Saturday, May 31, 2008

Guns: Shotgun Lights

I suppose most of the gadgets people hang off their home defense shotguns are not strictly necessary. The chances are slim that you'll ever need to use that fancy sidesaddle or Speedfeed stock in a dangerous situation. One accessory that I don't consider optional in a housegun is a good weaponlight.

The shotgun poses special problems to fielding a good lighting solution, however. It's definitely the consensus on the Web that the recoil of full-power 12 gauge buckshot and slugs is enough to knock out most casual lights after sustained use. And for my preferred scattergun, the Remington 870, you must always have your support arm on the foreend, ready to slide in another shell. All of this means that "lighting the cheap seats," as Tam puts it, is a bit more difficult.

The ne plus ultra of the shotgun weaponlight game is the SureFire replacement foreend. Costing $250-$300 (almost as much as the average pump shotgun), it's not an impulse buy, but it's certainly one of the nicer options. I'm a SureFire fanboy, even though objectively other companies like PentagonLight and Streamlight make good stuff.

I'm considering trying out one of the more inexpensive mounts - perhaps using a a bracket and/or rail attachment and a standard TLR-1 weaponlight (originally intended for use on a handgun with an M3 rail). They often look kind of, well, gnarly, though:

Movies: Paprika

I think "Paprika," a Japanese anime film from Satoshi Kon, would have fared better in my mind had it been released a decade or so ago:

I'm familiar with most of Satoshi Kon's work (including the seminal psychological thriller "Perfect Blue"), and in "Paprika," he ambles along the rather well-trodden paths of solipsism and science fiction. You've seen this kind of reality-bending before - from the mainstream ("The Matrix") to the less-mainstream ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") to the fairly obscure (eXistenZ). This familiarity is probably the movie's biggest weakness (along with some murky character motivations).

Atsuko Chiba is a psychotherapy researcher who uses a top-secret device that allows her to share in other people's dreams. Unfortunately, some of the devices are missing, and soon the research staff's dreams are invaded by the thief. The tale spins pleasantly out of control as Atsuko (in the guise of Paprika, her dream avatar) and her colleagues try to contain the damage. Predictably, though, reality itself gets called into question. What is real? What is a dream?

As might be expected from Studio Madhouse, the animation is excellent, with some extremely detailed CGI to go along with the hand-drawn stuff. There are some incredible setpieces in the movie, including the strangely sinister parade that soon carries some hefty symbolic weight. I could have used more character development (Chiba is mostly a cipher, and there's a final change in her relationship with one of her friends that is a bit forced), but overall, it's worth watching.

Rating: 8/10

Friday, May 30, 2008

Miscellany: eMusic first impressions

As part of my campaign to keep a constant stream of interesting reviews coming to Shangrila Towers, I'm trying out eMusic, a music download service with an interesting business model. If you're at all familiar with online music stores like the iTunes Store, you know that companies rarely allow people to download regular, unencumbered mp3s. Instead, they implement some sort of DRM scheme in an effort to prevent unauthorized duplication (and in iTunes' case, unauthorized playback - only iPods work with iTunes, and a predictable flurry of antitrust litigation is pending).

eMusic is very different - by paying the monthly subscription fee, you get regular, run-of-the-mill mp3s, which you can easily burn to CDs, move from your laptop to your desktop, etc. The service originally had an all-you-can-download policy (discontinued for obvious reasons), but the current plans average out to a very fair 30-odd cents per track, which means the average album costs around $3 to download.

Sounds great, right? The only catch is that eMusic's library is limited - mostly indie and alternative acts that haven't gone mainstream. The big record labels don't put their catalogs on the service because of its commitment to DRM-free downloads. The miniscule per-track price also means limited customer service and occasional server downtime.

I signed up for a trial subscription and have already downloaded albums like "In Rainbows" from Radiohead, "The Genius of Komeda" from Komeda, and "Grayscale" from "The Atomica Project." It feels weird at first, getting a bunch of full albums for such a low price, but it's all apparently legal and above-board, not like questionable Russian sites like If it sounds like something you'd enjoy, go ahead and give eMusic a try.

Music: Under the Milky Way

It's a bit embarrassing when you discover a band that you probably should have known about long before. That's how I felt after I watched the 2001 movie "Donnie Darko" and looked up The Church, a band from Australia, and their lone top 40 hit, "Under The Milky Way." Here's a short clip from the movie to show you what I'm talking about (spoilers if you've never seen "Donnie Darko"):

It's a lilting pop melody, with a suitably ethereal performance from Church frontman Steve Kilbey. One interesting bit I found via the various comments in YouTube vids for the song was an accusation that the English rock group Six By Seven copied The Church. I'm not sure if people are correct (hell, for all I know, Six By Seven got permission to do a cover version), but the songs do sound fairly be the judge:

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sports: There's nothing like driving that funny cart around

I've never played a full 18 holes of golf with the use of a golf cart before, so getting out to the official Mark Bostick Golf Course here at UF last Memorial Day weekend provided a rare opportunity to putz around on one.

Golf is a game for the rich, mostly because a course takes up an absurd amount of space (as I've posted before). A lot of people elect to walk around, lugging or rolling around their clubs by hand, but nearly every golf course allows you to rent golf carts.

Of course, my Dad and I are natural golf partners. We revel in the inherent absurdity of the game, a sport where you get to take corners and power down hills in your very own underpowered electric vehicle. How many times do you get to motor around on what is essentially a huge lawn and whack tiny white balls into tiny holes? Not often enough, I'd say.

Food: Juniors

Nestled in an unassuming strip mall on Main Street, Juniors has long been the most popular soul food buffet in the area. Come to think of it, it might be the only soul food buffet in the area. My friends and I have been visiting on a regular basis for years.

The interior ambiance ain't gonna win any awards - there are tables, a carpet, and a buffet in the back. But it's all fairly clean, at least by buffet standards, and you aren't coming to look at the place. So you gather yourself up and walk to the buffet...

And what a buffet. The rotating assortment of side dishes - including fresh collard greens, macaroni and cheese, green beans, corn, and yams - would be staggering by itself, but attach the meats table (which invariably features fried chicken wings, fried pork chops, and other treats) and you have a one-way ticket to the local cardiologist. All you can eat (plus a soft drink) for $10, and you better believe it's worth every penny.

3/4 stars

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Politics: Tenacity

I've joked about Hillary Clinton's singleminded determination to get the Democratic nomination to my friends. Even I have to admit, though, that continuing the quixotic months-long campaign, in the face of scathing media coverage and often bitter opponents in her own party, have made me respect ole Hill, at least a little bit (never thought I'd type that).

Case in point - Hillary's relentless struggle to get the delegates from the Florida and Michigan primaries seated. Apparently, the party bigwigs are meeting this weekend to sort it all out, and you know the Clinton camp will do their damnedest to get those votes counted. It's questionable backroom dealing at best - both Obama and Clinton signed pledges that agreed the FL and MI primaries would be invalid if they jumped the gun - but it's pretty much all she has left.

