Monday, June 30, 2008

Tech: Stranglehold

John Woo is one of the world's most famous action movie directors, and for many, his magnum opus is "Hard Boiled" (AKA "Hothanded God of Cops"). Woo has done work in other media, though, and he lent his name and his creative style to "Stranglehold," a video game:

While "Max Payne" was the first title to really ape the Hong Kong blood opera elements (acrobatic leaps, slow-motion/bullet time effects, and a grizzled but purehearted protagonist), "Stranglehold" does a good job of upping the ante. You play as Tequila, the maverick cop Chow Yun Fat brought to life in "Hard Boiled," and, as you might expect, you're faced with an army of anonymous bad guys to dispatch in each level. There's a story here, but it's pretty thin, and the weak voiceover work and iffy character models suck all the life out of the cutscenes.

At its best, "Stranglehold" does manage to evoke the heroic bloodshed films Woo is famous for. Each level can become like a playground, with railings, chandeliers and strategically placed rollcarts providing ample ways to kill enemies while flying around. At first it's strange to see Tequila sliding around on tables and countertops like his butt's coated with Astroglide, but it soon becomes second nature. And, like the "Devil May Cry" series, as your moves become more and more stylish, your damage and end-of-level score go up.

The big problem here is repetition. You often are forced to fight through environments that, while good-looking, have little variation. You'll be fighting the same hapless mooks throughout the game, and the developers didn't include enough character models - when you're slaying the same bandana-wearing M16 wielder for the 15th time, it starts to get old. Finally, the game isn't all that deep - once you've finished the fourth level or so, you've pretty much seen all the gameplay mechanics there are. Still, I think "Stranglehold" deserves at least a rental.

Rating: 78/100

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Movies: The Black Hole

"The Black Hole" is a Disney science fiction movie from 1979, and, like a lot of movies from that era, it hasn't aged well. It's not because the special effects are particularly bad; actually, the antigrav systems of the robots in the movie are still fairly convincing. No, it's because when viewed without the dewy-eyed patina of youth, the movie just isn't that great.

There are some odd creative decisions made by director Gary Nelson. In many respects, "The Black Hole" is supposed to be a dark movie, especially by Disney standards. There are brooding, Faust-like characters, a man gets eviscerated, and many of the early moments are downright eerie. But every so often, a moment of levity is mixed in (the V.I.N.CENT design seems made to sell kid's toys), and the effect is jarring.

The cast is largely disposable, including unconvincing turns from Anthony Perkins and even Ernest Borgnine (who overacts his way through the entire movie). There's little in the way of tension, the action scenes are tepid, and the whole thing eventually wears out its welcome about 2/3 of the way through.

The best part of the film, strangely enough, is the ending. It's an obvious imitation of "2001: A Space Odyssey," with a strange twist in store for the main antagonists. Still, it's not enough to redeem the movie from mediocrity.

Rating: 4/10

Guns: Let's Build An AR! - Part 2

I'm building an AR to commemorate the Heller decision, and today's installment will cover my thoughts on stocks, uppers, and other miscellaneous gear:


Every AR needs a stock, and since it's a part of the gun that your cheek'll be in constant contact with, you should probably splurge here. The first question to decide is, "Fixed or collapsible?" Though the standard A2-length buttstock is still the default option, more exotic fixed stocks like the ACE skeleton stock (pictured above) or the Sully stock are also pretty easy to find.

I prefer collapsible or telescoping stocks, since the adjustable length of pull and shorter overall length make the AR carbine a lot handier, at least for me. The ne plus ultra of collapsible stocks was (and perhaps still is) the Magpul M93 series, but that stock has been discontinued (it also weighed a ton and wasn't cheap).

I picked up the next best thing - a Magpul CTR. It has an additional friction lock at the front to almost completely freeze the stock relative to the receiver extension. It's solid, comfortable, and well worth the premium over the traditional M4 stock. There isn't any space for gadgets, cleaning kits, or batteries - it's just a solid, no-frills affair:


After assembling the stock and grip into the lower receiver, you'll need to either buy or build the upper half of the AR (the "complete uppers" you see advertised around the Web include the upper receiver, the barrel, and the bolt carrier group). I elected to buy mine complete, because building one from scratch, while not unduly complicated, won't save you money if you just want a configuration that's in common use. There are various barrel lengths (24", 20", 16", 14.5" M4gery, 11.5"), any number of gas systems (rifle length, mid length, carbine length, several types of piston-driven systems), as well as several upper receiver choices (A1, A2, A3 flattop) to consider.

And then there's the matter of brand. Some of the hottest holy wars in the AR world occur here, at this step. If you thought video game console fanboys were bad, wait'll you bring up whether X AR maker parkerizes under the front sight base or shot-peens the bolt. There are different tiers of manufacturers, with the best stuff coming out of places like LMT and Noveske (Noveske's barrels in particular are supposed to be incredibly accurate).

You'll pay a premium, but the luxury-brand AR makers do all sorts of fancy tests and have higher QC standards all around (read: you'll never have to stake your own gas key again). Since I didn't have the cash, I elected to grab a Stag upper - still good, but definitely a lower grade AR. The barriers to entry for the AR construction market aren't high, and there are many ways to cut corners when you make the gun. Stag (owned, I believe, by CMT) certainly cuts some corners, but they get good reviews and they seem like a stand-up outfit.


Not covered in most AR parts overviews are the detachable parts of the gun - the magazines and sling. AR magazines have gotten fairly cheap thanks to the AWB sunsetting in 2004, with good 30-rounders readily available for under $15 each. While there are a lot of good mags out there, I like the P-Mags from Magpul, mostly because of the fun torture tests they have on YouTube:

They even got these things to work in an M249, which is really an amazing feat if you're at all familiar with how bad the M16 mag functionality is on an M249:

Slings range from high-speed/low-drag single point slings (I call 'em rat tails) to the more staid 2-pointers to the interesting 3 point slings. If you buy the latest sling o' the week, you might need some kind of adapter, depending on how your stock and handguards are set up.

In my experience, if you anticipate carrying the rifle around for any length of time, a single-point can get inconvenient. On the other hand, the single-points are relatively simple and you can shoulder the gun rapidly. I had a Wilderness single-point on my last carbine, so I think I'll try something different this time - just a simple, boring bottom-mounted sling setup. If I ever actually needed to use this sucker for serious purposes, I doubt I'd have time to loop up the sling anyway.

Next week - Assembling the Lower Receiver

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Links: Demigod LLC

Zak Smith, a moderator on THR, has a nice website offering a lot of good articles and reviews of equipment, mostly concerning ARs and long range practical rifles. There are also match reports and videos of various competitions:

I tend to give a lot of credence to Zak's opinions, and it's obvious the gentleman knows his stuff. I'm happy to hear he's a published author and professional gunwriter nowadays - gives hope for all us other engineers.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Miscellany: The Writer's Art

I was at odds with my French teacher, Madame Youngman, for substantial portions of my high school career, but one thing we had in common was that we were both fans of "The Writer's Art," a column by James J. Kilpatrick.

