Monday, March 31, 2008

Movies: Disturbia

Shia LaBeouf is hot stuff in Hollywood. The 21-year-old actor will be in the fourth "Indiana Jones" flick, and he has already starred in the "Transformers" movie. I think that his performance in "Disturbia," though, is probably a better yardstick for judging his talents.

It's a sorta-remake of the classic "Rear Window," minus the witty sarcasm of Jimmy Stewart, the ethereal presence of Grace Kelly, and the masterful direction of Alfred Hitchcock. LaBeouf plays a troubled teen named Kale who is placed on house arrest in a seemingly normal suburban neighborhood. Confined to his house and suffering from boredom, he begins spying on the neighbors with his friends.

It's a premise that telegraphs its intentions with every scene, though for the first hour or so, the film manages to ride the coattails of its more famous forebear. Where things really start getting unhinged is the point where it all devolves into a run-of-the-mill slasher flick. It's certainly commendable that director D.J. Caruso didn't follow "Rear Window" beat-for-beat, but if you're going to go genre, you'd better be good at it.

Rating: 6/10

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Miscellany: There and Back Again

The true purpose of almost any vacation, my Dad once opined, is to make you glad to return home. After spending a fun-filled week rolling around the Iberian peninsula, it was finally time to go back to Florida.

There's no place like America for any number of reasons, but the best I can think of is cultural diversity. In Spain, as in most countries, there is uniformity, more or less. There are no Chinatowns there, for example, since the population of Chinese immigrants is tiny. The U.S., in contrast, has been filled with immigrants from all lands. People here, barring the odd holdout, are not surprised by other cultures.

That's why you can find a Chinese restaurant in a small town in Mississippi. That's why you see black people wearing green on St. Patrick's Day. That's why you can flip through a Spanish-language channel on TV and not bat an eye.

That's not to say Spain is a bad place to live, or that America doesn't have its share of problems. But if you're looking to experience cultural heterogeneity on a massive scale, one of the best places to live is right here.

Food: Wise's Drug Store

As you might have noticed from the rest of the blog, I'm pretty steeped in American culture. One little scrap of Americana I never got to experience growing in the suburbs, however, is the neighborhood pharmacy - the old-timey type, not Walgreens. A place where you could not only buy aspirin, but also a cold milkshake and a sandwich.

Luckily, such places still exist, even though they're certainly not as common as they once were. Wise's Drug Store, ensconced near the heart of Gainesville's downtown, has that classic row of stools and lunch counter that defined small-town America. I stopped in one day out of curiosity, and ordered a burger and shake.

It's odd to get what is essentially fast food in a place like this. For one thing, it's apparent that when you sub in a competent short order cook for a minimum wage burger flipper, even the humblest of foods tastes a lot better. The limited menu selection and sometimes small portions are significant drawbacks, but at least the service is good. It's hard to put a price on civility these days.

2/4 stars

Miscellany: Holy Toledo

My family has a habit of compressing full vacations into ludicrously short timeframes. Whether it's a trip to Key West in 24 hours, or a week spent at Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and Niagara Falls (driving the whole way), any time we have on holiday is concentrated in outlandish ways. This phenomenon came to a head when we spent literally two hours in Toledo, Spain.

We were on a guided tour, and we followed a spry old man about as we rocketed through the town. He tended to linger a bit too long explaining things, but otherwise, we managed to see quite a bit, including centuries-old cathedrals and synagogues. I had vowed to get a souvenir of some sort for my friends back home, but since the tour was non-stop, I had to pass by shop after shop (the historic part of Toledo is literally infested with tourist shops).

I lost hope when I saw that the old man was leading us back to the tour buses. Thankfully, the tour guide had one final stop in mind - a small steel workshop...and its gift shop. I'm surprised a tour agency would have the gall to unceremoniously dump you into a store as part of the tour, but I did manage to buy those souvenirs. Thanks for the letter-openers, Toledo!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Miscellany: Some kind of genius.

I've complimented GEICO's ad department before, but the company (or at least its ad agency) just keeps surprising me. The latest in the series of "celebrity spokesperson" commercials features Mrs. Butterworth:

I mean, not only do you get the "Mrs. Butterworth" people to pay you for the exposure of their product, but you also get a memorable spokeswoman without having to build her from the ground up. This kind of symbiotic crossover is very common nowadays, but GEICO drops all subtlety and nuance and just hammers you with both syrup and car insurance.

Books: Inside Vineyland

Perhaps the best way to explain "Inside Vineyland," an indie comic book by Laura Weinstein, is to compare it with other works. This is a short trip through the surreal imagination of its author, not some epic life story like "Persepolis." At times, though, the artwork has the uncluttered energy of "Krazy Kat," or the freewheeling parody of "Mad" magazine. Nevertheless, the whole affair is uniquely Weinstein.

It's an interesting comic book, and it's definitely short enough to be absorbed in one sitting. The longest and best piece, "Robot Quest For Love," concerns the trials and travails of a robot in whitebread Midwestern town. In any case, it's cheap, and worth a look if you like the art style.

School: What do you know about the Guatemalan Civil War?

Our final assignment in my International Criminal Law class is a paper detailing a region where genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes may have been committed. It isn't that hard, sadly, to find places where atrocities have occurred, but I think a lot of people are going to do the usual suspects (Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur, etc.). For my paper, I managed to find an interesting (and much lesser-known) region of conflict: Guatemala.