Now if only somebody would apply the time, energy, and money expended on these stupid elections to problems that are in need of fixing...

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

TV: Jon & Kate Plus 8

Reality shows have an inherent bias - the focus of the camera. And that's why "Jon & Kate Plus 8" is such a fascinating case. The show follows the Gosselin family (Jon, Kate, their twin daughters, and their sextuplets) as they try to raise eight young kids at once. The sheer logistics of such a feat (imagine going out to a restaurant to eat, and requesting 8 booster chairs) are entertaining in and of themselves.

But let's get to what the camera seldom shows. I started watching the show a few weeks back and I've seen parts of maybe a dozen episodes, but yesterday was the first time I saw the Gosselins go to church (which they do every Sunday). Now, from the articles I've read online, Jon and Kate are very religious, but somehow, I've never seen their faith depicted in the series until that point.

I suppose footage of people praying or talking about God isn't very interesting. "Jon & Kate Plus 8" finds ample time to show the frequent sarcastic bickering between the couple. The insults and underhanded comments would be off-putting if it wasn't for the deep love the two have for their children.

Miscellany: SAVIN face

The U.S. criminal justice system is definitely operating on the edge, and nothing makes it more apparent than stories like this:

Crime victims register confidentially online or by phone to track a particular inmate and Appriss notifies them whenever the prisoner is released, transfers to a new facility, or manages to escape.

The system grew out of the 1993 murder of Mary Byron, who was gunned down in Louisville on her 21st birthday by an abusive boyfriend. He had been released from jail, but somehow the authorities had failed to warn Byron. The resulting public outcry led local officials to develop the first automated victim notification system, which has spread nationwide.
I think it's a good idea to notify victims when a convict is released, but it brings up the main deficiency of incarceration - you're locking someone up, but you may or may not be changing them for the better. In Byron's case, her boyfriend might have just been made angrier by his experience in the slammer. If he was such a danger to her, it seems silly to release him. But I suppose there's not enough jails to imprison everyone.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Tech: The Best of Xbox Live Arcade, Part II

I'm a big fan of Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade - it's the best digital download service of the three consoles, since it has the best catalog of games (as well as free demos for every game). A few months back I covered some standout titles for's a couple more you may have missed:

Zuma Deluxe

Zuma is an action-puzzle game that demands quick reactions and quick thinking. You control a frog that shoots colored marbles out in all directions. Unfortunately, a multicolored stream of marbles is inexorably rolling towards you. The game is a frantic race to dispose of them all before they reach the end of the track and kill you.

Although basic editions of Zuma can be played for free on the PC, there's a lot of value here for your 400 Microsoft Points ($5). There are achievements and leaderboards for the people who care about high scores, and easily digestable casual gameplay for those who don't. Zuma's design is a clone of some other games, but the tight controls and decent gameplay depth make it worth the points in the long term.

Penny Arcade Adventures: On The Rainslick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 1

The name is long, but the pedigree is well-known - Penny Arcade, the popular gaming webcomic, is finally being adapted into a video game. Jerry and Mike, the PA creators, had an extensive role in the art, story, and gameplay design, and it shows; the game is stuffed to the gills with references to PA staples like the Fruit F**ker 2000.

It all boils down to a simple turn-based JRPG a la FFVII, but one infused with funny writing and great artwork. The only catch is the exorbitant price - $20 for an episode that'll last 6 hours at the most. But for fans of the strip, it's a no-brainer.

Memorial Day

"...that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain..."

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Movies: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

There are two kinds of people who will watch "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" this summer - those who are avid followers of the adventures of Dr. Henry Jones, Jr., and those who are merely dilettantes:

This latest installment of the venerable series is set in 1957. Indy is seeking a crystal skull connected somehow to the famous 1947 Roswell incident, and so are Communist spies. Along for the ride are Shia LeBeouf (playing the same character he always plays) and Karen Allen (who readily reprises her role from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" - she wears a barely-contained grin throughout the movie).

As a huge fan of the original trilogy, I have to say that Indy IV follows closely in its predecessors' footsteps...perhaps a bit too closely. You have your standard supernatural MacGuffin, a dastardly villain with a ridiculous accent (Irina Spalko, played by Cate Blanchett in full Boris-and-Natasha mode), exotic locales, chase scenes, and even the obligatory creepy-crawlies-are-all-over-me scene. The ride is still exciting and funny, but the sense of wonder is a bit absent when you can spot the seams in the story (and even John Williams' leitmotifs).

Still, Indy IV remains a glossy Spielberg picture with an enormous budget - the production values are sumptuous. The CGI in the visual effects is noticeable, it's also very well done. Harrison Ford does a decent job as an aging Indy, and at the end of the day you have a film that, while maybe only as good as "Temple of Doom," at least feels like Indiana Jones.

Rating: 7/10

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Guns: The Other Supreme Court gun case

The Heller decision should be coming later this summer, and if you follow firearms politics at all, you probably know about it. Another case that's related to gun rights (albeit tangentially) is United States v. Hayes.

Here's a rundown of the facts from the opinion (more info can be found on Doug Berman's blog):

In 1994, [Randy Edward] Hayes pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery offense under West Virginia law, in the magistrate court of Marion County, West Virginia (the "1994 State Offense"). The victim of the 1994 State Offense was Hayes's then wife, Mary Ann (now Mary Carnes), with whom he lived and had a child. As a result of the 1994 State Offense, Hayes was sentenced to a year of probation.

Ten years later, on July 25, 2004, the authorities in Marion County were summoned to Hayes's home in response to a domestic violence 911 call. When police officers arrived at Hayes's home, he consented to a search thereof, and a Winchester rifle was discovered. Hayes was arrested and, on January 4, 2005, indicted in federal court on three charges of possessing firearms after having been convicted of an MCDV [misdemeanor count of domestic violence], in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(9) and 924(a)(2) [the Lautenberg Amendment, which was passed in 1996].

The fact that the Supreme Court has taken this case (after a number of ex post facto challenges were denied in the '90s) could be a clue as to what's in store for Dick Heller.

Food: La Familia sandwiches

There's precious little to eat when you're stuck on campus here at the law school, and even less to eat during the sumemr months when the cafeteria's coffee stand closes down. That's why it's not surprising that the Levin bookstore takes it upon itself to offer sandwiches and menu items from "La Familia," a local Cuban sandwich shop.

Now, I'm from South Florida, so I've had some pretty exceptional Cuban sandwiches in my day. I'm going to abstain from a final review, since the sandwiches on sale in the book store are kept in the store's refrigerator and are obviously not made on the premises.

