Thursday, July 31, 2008

Miscellany: Presidents Club Lounge

Air travel is rarely comfortable these days, but there is a rather relaxing place you can access with the appropriate membership - the Continental Presidents Club Lounges. Located in major Continental hubs across the nation, these lounges offer free drinks, free snacks, free internet, free telephones, free cable TV. I'm not actually a member, but Dad is, and we wait in the lounge instead of out in the terminal whenever we get the chance.

The bar service is pretty good. You can order the saltiest Bloody Mary in the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, you can grab some decent table wine, or you can just drink orange juice till you burst. Food is a bit more limited - they're obviously just handing out the small snacks they serve on the planes, so if you want a proper meal, you're going to have to buy it outside.

The biggest benefit, for me, is seclusion. Airports are almost built to be unfriendly these days, so having wood paneling on the walls and a decent chair to read a book in before a flight is worth a lot. Not having to deal with screaming children, blaring PA systems, or even just the endless scurrying of rolling luggage - priceless.

Books: Bargain Batman comics

"The Dark Knight" is kicking butt at the box office (and deservedly so), but I've always thought comic book characters were more at home in panels and pages than on the silver screen. While browsing the 50% off rack at my local comics shop, I picked up a few new Batman stories, some I enjoyed, some I didn't. Check them out:

Year One - Batman/Scarecrow

Not to be confused with Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One," this is a two-parter written by Bruce Jones and drawn by Sean Murphy that puts the spotlight on Batman's first encounter with the Scarecrow. The artwork and writing have the same glib, witty tone as the Batman animated series, and it's a fun comic to read. The comic provides the best origin for the Scarecrow that I've ever seen; it makes Jonathan Crane more sympathetic and more cold-blooded simultaneously.

Batman: The Order of Beasts

Eddie Campbell is best known for "From Hell," but he takes a stab at at 1939-era Batman in this entry in the "Elseworlds" alternate continuity series. A rookie Batman is on holiday in London when a series of bizarre murders tests his sleuthing skills. The plot isn't terribly interesting, but I enjoy Campbell's low-key version of the Dark Knight. In this story, Batman is less of a face-puncher and more of a detective, and the artwork charmingly reinforces this more genteel version.

Batman: Harvest Breed

"Harvest Breed" is a story that's not particularly Batman, and thus not particularly successful. A grisly series of murders has occult underpinnings, and it's up to the Caped Crusader to stop all hell from breaking loose. The whole thing feels like a mishmash of Max Payne-style comic ultranoir (replacing Norse mythology with macumba), and none of Batman's enormous rogues' gallery makes an appearance. The artwork, though stylish at times, obscures the action, and the focus here is on atmosphere and mystery.

Batman: Crimson Mist

This last one I only include to highlight what I think of as iffy writing, especially for a Batman collection. "Crimson Mist" is the third part of another "Elseworlds" series that imagines what would happen if Batman ran into another creature of the night with a famous cape - Dracula. In this portion of the trilogy, Batman (now a vampire) is seemingly out of control, and has begun killing his opponents. There are lots of feeding scenes here that show Batman mucnhing on Poison Ivy, the Penguin, etc. (sorta akin to Marvel Zombies), but the hammy dialogue spoils it. If you didn't like "30 Days of Night," you won't like Batman's internal vampiric thoughts- I can only read about the thirst for blood and the long weight of centuries for so long before I want to read something else.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Food: El Tiempo Cantina

Usually, you can tell how good a restaurant is by how crowded it is. People tend to vote with their wallets, so if the food is bad, the place will be as devoid of life as a sepulcher. El Tiempo Cantina, a small chain of Mexican restaurants located in Houston, does not suffer from this problem.

It's busy - about as noisy and as packed with patrons as a restaurant can be without becoming claustrophobic. The house specialty is the grilled fajita platter, which features several different meats that are placed on a special mobile grill and brought out right to your table. The whole affair should feel pretty gimmicky, but when you're putting tender quail, spicy chorizo, and baby back ribs into your fajitas, you won't care.