Makes you wanna pack up your bags and flee to Mexico, no?

Friday, March 28, 2008

TV: VR Troopers

I often write about children's TV shows that still hold up when I watch them today. This entry is a bit different, however, because "VR Troopers" is a decidedly corny "Power Rangers" clone. Like its more famous sister show, it used stock footage from old Japanese tokusatsu kid's shows and wedded that to a cheaply shot American live action veneer. If you've never seen it, think of the "Power Rangers" minus the obvious color coding:

One part of "VR Troopers" was better than most of the "Super Sentai"-derived shows: the hapless mooks that often confronted the heroes midway through the episode. In this show, they're called "skugs," and most of the time they're disguised as shapely young women in black dresses. They even have a theme song:

Tech: How Not to Do DRM

Digital Rights Management, or DRM, is the blanket term for any technique or technology that controls access to copyrighted material (usually music, movies, or computer software). Opponents of DRM argue that it burdens the consumer without really affecting the pirate, since almost all DRM schemes can be circumvented somehow. Supporters say that it dissuades casual copiers and helps to preserve the market for legit copies. I understand why DRM schemes exist, and I also think digital distribution is where everyone's headed. Buying a physical copy of an album or movie may become as outmoded as using an 8-track.

I ran into some problems with the bizarre DRM scheme used in the "Terminator 2: Extreme Edition" DVD, however. First, an explanation: the content in question is a high-resolution version of the classic movie "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," one of my favorite films. Now, the movie itself is stored as a series of HD video files on the DVD-ROM, rather than as a regular DVD-Video MPEG-2. The Interactual Player is needed to access these files from the menu. The Interactual Player also uses Windows Media Player 9 to download a license file from a remote server.

The problem comes in downloading the license. It's extremely silly to depend on the Internet to supply a license like this, since there are no guarantees in the Internet Protocol that any information will get where it's supposed to go. To add insult to injury, the license server rejects anyone using an anonymous proxy server (a very common method of accessing the Web). I had to use someone else's unsecured wireless network just to download the file. Needless to say, if it took someone with a computer engineering degree an hour to figure out how to get to these files, the average consumer's in for a ride.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Guns: Weak Hand Drills

Since I've suffered a broken arm, I'll be working with just my left hand for the next few months. In my current state, a motivated 12 year old boy could probably beat me up; it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that losing the use of an arm is a huge disadvantage when you have to defend yourself from violent attack. It's trying times like these that make me glad I've practiced with my off hand ever since I learned to shoot.

Some people go to the range, shoot a box of ammo through their gun with both hands, and call it a day. Yet if you don't know how to draw, fire, and reload with one hand (and in my case, with the weak hand), I'd argue you haven't really learned how to handle a handgun. Here's some of the tips and techniques I've picked up from various sources:

Let's start with the draw

Many handgun holsters made nowadays are adjustable, but a good many aren't. My K&D IWB holster, for example, has adjustable Kydex clips, but is also contoured to fit my right side, not my left. In order to draw with my left hand, I'd have to modify my draw from a standard strong-side draw to a pseudo small-of-back draw (shown above) where the gun's muzzle has to cross the body - this is unacceptable.

Thankfully, my trusty S&W 642 rides in a pocket holster. These holsters are usually ambidextrous, and the draw motion doesn't change at all.

What about shooting with one hand?

Shooting with your off hand is challenging, to say the least. Since most people aren't used to their off finger pulling the trigger, you tend to pull your shots off the mark. And it's almost a certainty that you won't be able to handle recoil as well.

The best advice I can give is basic - shoot only as fast as your sight picture allows. Accept that you won't be as good with one hand, and then try to push yourself to become better. If you're shooting from a retention position, you'll definitely need to have practiced previously, since the gun won't point as naturally in your off hand.

How on Earth can I reload like this?

There are several methods you can attempt. You can use your legs (either put the gun between your knees or use the back of one knee while kneeling). I don't like this method, since it immobilizes you:

The next method is to put the gun back into the holster and slap in a mag there. This can be done while moving, but it can be difficult to reholster a slidelocked pistol without closing the slide. If you do end up closing the slide, you may have to rack the gun by snagging the sights onto your belt.

I prefer to tuck the gun underneath the other arm and manipulate it there. This is almost always a serious Rule #2 violation, so don't do it at a range, but it's faster than cramming the gun in a holster and it lets you move quickly.

Reloading a revolver with one hand is harder, but you can use these same priniciples. With a Smith & Wesson revolver with its cylinder open, I find that tucking the barrel inside the pants provides a convenient platform for dropping the speedloader in.

Movies: Reign Over Me

It seems every once in awhile Adam Sandler takes a break from fare like "The Waterboy" or "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" to try his hand at a serious role. His most recent foray into this territory was "Reign Over Me," a film in which he plays Charlie Fineman, a man trying to cope with the death of his entire family in the 9/11 attacks.

As you can see from the trailer, Alan Johnson (played by Don Cheadle, who is quickly becoming an A-list dramatic actor) is a man with a problem - Charlie Fineman. While Fineman jams on the drums, plays "Shadow of the Colossus," and generally hangs out all night, he is also alone and lost, seemingly cut off from all friends and family.

To its credit, the film never drags. Unfortunately, while the pacing is steady, the plot is not, feeling more like an after-school special than any kind of real commentary about the life of a man dealing with mental illness. The tidy conclusion that features British knockout Saffron Burrows is hopeful, but a bit too saccharine for my taste.