First off, though, they aren't cheap - nearly $6 for a cold sandwich. All the key ingredients are there - ham, pork, cheese, pickles, mustard - so it tastes decent, but a great Cuban has to be toasted and warm, not plopped in the fridge. When the bread is so tough you have to rip at it like a dog, you probably better find a sandwich somewhere else.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Movies: Pitch Black

I suppose the movie "Pitch Black" was surprisingly successful upon release. Successful enough, at least, to merit an awful sequel, a good videogame, and a decent animated spinoff movie. I had never seen the original, though, so I decided to queue it up on my Blockbuster account to see if there was anything worth seeing.

A group of survivors find themselves marooned on a desert planet where night falls every 22 years - but they're not alone. Along for the ride is Richard B. Riddick, an incredibly dangerous convict. Even worse, nocturnal terrors lurk underneath the planet - and time is running short...

"Pitch Black" is an uneven mashup of the scifi and horror genres - it tries to be this generation's "Alien," but director David Twohy is no Ridley Scott. The real strength of the movie is Vin Diesel's performance as anti-hero and general badass Riddick. His largely amoral character is memorable enough that he's the star of all the spinoffs and sequels.

Unfortunately, the plot is pretty awful. The characters all make some rather stupid decisions (including a panic attack that comes at the worst possible time), and since you start off with so many people, they end up feeling like cannon fodder at the end of the film (the same mistake committed by the "Dawn of the Dead" remake, BTW). The film is admirable, I guess, for looking as good as it does with a relatively small budget for a blockbuster, but that doesn't make me wanna see it again.

Rating: 5/10

Books: First Offenses

Vertigo is an imprint of DC Comics, and they've had the good fortune to publish a passel of award-winning comics. Many have even made it to the silver screen, with decidedly mixed results ("Stardust," "Constantine"). A few of the debut issues from some of the more popular series are collected in "First Offenses," a trade paperback that I managed to wrangle from the comic book shop for a song.

All told, the volume contains the premieres of "The Invisibles," "Preacher," "Fables," "Sandman Mystery Theater," and "Lucifer." I had read some of these titles before, in passing, but never from the ground up. It's fascinating to see how things evolve over the long run of a comic book series, especially for a Johnny-Come-Lately like me.

My favorites are "Fables" for its cheeky reimagining of classic fairy tale characters, and "Preacher" for its to-the-hilt character portrayals (including the "Saint of Killers" a Man With No Name who is about as matter-of-fact deadly as they come). Apparently, Wil Wheaton approves.

Links: The Slip

I'm not a huge Nine Inch Nails fan (although I do like "The Hand That Feeds"). But even someone with only a passing interest in Trent Reznor's work will be glad to hear that the latest NIN album, titled "The Slip," is being released completely free of charge via the band's website.

It's the standard collection of difficult-to-listen-to industrial rock songs, although the instrumental tracks are pretty good. And I have to applaud Reznor's generosity - it's a very pure gesture to give away not only a song but an entire CD. My only qualm is that the only reason Trent can afford to do something like this is by getting popular via the same studio system that he is criticizing.

A more pure example of "New Media" musician/entrepreneurship might be Carly Commando, whose piano track "Everyday" (to go along with the famous video by Noah Kalina) is being used in NBA commercials.

Music: Apartment Life

Today, I'm mixing up the usual "song-of-the-week" format and running through a whole CD. Thanks to LexisNexis' rewards program, I just received "Apartment Life," the sophomore full-length album from Ivy. Ivy's one of my favorite pop bands, with a sound that has been likened to "The Sundays" and "The Cranberries" (though to be fair, I think Harriet Wheeler and Dolores O'Riordan are much better singers than Ivy's Dominique Durand).

Here's the tracklist:

1. The Best Thing
2. I've Got A Feeling
3. This Is The Day
4. Never Do That Again
5. I Get The Message
6. Baker
7. You Don't Know Anything
8. Ba Ba Ba
9. Get Out Of The City
10. These Are The Things About You
11. Quick, Painless And Easy
12. Back In Our Town

Most of these are about as radio-friendly as pop gets. "This Is The Day," for example, features bombastic brass flourishes that would be revisited later in the song "Lucy Doesn't Love You." In this CD, as in later albums, the band tends to alternate catchy, dance-able tunes with slower lounge tracks.

In truth, it can be a bit formulaic, but these albums are more like loose collections of themed songs than a single coherent story. "Apartment Life" seems to have a lot of material dealing with the urban experience, including songs like "Get Out Of The City":

Summer days are long and lonely.
Cars are moving slowly.
The streets are filled with air so still.

I'm trying to get out of the city.
Trying to get out of the city.
On almost all the tracks, Durand's floaty, French-accented voice is a good complement to the guitar and bass of Adam Schlesinger and Andy Chase (although the mix is nowhere near as jangly as bands like the Magnetic Fields).

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Politics: It's facepalm time

There can be room for genuine disagreement in politics. I can see how some might want a windfall profits tax on oil and food companies, even though I think the idea is kind of ridiculous (more palatable for me is the reduction of subsidies for these industries).

Today's Senate hearing just got plain silly, though:

[Senator Leahy] asked Simon what his total compensation was at Exxon, a company that made $40 billion last year. Simon replied it was $12.5 million annually.

Two other executives, John Lowe, executive vice president of ConocoPhillips Co., said he didn’t recall his total compensations as did Peter Robertson, vice chairman of Chevron Corp. John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil Co., said his was “about $2.2 million” but was not among the top five salaries at his company’s international parent. Robert Malone, chairman of BP America Inc., put his compensation at “in excess of $2 million.”...

...Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill, accused the corporate executives of ignoring the plight of people suffering because of high energy prices. “Where is your corporate conscience?” he asked them.

“The issue is simple,” said Leahy. “People we represent are hurting, the companies you represent are profiting.”

I'm not sure how a CEO's compensation is supposed to figure in this mess. First of all, a CEO's job is to make a company profitable. A $2 million payday might sound exorbitant, but skillful management can make shareholders' interests increase many times. Second, most big corporations compensate their executives well, not just evil oil companies. Third, most of the senators grilling these execs aren't exactly paupers - why don't THEY donate to help people, instead of forcing others to do their dirty work? Fourth, CEOs may actually be sued by their shareholders if they don't work to maximize profits (Henry Ford ran afoul of this principle).

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Miscellany: Waterfree Urinal

Our law school bathrooms feature a urinal design which I've never seen anywhere else. It's a urinal that has no flushing system - a Falcon Waterfree model:

Odd, no? No operating needed, no connection to the plumbing aside from a drain line. Urine goes in, gets filtered through a sealed cartridge, and eventually drains out along with the rest of the building's wastewater. The cartridge prevents any unpleasant smells that might be present in conventional drain-only urinal systems.

It seems to work okay, though I have seen the system get clogged up - then you have strange blue liquid in the bottom of the urinal bowl.

Movies: Point Break

I feel sorry for the poor sap who delivered the pitch for "Point Break" to studio execs:

"This movie combines all the high-octane action of an undercover cop movie with the beautiful imagery and philosophy of surfing and skydiving! And did I mention Patrick Swayze's turn as the spiritual-but-tough surfer guru?"