Aside from the platters, however, I didn't feel there was anything particularly stellar about the food. Chips and dip were competent, and the margaritas were strong but otherwise fairly typical. The sticker shock at the end (a mixed platter that serves four costs $125) blunts but does not negate my recommendation. If you ever want to stuff bacon-wrapped shrimp into your fajita in Houston, you know where to go now.

2/4 stars

Politics: Heller, Part Deux

The more I think about it, the more I think Mayor Fenty and his D.C. administration might be secret RKBA absolutists, since they keep provoking lawsuits that have the potential of undermining gun control everywhere. Why else would they invite yet another lawsuit from Dick Heller and company? Why else would they openly flout an order from the Supreme Court of the United States? I can picture it now - in some backroom in the mayor's office, Fenty is busily reloading .45 ACP while wearing a "Μολὼν λαβέ!" baseball cap....

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Movies: Whale Rider

"Whale Rider," directed by Niki Caro, is probably unique for its blend of magical realism, family drama, and Māori stickfighting:

The film examines the complex relationship that Paikea has with her grandfather, the stoic Koro. Ambivalence born of tragedy permeates the whole affair; you see, Koro's tribe is in decline and it appears that the centuries-old line of chiefs is now coming to an end. Sneak in some sparring with the taiaha, a lot of Māori culture, and the visit of Pai's estranged father, and you have a movie.

You might recall Keisha Castle-Hughes garnering an Oscar nomination in 2003 for her portrayal of Paikea. Many of her scenes are heart-wrenching, especially her speech to a school assembly. Most of the mystical elements of the film are channeled through her character, too. Thankfully, the film avoids letting Pai's destiny overshadow her personality.

Some of the subplots, especially Pai's father's visit, seem disposable, and the film barely fills out its short 101 minute runtime with enough incident to sustain your interest. Still, there's probably never been a more popular exploration of Māori custom than "Whale Rider," which I suppose makes it worth a look.

Rating: 7/10

Books: 2008 Nebula Awards Showcase

There are a whole lot of science fiction anthologies released each year. Over the trip to Houston, I read the 2008 Nebula Awards Showcase, which helpfully compiles the Nebula Award winners from a previous year (Showcase 2008 features all the 2006 winners, for instance). Aside from the winners for short story, novella, and novellette, you'll find some essays by sci-fi writers and a book excerpt from the "Best Novel" winner.

The 2008 compilation has some decent fiction, including "Burn" by James Patrick Kelly and a coda to Peter S. Beagle's classic 1968 fantasy novel, "The Last Unicorn." I didn't enjoy everything here, though; "Echo," a short story by Elizabeth Hand, barely qualifies as science fiction, and I disliked its tone. I still prefer the magazine format for consumption of short sci-fi, but a paperback is at least handier to carry.

Monday, July 28, 2008

TV: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

For a certain group of people, the following opening will instantly flood their minds with nostalgia:

To tell you the truth, when I was six years old and I first saw the show's opening, it scared the bejeezus outta me and I changed the channel in panic. Later on in my youth, though, I screwed up enough courage to actually watch an episode and found a good half-hour horror/sci-fi anthology series that often had stories that were as memorable as the big boys.

Airing every week on Nickeolodeon's famed "SNICK" primetime lineup, "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" featured stories from the Midnight Society, a group of kids who are so cool they can sneak out into the woods at night to tell stories to each other. A lot of these were inspired by or taken wholesale from previous works - various episodes of "The Twilight Zone," for example (hey, if you're going to lift, lift from the best).

What really made the show great was that every story featured kids or at least young adults in the lead roles. There's an aspect of helplessness that a kid feels in a supernatural confrontation that deepens the horror beyond what would normally be possible. Of course, this is balanced by the fact that the series was never gory or even violent, preferring shock scares and story twists to buckets of blood.