Rating: 6/10

Miscellany: Everyday I'm Hustlin'

One of most fascinating examples of capitalism at work is the street seller. You've probably seen them if you've been to any major city with a lot of pedestrian traffic. They usually stock an assortment of shady items, like bootleg DVDs, cheap jewelry, or fake designer purses. They come from all races and creeds, and all different backgrounds.

When I was in Madrid, these street sellers were invariably black, presumably immigrants from any one of a number of African nations. They carried their goods on a sheet, with four strings tied at each of the corners (so that the whole bundle could be gathered up at a moment's notice). All through the night and most of the day, they'd peddle their goods.

On the one hand, these sellers are free riders, taking advantage of the considerable capital invested in both the city and the brand names without really reciprocating. On the other, if it wasn't for these sales, they might turn to a life of crime. For my part, the dance between the street sellers and the Madrid police was at least interesting. When I saw this interplay, this song kept playing in my head:

Music: Almost Lover

My sister is a fan of "A Fine Frenzy," the professional name of Alison Sudol. I have to admit, her song "Almost Lover," which appeared on the German MTV station in our hotel, is pretty catchy. The plaintive, breathless singing on the single hooks into the lyrics well, IMHO:

Food: Jamón ibérico

When the Spanish finally ejected the Moors from Spain in 1492, legend has it that the Spanish celebrated by consuming a whole lot of pork. To this day, ham is a very popular food in Spain, appearing in everything from simple ham and cheese bocadillos sold by street vendors to plates of the finest ham served by itself, like sashimi.

Jamón ibérico generally refers to cured ham made from the famous Black Iberian pig, whose diet consists of mostly acorns and other forest food. Naturally, it's expensive to raise a pig this way, so the ham is pricey and rare outside of Spain. The stuff tastes great though - like prosciutto, but with a distinct flavor that undercuts the saltiness.

We didn't get to eat there, but the Museo del Jamon is one of the most famous chains of restaurants inside Madrid. It's invariably crowded with both tourists and locals because of the reasonable prices. If you do ever visit Spain, it's probably worth a look.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Miscellany: Crap

Well, I suppose this day had to come eventually. I had managed to avoid any serious injury while riding my bike, even after a few spills and close calls (including one that skinned a big part of my knee). Yesterday, though, I broke my right arm.

It's fairly inconvenient, but not as painful as you might think. Like most people, I am right-handed, so it's certainly made everyday tasks interesting (opening containers and putting on clothes, to name a couple). I'm going to see an orthopedics specialist today.

Blogging might be a bit light till I get everything settled. Crazily enough, I still have a few more Spain posts to put up. Ah, the vagaries of life...

Miscellany: Take That, Guernica!

The city of Madrid has a huge variety of art museums, ranging from the internationally-renowned Museo del Prado (which features works from heavy hitters like Goya, Velázquez, and El Greco) to smaller museums scattered around the city. My personal favorite, however, is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, commonly called the "Reina Sofia." You can find it in the south of Madrid's arts district, and its entrance is flanked by neat glass elevator towers.

Inside is a collection of art ranging from the late 19th century to the present day. Best represented here is Pablo Picasso, the founder of Cubism. When I visited the Reina Sofia, they not only had their permanent collection on display, but also hundreds of additional works by Picasso, on loan from the Picasso Museum in Paris.

The best-known work currently held by the Reina Sofia, though, is Guernica. It is an imposing painting (nearly 12 ft tall and twice as wide), and the studies and preliminary works that precede it show how much thought went into the piece. It's been vandalized before, but never quite like this:

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter

Easter is an important holiday in Christianity, but I'd argue the most moving part of the Christian faith is the sacrifice itself (the Passion), not the actual resurrection. What gets submerged after all these years is that the symbol of the religion - the cross - is a method of torture and execution. Now, it's hard to teach this to 6 year olds in Sunday School, but in one sense, Christianity is about people killing God. Nice to know He's a good sport about it.

I hope everyone had a good Easter.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Movies: Fracture

Although it might look like some sort of psychological thriller, "Fracture" is really a movie about criminal law, or more specifically, about criminal procedure. You can see more about the premise in the trailer, but suffice it to say that the movie effectively portrays the trials and travails of a prosecutor (especially the temptation to misuse the power).

There's some interesting performances here. Anthony Hopkins has pretty much got the "calculated psychopathic killer" down pat by this point in his career, so he slips into this one easily (he has an accent, but it's slightly dodgy). Ryan Gosling, who plays the arrogant prosecutor trying to put Hopkins away, manages to hold his own.

Unfortunately, the plot requires too many coincidences and stretches of the imagination to accept. First of all, if someone is shot in the head with a GLOCK .45, and they don't get medical attention immediately, they usually die. Second of all, a judgment of acquittal is rarely granted, especially with all the circumstantial evidence pinning the defendant, and only the defendant, to the scene of the crime. Every time something like this crops up, it kills your suspension of disbelief.

And here's a little inside joke, one that only one person in the world will understand: "Gee, it looks like Ryan Gosling's character's relationship with Anthony Hopkins' character has...FRACTURED!"

Rating: 6/10

Guns: When Property is More Important Than a Person

Here is a picture of a jewelry store in the ritzy Serrano shopping district in Madrid. What is a bit hard to see, however, is the security guard standing in the entrance to the store. Even more difficult to discern is the revolver he carries on his hip. But trust me, it's there.