"Point Break" is a movie about an undercover FBI agent (played by Keanu Reeves) who is tracking a team of bank robbers who happen to be avid surfers. The film also marks the rise of Keanu and the fall of Patrick (kinda literally, since 5 years later Swayze would suffer a major injury in a fall from a horse). Keanu has since gone on to be a huge box office draw, of course, while Swayze is mostly doing smaller roles (like his memorable turn as a guru/psychologist in "Donnie Darko").

With a plot like this, things get strange, as you might expect. The action scenes are never quite excellent, but they're serviceable - other movies have better car chases and shootouts, but other movies don't have gratuitous surfing scenes, either. The climax of the film, when Keanu Reeves' character does something VERY stupid, is exciting but also silly. Director Kathryn Bigelow has undoubtedly made better films ("Near Dark," for one), but this is one of her most mainstream efforts. There's some interesting undercurrents running through the work (look up what "point break" means and compare that to the end of the movie), so it's a little smarter than most action flicks...a little.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, May 19, 2008

Miscellany: Protocol Rolling Luggage

My arm was injured at a very inconvenient time - the start of April, which is exam season around these parts. I also had to haul a dozen books around for my research paper, plus my computer. Given that getting into a conventional backpack was nigh-impossible, I had to go out and purchase a rolling luggage bag.

The rolling backpack is a common sight in law school - lugging around those 1000 page casebooks can get very old very fast. But between my current backpack, my locker, and, yes, my proclivity for reading cases at the last minute, I had never felt a need to bring all my casebooks with me.

Necessity trumps predisposition, so I stopped in at Penney's and looked at what they had to offer. Naturally, there was a cheap bag ("Protocol" brand) that cost $30, and a Samsonite bag that cost a heckuva lot more (both made in China, of course). Feeling optimistic, I decided to go with the cheap bag, on the basis that if I needed something that lasted more than a couple months, I would probably be in real trouble anyway.

The bag has held up okay, though there is a hole in the bottom and the telescoping handle is clearly on its last legs. I've probably put it through more abuse in these past couple months than most bags go through in a lifetime, since I literally had to drag the darn thing everywhere. I'd say I got my $30 worth out of it, though, so thumbs up.

TV: Even More Guilty Pleasures

I talked in this post about some shows that I enjoy watching, even though objectively they might not be very good or they might have certain parts that make you wonder what was in the minds of the creators. I felt like doing a follow-up, so here's some more guilty pleasures...

Battlestar Galactica

After watching about a half-dozen episodes, I can safely say that the reimagined version of BSG, while a good series, has its share of fanservice. How else can you explain the fact that most of the male stars are soap-opera attractive? I still mix up Anders, Apollo, and Helo since they're all square-jawed white guys who look like they could be on a beefcake calendar.

Of course, it's not just the men who are good-looking. While the series plays up the sexuality of Number Six early on (played by Tricia Helfer), there is plenty of eye candy to go around in the form of Starbuck and Boomer. Not that any of the actors or actresses are doing a bad job, or that the series is bad - it's just weirdly antithetical to the gritty realism elsewhere on the show that the leads all look, well, idealized. But that's Hollywood, I guess.

Project Runway

Another program that, while popular with most of my female friends, is not something that I suspect many guys watch. The biggest key to "Project Runway" are the outlandish challenges that come up (design a figure skating outfit for Sasha Cohen, design a women's wrestling outfit, design a dress made from plants). Without these challenges, the show'd quickly get boring.

Additionally, I'm convinced that the producers always make sure that someone you love to hate (or hate to love) makes it to the final three. The most recent winner, Christian, spared no one in his constant barbs towards other contestants. It's fun, up to a point, but grating commentary from some smirky 21 year-old can get old fast.

Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman

I used to watch this with the rest of my family, which is probably a big compliment to the series - there's enough superhero stuff for the kids, but older folks can enjoy the feisty on-screen relationship created by Terri Hatcher and Dean Cain. While this was sort of the high point of Mr. Cain's career, Terri Hatcher's still doing quite well.

Tech: Facebookery

One problem with Facebook is the overwhelming flood of applications available for it. While this seems like it'd be a good thing, the problem is that whenever a user installs one of these on his or her profile page, the application usually prompts them to automatically forward an installation request to every single one of their friends. As you might imagine, this kind of thing can quickly get out of hand.

Another issue is the continuing erosion of the barriers to Facebook entry. Originally, the site was limited only to Harvard students, but it was later opened to all Ivy Leaguers, and then to all college students. Now, it seems like anyone with a pulse (and even some without) can get a Facebook account. I hope it never happens, but I can imagine people eventually wading through armfuls of Facebook spam.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Food: "Popcorn, Indiana" (Dale and Thomas) Kettlecorn

Kettle corn is an addictive variety of sweet and salty popcorn. There are generally three ways to get your kettle corn fix. One is by buying it yourself at a fair or festival - this is undeniably the best-tasting way to go, but it's not like you can attend such events daily. Another is by nuking bags of kettle corn yourself (nice and hot coming out, but the flavors are often "off" compared to the real deal because of the limitations of the microwave).

The final alternative is to buy already-popped bags of kettle corn, like the "Popcorn, Indiana"-brand Kettlecorn I snagged at the law school bookstore. Most of the time, I dislike these prebagged varieties, finding them too caramel-coated for my taste. Kettle corn is supposed to have a very, very thin shell of sugar on it, not big globs of solidifed molasses hanging off every kernel. The "Popcorn, Indian" brand's version is almost perfect - good, but not overwhelming amounts of salt, just enough glazed sugar, and a solid crispiness. Like all prepopped popcorn, it's stone cold, but aside from that, if you ever come across a bag, try it out.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Movies: Hot Fuzz

My first "Blockbuster by Mail" DVD came today, and it's a comedy I've been meaning to see for awhile - "Hot Fuzz," a film from the guys who brought us "Shaun of the Dead":

"Hot Fuzz" is one of those movies that places the "payoff" in the last half-hour of the running time. Up until that point, it's a pretty straightforward, by-the-numbers comedy that stars Simon Pegg as Nicholas Angel, a hotshot cop who gets transferred from the London Police to a small town called Sandford. It's a pretty standard fish-out-of-water setup, with the most laughs coming from Angel's buffoonish partner Danny Butterman (played by Nick Frost).

When it gets to the final sequence, though, you get a fairly hilarious parody of every overblown Jerry Bruckheimer/Joel Silver-style supercop movie ever made. I don't want to spoil it, but let's just say action movie tropes can be pretty funny when taken out of their native environments and plopped down into a small rural village in England.