The column is chock full of advice on what words to use and how to structure sentences for maximum impact. In doing so, it goes beyond mere grammar tips, although they do crop up from time to time. Kilpatrick usually excerpts bits and pieces from other newspaper columnists, either to lampoon or praise the nuances of their usage. If you've ever pondered the difference between "repetitive" and "repetitious," than you're probably someone who'll like reading Kilpatrick's thoughts on how to write sentences that slip smoothly through the mind.

While Mr. Kilpatrick is semi-retired, he's still writing both "The Writer's Art" and "Covering the Courts." You can read them online here at the Universal Press' website.

Books: The Power of the Blank Book

I remember when the local stationary store gave us free samples during some promotional event back in middle school. Getting anything for free is nice, and doubly so when you're only 14. We all received pens and simple, paperback-sized blank bound books with gold-leafed pages that stuck together until you separated them.

It was then that I first learned of the utility of a blank, bound book. There's a certain permanence you get that isn't present in an ordinary loose-leaf binder or notebook. If you make a mistake or scribble down something iffy in a blank book, you tend to just skip over to the next page instead of ripping it out. Over time, the whole thing is a fascinating catalog of failed ideas, snippets, short concepts, and doodles.

Science labs and art classes agree; both fields commonly issue books with numbered pages to students, and it's usually forbidden to rip out or add pages. I guess that's because in both science and art, there's no such thing as a mistake.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Politics: Heller AFFIRMED - w00t!

It was close (5-4) and divided strictly along ideological lines, but the end result is the same - the DC gun ban is dead.

Hipshot analysis - as most expected, the ruling basically preserves the status quo. I can tell Scalia had to water it down some to keep Kennedy onboard - a lot of restrictions are implicitly allowed by the majority, including licensing, background checks, felon-in-possession, etc. I'm really not fond of the tacit approval of licensing just to own a handgun, but again, the opinion lays down the 2nd as an individual right once and for all, and the actual controversy was not over the licensing of handguns, but the District's blanket refusal of the license - to go further would be perilous.

Another troubling part of the majority opinion was the "common use" standard Scalia expounded upon. Machineguns, I dare say, would be in common use (much like suppressors and short-barreled shotguns/rifles are fairly common now) if it wasn't for the '86 ban - I know several people who'd have one if all you needed was the tax stamp. But I suppose those arguments can be held for another day.

All in all, not a slam dunk, just one victory in a war. But man, it's better than 5-4 the other way.

EDIT: Oh come on, you knew this was coming:

EDIT: The NRA is apparently filing lawsuits challenging the bans in Chicago, NYC, and San Francisco. It looks like big city mayors are getting a taste of their own medicine.

EDIT: Man, VC went down like a chump after the decision - server overload. I guess that shows you just how many people were interested in the case.

EDIT: I know I've compared the fight over the Second Amendment to the fight over Roe v. Wade, but really, the closest analogue I can think of right now for Heller is Lawrence v. Texas, the 6-3 decision striking down Texas' prohibition on private homosexual conduct.

In that case, the standard of review was also fairly muddled (as it is in Heller - seemingly more than rational basis, but less than a strict scrutiny standard), and for similar reasons (I suspect Kennedy didn't want to legalize gay marriage in one fell swoop, just like he probably didn't want to kill 18 USC 922(o) here). Lawrence also harped on the special nature of the home and the individual, and it was the subject of much discussion all over the country.

Unlike Lawrence, today's decision is enigmatic on incorporation. Unlike Lawrence, people have most assuredly been prosecuted for violating the D.C. handgun ban. Unlike Lawrence, the right to keep and bear arms is enumerated in the Bill of Rights. And unlike Lawrence, the majority decision only received five votes. Five.


Here's a paragraph from the preamble to the Bill of Rights (emphasis mine):

THE Conventions of a number of the States having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution...

Here's part of Stevens' dissent:

The Court would have us believe that over 200 years ago, the Framers made a choice to limit the tools available to elected officials wishing to regulate civilian uses of weapons...

Yes, Justice Stevens, yes they did. It says so right there. Holy schlamoly.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Guns: Huge Success or Epic Fail

Ah, Heller. I still remember the gnashing and wailing when the Supreme Court decided to accept the case; either way the decision went, it was going to piss off a lot of folks. Now, after months of waiting, we're going to have the opinion tomorrow.

I think the money quote comes from Politics, Guns & Beer:

“It feels like we’re anticipating a really messed up Christmas… where
you’re either going to get a pony, or find out your grandpa died.”

TV: The Middleman

Every TV show, especially the ones that aren't based on some other successful series, goes through that awkward pilot phase. The characters and concepts are new to the viewing audience, the network tries to shuffle the timeslot around, and everything's in limbo, both creatively and financially. "The Middleman," a new series on ABC Family, is in that period right now:

I've seen the first two episodes, and my reactions are mixed. On the one hand, the concept could be a winner - the tone is sort of a cross between "The Tick" (the live action version) and "Men In Black." For series leads Natalie Morales (who plays snappy Everywoman Wendy Watson) and Matt Keeslar (the titular Middleman), it's the best chance at success they've had in awhile.

But there are problems. The show's budget is shoestring, to put it mildly - it looks more like a kid's Saturday morning Power Rangers episode than a primetime series. The dialogue, which is often verbose, is sometimes delivered in a leaden fashion from actors who are almost out of breath.

"The Middleman," like a lot of shows, is a comic book adaptation. Unlike most of those shows, though, creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach originally intended this as a zany TV show, so it'll be interesting to see if it ever finds its legs.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Music: Divenire

I once saw an ad for "The Most Relaxing Classical Music in the Universe," which was faintly ridiculous to me. Yes, I know people who are put to sleep by classical music, but as a whole, I'm no more relaxed by Vivaldi than I am by AC/DC.

If you really need to zone out, though, and you want classical music to do the job, you should probably listen to "Divenire." It's an album by Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. Here's a short clip from the album, along with an interview:

It's easy to screw up this kind of material. Go too far one way, and you've made elevator muzak that will strain the patience of the listener. Go the other way, and you're aping John Adams instead of forging your own meditative/contemplative atmosphere. Einaudi is classically trained, though, so he manages to avoid most of these pitfalls.

Miscellany: Page’Up Document Holder

You've probably seen these Page’Up document holders before. They're designed to hold up paper while you're typing so you don't have to look down at something on your desk.

I picked one up, mostly because I'm stuck looking at cases all day and I figured it would save me some neck strain. Old habits die hard, though - I found myself laying any printouts I needed to read on my lap like I'm used to, instead of standing them up.

It should also be pretty easy to improvise a solution to getting a piece of paper to stand up on its own (the darn things are actually kinda expensive - $5 for a lump of plastic and sand). Still, it's an elegant solution that's purpose-built for the task, it works as advertised, and it's built pretty solid.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Food: I Love New York Pizza

Pizza places are a dime a dozen here in Gainesville. Italian buffets, however, are not, and the most remote location of the "I Love NY Pizza" chain features pretty good one. The joint is on the other side of town, off the corner of NE 23rd Avenue and Main Street.

It's $10 for all you can eat and a soda. There's a pretty comprehensive salad bar (pepperoncini, onions, and olives are conveniently separate from the greens mix), some bite size deserts, a soup, and a bunch of pastas and meat dishes. Standouts included the Italian sausage (a red-blooded Southern immigrant style dish if I ever saw one), as well as the penne.