The gun laws in Spain seem to be about the same as the rest of Europe; you can apparently still own a handgun, but you must be a member of a shooting club and all your guns are registered, licensed, yada yada yada. Like in most of the world, there is no provision for ordiniary citizens to actually carry a handgun. Apparently, though, it's okay for a private security guard to have a gun to protect jewelry, but it's not okay for someone to have a gun to protect himself or herself.

If you recall, Dick Heller is a security guard, too, who protects a government building by day but is disarmed by night. The next time someone says they want more restrictive gun laws, make sure they know that even in countries like Spain, people carry guns. Like in Washington, D.C., though, the priorities are all mixed up.

Politics: Protests in Spain

When me or members of my family go to Western Europe, we always seem to witness protests and/or strikes. This could be just coincidence, or it could be that people there like that sort of thing. In Spain, there was a truly large protest clogging up the streets of Madrid when we were first walking around the city. The building you see above is the Ministry of Education, and the protesters are teachers angry about the privatization of kindergarten. At first I was taken aback (even the U.S. has public kindergarten), but then I realized that I'm not familiar with the Spanish school system. What they consider kindergarten might be more akin to preschool, which is private here in the States.

Music: Bettina, zieh dir bitte etwas an!

This one requires some explanation. While we were in Spain, we discovered that the hotel (which caters mostly to foreign businessmen) included stations from all over Europe. There was a German language version of MTV that we tuned into in our spare time, since they showed a constant stream of music videos (when was the last time you saw a full run of music videos on American MTV?).

It was a mix of videos we knew and videos we didn't, but one of the neatest foreign videos was this one from Fettes Brot, a German hip-hop group. The song title ("Bettina, please put on some clothes!") refers to German model and talk show host Bettina Ballhaus, who ran a strip quiz show game:

Miscellany: Zona de Fumadores

If there's a Tenth Circle of Hell, it must surely be something like the international baggage claim area of the Barcelona Airport, at least for anyone sensitive to secondhand smoke. Now, I'm not one of those ninnies who goes about insisting private businesses not allow smoking, but given that I have little choice over where I pick up my luggage when I travel, it'd be nice if people had the courtesy not to chain-smoke inside an enclosed space. Unfortunately, there are many Spanish smokers, and thus the wait for our luggage was made interminable by the acrid pollution in the room.

In an even more perverse irony, the government tries to contain this problem by consigning all the smokers to "Zona de Fumadores," glass partitioned spaces where you're supposed to smoke inside the airport. This only has the unhappy consequence of concentrating all the smoke into one place (the smoking zones aren't equipped with adequate filtration or ventilation), which then wafts out into an unholy pall that literally makes it uncomfortable to pass by.

Even more irksome are the people who just throw cigarette butts on the ground and stamp them out, as if the used filters are going to magically disappear. I think littering is rather rude, but it takes on a whole special kind of awful when you just toss your butts out inside an airport like it was a bar or nightclub.

Food: Tapas 24

It can be very easy to tell the good restaurants from the bad ones in Spain, though we really struck out a few times when we were dining there. One happy exception, however, was "Tapas 24," a little place nestled in the business district of Barcelona. It's actually below the street level, and there aren't many seats. It succesfully replicates the friendly neigborhood bar feel while having some incredible food, with a menu ostensibly by chef Carles Abellan.

Tapas are small appetizer plates ("A lot of money for a little food"). They're quite popular in Spain, where bar-hopping in the night hours is common because dinner is served so late (11PM wouldn't be out of the norm for most places). Most of the time, though, these plates are little more than simple companions to a bunch of drinks.

Tapas 24 steps it up a notch, though. The traditional tapa plates, like squid or fried prawns, are lavished with the attention of a chef; they taste like it and are priced like it, too. More esoteric dishes, like the delicious fried artichoke leaves and the Cava sangria, are also fantastic. The only thing keeping this place from 4/4 stars is the price and the portion size - the food itself was exceptional.

3/4 stars

Books: The Matchlock Gun

While I was in Spain, I got a chance to see some interesting specimens from the Royal Armory in the Royal Palace of Madrid. There were swords, armor, crossbows - and even primitive 16th century matchlock guns, some that looked so large they'd be hard to carry. As far as I know, the only children's book to star a huge gun like those Spanish guns is "The Matchlock Gun" by Walter Edmonds.

It was originally written in 1941, and it'd probably be unpublishable today (what with all the complaints from Native Americans and other minorities). "The Matchlock Gun" is, nevertheless, a Newberry Award-winning children's book set in the tumult of the French and Indian War. It depicts a Dutch family struggling to make it on the frontier, and its messages about self-reliance and bravery are still relevant, even if some wring their hands over other aspects of the narrative.

Edward is a boy living with his family in 1756, and he is fascinated by the impractical, gigantic Spanish matchlock that his father keeps as an heirloom. When his father is called off to militia duty, though, he becomes the man of the house, so to speak. Would Edward be able to handle this gun if trouble actually came?

