs, or "Dogs" for short, and they have absolute authority...for better or worse.

It's an incredibly evocative setting married to an interesting set of rules. Conflict resolution is based on rolling many dice based on your stats and any special circumstances. The resulting dice pool isn't compared to any kind of difficulty level or target number, but instead is used in a poker-style system where opponents Raise and See each other, narrating as they go. The way the rules are set up only allow your Dog to die when he or she is willing to die for something, which makes a heckuva lot of dramatic sense, IMHO.

I also like how the game encourages the GM to abstain from making any moral judgments about the characters' actions. True moral quandaries are rare in most RPGs (kill the monsters and steal their loot is the norm), so it's nice to have some interesting choices. Do you kill someone who's about to murder his wife because of an affair? Do you help them? What if that someone was your own brother? DitV seems to be about pushing characters as far as they'll go, which is inherently interesting.

Mind you, these impressions stem just from reading the game and not playing it. I hope to get a real playtest in soon. If it sounds like it's your cup of tea, you can order the softcover digest-size book from a few independent game stores, or you can buy the PDF directly from the publisher.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

School: The Art of Persuasion

There's a competition to make the Trial Team here at the law school, and I'm currently in the final round, fighting for one of the available slots (the final round is tomorrow). We must prepare and deliver an opening statement, a direct examination, and a cross examination, all in a mock trial setting. Unlike other law school competitions like Moot Court or Law Review, it's not just about content or the strength of your legal arguments; it's also about how convincingly you can present information to a jury.

I was a bit shocked, for example, when they told me to dumb it down. Apparently, words like "genesis" are too complicated for a jury. Most jurors also stop paying attention to a speaker after about 30 seconds, so it's critically important to lay out everything in those first moments of a trial. Trial lawyers seem to expend a lot of effort determining how to say something, rather than what to say.

Miscellany: Power Eating

I thought this commercial was pretty cute. On one side, the now-famous champion eater Takeru Kobayashi (you know, that skinny Japanese guy who wolfs down hot dogs like no one's business). On the other, the "Black Widow," Sonya Thomas:

Competitive eating is probably as much a sport as anything else, but good Lord, sometimes it's not pretty to watch.

I hope those two never get hitched, because the wedding catering would cost a FORTUNE.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Movies: Cherry 2000

Quick! Name a movie you liked that starred Melanie Griffith. Nothing coming to mind? I've got mine...

Okay, so the trailer doesn't really do a good job of portraying what "Cherry 2000" is all about, but suffice it to say that it is one of the best post-apocalyptic wasteland movies ever filmed. "Cherry 2000" eats up Kevin Costner stinkers like "Waterworld" and "The Postman" for breakfast.

The movie's about a man named Sam Treadwell who is in search of a replacement for his malfunctioning sex bot (you read that bot). He hires E. Johnson (Melanie Griffith) to go into the wasteland in order to find one, but the duo are hunted relentlessly by Lester (played with homicidal gusto by Tim Thomerson). This may be the only movie where you'll see Melanie Griffith shooting up a car with an AC-556 (a fully auto Mini-14). I'm pretty sure she didn't shoot anything up in "Working Girl."

The whole movie straddles the line between camp and seriousness pretty well. You have some exciting action scenes, some real drama, and enough cornball goofiness for anyone (the members of Lester's gang dress up in Hawaiian shirts(!)). Curiously enough, the film is scored by the legendary Basil Poledouris, lending a suitably epic air to the whole proceeding. Throw in an inspired performance by Ben Johnson, and you have a cult classic.

Rating: 7/10

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Food: The Third Place

There's something astoundingly creepy about Haile Plantation here in Gainesville. On the surface, it's merely a planned development mostly catering to the very wealthy. And I'm not talking "wealthy" like Obama or Hillary define "wealthy" (that is, seemingly anyone making a professional's salary), but millionaires like head football coach Urban Meyer and head basketball coach Billy Donovan.

The reason it's so creepy, though, is because of the faux Americana "village" nestled inside the development. This is supposed to be a recreation of a small-town main street shopping district, which it certainly looks like on the surface, until you consider that there's no people walking around. None. Walking through there at night, you get the feeling that you're either on a studio backlot or inside a zombie nightmare. And in the "village," there's a restaurant called "The Third Place."

The name of the restaurant comes from a book by Ray Oldenburg, so already you know it's high-falutin'. The actual atmosphere is mostly like any fancy-but-casual restaurant, except for the aforementioned ghost town of a neighborhood. Ironically, this is a pretty big draw for the restaurant - it's a view into suburban desolation that you don't get to see very often.

Foodwise, it's about what'd you'd expect - a bit overpriced, with some interesting menu options and some standard fare. But I thought it made for an interesting meal.