It wasn't all great, though - the meatballs and pasta were sometimes dry, and there wasn't much variety in terms of main course dishes (there was no pizza on the buffet when I visited, for example). But overall, if you're ever in the area, you could do a whole lot worse (the pizza is just okay here, BTW).

Rating: 2/4

Movies: Gone Baby Gone

It's sometimes hard to explain the difference between "Good" and "Lawful Good" to a Dungeons and Dragons neophyte, but I think "Gone Baby Gone" is a great way to do it. The ending features a moral quandary that neatly encapsulates the conflict - do we do things within the system, or without, and on whose authority? Of course, the Affleck name has been poisonous in Hollywood for some time now (Gigli will do that to anyone), but "Gone Baby Gone" is an extremely solid directorial debut from Ben Affleck:

It's a crime mystery about the abduction of a little girl in a Boston neighborhood. The distraught family hires private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, played by Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan, respectively. From there, the plot twists and spins as things turn out, inevitably, to be more complicated than they were at first glance.

There's a good performance here from Ben's brother Casey Affleck, whose star is rapidly rising. But the real star is Boston - the movie revels in its attention to its setting. The main bugaboo here is the farfetched leaps and suspensions of disbelief that the script requires of the viewer, but other than that, it's an enjoyable flick. I still wonder if Ben Affleck can work with material from outside his comfort zone, but if he can develop his skills, I think he could really become a great director.

Rating: 8/10

News: How Elections Are In Other Places

I hear a lot of griping about this year's election, but it's nothing compared to the mess in Zimbabwe.

In International Criminal Law, we discussed how election time can bring about paroxyms of violence even in relatively developed African nations with the rule of law firmly in place. Look at Kenya, for example - when political power (read: land distributing power) isn't up for grabs, the rule of law prevails and the country is fairly safe. But during the 2007 election, for instance, the old issues left outstanding by the British festered and coalesced into what amounted to tiny wars.

It's nice to be able to hit the button on that swanky electronic voting machine without the fear that there's some guy with a machete on the other side of the curtain.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Books: McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales

Short fiction is often the hardest fiction to write well, as you can see from the compilation "McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales," edited by Michael Chabon. This book, which is actually Issue 10 of "Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern," features some very popular and famous writers - Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, to name a few. But unfortunately, a lot of the stories are hit and miss.

Take the Stephen King entry, a short story called "The Tale of Gray Dick" excerpted from "Wolves of the Calla," the fifth Dark Tower book. Now, Stephen King has never been known for his brevity, and the Dark Tower series is probably his most egregious example of "diarrhea of the typewriter." It's clear that King's prose needs to spread out, to breathe, and although the entry is okay, I wager it won't be remembered like "To Build a Fire."

Even Neil Gaiman, who has made a living off of comic book fantasy, seems to have trouble writing something truly memorable. His story, "Closing Time," is an extrapolation of the tall tales and ghost stories barflies tell each other. The whole thing's a bit rambly and unfocused, with a conclusion that hits more like an M. Night Shyamalan ending than something truly revelatory.

Overall, though, there's some good writing here, almost as if the volume is a graveyard for the inchoate story concepts of a bunch of noteworthy authors. And for that fact alone, I think it's worth picking up at your local bookstore's bargain bin.

Movies: Hustle and Flow

BET is a controversial channel, criticized by some for its supposedly lowbrow content. I do find it ironic that modern hip-hop videos and Christian televangelism are broadcast on the same network, but I guess it's a good example of how fractured America is. Although I'm not a regular viewer, I found myself watching BET's "Black Buster" movie slot because it featured a heavily edited version of "Hustle and Flow," a film written and directed by Craig Brewer:

This is one of Terrence Howard's breakout performances, and his character alternately evokes pathos and disgust in the viewer. Howard stars as DJay, a small-time drug dealer and pimp who tries his hand at making hip hop songs with the help of an old friend named Key (played by Anthony Anderson). Along for the ride are DJay's prostitutes, a painfully white friend of Key's, and a now-successful rapper who grew up in DJay's area (played by Ludacris).

The movie's big weakness is that it doesn't stray too much from established genre storylines. You can pretty much predict what will happen every step of the way, but the cast does a good job with the material (especially Anderson, who can do much more than the comic relief that he is relegated to in more mainstream fare). The film has a breezy plot and a simple message, although the climax is kind of inspiring - overall, a thumbs-up.

The movie's rated a solid R, with foul language and drug use that must have made the BET censors exasperated.

Rating: 7/10

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Tech: The Darkness

Video games that have polished presentations are few and far between. It's even rarer to find that kind of shine on a game that features a first time adaptation of a comic book. I present..."The Darkness":

It's an FPS for the Xbox 360 and PS3, and from the start, you know the development team lavished a lot of attention on the game. After all, it's possible to watch a tiny, postage-stamp version of "To Kill A Mockingbird" on the TV of your in-game apartment. You can do side missions for people, you can unlock concept art and comic books, and every loading screen has a neat little monologue from the main character, Jackie.

Ah yes, Jackie. He's been double-crossed by the mob, and now he's out for revenge. Pretty standard fare, until you consider that Jackie wields the Darkness, a malevolent being that thrives in the shadows. With this power, you can produce devilish minions out of thin air, you can impale your foes with black tentacles, and you can even summon black holes that suck in anyone who's unlucky enough to be near. It's the powers (and the gore that ensues) that make "The Darkness" a little bit better than the standard humdrum FPS.

Some issues keep the game from being a top-tier title, though. AI (both of your enemies and your minions) is sometimes awful. The controls for switching between your Darkness powers feel a bit clunky. What the game needs most, though, is a minimap - the vague map from the menu is almost no help to finding where you are in the levels, and the semi-open-ended nature of the game exacerbates this. Still, even with these faults, I played through "The Darkness" and enjoyed it.

Rating: 83/100

Guns: Let's Build an AR! - Part 1

To commemorate the forthcoming Heller opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court (my gut feeling is that we'll have the decision next week), I've decided to once again dip my toe into the vast ocean of AR-15 ownership. This time around, however, I'll be tricking out my own carbine instead of just getting one off the shelf. The whole endeavor can cost a pretty penny, but thankfully, I have a ton of old video games to sell that are now worth a lot more than what I bought them for.

First, you start off with a stripped lower receiver. This is the only part of the rifle that counts as a firearm under federal law - all the rest can be bought through the Web without having to fill out a 4473. I've blogged about this before, and here's my nicely finished stripped lower receiver from Sabre Defence:

Then, you add in your favorite parts kit. Unless you're picky enough to buy specialty trigger pins and such, any parts kit from a reputable source should do fine. This DPMS kit seems good enough for me:

Now the fun starts. The AR is a hobbyist's dream - an open platform with dozens and dozens of choices to suit every taste. Even the grips are now made by a bewildering variety of companies. This particular example is from one of the 800 lb gorillas of the AR-15 accessory world, Magpul. It's the MIAD grip, short for "MIssion ADaptable" (yes, I am aware I just gained mall ninja points, and I am not proud of it :=P ):

Next week - Stock Choices, Upper Options, and Miscellaneous Stuff

Friday, June 20, 2008

Movies: Walk Hard - The Dewey Cox Story

Another month, another Apatow-produced comedy, it seems, and "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" is bound to be a lesser entry in the huge line of R-rated comedy flicks that the Apatow team has cranked out. It's a musician biopic send-up:

To be honest, the movie was just...all right. It's not John C. Reilly's fault, either - he's a gifted character actor and he dives into the material with aplomb, but there just isn't much here to play around with. It's telling that the movie has a 120 minute extended DVD cut, as the theatrical cut pretty much hits the same jokes over and over.