The show wasn't always good. A majority of the episodes are cheesy today, especially without the patina of childhood memory. The best ones, though, like "The Tale of Laughing in the Dark," still hold up:

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Miscellany: SkyMall

Ever been on a commercial airline flight? SkyMall is that catalog that's tucked into the back of every seat, full of products that you didn't even know existed. It's sort of a novelty-store anthology collection - the wackiest stuff from places like The Sharper Image, Brookstone, and other stores all combined into one place.

Ever want a wall-mounted crossword puzzle that contains over 28,000 clues? How about an Evenstar pendant from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy? Don't forget your dummy surveillance camera.

It makes for interesting in-flight reading, but I do prefer to bring my own books onboard.

Music: Dani California

Learning to play the fake plastic drums on Rock Band takes some practice. Not nearly as much as playing real drums, obviously, but there's still a learning curve there that needs to be climbed. The breakthrough song for me, where I realized I had gotten pretty good at the game, was "Dani California" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers:

The RHCP are known for their funky basslines, and "Dani California" doesn't disappoint. The rapid-fire vocals are fun to sing, of course, but the real action for me was in the chorus playing on the drums, where you alternate hits on the snare (red pad) and the crash cymbals (green pad). It's also a fun song to listen to just on its own.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Movies: The Dark Knight

"The Dark Knight" is a film directed by Christopher Nolan, sequel to 2005's "Batman Begins":

In the movie, Batman battles the Joker over the fate of Gotham City. The story takes many of its cues from classic Batman comics; most notably, it borrows heavily from Alan Moore's "The Killing Joke." Plotwise, Nolan returns to the scheming and counterscheming that fans saw in some of his earlier movies, like "Memento" and "Following." It's a refreshing change of pace from the too-straightfoward structure of "Batman Begins" (which was admittedly an origin story).

I'd heard the hyperbole surrounding the late Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker, and I have to say, it's a great performance (easily worthy of a posthumous Oscar nomination, in fact). Whereas Jack Nicholson's Joker was more about bottling Nicholson's already-famous personality into the comic book makeup, Ledger constructs a character so unlike his real-life persona it's often astounding. This Joker is an anarchic, ruthless killer who uses dynamite and gasoline rather than acid-spitting flowers or electric joy buzzers. It's a real shame this is Ledger's last role, but his interpretation of the Joker will be remembered for a long, long time.

If the movie has a flaw, it would be that the first 45 minutes are rather slow - after the fabulous first reveal of the Joker in the opening, you have to sit through a bit of an uninteresting set-up phase that left me cold. When the mob finally decides to hire the Joker to get rid of the Caped Crusader, though, the movie really takes off. Ledger steals every scene he is in, although Bale tries his best and at least effectively conveys Batman's frustration and inner turmoil.

All in all, a very good movie, and probably the best Batman movie ever made (in terms of staying true to the essential themes of the comics).

Rating: 9/10

Guns: Gainesville Target Range

On the whole, I think shooting outdoors is more pleasant (and probably safer) than shooting indoors. Besides ventilation of lead and powder residue (which for an outdoor range is going to be naturally better than all but the best indoor ones) and noise dispersion (shooting indoors is always going to be louder), an outdoor range allows a certain level of relaxation, especially when the weather's nice. Shooting indoors, while still fun, can be like shooting in a dungeon. Regrettably, the only public outdoor rifle range in Gainesville is the Gainesville Target Range, located about 20 minutes from UF:

It's a "sideline business" for Ron Shema, a realtor who has had a lot of success in Gainesville. As you might imagine, getting zoning approval for an outdoor shooting range can be a nightmare. NIMBY is in full force, and even people who enjoy firearms might not like hearing their reports all the time. But GTR is as close to town as you can get.

There are three ranges, a 100 yard range and two 25-yard pistol ranges. GTR is a private club, and the rules are sometimes pretty strict. It's difficult to bring friends and family in to shoot with you, for instance. Joining up requires a two-hour safety orientation and hefty membership fee (understandable), but the orientation is only held on Sunday afternoons (not very convenient). I can certainly see why everyone's anxious to avoid liability, but it's not exactly newbie-friendly.