Rating: 2/4 stars

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

TV: Out of This World

If you were going to hold a contest for the best use of a Bing Crosby song in an 80's kids sitcom intro, "Out of This World" would probably be the winner:

Unlike in the much-maligned fellow 80's supernatural-tinged sitcom "Small Wonder," the protagonist in OoTW is actually likable. Maureen Flannigan is cute as a button in one of her first starring roles as a half-human, half-alien girl named Evie who discovers she has special powers on her 13th birthday and that her father is actually an alien.

Evie can freeze and unfreeze time a la "A Kind of a Stopwatch", which is the primary power that drives most of the show's comedy. It was never really a high-concept show, but the actors played the goofy slapstick with more relish than you'd expect, and I was glad to see other people still remembered the show.

Music: Free Fallin'

I think Tom Petty did a pretty good job during the Super Bowl halftime show, and being that he was born and raised right here in Gainesville, Florida, I think it's only fitting that I feature one of his songs today:

"Free Fallin'" is a pretty popular song on the radio, of course, but I associate it mostly with its use in the movie "Jerry Maguire":

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Guns: An interesting Heller amicus brief

The arguments for Heller are going to begin in perhaps a month and a half. Before that time, however, interested parties can file amicus curiae briefs to offer additional information to the Supreme Court. just filed a pretty good one.

In contrast to their previous research report, this brief is pretty much correctly cited and professional, and it hammers home the stark truth about the origin of gun control in America. Definitely worth a read, if only to see how legal research and appellate advocacy can polish an argument.

School: Eugene Volokh on the Slippery Slope

Eugene Volokh of "The Volokh Conspiracy" fame came to Levin yesterday and delivered a talk on the mechanisms of the slippery slope. It largely covered the same ground as this paper published some years ago, but it was fun nonetheless. He discussed the various ways that the allegory of the slippery slope might operate - from the typical "small change" explanation ("boiling the frog" is another way of putting it) to other, more political explanations.

From the point of view of gun rights, it's interesting to note that Volokh suggested a blanket prohibition on gun bans might actually make gun registration more likely, or at least more palatable for some people. A favorable Supreme Court result in Heller, for example, would mean that people sitting on the fence about the issue (probably no one reading this blog) wouldn't listen to slippery slope arguments, since there's a limit to how far down the slope one could fall.

Volokh is a pretty animated speaker - as one of my friends put it, he's almost like a cartoon (but in a good way). He does tend to be more libertarian than most legal scholars, which of course makes him the darling of the Internetz. But you can tell that he never mocks the views of liberals or conservatives even when he doesn't agree - my kind of guy.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Sports: Still Perfect

Not the Patriots, that is, but the '72 Miami Dolphins. I suppose it's poetic justice that in a season where Miami narrowly avoided being the only team in NFL history to go 0-16, the New England Patriots fell one game short of becoming the second team in NFL history to go unbeaten in a season. Make no mistake: many in the NFL were rooting against the Pats, mostly because of their many instances of running up the score (including a 52-7 game against the Redskins and a 56-10 game against the Bills) and the cloud Spygate has generated.

I'm no Giants fan, but I'm a Dolphins fan, so I cheered pretty hard when Eli Manning somehow scrambled out of a sure sack and found David Tyree down the field late in the 4th quarter:

Of course, for many, the Super Bowl highlights were the commercials. I liked the Fed Ex carrier pigeon one and the Coke parade float battle:

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Miscellany: A Different Kind of Campaign Trail

Our Dungeon Master's yearlong Eberron campaign has seemingly drawn to a close. We're now in the midst of that uneasy interregnum period where we experiment with different campaigns and different DMs until the eventual release of D&D 4th Edition next year. It's an interesting process, full of false leads and fresh hopes.

I'll probably run some sessions between now and the end of the semester, and I've been looking at other systems besides the basic d20 mechanic, and different settings beyond the stock Eberron template (see my epic CoC post series for more on my GM style). I'm leaning towards sticking with D&D 3.5e, though, mostly because changing game systems shouldn't be done lightly - your players won't appreciate having to learn a whole new set of rules. Then again, having something new to learn does take the monotony out of rolling to hit again and again.

The setting is much easier to fudge, since that's half a DM's job, after all. Right now, I'm picturing something like a Renaissance level of technology (trans-continental sailing, rudimentary firearms, mechanical clocks) and very little magic. I know it's been done before (what hasn't?), but I'm hoping I can put a nice spin on it. I'm wagering that not running into a mummy or wyvern every five hours encourages more roleplaying.