Some of the bits are good, including celeb cameos from Jack Black and Jack White. But as a whole, the film isn't witty enough (especially when compared to stuff like "This Is Spinal Tap"). The songs (which ape not only Johnny Cash, but other musicians, too) are catchy and listenable, which was a great decision - it would've been tough to listen to bad parody.

Rating: 6/10

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Books: The Yiddish Policeman's Union

If you've read any of Michael Chabon's previous novels (Wonder Boys, Kavalier & Clay), you already know what to expect from "The Yiddish Policeman's Union." It's a noirish detective novel set in an unlikely place - Sitka, Alaska. I grabbed it after finding myself desperately short on reading materials on the way back from Chicago, and I thought it merited some discussion.

The "gimmick" of this novel is that Sitka, Alaska is populated primarily by Jews after the destruction of the nascent state of Israel in 1948. The protagonist, a police detective named Meyer Landsman, is investigating a murder, but the place where he does so is a completely realized, fictional environment full of Yiddish slang, Orthodox Jewish gangsters, and colorful characters.

I liked "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay," and this book is almost as good. The structure of the book sticks to convention, but it works both as a conventional detective story. Chabon wisely refrains from banging people over the head too much with the alternate history stuff - it's no "Fatherland" or "The Man in the High Castle." The whole thing moves at a brisk pace, and, for someone acquainted with basic Judaism (I grew up in south Florida, after all - I must have attended at least half a dozen Bar Mitzvahs growing up), some of the sections of the book are riotously funny.

Politics: Some TSA hate

Come on, who doesn't want to rip on the TSA? Saw this at Oleg's and I thought it was hilarious, especially because of how well it apes gangsta rap and its demeaning portrayal of, well, everything (warning explicit language):

Now, to be fair, in my experience, most TSA agents do their jobs competently, but that wouldn't make for a fun music video.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Miscellany: Benchmade 806

I've tried to steer clear of the "gear queer" affliction that seems to be all the rage around the Internet. There's nothing more laughable than some guy on a bulletin board, posting pictures of his Xtreme Ops paracord-wrapped forged aluminum canteen, "just like the SEALs."

Sometimes things get a little out of hand, though - like when I bought the most expensive pocket knife I've ever owned, the Benchmade 806 AFCK:

It's the Axis lock version, with D2 blade steel and a plain edge. The 806 is a surprisingly big knife, with a blade just barely under 4". Even when closed, the knife is relatively long, so much so that when you use the belt clip there's still a good half inch of handle sticking out of your pocket.

I used to carry this sucker around everyday; the blade is sharp and holds an edge practically forever. The handle is tough, too, and I've used it to crush stuff like ice with no problems. Benchmade doesn't make this one any more, so I suppose I'll hold on to mine for awhile yet.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Music: M4, Part II

I had never heard of Faunts before, but a portion of their 40-minute exploratory rock music piece, "M4," is featured as the credits theme for "Mass Effect." I think the synth-y main keyboard riff and echoing guitar overlays fit particularly well in a game about exploring the galaxy. It's like Vangelis got shoved into Radiohead at a concert and they performed together.

The music video is even more interesting, featuring a brutal game of King of the Hill that might be some kind of metaphor...or not:

Monday, June 16, 2008

Movies: You Don't Mess With The Zohan

If you want to know whether you're going to like "You Don't Mess With The Zohan" (YDMWTZ), here's a fast fact - two of the principal Palestinian characters in the film are played by Rob Schneider and Emmanuelle Chriqui, who are both (get this) not Palestinian, or even Arab (Chriqui was even raised as an orthodox Jew, according to her Wikipedia bio). This sort of casting is just the type of silliness you're going to see in pretty much every frame of YDMWTZ:

Unfortunately, most of it isn't the good type of silly. Adam Sandler plays an Israeli counterterrorist who wants to become a hair stylist, except that he finds it hard to leave his old life behind.

The endless sight gags, double entendres, and ethnic jokes do get tiresome, even when they draw laughs. But the real problem is the sagging plot - even "The Waterboy" had more defined ups and downs than this movie, which really just feels like a string of isolated comedic setups.

Strangely enough, I think the preachy part of the movie - where Sandler notes that at least in America, Israelis and Palestinians need not carry on their endless struggle - is fairly decent for a mainstream comedy. In fact, the basic message is pretty much the same as in Spielberg's "Munich," except that YDMWTZ doesn't take itself too seriously. Still, this is supposed to be a comedy, and while you'll get some laughs the first time around, I can't see myself ever watching this again.

Rating: 4/10

Miscellany: SureFire E2D Executive Defender

Before I part with it forever via the magic of eBay, I thought it only fair to give my SureFire E2D a review. I've had it for a few years, and, in many ways, this flashlight is obsolete. It's yesterday's model, sporting an incandescent bulb even as the rest of SureFire's line is being converted into LED flashlights. In other words, this is a T-800 in a world of T-1000s.

Still, there's a certain pleasing quality to the light. LED lights, while more efficient and now just as bright as their incan counterparts, tend to give off a harsher, more bluish tone. The old-school E2d throws out a warmer beam. Of course, for a torch mostly intended as a bike light and a "bump in the night" light, color temperature isn't really a big consideration.

The housing, at least, is very tough, with Type III anodized aluminum (hardness is comparable to something like, say, an AR receiver). The "Strike Bezel" has dubious utility, but otherwise, the E2D has worked fine. If I could change one thing about the light, though, it'd be the sometimes unresponsive tailcap. But, I guess moving parts can break down no matter who makes 'em.

Movies: Rambo

I've always been a fan of both "First Blood" (the first film in the Rambo saga) and its sequel (the curiously named "Rambo: First Blood Part II"), so I loaded up the latest Rambo flick from Sly Stallone on my Blockbuster queue and gave it a whirl:

Stallone plays John Rambo, an old soldier who is living a quiet life in Thailand. When some missionaries request a boat ride upriver to provide relief to the beleaguered Karen tribes, Rambo finds himself drawn back into a world of violence and warfare. As you might expect, there's buckets of violence (that sometimes crosses into the level of the absurd) and the Burmese military commits so many brutal crimes against humanity that the main Burmese general might as well have a toothbrush moustache and a raised right hand.

To be honest, I've always felt Sylvester Stallone was a bit underrated as a writer/director. The screenplay for the original "Rocky" is a great piece of screenwriting, and the recent "Rocky Balboa" was about as well-directed as a sixth Rocky movie could possibly be. And, to be fair, Stallone goes to the well of nostalgia less in "Rambo" (smart move, since the previous films haven't held up like the Rocky series has).

My main gripe with the movie is that it feels too short, and too streamlined. The movie barely hits 80 minutes in its runtime - it feels like we're missing a reel or something. I would've liked another action scene or two, and some more scenes that explore the characters. As it stands, "Rambo" is a bit forgettable.