Rating: 7/10

Guns: Mouseguns I Haven't Tried

There is a whole world of small handguns that pretty much exists only in America (since we have the most liberalized concealed carry laws on Earth). Since mouseguns (which I define as any gun that can be readily carried a pants pocket) have little or no military application, they are relatively uncommon even in places that are otherwise hotbeds of violence, like the Sudan or the Middle East. I tend to pocket carry most of the time, and there are a few firearms that I'd like to try out, but haven't gotten the chance (they're all autos, since I've tried all the pocket revolvers):

Beretta series mouseguns:

Other bloggers are big fans of these little numbers. There's the Tomcat (.32 ACP), the Bobcat (.22/.25), and the ever-popular Jetfire (.25 single action). Definitely not something you would rely on all the time (even .32 ACP ain't exactly the Hammer of Thor), but it'd be fun to give these a test-drive.

Rohrbaugh 9mm:

The BMW of mouseguns - pretty much the smallest 9mm autoloader money can buy, but also expensive and rare. You won't find a whole rack of these in your nearest gun store, that's for sure. Still, I wonder how it handles 9mm in such a small package.

Bersa Thunder .380

Actually, a friend of mine has a Bersa .22, and in my experience, its reputation as fun and comfortable to shoot is well-deserved. I'd like to test drive the .380 version, since it's both inexpensive and reportedly a good gun. This is actually a bit big for a mousegun; it's definitely on the borderline of what you could pocket carry in terms of size and weight.

NAA series/Seecamp:

Right now there's a few people reading this who are thinking, "What?! How dare Mulliga lump Seecamp with NAA!" But frankly, they occupy the same segment of the market - non-polymer pocket pistols.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Tech: Grand Theft Auto IV review

"Grand Theft Auto IV," like its predecessors, is a video game that offers a big sandbox for you to play around in. Continuing the trend of ever-increasing detail, there are all sorts of places to waste time, including restaurants, strip clubs, nightclubs, and bowling alleys. The gameplay in GTA has gotten so complex that the first five or so hours are tutorial missions (you don't even get a handgun until a couple hours in). GTA IV has thus unwittingly turned into the "Dragon Quest" of sandbox games (a long slow grind), albeit with better plotting and more straightforward mission design than its competitors.

A problem not addressed in most mainstream reviews is the lackluster performance of the game engine. Like most GTAs, the framerate hovers at around 30 fps, which simply isn't very good for a fast-moving action game involving split-second shooting and driving sequences. Everything has lower polys than you'd expect, especially the character models. After seeing expressive faces on the NPCs in "Half-Life 2" and "Mass Effect," going back to mediocre-looking mo-capped models in the cutscenes of GTA IV feels like a step back.

The multiplayer is the big new feature, with plenty of modes to satisfy anyone's list of demands. You can race helicopters, you can play cops and robbers, you can re-enact "Gone in Sixty Seconds," or you can just mess around the city, all with up to 16 people at a time. I can imagine people getting pretty addicted to this stuff, since the driving and combat mechanics in the game allow for good players to really shine. Unfortunately, the whole experience is very rough and unrefined (the game kicks you out to the lobby if you want to switch games, for instance). Add to that the fact that the average knuckledragger you meet on Xbox Live isn't going to be very fun to play with - best to find some friends you can trust.

The minute-to-minute gameplay of GTA IV, whether single or multiplayer, is essentially identical to that of previous GTAs, so if you didn't like the old ones, you won't like this one. But while it isn't much of a leap from the previous generation, the game is still stuffed to the gills with content. All in all, GTA IV is probably one of the best bang-for-your-buck deals going this summer.

Rating: 89/100

Miscellany: Blockbuster Total Access

A friend of mine has a Netflix account, and, being a movie buff myself, I decided to try out a movie subscription service to see if it's worth the $10 a month. I chose "Blockbuster Total Access," mostly because they offer an interesting in-store exchange system. Tired of your movie? Go into the score and grab another one (with the default plan, you can only do this twice a month, though).

The first disc came in the mail, and I have to say, having movies sent directly to your door has a certain appeal. I have a free trial of the $9.99/month plan, but I think the sweet spot is the $11.99 plan - while it's only one DVD at a time, you get unlimited DVDs per month through the mail, plus the two exchanges. Netflix is comparable in that you can watch streaming movies instantly on your computer.

(antitrust law geek comment - Blockbuster almost certainly has market power in the meatspace video rental business, but I think a court would find Netflix serves more as a substitute for brick-and-mortar sales than as a distinct market, which would defeat any claim of tying)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Tech (sorta): Format Wars

One thing I've realized in my antitrust law studies is that battles over industry standards are often, in the long run, beneficial to consumers. The recent skirmish over high-definition disc formats is a good example - while someone who bought an HD-DVD player for their Xbox 360 is certainly going to feel a little betrayed, the long fight allowed consumers to fully shake out any flaws in either of the formats. Though Blu-Ray won in the end, the competition between the standards gave the public a pretty clear choice in the matter.

Paradoxically, industry-wide standards, while technically being a horizontal restraint on competition, can also help encourage competition; they serve the ultimate purpose of allowing producers to efficiently sell to consumers. Instead of competing largely on the basis of the particular standard, manufacturers compete to see who can implement the standard more efficiently.

All this brings me to the case of Hillary Clinton. A lot of commentators have concluded that the long nomination fight is actually beneficial to the Democratic party, since it means the eventual winner (which, barring some crazy backroom slithering, will be Obama) will be battle-ready for the general election. But elections aren't exactly like VHS vs. Betamax; if you wanted to rent a movie in the late 1980s, there was only one game in town, but the 2008 campaign is more like being forced to take a VHS tape player, whether you like it or not.

News: Yipes

Despite my fondness for "The Sound of Music," I don't think I'm going to Austria any time soon. First there was that "House of Horrors" guy (you know, that sicko who imprisoned his daughter in a basement for 24 years). Now, you hear about some guy calmly murdering his family of five with an axe. To put this into perspective, Austria has a population of only 8 million - much less than Florida (and if these cases happened in Florida, you bet they'd be front-page news, too).

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Miscellany: A Tribute to the Palace

When I was a little kid, I used to spend a lot of my time parked in daycare. The teachers and caregivers, thankfully, didn't mind hauling all us kids out and about every so often. One of the favored destinations on these excursions was the Palace roller skating rink in Lake Worth.

One of the problems with these trips is that I never learned how to roller-skate (still don't know how, in fact). The result is predictable - my trips out onto the main rink were more like stuttered walking than anything else. So I spent most of my time in a little training rink that served as a hangout for the nonskaters.

The video arcade was by far the neatest place in the Palace, however. In those days, arcade games were technologically way ahead of home video game consoles, and I relished being able to plop quarters down with my friends on stuff like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "R-Type." As a youngster, though, you have little or no spending money, so I was forced to lurk and play games that others had abandoned, or to scavenge change off the ground.

Driving past the area recently has been a shock. The whole place is gone now, torn down to make room for new development. But I think a part of it still lives on in the memories of Palm Beach residents of a certain age...