What finally persuaded me to sign up for a membership were the constant improvements that have been made at the range, including an air-conditioned meeting room and a completely enclosed pavilion housing a couple of restrooms and a water fountain. All shooting positions are covered, with benches, stools, and target stands, and Brian (the Chief RSO) keeps up the grounds and makes sure everything looks nice (there are even flowering plants on the sides of the 100 yard range - very picturesque). It's probably not a great range when you stack it up with the rest of the country, but it beats driving the two hour round trip to get to Lake City all the time.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Movies: Lars and the Real Girl

Ryan Gosling, to his credit, refuses to by typecast as a Hollywood heartthrob. His latest performance is also one of his best - his turn as the shy Lars Lindstrom, protagonist of "Lars and the Real Girl":

Directed by Craig Gillespie, LatRG is a fairly in-depth look at the life of one lonely man, and how that loneliness is broken by a woman named Bianca. Unfortunately, Bianca is a sex doll, but the film never portrays Lars' relationship as anything less than sympathetic. You might feel sorry for Lars, you might laugh at him, but you'll never be creeped out (which, given the subject matter, would have been easy). Gosling does a great job here, with a performance that teeters on the brink of being a bit too saccharine without ever quite going over.

While I liked the premise (the Oscar-nominated screenplay was penned by "Six Feet Under" alum Nancy Oliver), the movie does drag a little bit. After all, Lars' relationship with Bianca is mostly one-sided, aside from an entertaining twist later on in the film that isn't carried out to its fullest. The plot itself isn't terribly interesting, which does limit watchability on repeat viewings. But if there has been a better movie made about a guy and his sex doll, I don't know it.

Rating: 7/10

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Miscellany: D&D Miniatures Starter Set

There's a lot of criticism of D&D 4th Edition on the Web, and one of the main ones I have to agree with is the game's reliance on miniatures. You pretty much need a gridded battle space and a bunch of tokens if you want to run combat now. This is simple enough to replicate using graph paper and glass fishtank beads, but it can get hairy when people and monsters start sliding around and swapping positions. That's when it's time to get some miniatures.

Actually, Wizards of the Coast markets a whole D&D Miniatures game, which I believe sells better than the actual D&D RPG. The gameplay is D&D minus all that pesky roleplaying, character development, and exploration - it's just tactical combat using 4E rules, essentially. I picked up the starter set (it contains four regular size figures and one awesome-looking green dragon, all unique to the starter set) and found it to be a decent value. It's probably a good way to introduce people to the D&D RPG, since newbies tend to get hung up on combat more than anything else.

The newer D&D Miniatures sets (Dungeons of Dread, Against the Giants) also have a handy feature - each figure's stat card has D&D 4E monster stats right on the back. This an extremely handy way to keep track of your monster stats (it sure beats flipping through the Monster Manual and/or copying down stat blocks into your DM notes). Even better, with figures that aren't already in the Monster Manual, you're effectively getting a new monster that has seen at least some rudimentary playtesting.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Tech: Mad Catz Arcade GameStick (and some XBLA leftovers)

I've gotten a lot of trade-in credit at Gamestop recently, so I've been combing the bargain bins of some of their local stores in search of deals. On one trip, I saw a Mad Catz Arcade GameStick for $10 (that's $30 off of the MSRP), so I snatched it up. Here's a video of someone flailing around on it:

For the $10 clearance price, I suppose this is a serviceable stick. The floppy main joystick definitely brings back the old Atari feel, and the rotating trackwheel is fun, albeit mushy and imprecise. Nothing really matches the tight controls you get from a conventional directional pad, though. After extended play, I found that even the Xbox 360's execrable implementation of the d-pad is better than flopping around on an old Atari-style stick.