I said the book was unpublishable, but it's not really clear why people should be upset. Any honest depiction of colonial America will probably include slaves - what, do people want history whitewashed like it was in the Mel Gibson movie "The Patriot"? And maybe people shouldn't be so up in arms about its depiction of Native Americans as ruthless, effective fighters - isn't it better than the alternative, which is to say that American Indians were hoodwinked and hapless victims? In any case, "The Matchlock Gun" is an interesting book and a good counterpart to crap like "The Rifle."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Links: Subprime Works

And now for a break from all the Spain posts...While visiting the Volokh Conspiracy, I saw a cartoon presentation showing how the subprime "crisis" developed. Some foul language at the end, but it's a pretty accurate depiction nonetheless.

My own thoughts on the issue are simple. It takes a huge amount of materials and manpower to build the average 3 Bedroom/2 Bath family home - the design, engineering, construction, and permitting costs involved are tremendous when it all adds up. If you want to buy a house, you better be able to make enough money to pay all the people who worked on it, not to mention the interest. Whoever thought that it was a good idea to let people buy houses with no money down has probably been watching too many Carleton Sheets infomercials...

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Movies: License to Wed

As you might expect, in Spain, most of the movies are Spanish, so I did end up seeing a few movies we brought over on DVD when we were taking breaks from combing through the city. Having never seen any of these DVDs, I picked out "License to Wed," since it featured Robin Williams. That turned out to be a mistake.

Robin Williams is one of the world's most famous comedians, but his recent work has been...well...disappointing, to say the least. The same guy who gave us "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Good Morning, Vietnam" churned out stuff like "RV" and "Man of the Year" in 2006. Sadly, "License to Wed" doesn't reverse this trend.

The movie starts out promisingly enough. Mandy Moore and John Krasinski are a dewey-eyed couple who are going to take the plunge into marriage, and Robin Williams is an eccentric pastor who's about to test their relationship to the limit. While the first third of the movie is lively enough, with some small laughs, the whole affair runs out of gas right about the time Robin Williams gives them mechanical babies (I am not making this up).

The big problem here is that by focusing on Moore and Krasinski, Williams is off screen most of the time for the last third of the movie. The final resolution, which is maudlin and predictable, also feels pretty forced.

Rating: 5/10

Miscellany: Sagrada Familia

Barcelona's greatest tourist attraction (and, indeed, a structure that has become emblematic of the city) is the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia, an unfinished Roman Catholic church designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi. It looms in Barcelona's skyline; the spike-like spindly towers (which symbolize Christ and his apostles as well as the Virgin Mary) are visible from all over the city, and there's often acompanying construction cranes that make the whole affair look even more otherworldly. Naturally, my family and I visited this place during our visit to the city.

Walking in, the first thing you are struck by is the sheer height of the nave. Now, I've been to St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, and let me tell you, the Sagrada Familia is nearly as impressive - and that's without 100+ years of building time and the resources of the 16th century Catholic church behind it. Almost the entire building features interesting architectural touches, since this was Gaudi's masterwork and a project he worked on for most of his life. If you're ever in Barcelona, it's well worth a visit.

TV: Inside China

One of the first things I do when I get to a hotel after a long trip is to relax a little. For my trip to Spain, I found it difficult to jump right into the sightseeing after I had just spent 20 hours traveling, so I watched some TV in my hotel room. The problem? There wasn't much television programming in English, save for the BBC World channel. While this was mostly just news, they also had some documentaries, one of which was "Inside China."

The series covers elements of everyday Chinese life that might be unknown to the average person outside the country. I saw the episode concerning the Chinese school system, and the various pressures that students go through when they take their exams. Particularly interesting was the sheer amount of study needed to perform well on college entrance exams; if you thought SAT preparation was stressful, wait till you see the mindbending 16+ hours of study a day required to get into the top colleges in China.

News: Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008

I've only read a few of Arthur C. Clarke's works, including "Childhood's End" and "Rendezvous with Ranma," but I can tell you that the world has lost a truly gifted writer. Mr. Clarke passed away today at age 90.

Here is his 90th birthday message:

Clarke once wrote that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I think the same holds true for sufficiently advanced writers.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Guns: Heller oral arguments

The Heller oral arguments took place this morning, and here's a handy transcript in PDF form. For those unfamiliar with the appellate advocacy process, the oral arguments are nowhere near as important as the opening and closing arguments in a trial, so the omission or misstatement of certain arguments or facts by counsel for either side shouldn't be taken too seriously. After all, the Justices have already had plenty of time to review the briefs (including the dozens of amicus briefs) and to form an opinion.

Why have oral arguments then? It is a way to bring some transparency to what would otherwise be 9 people interpreting the law in a vacuum, but the final opinions would seem to me to be clear enough. In any case, the oral arguments can sometimes reveal where the Justices are leaning. From today's transcript, there's reason to hope the DC ban is going down, though I still fear a weak opinion that confirms the Second Amendment protects an individual right but that somehow contorts the law to uphold the DC ban.

It's a bit disheartening to hear some of my classmates, though. The "I don't want anyone to have guns" and the "It's impossible for citizens with guns to resist the government nowadays" attitudes are all too prevalent. May your chains rest lightly upon you in the future, I suppose. :-P

Food: Xocolat

A treat that's popular in Barcelona (as well as other parts of the world, of course) is hot chocolate. However, the hot chocolate they serve over there is much, much thicker than what you normally get here in the U.S. It's less of a liquid and more like heated chocolate pudding, and it'll be a bit strange the first time you try it. While I did sample some "xocolat" from the fast food chain "Dunkin Coffee" (what "Dunkin Donuts" calls itself in Spain), the real deal was found in a little hole-in-the-wall cafe off La Rambla...