Politics: Stupor Tuesday

With Fred Thompson bowing out a few weeks ago, the race for president has gotten pretty bleak for us Second Amendment absolutists. On the one hand, you have McCain and Romney, both of whom have spotty records on the subject (McCain at least voted against the AWB, but his past gun show "loophole" rigramole makes a lot of gunowners nervous). Huckabee is much better on gun rights, but is probably unelectable. Ron Paul's campaign has pretty much fizzled after he failed to make any big showing in primaries like New Hampshire.

On the other hand, you have the HillBama Show:

I suppose it's good that they've curtailed their authoritarian rhetoric (for now), but if a future President Obama somehow passes a law outlawing concealed carry nationwide, expect a lot of *cough* noncompliance. When I look at the candidates this year, I can't help but think back to this "South Park" song.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Books: Flowers For Algernon

There are some works you can never really understand when you first read them. I suspect "Flowers For Algernon," written by Daniel Keyes, is one of them. Like a lot of people my age, I read this novel as a kid (required reading in my middle school, if I recall correctly). In hindsight, though, it has the most relevance for someone who's 70 years old, not for someone in the 7th grade.

The plot should be familiar to anyone who's read the story or seen one of the many adaptations - Charlie Gordon, a mentally challenged janitor, volunteers for a radical new intelligence enhancing surgery. The story is told in the form of journal entries, and they get more and more refined as Charlie's intelligence increases. Eventually, he becomes smarter than the doctors who invented the procedure, and soon figures out that his intelligence is temporary. The last phase of the book concerns his gradual decline and the depression it causes him.

When I was a kid, I never realized how closely this mirrors the problems someone facing Alzheimer's disease suffers. The inability to remember or understand something that you wrote yourself, the difficulty you have in communicating with other people - it all hits home a lot harder when you realize Charlie's experience isn't just science fiction, but day to day life for millions of people. Combine the fact that Charlie's eventual death from the procedure is implied, and you have a rather effective allegory. Of course, it might not be what Mr. Keyes had in mind; it certainly didn't cross mine when I was eleven.

School: Darfur

I'm taking International Criminal Law this semester, and one of our first topics is genocide - its legal definition, how to prove it, who prosecutes it, and examples from recent history. It's common knowledge that the 20th century is full of instances of the systematic killing of ethnic and racial groups. The tragedy in the Darfur region of Sudan illustrates that the 21st century may not be all that different.

If you're unfamiliar with the whole mess, I don't blame you. What started out as a low-level guerilla movement and civil war (not exactly surprising given the history of the region) eventually grew to the point where hundreds of thousands of people died and more than 1.6 million people were displaced (the population of the Darfur region was about 6 million, by the way). The facile explanation for the violence is to blame it on attacks of Jingaweit (Arab/nomadic) militia and the government of Sudan, whose efforts at rooting out African rebels in the western region of the country, combined with famine conditions, led to an ever-spiraling cycle of suffering.

From the U.S. Department of State:

Another woman recounted how five Jingaweit men held her for a week against her will and repeatedly raped her in front of her nine-month old daughter. At one point, the woman was allowed to pick up the crying baby. When the baby continued to cry, one of the men grabbed the child and hit her with the butt-end of a rifle. The mother and child escaped and made their way to a refugee camp in southern Chad.

How do men turn into monsters?

Friday, February 01, 2008

Tech: Rez HD review

I normally don't give full reviews to XBLA titles, but Rez HD warrants an exception. Some years ago, copies of the original Rez were fairly scarce due to a limited production run by Sega. People often paid full retail on eBay to grab it for the PS2. Now, in 2008, you can download it on your Xbox 360 for 800 points ($10).

Rez was designed by Tetsuya Mizuguchi as an all-out assault on your senses (there was even an infamous trance vibrator accessory that will either impress your friends or gross them out). Everything that happens in the game adds a sound to the underlying mix, and in hectic situations when you're fighting a bunch of enemies, the resulting cacaphony of sound is sublime. All in all, it's less of a game than a visual interface for a bunch of great trance music tracks, including a truly epic remix of one of Adam Freeland's songs, "Fear":

The basic "gameplay," though, will be familiar to anyone who's played a rail shooter like Panzer Dragoon or Starfox. You highlight enemies with your cursor, and then unleash a barrage of homing missiles on them. All the while, you'll be shooting down stuff that's headed towards your avatar. When things get hairy, you can use a screen-clearing "Overdrive" that allows you to automatically fire on nearby enemies for a limited time.

Rez HD supports HD graphics, which are a huge upgrade from the original jaggies suffered by Rez on the PS2. Even though the game is 5 years old, it doesn't look dated at all - the timeless wireframe style of the game's environments is a big factor, of course. The only major flaw with Rez HD is its short length - you can "beat" the game in about an hour. Thankfully, achieving high scores in the various modes and going for perfect scores should extend the life of this one a bit.

Rating: 78/100