As I suspected, then, the best part of this package were the three pack-in games included in the box - Frogger, Time Pilot, and Astropop. Frogger suffers from some inexplicable bouts of slowdown, but otherwise, these are three decent XBLA titles that would have costed $20 if purchased separately. My personal favorite is Astropop, another colorful action-puzzler from the folks at PopCap. You can get satisfying screen-clearing combos aplenty:

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Books: Armed America

When I first heard about "Armed America: Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes," I thought it would be a hatchet job, made to stereotype gun owners as kooky or unhinged. After all, the media has had little success in convincing people that owning a gun is actually dangerous (just look at the many discredited studies littering academia); the other logical step is to stigmatize firearms ownership itself.

The book, written and illustrated by photographer Kyle Cassidy, has a simple premise - show gun owners in their homes, and relate why each person owns them. Cassidy tries to be neutral, although he claimed not to know any gunowners at the start of the project (really? not a single person?), something that's probably only possible if you live in an urban area. On the whole, though, everyone seems to be portrayed fairly, which is laudable in and of itself.

Most of the pictures are pretty good portraits, and the individual reasons for owning a gun are as varied as the people who own them. There's no manufactured drama here - I appreciate that Cassidy doesn't have pictures where people point their guns directly at the camera or other such foolishness. All in all, it's worth picking up.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Guns: Let's Build an AR! - Wrap-up

One of the fun parts of finishing up an AR-15 build is cataloging the absurd amount of stuff that you've put on your gun. Yes, I realize the most important piece of equipment for a fighting carbine is what's between the ears, but the sheer volume of aftermarket doohickeys available for an AR boggles the imagination (and mine is a relatively mild case).

Parts Used:

Sabre Defence stripped lower
DPMS lower parts kit
Magpul MIAD grip (basic edition w/o the replacement floorplate)
Magpul CTR stock (w/ rubber buttpad)
Stag 1H complete upper
Command Arms Accessories rail mounts (single rail on bottom handguard and triple rail - minus center rail - on top handguard)
ProMag vertical forward grip
StreamLight TLR-1 weaponlight
Vickers Combat Applications 2-point sling

Of course, the big ticket items will have to wait for another day. The M900A SureFire integrated light alone costs almost as much as the rifle, and the Aimpoint red dot sight needs appropriate mounting hardware (as well as a rear folding BUIS) before it can be useful.

Future Wishlist:

Aimpoint Comp ML3
SureFire M900A (to replace the current El Cheapo forward grip and light setup)
Daniel Defense Omega Rail system (not sure if this is the best choice, but installation is super simple and it's easy to undo if you ever want to separate the rail from the firearm)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Music: Afropop Worldwide

My weekly source of world music comes from the dynamic duo of "The Thistle & Shamrock" and "Afropop Worldwide," a couple of radio shows that my local NPR station broadcasts back-to-back every Sunday evening. While "Thistle" is easily the most widely known Celtic music program (and probably one of NPR's more popular shows), I suspect "Afropop Worldwide" is a bit more obscure.

Each week, host Georges Collinet takes listeners on a tour of one aspect of the music of the African diaspora. Africa is a huge continent with a rich musical culture, and the show covers some diverse genres, allowing itself wide latitude in the process (it recently featured Brazilian music, for example, which is more African-influenced than actually African). The Afropop website has links to past shows that you can listen to for free, so give it a whirl.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Movies: Appleseed Ex Machina

"Appleseed Ex Machina" is a Japanese animated film directed by Shinji Aramaki. It's completely computer-generated; sometimes the technique works pretty well, but most of the time the movie makes its characters look like Barbie dolls.

The plot is pretty simple. Deunan and Briareos play tough-as-nails E.SWAT officers who are investigating a mysterious series of terrorist incidents in a futuristic metropolis called Olympus. There's some light post-apocalyptic overtones, but the film downplays its global war backstory in favor of action scenes.

Aramaki is mostly known for his mecha designs, so it's no surprise that "Appleseed Ex Machina" features a ton of futuristic fighting robots. When one of the protagonists, a cyborg with an artificial body, climbs into the belly of a robotic powered fighting suit, and then that suit gets in the belly of a flying robotic gunship, you know things have sort of gone off the rails.