Rating: 6/10

News (sorta): Tim Russert and the "Meet the Press" theme

Tim Russert, host of "Meet the Press," passed away recently. Oddly enough, while I have seen bits and pieces of the show, I mostly remember the bombastic theme music, composed by none other than Mr. John Williams. The piece is titled "Pulse of Events."

Every time I hear it, it brings to mind images of Cold War nuclear silos and tense standoffs between world leaders. The music seems to imply that the fate of the world depends on what is going to be said in the next half hour. Here's a sample opening from an episode of the show so you can see what I mean:

As for Russert himself, I think he did a decent enough job. I never really knew the man or followed "Meet the Press," but I never heard of Russert doing anything untoward in his role as an interviewer and journalist, a trait that is becoming increasingly rare in these post-Rathergate times.

Tech: Mass Effect, second time around

I reviewed Mass Effect some time ago, and the slow summer months represent a golden time to more fully explore the game's secrets. Unlike a lot of RPGs, Mass Effect gives you a lot of reasons to go through the game a second time.

First, the game offers a "Hardcore" level of difficulty that actually makes combat exciting instead of a chore. Even the tutorial mission offered a challenge - the sentry drones that offered pinprick attacks in Normal difficulty were suddenly very potent, meaning I had to take cover and pay attention even in the very first combat encounter.

Second, the dialogue and plot change quite a bit on subsequent run-throughs. My first Commander Shepard was a badass, take-no-prisoners female survivor with a ruthless streak. She was skilled in use of the sniper rifle and the various tech skills. This time, I'm going for a grizzled male Shepard who usually tries to help people and protect civilians. For this second run, I've made him a Vanguard, who combines close-quarters shotgun mastery with potent pseduo-magical attacks.

Finally, BioWare is set on releasing downloadable episodes for the game, the first of which was only released a few months ago. At $5, it only offers maybe an hour and a half of gameplay, but it's still another mission to complete:

Saturday, June 14, 2008

TV: Food Network Challenge

It's been said that people like to see other people fail, but that's only really part of the equation. My theory is that people enjoy seeing others fail spectacularly, and if that's what you're after, than the "Food Network Challenge" series on the Food Network will deliver moments of uncompromising suspense:

The show pits top chefs against each other to create some strange, often monumental concoctions. Huge cakes, gigantic carved-fruit centerpieces, fancy gingerbread houses - these things usually take an entire day to complete.

The best part of the show, however, is when contestants are asked to move their work from the ktichen to the judging table. Rather cruelly, most of the challenges have minimum height requirements, which means that the end product is going to be sliding, listing, and shaking like a ship in a storm-tossed sea.

And when a cake does crumble, when something does fall off, the audible reaction of the crowd is worth the price of admission. For the chef, whose 7 hours of work and chance to win $10,000 are now splattered all over the floor, it's heartache, but for the crowd, it's entertainment.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Guns: Streamlight TLR-1 Weaponlight

My house gun (a CZ P-01) recently received an upgrade - a Streamlight TLR-1 weaponlight. I had been toying around with getting a handgun light for awhile, but my decision to put my SureFire handheld flashlight up for sale was what ultimately prompted the purchase.

The TLR-1 is the simplest model, no laser or anything, just a very bright LED, two batteries, and the circuitry and casing to attach it to your firearm. First things first, the light works fine, even after a couple hundred rounds downrange. The mounting system is fast and secure, and it'll attach to most rail systems out there.

There are two settings - momentary on and constant on, activated by an ambidextrous lever in the rear of the light. It's not hard to hit the switch with either hand, but I had to move my support thumb (left thumb) a bit further forward on the grip than I'm used to.

One disadvantage of having a light mounted in this fashion is that the lens will get clouded with powder debris after a few magazines' worth of ammo, diminishing the overall output of the light until you wipe the gunk off. Otherwise, I think the light is a good buy for the money and certainly a nice addition to your housegun of choice (brackets and mounts exist to strap this sucker onto carbines and shotguns, if that's your desire).

Music: A Clean Shot

The discussion (read: arguments) over the downloadable songs available for the music video game "Rock Band" can be vitriolic at times. This past week's entry was particularly controversial - Harmonix handed the DLC reins to MTV, who gave Rock Band players a trio of relative unknowns. People who have been waiting months to download songs by The Who or Nirvana were miffed, to say the least.

That's a shame, because I like The Myriad track, "A Clean Shot," along with its music video:

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Miscellany: Magic the Gathering preconstructeds

One of the great joys of playing the "Magic: The Gathering" collectible card game is constructing your own deck. Really, much of the strategy in the game comes from deck design, but the process can be daunting to a new player who's just learning the rules. It certainly was for me when I first started playing Magic against other people - in my first game, I actually used a tournament pack of randomly assorted cards and land (needless to say, I got my butt kicked pretty often). Even now, I'm still not very good at designing decks.

There's also a certain cock-of-the-walk aspect at play here. If someone has more valuable cards, they tend to mop the floor with people who can't buy a bunch of booster packs, all things being equal. By and large, Magic's Rares and Uncommons simply outclass the Common cards most casual players are stuck with, which works fine for tournaments and gaming events. But if you just want to play a friendly game, this mechanic can be troublesome.

So whoever came up with the idea of selling ready-to-play decks, or preconstructeds, should be given a gold star. They're almost always hooked into the themes and characters of the particular setting (the Kamigawa block - think feudal Japan - had one called "Way of the Warrior" that used all Samurai-type cards to beat people down), and each deck contains specific information on how best to use it. They're also fairly balanced against each other, so two players using preconstructeds can usually expect to have an even match (assuming their playing abilities are roughly equal).

Books: Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, Monster Manual

In D&D, the PCs' adversaries have to be almost as fully fleshed out as the PCs themselves - what good are unique combat abilities if all you're doing is fighting the same dumb opposition over and over again? The Monster Manual, like almost everything in 4E, has changed quite a bit. For the purpose of this review, let's look at a little example - the entry for a classic D&D monster, the displacer beast.

In 3.5, the displacer beast has a stats block that lists info like its hit dice, its initiative, its speed, its AC, etc. The stats block also contains additional non-combat stuff, like treasure type and "challenge rating" (a concept completely abandoned in 4E, since monsters now have levels and XP values listed right in their title bar). There is also info contained in several paragraphs of flavor text outside the stat block about how the displacer beast's special combat abilities work.

In 4E, the displacer beast entry is largely the same in terms of content, except that there is virtually no necessary flavor text - all the info you need to run a monster is right there in the stat block. Monsters are also given clear roles that tell how to play them. And even high-level monsters, like Orcus, the Demon Prince of the Undead, don't have long lists of feats or spells to worry about.

All in all, it's a refreshing usability upgrade that cleverly takes Wizard of the Coast's experience with miniatures and "Magic: The Gathering" and puts it into D&D. I like being able to populate dungeons with less prep time, and the addition of unique combat abilities for nearly every monster (even the lowly goblin warrior can pull some interesting stuff off) seems like a great idea.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Miscellany: Waterman Phileas Fountain Pen - One Year Later

I've been using a Waterman Phileas as my primary pen for nearly an entire year, and I have to say, I don't think I'll ever go back to using a regular ballpoint. The Phileas is a fairly popular starter pen, and the price is about right. That is, it's cheap enough for you to risk losing ($40) but expensive enough so that you don't want to lose it in the first place.