Spanish people often have hot chocolate with churros, the oily fried-dough concoction that's also becoming more common here in the States. This cafe didn't have serve any accompaniments save a small piece of candy, but the xocolat itself was exceptional - impossibly rich, thick, and with intense chocolate flavor. I was a bit suspicious when they started with a powder, but since they add steamed condensed milk, the whole thing ends up turning into ten different kinds of delicious.

Miscellany: Street Performers

One thing that was interesting in Spanish cities was the ubiquity of street performers. On the iconic, tourist-choked avenue in Barcelona named La Rambla, and at almost all hours of the day, you could find various people trying to earn money via little shows or tricks. Most of these were of the "living statue" variety - a performer tries to remain very, very still, only to "come alive" when he or she wants to get some attention (and money). Still others performed shows or magic, with most tending to be shady three card monte hustlers.

Madrid's performers were mostly musicians. Much like in the subways of Paris, the Madrid Metro is filled with enterprising musical artists, from accordionists to harpists to full jazz ensembles. Things can get pretty complex - I saw several people used drum machines or recorded backing vocals. The boldest sort of musicians in the Metro were the ones who'd sneak onto Metro cars at the last minute and play in the short transits between stops. Nothing like having a captive audience, I guess.

News: Sticker Shock

The economic woes of the U.S. dominate the headlines, and part of that downturn is the sinking value of the U.S. dollar. While I was in Spain, the dollar plummeted literally right before my eyes versus other currencies, and the price of goods shot up for me as a result. It sucks to pay for a 5 euro meal at a fast food restaurant when in the back of your head you know it cost you 8 bucks, and it sucks even more when you start to buy expensive items and services.

But even more so than that, prices in Spain (or at least in Madrid, Barcelona, and Toledo) are just high. I'm not sure how much money the average Spaniard makes, but it'd have to be quite a bit to justify the kind of prices I was seeing. Then again, since Spain is pretty socialist, they probably don't have to pay for a lot of things we pay for over here...well, they don't have to pay directly, anyway. (TANSTAAFL)

I have seen way more American tourists visiting European cities than I have seen European tourists visiting American cities, which probably means that the demand for travel to Europe is just plain higher. It might also mean that richer countries, like the U.S. or Japan, are able to field more tourists than poorer ones. In fact, I doubt there's many places where you won't find a Japanese tourist or two.

Politics: Spanish Elections

When I finally arrived in Spain, the country was in the midst of their general elections. I had no idea what the political parties or issues were like in the country, but like in the United States, there were plenty of campaign signs and placards telling people to vote. Eventually, I gathered that the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers' Party) and the PP (People's Party) were the two big parties contending for votes.

Spain, if you recall, was attacked only days before their 2004 elections by terrorists in the Madrid train bombings, which killed nearly 200 people. The failures of the PP in handling the attacks, as well as the fact that many in Spain believed the attacks were retaliation for Spain's participation in the Iraq War, led to the Socialists gaining power. The PSOE eventually won the 2008 election, with incumbent Prime Minister Zapatero being reelected by a comfortable margin.

The curious thing about Spanish politics is the existence of politically significant minority parties, such as the regional Catalan party and the Basque nationalists. This is pretty strange to U.S. voters, almost like if the Green or Libertarian parties managed to field Congressional representatives. Then again, it's worth noting that Spain only has a population of 45 million; in the U.S. it's difficult to forge a third party with true national influence.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Miscellany: Airportland

During my trip to Spain, I visited a world I like to call "Airportland." It's been portrayed in movies like "The Terminal" and "Fight Club," and for once, Hollywood isn't exaggerating or stretching reality, at least in my opinion. Sign up for any trip that involves two or more connecting flights, and that features a total flight time of over 5 hours, and you'll experience it too.

Airports, whether you're in Boston or Beijing, look and smell and sound the same. Usually built around big glass-and-steel caverns that herd travelers like scurrying ants, they tend to blend into one another in a sedate fashion. You can get a bite to eat, you can buy a shaving kit or a magazine, and you can even take a nap. However, you're confined to the terminal because, gosh darn it, you need to make that flight. Like shopping malls, airports usually make some effort to be appealing aesthetically by including works of art or striking architecture (the Madrid airport, with supports modeled after the Sagrada Familia, is shown above), but that just ends up making the whole experience more surreal.

Airlines are frighteningly uniform, too, mostly because of the economics of air travel. That same recycled-cabin-air smell, the cramped seats, the mediocre "meals" that are served - in my travels, they are remorselessly duplicated no matter where I'm going. In a way then, any overseas flight really has two destinations - wherever you're eventually headed, and that strange place called Airportland.

Movies: The Myth

Before I went on vacation, I managed to sneak in a movie-watching session with Dad. While the rest of the family went to see something in the theaters, we cracked open the DVD case and came up with "The Myth." It was a loan from someone else's Netflix queue, so we popped it in.

For people who only know Jackie Chan through his woeful American outings, it might be surprising to learn that Chan is one of Hong Kong's most bankable stars. "The Myth" is one such blockbuster, fueled almost entirely by Chan's slapstick fighting and lush production values (a 15 million dollar budget buys a lot in HK).