Music: No Sex For Ben

I've been listening to the excellent in-game music of GTA IV (an extensive soundtrack featuring everything from the Smashing Pumpkins to Bob Marley to John Coltrane). Currently, the only official soundtrack CD that's been released by Rockstar is "The Music of Grand Theft Auto IV." My favorite track from that album is "No Sex For Ben," a song by the Rapture. Here's a fanmade trailer featuring a clip from the song:

It's a catchy little number, skewing more to the electronica side of the band's output than the dance-punk side (some of their other tracks are sorta Blondie-esque). There's always been a weird synergy in GTA between the music and what's happening onscreen. I still remember plowing through pedestrians in a Mafia getaway car while "La donna è Mobile" played through the car radio.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Food: RA Sushi

Fancy place settings alone don't make for great dining, but sometimes superior ambiance can compensate for average food. That's the lesson I learned from RA Sushi, a chain of restaurants that stretches from California to Chicago and all the way to South Florida (brand is now owned by the Benihana folks).

From the beginning, you know you're in a trendy place. The lights are luminescent red globes, suspended from the ceiling. The bathroom sinks have bowls that are elevated above the counter (completely impractical, and only found in fancy restaurants). The plates are chic and pleasantly colored.

The food is decent for a big chain, though you must balance that with the high prices on the sushi and sashimi ($10 for 7 slices of tuna is pretty steep IMHO). The best value is the veggie tempura bento box (only served at lunch) - for less than $7, you get miso soup, two different kinds of salad, a small dumpling/egg roll combo, a scoop of rice, and about a dozen pieces of veggie tempura.

2/4 stars

News: A Matter of Scale

Natural disasters are a funny thing. In one sense, nature is brutally egalitarian; whether you're a prince or a pauper, a tornado will kill you just as dead. But industrialized, developed nations will always weather these conditions with minimum loss of life better than poorer countries (Hurricane Katrina being the unhappy exception to the rule - even then, it hit one of the poorest states in terms of per capita income).

Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar pretty hard, but even an up-and-coming industrial power like China can still be struck hard by disaster. When was the last time 10,000 people were killed in an earthquake in the U.S.?

In terms of proportional loss of life, I suppose comparisons fail. The population of China is 1.3 billion - four times that of the U.S. Hundreds of people can die in floods or landslides and it's not counted as a major disaster there. I think it's the same logic that, as Tam points out, allowed millions of Russian troops to be thrown into the meat grinder of the Eastern Front in WWII. Supply and demand - when you have a lot of human beings, life is cheap. It's distressing to think basic economics applies to something as precious as a person, but there it is.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Miscellany: NeverLost

One interesting doohickey that accompanied us on our journeys in and around Chicago was Hertz's NeverLost system. It's the Magellan-powered built-in GPS system that is helpfully available (for an extra charge, of course) on Hertz rental cars. Here's a review comparing it to Avis' solution:

NeverLost does tend to make a dummy out of you. My Mom and Dad used to be amateur cartographers, blithely trekking into unknown lands with only courage and a road atlas to guide them. With a GPS system plotting the course, though, you almost feel like you're a zombie - after the end of the trip, you have zero idea where things are in relation to each other.

The most interesting flaws in the NeverLost system are the ones inherent to GPS. In the covered roads and underpasses that slither through Chicago, you will lose satellite contact for long stretches of time, which makes the automated voice-direction system go haywire. Additionally, the system may not be able to discriminate between two parallel roads that are very close together, which can lead to some mishaps.

Guns: 9mm Carbine, Yea or Nay?

I've been thinking about building a 9mm AR, mostly because my broken elbow showed that it may in fact be easier to shoot a pistol-caliber carbine with an iffy right arm than to try to use a pistol solely with your off hand. Plus, there's the cool factor of being able to use an AR-pattern gun in an indoor range, or being able to shoot at close-range steel targets (relatively) safely:

Actually putting together a 9mm AR requires a series of befuddling choices. Unlike your run-of-the-mill 5.56 caliber mousegun, the magazines and operating systems of these 9mm critters seem to be in a state of flux. Like any firearm, I think you get what you pay for, so if you want to use a 9mm AR to potentially save your hide, I can't imagine you'd be satisfied with Bargain Bob's El Cheapo conversion that uses modified mags from some autoloader you've never heard of. The thought of a bottom-feeder with *shudder* $50-$100 Colt 32-round magazines strikes me as absurd, though.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mother's Day

For me, getting a Mother's Day gift can be difficult, especially since I'm not a kid anymore. I almost wish I was still 10 years old, so that I could give Mom a card made with paste and macaroni without it being too ironic. Thankfully, with age comes wisdom, and I've found that a useful gift, tailored to the recipient's interests, will in the long run be more appreciated than a box of chocolate or some flowers (not that those aren't nice, of course).

It's also important to know where to shop. When I stopped in at Brookstone (a store in the mall that sells doodads and gadgets), I asked if they had something for a gardener. You see, my Mom has a bona fide green thumb. Unfortunately, all Brookstone sold was a silly overpriced garden tool set. $75 for handheld rakes, ploughs, and forks seemed kind of steep.

So I went to Home Depot and got a whole bucketful of serious gardening implements for much less money. It's not as cushy as a box of chocolate or a bouquet of roses; then again, though, my Mom probably prefers to grow her own roses.

Movies: Redbelt

David Mamet is known for cooking up wild conspiracy-tinged plots (just look at "Spartan") and "Redbelt" is no exception:

Mike Terry (played by rising star Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a martial arts instructor who teaches his students realistic techniques for pure self-defense, not for sporting competition. His struggling dojo seems to finally catch a break as a chance encounter leads to a series of opportunities for both him and his wife, Sondra (Alice Braga in a role that mostly uses her looks and Brazilian descent). Things are more complicated than they seem, however...

Okay, I have to admit - "Redbelt" is pretty steeped in the world of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and MMA competition, a world I know almost nothing about. But the philosophy of fighting presented in this movie is something that I am familiar with - the notion that sporting competition is not an accurate simulation of real world fighting (seriously, how many UFC matches are ended with one guy gouging the other guy's eyes out?), and that the real goal of a martial artist isn't funny-colored belts, money, or trophies, but principled and effective self-defense.

Rating: 7/10

Thursday, May 08, 2008

News: Landfalls and Windfalls

You hear a lot about "windfalls" these days when it comes to profits. First, of course, is the hurly-burly over the oil industries' profit margins, including the ridiculous proposal some pols advocate - a "windfall profits" tax on profits above a certain level. I mean, did these guys fall asleep in economics class?

If there's a tax on supplying goods at the price the market will bear, the only logical choice for a producer would be to *ahem* produce less, thus driving supply down and prices up. I suppose no one remembers those pictures from the Great Depression of farmers pouring out milk on the road and destroying crops while hungry people waited in soup lines - price controls really worked great then, right?

And it's not just oil companies. Now, people are on the cases of agricultural conglomerates and even regular old farmers, all because of the world food shortage. I've even heard the food shortage blamed for some of the problems in Myanmar - but I'd wager that the incredible human tragedy following Cyclone Nargis was less about food and more about the awful preparation and lackadaisical response of the ruling junta.