Almost all fountain pens write better after a few months of solid use. I'm not sure if that's because the metal is being ground by the endless friction of paper and ink, or if it's merely the result of the user being more used to the pen's "sweet spot" (probably a little of both), but in the Phileas' case, it now writes smoothly enough that I can glide my pen over the paper and words flow out in D'Nealian cursive.

Admittedly, there are some downsides to using a fountain pen. I've learned never to leave the pen in a hot car, as writing with it afterward can produce some messy results (the engineer in me is still curious about whether that's due to the steel nib expanding or from the heating of the ink). Fountain pens also tend to drink up more ink than a usual pen.

One final benefit is that you can use a converter cartridge to fill the pen up with bottled ink. This opens up even mroe pen-geekery - after all, who wouldn't want a bottle of Noodler's Luxury Blue sitting astride their desk?

Tech: The Best of Xbox Live Arcade, Part III

Here's a few more of my favorite titles from the Xbox 360's downloadable games service:


This one requires no introduction - I loved "Doom" back when it was state-of-the-art in the '90s, and since then, it's been ported to pretty much every platform imaginable. There's a certain joylessness accompanying most ports of Doom, though. It's a shame, because the underlying kill-or-be-killed gameplay is still entertaining after all these years. I'm not sure where this malaise comes from. Maybe it's because most ports cripple the deathmatch multiplayer. Maybe it's because most ports don't handle the rudimentary controls very well (like dogs in "Shaun of the Dead," you can't look up in Doom).

Thankfully, the XBLA port of Doom is mostly free of these ills. At 400 points ($5), you get all four episodes (Knee Deep in the Dead, The Shores of Hell, Inferno, and Thy Flesh Consumed), as well as (laggy) online multiplayer over Xbox Live. The gamepad controls worked surprisingly well, with my only complaint being a slightly slower-than-ideal turning speed (this is almost impossible to get right in a console FPS, though).

Like a lot of people, I never actually played Doom past the introductory shareware mission (didn't have discretionary income at the time)...the later missions have tons of new design features and are often devilishly constructed mazes that require careful shooting and tactics in order to get through without running out of ammo (for example, did you know you can get monsters to fight each other?). Taken as a whole, Doom is a lot of classic gaming for very little money.


N+ is a juiced-up port of a game that you can actually play for free on your computer - N, a classic Flash game by Metanet Software. So why would anyone fork over 800 points ($10) for this port? Well, like Doom, N+ has been enhanced in its jump from the PC to the XBLA. Not only does everything look more crisp courtesy of HDTV, but the 360 gamepad is actually a pretty good input choice for this type of game - one that involves multiple, often incessant pressing of the "jump" button at various pressures.

You play as a ninja trapped in a series of rooms that happen to be filled with deadly hazards, like mines and missile launching turrets. You have no offensive weaponry to speak of, just your wits and acrobatic ability. You make your way to the end of the level, and the whole thing starts all over again. Where the 360 version triumphs is its pick-up-and-play nature; N+ is a great in-betweener for those long sessions of more complicated 360 games.

Hexic HD

This game is free (it comes preloaded onto your Xbox 360 hard drive), but it's not just some throwaway title. Designed by no less than Mr. Tetris himself, Alexey Pajitnov, Hexic HD has you rotating groups of colored hexagon tiles in several different gameplay modes. The gameplay appears simple - almost too simple - at first, but once you realize the game is about forming complex configurations and setting off massive combos, it becomes quite enjoyable. The awesome ambient electronic soundtrack also helps you get into the zone:

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Miscellany: Lunchtime Rush

I heard a radio ad for "I Love N.Y. Pizza," and I snorted. Not because the place is bad (it's a decent joint - I'll probably do a review one fo these days), but because the announcer claimed that since it's summer, parking is easy to find on University.

You see, even in the middle of summer here in Gainesville, I've found that finding a place to eat on University Avenue at around 12 noon is nigh impossible. And it's not like Gainesville is a thriving metropolis - around June and July, the population drops quite a bit because thousands of students go home for summer break. But when you see lines for lunch places literally stretching out the door and onto the street, you learn to pack a lunch and not waste your time. :-P

Tech: The Killer App

The PlayStation 3 is the only major video game console I haven't picked up yet, but that may change because of a little game called "Metal Gear Solid 4":

It's the PS3's killer app, a title that is not only highly anticipated but also exclusive to the system (unlike, say, GTA IV, which is readily available for the Xbox 360). I'm only a casual Metal Gear Solid fan (I've always thought the gameplay, while great, was chopped up by too many in-game cutscenes) but even I can't deny the appeal of Solid Snake's final mission.

Only problem is that, aside from MGS4, there really aren't many games to look forward to on the PS3. The heavy hitters, like Final Fantasy XIII, God of War 3, and Gran Turismo 5, aren't due until 2009 at the earliest...with a chance of being delayed till 2010. That's a long time to survive on just the exploits of Solid Snake.

Books: Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, Dungeon Master's Guide

The Dungeon Master's Guide has always been a unique book. Since a DM is tasked with running the whole game, the DMG has traditionally been something of a grab-bag or catchall; past editions have contained more detailed combat rules, tips for making a world or campaign, Prestige Classes for the PCs(!), and lots and lots of lists of magic items. Like most things in 4E, though, the DMG has been simplified. Here's a peek at some of the new stuff:

- Noncombat Encounters: Finally, noncombat encounters (defined as any situation outside of combat where the PCs face negative consequences for failure) have been given their own chapter. There are some nice, concrete examples of "skill challenges" that require multiple skill checks for success, as well as a whole "trap bestiary" and examples of puzzles that might be placed in an adventure to tickle the PCs' brains.

- More practical advice: This section'll probably be a bit redundant for experienced DMs, but it's nice to see the actual business of running the game get a little more coverage than in years past.

Overall, the new DMG is kinda slim and back-to-basics. It's not as essential to running a game in years past (if you're prepared for the game session, you could easily leave it at home if you like), but it lays bare the mechanics of the rules in a way the PHB could never do.

Monday, June 09, 2008

School: Antitrust villain or antitrust hero?

One good example of how facts can be skewed in a court case to paint radically different pictures can be found in the legal wranglings of Rambus, Inc., a company specializing in semiconductor memory. You see, the FTC accused Rambus of concealing its patents on computer memory technology from a standards consortium in order in order to get lucrative licensing deals with manufacturers, who would be "locked in" or "ambushed" by the use of patented technology in an industry-wide standard.

That's the FTC line - Rambus sounds like a deceptive, anticompetitive company. Surprisingly, there is quite a bit of evidence of a different reality here, with Rambus as the victim of various conspiracies from other memory developers who attempted to bury the company. In fact, some of Rambus' competitors have plead guilty to price-fixing and have paid multimillion dollar fines.

It's an interesting duality - sword and shield, or perhaps villain and victim.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Movies: Once

"Once," a film written and directed by John Carney, is a musical. But not a musical in the sense that people on the screen spontaneously break out into song, but a movie that is about music, a movie suffused with music:

It's a simple story, really - a guy (who is never named) meets a girl (who is never named). What happens next probably shouldn't be spoiled, but let's just say that the two find they have a connection, on both a musical and a personal level. Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová play the two leads, and they also perform nearly all the music in the film.