The plot is all over the place in this one (and more than a bit reminiscent of "The Fountain," to be honest). Jackie plays both an ancient Chinese general safeguarding a princess and a modern day archaeologist seeking answers, though it's initially unclear how these two stories intertwine. Add in some nonsensical levitation, a Bollywood interlude that includes a dance number, and you have a very strange mishmash of genres.

As I said before, the production values save this one. The parts set in ancient China feature some convincing costumes, and the various locations in the modern day look great too. The fight sequences are the real draw here, and though it's not one of Jackie Chan's best movies, it makes for a passable way to get your sci-fi/fantasy/martial arts fix.

Rating: 6/10

The movie has many. many battles, but the standout has got to be the fight in a rat paper factory, featuring a cameo from the rather fetching Indian sex symbol Mallika Sherawat.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day

I'm happy to report that I'm back from Spain, and that Guinness is pretty gosh darn popular there. There'll be an avalanche of posts coming, but for now, I'll leave you with Captain Quint. Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies...

Friday, March 07, 2008

Shangrila Towers is going on vacation...

...and so am I. :-)

I'll be in Spain with my family, so posting may be erratic, or nonexistent, or both. Believe me, there'll be tons of pictures and posts when I get back. I wish everybody a happy and healthy Spring Break.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Music: Two Horizons

"Two Horizons" is an album by former Clannad member Máire Ní Bhraonáin, better known as Máire Brennan or Moya Brennan. Although she hasn't been quite as successful as her sister Enya, Moya's pretty talented in her own right.

"Two Horizons" doesn't stray very far from the general Celtic/New Age template, but the addition of some musical influences from around the world (as well as electronica-style production) keeps the whole affair from feeling too much like elevator music. Here's a little documentary about the album:

I've always been a fan of album-based music, if only because it's the most organic way to extend the legacy of the traditional classical symphony. A great album, like "The Dark Side of the Moon" or "Zeppelin IV," feels like a single long cohesive work instead of a bunch of disconnected songs. I think the worth of an album is measured by how well all the songs fit together rather than the presence of a few great singles, and in that respect, "Two Horizons" is worth a listen if you like this sort of music at all.

Strangely enough, "Two Horizons" does end with a rather disconnected remix of the main theme, "Show Me." But I suppose there's nothing wrong with cutting loose at the end of a long musical journey:

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Politics: America's Great Gun Game

I was going to file this post under "Books," but "America's Great Gun Game," by Earl McDowell, is only a book in the loosest, most academic sense of the word. That is, it's got pages, and a cover, and there's stuff printed on those pages, but what's inside isn't really worth the paper it's printed on. I ran across it sitting on the "New Release" shelf in our law school library, and I'd be remiss if I didn't give it the fisking it deserves (what's really scary is that it's in the law school library at all).

The book is pro-gun-control, but more than that, it's deceptive and poorly written. Obviously, I have a strong gun rights bias, but I can at least identify facially valid arguments that gun control works or that the Second Amendment doesn't guarantee the right to keep and bear arms. If you're going to argue for gun control, at least do so in a superficially rational way.

Case in point - the Second Amendment chapter of the book puts out McDowell's assertion that the SCOTUS "ruled five times that the Constitution does not guarantee the free and clear right to own a gun." You'd think a big point like that would have the U.S. Supreme Court cases right there, with their proper case citations (problem is, of course, that the Court has never really ruled on that exact point). Instead, McDowell cites another pro-control book for this assertion, and the whole thing is a wash.

Another fun section is the part about CCW laws. Since there really isn't any evidence that concealed weapons permit holders commit more crimes than other people (they don't, by the way), McDowell has to string biased inference after inference together to make the case against CCW. He cites the VPC report claiming 2,100 arrests in Texas over the period of five years, which doesn't tell you anything about actual convictions (on average, half the people who get arrested are never charged with anything) or the overall rate of CCW arrests vs. the larger population.

In the end, the whole thing reads like a parody of the typical VPC hyperbole, and so becomes fairly humorous for anyone with a passing knowledge of the subject. Even the cover features an ominous picture of a revolver pointed at the reader - when in doubt, go for the scare, I guess.

News: RIP Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax passed away today. He was the co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, the most popular tabletop roleplaying game in the world, and the cofounder of TSR (the company that published D&D for decades).

Gygax was a grognard who played wargames in the late 1960s. It was from these wargames that D&D (and by extension all modern RPGs) was born. He also was instrumental in the development of D&D's core campaign world, the legendary World of Greyhawk.

There are a lot of memorials and awards for people with rather sketchy, violent, or controversial histories. I think it's only fair to pay a tribute to Mr. Gygax, who contributed fun and imagination to the world.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Food: Sweet Dreams

The big ice cream chains are certainly in force here in Gainesville - everything from Cold Stone Creamery to Marble Slab Creamery to Ben & Jerry's. But if you want real ice cream, ice cream that's homemade by people you can shake hands with, you should probably try Sweet Dreams of Gainesville.

Sweet Dreams is an ice cream shop nestled in a shopping center on the corner of University and 34th. They aren't as well-known as the national names, but the shop itself is modestly charming - they have a waffle iron for making waffle cones, they have a water fountain for washing down that big scoop of ice cream you just had, and they have a little play area for kids to enjoy. The real star though, as you might expect, is the ice cream.