All the gadgetry would be tolerable if the story was decent, but it really is pretty formulaic. In fact, Appleseed Ex Machina feels more like a series of videogame cutscenes than a feature film. Even the action sequences aren't exciting; the final battle shamelessly rips off the Zion shootout in "The Matrix Revolutions." All in all, a forgettable excursion into the world of high-powered anime police fisticuffs.

Rating: 4/10

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Off to Houston

Shangrila Towers will continue (thank God for post scheduling), but I'll be in Texas for about a week. See y'all later!

Tech: Devil May Cry 4

Capcom has a peculiar talent for running its video game intellectual properties into the ground. Some of its biggest franchises, like Resident Evil and Mega Man, have received so many sequels, spinoffs, and side-stories that it's literally difficult to count them all. This wouldn't be so bad if they were all as good as the original games, but aside from the odd standout (Resident Evil 4), it seems like quality assurance takes a back seat to cranking out a different iteration of a hit series every year. Sadly, the "Devil May Cry" series is headed in this direction with its latest installment.

"Devil May Cry 4" is essentially a gussied-up version of "Devil May Cry 3" for the next-generation of consoles. There's been startlingly little evolution of the play mechanics - you'll still be crawling around Gothic castles, solving nonsensical puzzles, and battling tough bosses. The story is much weaker than DMC3's theme of sibling rivalry and family dysfunction, and even the action cutscenes have lost some of their panache.

Like in previous games, DMC4 finds excuses to force you to backtrack and fight boss battles over in the second half. It's more egregious here than in past DMC games, though - once you hit the halfway point, you literally have to run back through the entire game, all the way to the beginning. The final level is a punishing and trite slog through a boardgame where you fight several old bosses back-to-back (for what is now the third time). It was at this point where I really started getting angry at DMC4. Despite the good graphics and solid core DMC gameplay, I can't recommend the game, even for fans of the series.

Rating: 69/100

News: Neutrality

Colombian president Alvaro Uribe confirmed a story CNN first reported a few days ago - apparently, a member of a military intelligence team sent to rescue some hostages taken by FARC had the bright idea of putting on a bib bearing the emblem of the ICRC.

It probably received no more than a blip on the nightly news here, but if there's anything I learned in my International Criminal Law class, it's that humanitarian workers have it tough. Red Cross relief teams are often under attack even without government forces misusing the emblems of neutrality - I can't imagine what would happen if this kind of fraud occurred regularly.

In a world with 6.7 billion people, it's probably important to have at least one organization that has no stake in any conflict save for mitigating human suffering. Here's a bit about the Red Cross:

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Movies: The Karate Kid, Part III

I liked "The Karate Kid" (hey, it's a cult classic), but the sequels left me pretty cold. While Part II (set in Japan) and "The Next Karate Kid" (starring Hilary Swank) were at least passable, Part III is easily one of the worst third installments ever filmed. It's amazing that the quality of the series could dip so far and still keep the original actors, so in that respect, it's sorta unique in film history.

Ralph Macchio reprises his role as plucky Danny LaRusso, except by this point in time, Macchio was pushing 30 and had gained considerable weight, making his portrayal of the supposedly teenage LaRusso into a caricature. Still, both he and Morita try their best in a script that lamely rehashes the plot of the first movie. You see, Kreese wants revenge for his defeat in the first film, and he's enlisted his business tycoon and war buddy Terry Silver and karate bad boy Mike Barnes to aid him in his quest to derail Daniel-san at the All-Valley Under 18 Karate Championship.

The whole premise is ridiculous. Terry Silver, portrayed as a Vietnam vet in the film, engages in the inexplicable harassment of Miyagi, a WWII Medal of Honor recipient. There's never any real justification of why a business mogul would drop everything to hatch a diabolic scheme against an elderly war hero and his student, but it all takes place anyway. The movie has some worth, I suppose; it'd make for a fabulous night of MST3K-style riffing and jokes.