There are numerous scenes where the emotional high points are hit during a song, making for a one-of-a-kind experience. Hansard and Irglová, who are not actors but musicians, have a convincing chemistry. At its best moments, "Once" feels like a really great music video.

It follows, then, that the movie's main weakness is that this is supposed to be a feature film, not a music video. "Once" doesn't really have much of a plot, and if you're not a fan of the music that's played throughout the running time, you'll likely be either distracted or bored. That said, it's hard not to be charmed by the movie, and so I give it an...

Rating: 8/10

TV: America's Next Top Model

Along with my sister, I tend to catch reality shows in marathon chunks - it's just too much effort to try to watch all the inanity week to week, but it makes for an enjoyable diversion if you're stuck at home doing laundry and other chores all day.

America's Next Top Model (often abbreviated to ANTM), created and hosted by Tyra Banks, is probably one of the silliest of these shows, but the concept has proven to be popular the world over. There's nothing quite like hearing fashion pretension not from the people who actually design the clothes (as in "Project Runway") but from the people who merely wear them. To be fair, the show ticks off all the reality check marks (suspenseful judging, varied challenges, interesting contestants) and started airing before the current glut of competitive reality shows.

One curious thing about this last season is that Whitney Thompson, the plus-sized model, won the final prize. Keep in mind, though, that this is "plus-size" by fashion industry standards - her dress size fluctuates between an 8 and a 10.

Books: Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, Player's Handbook

The new edition of Dungeons and Dragons is out, and that means it's time for RPG players everywhere to buy new books and start slinging those dice. Thankfully, Wizards of the Coast elected to release all the core rulebooks on the same day, so I've been able to look at all three of them to see how the rules interact with each other. I still haven't gotten to play the game with anyone yet, but here's some of the things that are different in this edition's Player's Handbook:

- Complete overhaul of class features and spells: In years past, a huge chunk of the PHB was taken up by wizard and cleric spells - mostly pointless if you wanted to play a warrior-type character. With this new edition, however, each class gets its own unique list of powers (thus the "Class" section takes up a lot of the book, as it should).

- "Paragon Paths" and "Epic Destinies": Much like "Talents" from the World of Warcraft PC game, the Paragon paths allow you to customize your character without having to go into a whole new Prestige Class. Epic Destinies, on the other hand, grant few benefits, but they help particularly high-level PCs to more fully define their place in the game's universe.

- Magic items and equipment are rolled into the PHB instead of the DM's guide, and overall the complexity of how they work has been reduced.

- Healing, injury, and death have been reworked. Now, every character has "healing surges" (think Saga Edition's Second Wind), plus a "Bloodied" status that might open up new attacks. No more -10 instant death; instead, if you're at 0 or lower, you have a few chances to recover before you're gone for good (giving your allies a reason to save you fast instead of being able to wait for you to drop from -2 to -9).

Overall, I think this edition, while obviously being influenced from MMOs, Magic: The Gathering, and the D&D miniatures game, seems like a step in the right direction.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Sports: #1 Ranked and a Huge Underdog

If it was any other player, any one of the other 6 billion human beings in the world, the #1 ranked Roger Federer would be favored to win the French Open tomorrow. But instead, he's playing Rafael Nadal, who is one of the all-time best clay court tennis players ever. The two met in the French Open last year, and the year before that, and the year before that...each time, Federer lost.

But it's not some kind of mental stumbling block. Nadal doesn't dominate only the World No. 1 on clay, he dominates everyone else, too. He's literally never lost a best-of-5 match on clay, and his overall clay record is incredible - he's only lost twice on clay since 2005, making for an unbelievable 113-2 record.

Why the disparity? Nadal's game, consisting of excellent court movement, ferocious counterpunching, and efficient, error-free groundstrokes works particularly well on clay (and it works fine elsewhere, too, of course). Even at the tender age of 22, he's mentally seasoned, and by the end of his career he'll almost certainly have dethroned Björn Borg for all-time French Open titles won.

Can Fed win? The odds are heavily stacked against him for once in his life - most people think he'll be lucky to take a set, let alone win three against the King of Clay. It should be fun to watch, anyway...

Miscellany: Out with the old...

It's rotation time here at Shangrila Towers - time to auction up all the old games and knickknacks in order to get some cold hard cash (which will probably fund further games and knickknacks, but I digress). Selling things via the Web, whether it's eBay or Craigslist, can be a time-consuming process, but it's better than letting stuff pile up.

One big part of being successful in online sales is describing your item. The majority of descriptions on these sites are either boilerplate from a reference catalog or the barely-coherent ramblings of teenagers, so something with some flair will stand out to any potential buyers.

In these descriptions, I tend to give things a personal slant, so people know they're not reading some computer-generated advertising copy. Additionally, unique photos of your item (not the stuff you pull off of the manufacturer's website, but a photo that you take yourself) show people exactly what they're getting, which can stimulate sales.

In the old days, people'd have a garage sale, but that'd require me to have access to an empty garage.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Movies: Stargate

Roland Emmerich has made some fairly silly sci-fi films ("Independence Day," "Godzilla") so it's not surprising that his breakout hit is the silliest of them all. "Stargate," starring Kurt Russell and James Spader, uses a pretty common plot device - the mysterious portal to elsewhere:

All in all, it's a popcorn flick that uses special effects and somewhat bland action sequences to cover for the paper-thin plot. The best part of the movie is the luxuriant score by David Arnold, which manages to channel John Williams and Maurice Jarre at the same time (it also makes for pretty good tabletop RPG background music). Coming in second place is a decidedly likable James Spader, in one of his few non-creepy performances. Finally, we have Kurt Russell's turn as Col. O'Neil - this is merely one of many of Russell's tough-guy-with-a-problem characters, but he still does an okay job with the flimsy material he's been given.

No review of "Stargate" would be complete without mentioning the many, many spinoffs of the film, including the long-running TV series starring MacGyver himself, Richard Dean Anderson. I never got into SG-1, but I know a lot of people who did. In that respect, I guess it's fair to say that the original film's conceit, while wedded to a mediocre sci-fi B-movie, had some legs after all.
Rating: 6/10 (mostly for the score)

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Guns: The Big Box and You

Wal-Mart sells guns and ammo, but they do so grudgingly. They only sell certain types of rifles and shotguns, and the firearms are invariably locked behind the sporting goods counter (which is only occasionally manned by an employee). There are other big box stores that take a different tack, such as Academy, Bass Pro, and Gander Mountain. These stores don't mind selling handguns and other firearms that are more suited to self-defense than anything else.

A new Gander Mountain location opened up in Ocala this past weekend, and the grand opening sales meant packed parking lots and choked aisles. It's a dedicated outdoors store, but more than that, they stock almost every type of gun you can think of. S&W J-Frames, Bushmaster AR-15s, surplus Mosin-Nagants, used Mossberg 500s - like many shoppers, I was astounded at what was essentially a full gun store inside a warehouse store. The place even sold reloading equipment, and they have their own gunsmiths on the premises to conduct repairs and inspect used guns.