There are some curious flavors (like "Honey Lavender" - it tastes like soap), but by and large most of these confections are winners. I've had Chocolate Hazelnut, Spicy Mayan Chocolate, Guinness-flavored ice cream (oh God yes), and all sorts of other delectable flavors. There's nothing too off the wall, though, and the friendly counter folk are happy to let you sample three or four flavors until you find the one you want. If there's any complaint, it's that the ice cream doesn't come cheap - but then again, almost every ice cream place charges you ~$4 for a waffle cone nowadays.

3/4 stars

Movies: Death Wish II

If you're a woman, there's one rule you should follow if you ever find yourself in the "Death Wish" series of action flicks: never in any way be related to Paul Kersey, since you're guaranteed to get savagely raped and murdered about twenty minutes from the start of the movie. As the above trailer shows you, I'm not exaggerating one bit. I got the opportunity to see "Death Wish II" on TV, and I thought it'd make for a fun review.

Paul Kersey (played by the legendary Charles Bronson) is a fairly normal architect. He's got a steady girlfriend, a daughter whom he loves, and in general he's trying to put the events of the first "Death Wish" behind him. All this changes, though, when he is inexplicably the target of a group of thugs who proceed to rape and murder his daughter and his housekeeper. As you might expect, Kersey starts his old vigilante ways again, and blood starts flowing.

The main difference between this flick and the first movie is that Kersey somehow manages to track down every single person who was involved in the murders (in the first movie, I don't believe he ever finds the people who actually killed his wife). He wanders through L.A. and manages to find all these criminals, which moves "Death Wish II" squarely into the action movie/wish fulfillment arena. You even get some corny one-liners ("Do you believe in Jesus? You're about to meet Him.").

The movie staggers along like Bronson himself, although it's at its best during the times Kersey is tracking down the thugs like a prehistoric hunter. Later "Death Wish" flicks would become even crazier (the series' next entry, "Death Wish III," features Kersey mowing down criminals with a machine gun and a rocket launcher). On the whole it's not a very good movie, but it serves as an interesting transition point between sorta-thoughtful vigilante movie and mindless actionfest. Curiously enough, the soundtrack was done by Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin fame).

Rating: 4/10

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Books: Uncle John's Bathroom Reader

More than a decade before the advent of Wikipedia, the Uncle John's Bathroom Reader series brought encyclopedic trivia knowledge to the masses. Billed as the solution to "that last minute search for perfect reading material," the slightly tongue-in-cheek books brimmed with the kind of pop culture/science/history blend that currently addicts people to the World Wide Web. The series is still going strong, so I thought I'd reminisce about it a bit.

Like a lot of people, I like to read something when I'm in the bathroom. Whether it's a newspaper, a magazine, or a book, it's nice to have something to occupy your mind while you do your business. The problem comes, of course, when you don't have anything handy to read - maybe that poetry collection isn't lighting your fire, or you're bored of that magical realist novel.

Enter Uncle John. Each book contains hundreds of pages worth of short nonfiction articles and features - everything from humor and quotations to the story behind the atomic bomb. While there's a pretty thorough table of contents in the front, organizing things by subject, the articles themselves are put in random order, so that reading the book from page to page gives you a random assortment of topics that simulates browsing through webpages rather well.

I first picked up one of these books when they were just starting out, but now the "Bathroom Readers" have sold millions of copies. They're excellent to stow in the bathroom, of course, but they also make entertaining travel companions, whether on a plane or on a long road trip.

Tech: Flirting with GPS

Back in my undergrad days, I briefly owned a Garmin eTrex handheld GPS device. I bought it chiefly with notions of geocaching and hiking floating around in my head. I also thought it might be handy if I ever had to go on a road trip.

It's funny how quickly reality sets in sometimes. While it was neat on a superficial level to be able to see your location on Earth in relation to the rest of the world, it wasn't something I'd ever use in day-to-day life. So I tried to find a use for it - first by employing it as a really expensive trip odomoter for walking and biking around, and then as a way to browse the geography of places I've never been, like Philadelphia.

I eventually sold the sucker online for as much money as I paid for it. Nowadays GPS is bundled into a lot of things - phones, cars, laptops. But whenever I get the itch to pick one up again, I'll always remember the old saying: "Wherever you go, there you are."

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Food: Ballyhoo Grill

I think there's a dearth of truly good steakhouses here in Gainesville, which allows places like Ballyhoo Grill to flourish. I'm not sure if it's part of a chain of restaurants (there's another Ballyhoo Grill in Tampa - warning, site has some obnoxious music), but for whatever reason, there's one in Gainesville.

Which is not to say the food is bad. The real problem with a sports-bar/casual restaurant like this is that it's inconsistent - one night the New York strip you're eating is succulent and tasty, and the next night, it's tough and flavorless. I guess you shouldn't expect much for $20 in this day and age, but it begs the question - why go here instead of a mega-chain like Outback?

One answer to the question might be the decor. Instead of a faux Australia, you have a faux Florida-themed design, complete with bamboo fence lining the walls and restrooms done up in a Key West sort of way (not really a fair comparison, since the actual Key West sometimes feels like a hyperreal version of itself). The outdoor seating area is a bit spartan, but if the weather's nice, it's probably the way to go.

The selection of actual steaks is sort of limited (they don't even have a T-bone listed on the menu), but at least you get a decent amount of food for your trouble. An entree comes with salad, side, and bread. The real sideshow is the desert menu, where people were ordering some kind of flambéed desert (likely Bananas Foster, but it might've been a baked alaska).

2/4 stars