Politics: Of Taxes and Traffic

While driving around Chicago, we often came upon people who were "guiding" traffic in intersections that already had fully-functioning traffic lights. Drivers literally ignored these folks in favor of using the traffic lights. It seemed fairly wasteful - why pay a person to do what is already being accomplished safely and efficiently by an automated system? It got even more ridiculous when I found out how much Illinois citizens, and Chicago residents in particular, pay in taxes.

Illinois, unlike Florida, has a state income tax. Additionally, people in Cook County have to pay various county taxes. There's also a state sales tax as well as local sales taxes (the highest of which, of course, is in Chicago). Combine that with property taxes that are often double of those in Florida, and you find that you have a lot of your income, no matter how rich or how poor you are, going to the government.

I guess that's all well and good, but when all that money is being spent to put some guy on the street to ineffectually wave at traffic all day, you wonder why more people don't complain...

Miscellany: Mad Gab Travel Edition

Shopping at Chicago's Navy Pier is, in many ways, like rolling a pair of loaded dice - some stores are cool, but the vast majority of shops sell trinkets and clothing that have dubious value. The standout shops for me were a magic trick shop (really high-end magic tricks, by the way - no gag gifts there) and a game store. At the game store, I got a travel tin containing "Mad Gab," a light party-style game for 2-6 people.

It's a simple concept best illustrated with an example. What do the following words mean to you?

Bun Ann Hasp Lit

If you said "Banana Split," then you're on your way to becoming a master "Mad Gab" player. Players take turns trying to sound out nonsensical combinations of words that happen to sound like an everyday name or phrase. The faster you solve puzzles, the more points you get.

The travel tin I bought contains about 400 puzzles on 100 cards, which should last for a few good hours of solid play. One problem with this type of game is that as players memorize clues, it gets stale. Still, for about $10, it's a good way to pass time in the back seat of a car or in an airplane.

Movies: Iron Man

If you haven't heard, "Iron Man" was the top-grossing picture at the box office last weekend, and, from what I saw, it's likely to hold on to that top spot for weeks to come:

Robert Downey Jr. gives a career-defining performance as Tony Stark, a middle-aged man who realizes that his life's work - inventing weapons - may not have improved mankind after all (John Moses Browning might disagree, but I digress). Stark builds a suit that allows him to right injustice in style. Along with a good supporting cast that includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, and Jeff Bridges, Downey animates the character with wisecracks, irreverence, and, ultimately, humanity.

The film sticks pretty closely to the comic book continuity, but it does so with aplomb. Although Stark is a billionaire playboy, the movie also repeatedly hammers home the fact that he is a genius, with a nigh-impossible talent for engineering (he builds a revolutionary new reactor from spare parts in a cave in Afghanistan). I think it's important for a superhero, if not innately gifted with superhuman abilities, to be an extraordinary person; if Tony Stark wasn't such a badass by himself, "Iron Man" would just be a guy in a suit (similar to how Bruce Wayne is portrayed as having the intellectual and physical skills necessary to be Batman).

The main problem with "Iron Man" is the lack of exciting fight scenes. One of the joys of a really good superhero movie is seeing your protagonist and the resident supervillain duke it out a few times, usually with the fate of the world and/or the hero's life in the balance. The plot of "Iron Man," as well-paced as it is, simply couldn't accommodate this, which leaves the film a bit empty as a result. Still, as a franchise-opener, it's quite a blockbuster.

Rating: 8/10

Food: Dining in Chicago

Chicago, like all major American cities, features restaurants that serve an assortment of cuisine from around the world. You can literally have Chinese food for breakfast, Greek for lunch, and Mexican for dinner without breaking a sweat. Here are some of the more interesting eateries we encountered in our trip there:

Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company

Dad and I saw this joint on TV (probably the Food Network or the Travel Channel), and the memory lingered with us all the way to Chicago. It's a small place that you probably wouldn't find unless you were looking for it. The menu is very simple - salads, baked subs, and most famously, the pizza pot pie (you have to see it to really understand).

There isn't even a podium where you sign in for a table; the host simply remembers your place in line and points at you, cryptically, when it's your turn. The food is good, but not great, though the pizza pot pie is (as I said) fairly memorable.

2/4 stars

Mountain View Chef

The Chinatown in Chicago is a bit small, but no less cohesive than its New York and San Francisco counterparts. There's a small plaza on Archer Avenue that houses a number of restaurants and businesses, including several places that serve dim sum. The best of the two my family tried was this one (which, incidentally, is adjacent to "Happy Chef" - confusing, no?).

While the shrimp dumplings and shrimp rice paste were maudlin, the pig's blood rice soup (refreshingly thinner than most other dim sum joints) and the fried turnip cake were great. What really earns the 3 stars, though, is the good price for a full, twelve-course dim sum for four - $40.

3/4 stars

Indian Garden

You wouldn't think that even a Zagat-rated Indian lunch buffet could survive in downtown Chicago (where the rent must be sky-high), but you'd be wrong. Sharing space with a military library, "Indian Garden" is serves unremarkable food, but with great value. The standards, naan and tandoori chicken, aren't on the buffet, but are instead delivered hot to each table (thumbs up!).

The sidekick dishes (a fairly uninspired dal and lukewarm rice) bring the whole thing down a bit. Ironically, the fruit salad (consisting of grapes and strawberries) is pretty darn good. Still, the whole thing would be a letdown were it not for the fact that it's $11 per person, and that includes a soft drink. If you need to fill up on Indian food near Navy Pier, you know where to go now.

2/4 stars

Miscellany: A (Small) Guide to Chicago Attractions

There's plenty of stuff to do in Chicago, especially if you are in the mood to learn. Here's a rundown of some of my favorites:

The Shedd Aquarium is a very popular and fairly modern aquarium, even though it was first opened in 1930. Right when you walk in, you notice a huge tank - that's the Caribbean reef, and they hold feeding time exhibitions with a real diver swimming in there throughout the day. All along the walls are tanks showcasing some exotic marine animal life from around the world.

The main draw, though, is the awesome ocean tank with dolphins (yes, there are "shows") and beluga whales; the back glass wall gives you an incredible view of the harbor, and the tank seems to extend into it. Nearly as impressive is a walk-through coral reef that encircles visitors with stunning views of some huge sharks. And, like nearly all of today's aquariums, there's a strong conservationist message underlying all the exhibits at the Shedd, which is commendable.

The Field Museum is a natural history museum that sits alongside the Shedd as one of Chicago's most popular attractions. Smack dab in the lobby is Sue, one of the world's most complete T-Rex skeletons, so even before you pay for admission you're treated to something cool. Add to that three floors and several wings of exhibits, and you could easily spend half a day there.