I still think the local gun range is the best way for a new shooter to purchase something appropriate for his or her needs. I'd be lying, though, if I said the low prices and the huge selection at the big boys didn't have some appeal. It was also interesting to watch excited fathers bring their children into the firearms section of the store; that's something you probably won't see anywhere else in the world.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Miscellany: Me and the Bee

When I was in elementary school, I was thisclose to winning the county spelling bee. I even remember the word I was eliminated on - "entourage." It's a bit embarrassing to lose on such an easy one, but you can't spell what you've never read, and back in the third grade I didn't follow the paparazzi-soaked world of celebrity like I do now.

Unlike a lot of contestants, I never really studied the dictionary or word lists extensively - that made it seem too much like schoolwork. You can get pretty far on just your innate vocabulary if you're a voracious reader, but the later rounds throw more and more obscure words at you, words that almost no one has ever heard of. This is odd, when you think of it - if the point of language is communication, what good is a word no one uses?

I'm still a decent speller, but even back in my competition days, I wouldn't have beaten this kid:

Although spelling bees are fun, I think they do very little to promote correct spelling, or even reading comprehension. I wish Scripps National promoted a contest that required something more than memorization, but I guess it wouldn't have the raw spectator appeal of these bees.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Food: Adventures in Cooking

Lately, the novelty of being able to eat out all the time has been wearing thin. There's nothing like downing some greasy avian protein from the Colonel and then feeling sick for the rest of the day to inspire you to unpack the old pots and pans at home. I'm a fairly inexperienced cook, mostly because I seldom helped out Mom in the kitchen when I was a kid.

So, I went out and bought a cookbook - Rachel Ray Express Lane Meals, part of the now-famous "30-Minute Meals" brand. Ray herself has become a pop culture magnate like Martha or Oprah, but thankfully, her cooking advice remains as down-to-earth as ever. And while the recipes in the book do feature some shortcuts (using canned tomatoes and chicken broth instead of making it from scratch), by and large, this is real cooking, not dressed-up premade food.

The only real way to evaluate a cookbook is to try out the recipes, and I tried making chicken with apple and mushroom sauce, along with boiled asparagus. I overcooked the chicken (better safe than sorry) and the asparagus (pencil-thin asparagus cooks fast), but the sauce came out great and I'd definitely try cooking the recipe again. It's a tasty way to dress up some chicken breasts if you happen to have a spare apple and some mushrooms lying around the fridge.

How long did it take, and how much did it cost? Surprisingly enough, even with my inept kitchen skills, I whipped the whole thing up in about 50 minutes (in order to get to 30 minutes, you have to multitask like a madman). All told, I spent maybe $12 on the ingredients, and it was enough for 4 servings (assuming you serve it with some carbs, like crusty bread or steamed rice). All in all, it was fun, and I hope to cook more often in the future.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Music: Delorian

There's nothing like a little downtempo trip hop to get you through the day, and the Atomica Project (formerly known as Atomica) puts out some good examples of the genre. I stumbled upon them via Dave's Lounge, and then purchased both their albums on eMusic.

If you like Portishead, you're probably going to like this:

While comparisons to other bands instantly surface, there's a plaintive undercurrent to vocalist Lauren Cheatham's performance that manages to cut through much of the ornamentation. Not to say that the instrumental aspect of the Atomica Project isn't good, but there's always a danger of overwhelming the listener with distorted effects when you form an electronica group like this. I feel a sense of patience from the Atomica Project's music - they let the vocals breathe instead of warping them and stretching them to fit a beat.

Books: D&D 4th Edition launch extravaganza

The pen-and-paper RPG world is about to experience some upheaval, thanks to the impending launch of Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition. If you recall, it was announced almost a year ago:

At a time when the hobby is under siege from alternate forms of entertainment (I'm sure at least some of the people paying $15 a month on MMORPGs like WoW and Age of Conan would have been potential D&D players in days past), it's heartening to see that the release of a new version of the 800 pound gorilla can still have some fanfare. If you've been following 4th edition at all, you know that many of the mechanics from the new Star Wars d20 Saga Edition are previews of what we'll be playing in less than a week.

I've already preordered my books from Amazon. When they come in, I'll share all my impressions, including a little insight as to how the new mechanics will affect my Eberron campaign (no spoilers for current players, of course). I'm curious as to what my fellow gaming/gun bloggers think about the new books - anyone up for a little simultaneous blogging on the subject?

P.S. - Here's a bonus clip. It's a D&D commercial from the old days:

Sunday, June 01, 2008

School: Purple Rain...of Copyright Infringement

The rights provided by the Copyright Act last for a relatively long time, but they are also more porous than, say, patent rights. Case in point:

Now, Prince's cover version of Radiohead's "Creep" weaves in Hendrix and Marvin Gaye, but it's still a cover. After it was uploaded onto YouTube, Prince's label (and quite possibly Prince's lawyer, who spoke to us when we began law school here at UF) requested it be taken down. I heard even Radiohead couldn't watch the video. For my part, I'm hoping a grainy, low-quality video of a performance that is posted on a noncommercial blog for the purposes of illustrating a current legal controversy counts as fair use, but who knows in this day and age?

Assuming Prince had permission to use the song, though, I suppose this new performance is as much his as it is Radiohead's - at least the parts where Prince was improvising or combining various musical elements. I can see how one could argue that concert bootlegs like this hurt the market for future concert DVDs, but it seems like a fairly small problem when the man's playing in packed arenas and selling albums hand over fist. It's definitely sending the wrong message to fans, at least.

Miscellany: Cranium WOW first impressions

When it comes to board games, my friends and I tend to play European-style strategy titles like "Settlers of Catan" or "Tigris and Euphrates." My sister's friends, though, are more into conventional party board games. We had a group of her buddies over at our place one night, and we started a little 2 vs. 2 vs. 2 vs. 2 game of Cranium WOW.

I never played the original Cranium, but this new edition seems to preserve everything that made the first iteration so popular. Cranium is sort of like Trivial Pursuit, except it mixes in elements from other games like Pictionary and charades. This kind of magpie mentality means that people who are wonderful artists or actors have a chance against people with encyclopedic knowledge.

It was pretty fun, but there are some stumbling blocks. In game balance terms, somebody who isn't familiar with American pop culture is going to be at a serious disadvantage. Additionally, the sheer randomness of the clues and questions means that you might find one team getting easy chestnuts while the others get thrown for a loop.

Tech: Achievement Whore

I've found out relatively late in life that I have a pretty vicious competitive streak. I can chill and have some lively conversation for hours, but put me in a situation where there's points, or where there's a winner and a loser, and I tend to go for broke. So it was clear from the start that the Xbox 360's system of Achievements would succor my competitive drive.

What are Achievements? Well, say you're playing Pac-Man. One Achievement might be to clear an entire screen of pellets without dying. Another might be to clear a screen without eating any ghosts. When you manage to pull off the feat in question, you get a nifty "Achievement Unlocked" message on your screen. The 360 also permanently records when you unlocked it and adds the Achievement to your Gamer Proile on Xbox Live.

The best Achievements get you to play the game in nonobvious ways. Survive the first 60 seconds of Geometry Wars without firing a shot, and you unlock the "Pacifism" Achievement. Achievements also give you Gamerscore points, which, while they don't actually translate to any reward in the real world, are a nifty way of giving you bragging rights over your friends. I'm up to over 2000 myself, but I view tend to place more weight on getting difficult Achievements than just mindless points accumulation.