The neatest exhibit halls were the ones concerning native cultures of the Americas (everything from Aztec to Inuit) and the evolution of life on Earth. In the former, the focus is on the artifacts and dwellings of these peoples, rather than stiff dioramas. The latter hall features a complete overview of life on Earth, including the oft-overlooked Precambrian era. There are some interesting multimedia moments in both halls, and overall, it was educational and fun.

Some of the exhibits are boring (think hokey 1970s-era display cases), but on the whole, it's a good museum.

The Art Institute of Chicago is a bit of a walk from the Shedd and the Field Museum. It's close to Millennium Park, and if you visit one, you'll probably visit the other. In any case, art lovers would be remiss not to pay a visit here.

While in terms of sheer volume the permanent collection doesn't hold a candle to museums like the Louvre and the Prado, there are still a lot of interesting pieces here. You'll see pieces from virtually every famous Impressionist, as well as a lot of American art. The museum, due to its proximity to the school, often showcases emerging talents, as well.

Currently, it's undergoing a big renovation. One thing I didn't like was the fact that special exhibitions carry a high ticket price. My Dad wanted to see "Nighthawks" by Edward Hopper, for instance, but it cost $20 just to get in. I like depictions of urban loneliness, but I don't like them that much.

Finally, the Shoreline Architecture Cruise is an interesting way to view most of downtown's most significant skyscrapers. These hour-long tours usually leave from Navy Pier, the tourist-y entertainment complex adjacent to downtown. You sail up and down the Chicago River, gawking at buildings and passing under bridges. Try to avoid any tours near midday; it can get blisteringly hot on the boat.

While there are some interesting views of Chicago to be had, the real draw is in the narration provided by your tour guide. If you get a lively guide, you'll hear an almost nonstop stream of trivia and archiectural information, the delivery of which borders on performance art. There's no real way of knowing if your guide will be competent in advance, however.

So there you have it. Some things to do in Chicago, mostly for the young and the young at heart.

TV: How It's Made

On my travels, I've found it hard to start into the sightseeing and exploration of a new city immediately upon arrival. After what often amounts to a full eight hour day riding in airplanes, waiting in airports, and lugging your bags around, the act of finally checking in at your hotel represents the end of the day's journey, not the beginning. You throw your burdens down, you plop yourself onto the bed, and you turn on the TV.

One show that we happened to see quite a few bits of in this type of interstitial moment is "How It's Made." It's a documentary series on Discovery Channel that shows how ordinary objects are (mass)produced. The setup is simple - you see big conveyor belts or factory workers working on some cryptic item, and an offscreen narrator tells you what is happening. Here's a sample bit to show you what I mean:

Now, this in and of itself isn't very fascinating (I think "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood" was doing something similar several decades ago). What really makes the show is the hypnotic quality of the narration - I'm not sure who the above host is, but his matter-of-fact tone combined with the inherently mundane nature of the action on-screen makes for television Zen. "How It's Made" probably won't win any Emmys, but it makes for occasionally curious viewing.

Books: The Road

Finding an appealing book to read on an airline flight can be difficult. Unless you shop ahead, you're limited to whatever scraps of reading material you can find in the airport newsstands. So you can see why on my recent visit to Chicago, I was elated to find that a 3-hour layover allowed me to browse a small bookstore in the Philadelphia terminal. There, I managed to pick up "The Road," a book by Cormac McCarthy.

It's a short book - short enough to read in one sitting, if you really had the time. It tells the story of a father and son roaming through the ashes of a burned American wasteland. I've read a lot of post-apocalyptic stories, but nothing rendered with the starkness of McCarthy's prose. In the more laconic passages, it's almost like reading poetry.

McCarthy also omits punctuation from the character dialogue - no quotation marks to be found. Normally, I dislike this sort of technique, finding it more of an affectation than anything else. "The Road," though, is about the demise of civilization - and so the omission makes sense from both a logical and a literary perspective. In any case, "The Road" is well worth a look.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Goin' to Chicago...

I'm going to visit my uncle in Chi-town. And yes, I'll be careful (though physically disarmed :P). Regular posting will probably resume Wednesday.

Miscellany: Warning - Inside Joke

Okay - this one probably won't make ANY sense if you're not a certain close friend of mine. Suffice it to say that when you're working nonstop, a little absurdity mixes into your triumph.

The following video is NSFW - really, really foul language:


Thursday, May 01, 2008

Tech: GTA IV, first impressions

During exam week, there's nothing more satisfying than blowing off some stress with a "Grand Theft Auto" game. The series' nonlinear sandbox gameplay makes it perfect for messing around for a half hour in-between hardcore studying. The most recent entry, "Grand Theft Auto IV," was released to much fanfare this week. Here are my impressions from a quick run-through of the game's beginning.

First off, don't believe all those glowing 10/10 or 100% reviews you see on the web. This is, by and large, the same GTA we've been playing for years now, which might be a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. For everyone who got tired with the series around Vice City, you won't find much different here - driving, shooting, short cutscenes that move the story forward, yada yada yada.

At the same time, though, it's obvious that this is the most detailed open world Rockstar's ever delivered. Taking some hints from other sandbox games like "Mafia" and "Saints Row," GTA IV refines the formula to its logical conclusion. Only a couple hours into the game, I can already tell Niko Bellic, the protagonist, is more fully fleshed out than the vast majority of video game characters. He's a former Serbian soldier who presumably did some bad things in the Balkans - is he coming to Liberty City for redemption? For revenge?

While the graphics and sound are no great shakes, the environment is more detailed than ever before. For example, I had Niko punch out an old lady in the middle of a neighborhood. A mob of irate neighbors started chasing Niko in retaliation - they loved that kindly old spinster, I guess. I had Niko carjack a taxi to speed away from them, and one of the neighbors (whose hand had a deathgrip on the door handle) ended up being dragged along the road with the car. I swerved and eventually scraped him off the hard way by sidewiping another car.

Now that's entertainment.

Food: Bono's Pit Bar-B-Q

The stranger from a foreign land often gets shunned. Such is the case with Bono's Bar-B-Q, a regional barbecue chain that I recently visited. You see, Gainesville is Sonny's territory - Sonny Tillman himself is a big Gator fan, and his restaurants dominate the town. The only Bono's I know of, meanwhile, is a single place near I-75 and Newberry, perched almost precariously, as if the city itself has pushed it to the fringe.

It's good to have choices, I suppose, but does North Central Florida, and Gainesville in particular, really require all these barbecue chains? I wonder why on Earth there isn't a decent Italian or Chinese restaurant around here. In any case, Bono's isn't really anything to write home about.

Which isn't to say that the food is hatefully bad. But the old saying "Quantity has a quality all its own" applies here; if you do a side-by-side comparison, every dish Bono's makes is inferior. Sonny's has better baked beans, better banana pudding, a full salad bar, and (most importantly) better or equal meats. But Bono's is a cheap experience (7.79 will get you a BBQ plate, two sides, and banana pudding to boot), while Sonny's has recently raised prices. So like I said, it's good to have choices.

2/4 stars