Rating: 3/10

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Books: The Ribbajack

I loved Brian Jacques' Redwall series as a youngster, so it surprised me to see some of his youth fiction on the bargain shelf of the local Books-A-Million. For a paltry $3 (less than the cost of a magazine in this day and age), I picked up the short story collection, titled "The Ribbajack & Other Curious Yarns."

The title story is a fun tale about a particularly loathesome boy named Archibald Smifft, who tries to summon the Ribbjack. Jacques' plot is light and predictable (similar to most of his Redwall books, now that I think of it), but the focus here is on description and incident. If you want a deep reflection on the nature of good and evil, read something else.

There's a wonderful stiff-upper-lippedness about the whole affair; after all, it turns out that the most formidable foe Smifft encounters is an old British soldier. Aside from "The Ribbajack," there are five other short stories to suit your fancy, so give the bargain bin a look next time you visit.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Guns: Let's Build an AR! - Part 5 (troubleshooting edition)

This week, I'll be talking about a common AR malfunction, as well as its possible causes and solutions:

A short-stroke on an AR-15 occurs when the bolt doesn't go back into the receiver far enough to strip the next round off the top of the mag. There are two main causes of this malfunction: 1) not enough gas pressure in the first place and 2) too much resistance to the bolt carrier's movement.

The gas system of the AR has been much maligned, but there are a few simple things to check. First and foremost, of course, is the carrier key. If that's squared away, check the gas tube, both for wear inside the upper, as well as wear underneath the handguards. If you see that the "mushroom" of the gas tube inside the upper receiver has been damaged, for instance, that's probably causing gas to escape from the tube and weakening the rearward impulse needed to cycle the bolt. Additionally, make sure the gas tube roll pin is installed correctly and that the tube isn't leaking carbon around the front sight base (you may need to take a different AR to compare if you're not sure what is an acceptable amount of leakage looks like). Try dripping some CLP into the tube from the receiver and seeing how it flows into the barrel to check for any blockages. If your gas tube is broken, you can replace it, but it's not a quick process if you don't have the tools.

The second part of the examination looks at the mechanical parts of the system - the bolt carrier group and the components involved in its rearward travel. First of all, check the chamber and locking lugs of the bolt, since a sheared lug, while not normally a cause of this malfunction, is bad news. Make sure the rails are in good working order (no significant cracks or burrs), and that the bolt's gas rings are still holding up. You can test the rings by taking the cam pin out - the bolt should not fall out of the carrier even with the pin removed, and the extended bolt should be able to support the weight of the carrier without the pin even when stood vertically on the bolt face. Finally, make sure the buffer and buffer springs are the correct sizes. Don't take more drastic measures (like clipping coils off the buffer spring) until you can get someone who knows ARs to look at it.

As you might recall, my first experience with my new AR wasn't particularly pleasurable. In order to solve my short-stroking problem, I checked everything I listed above, and the only thing that was out-of-the-ordinary was how hard the bolt was to manually cycle. I figured there was too much friction between the carrier and the rest of the gun, and it was that friction which was preventing the action from cycling completely. So, I took some high-temperature lithium bearing grease, covered the rails with a light film of the stuff, and worked the action by hand for about half an hour (maybe a couple thousand times). By the end of that time, like I expected, the grease had turned into a slurry of debris, and it had smoothed out the cycling of the gun considerably. I cleaned out the excess grease, and headed to the range.

Did all the hard work pay off? Well, the rifle now feeds pretty flawlessly, cycling through 120 rounds without any kind of stoppages. It even locks back consistently on an empty mag, which is a sure sign that the system is in good working order and not short-stroking. Woohoo!

So there you have it. The carbine is put together, and functions correctly; the "build" part is done. Just like owning a guitar doesn't make you a musician, though, owning a rifle doesn't make you a rifleman. Look for more in the coming months about ammo, sights, and all sorts of AR gadgetry.

News: The Audacity of Opportunism

Here, we have the July 21st cover of the New Yorker:

If I were Barack Obama, I'd send the editors of the New Yorker a big fat check. The cover is a criticism of the "Barack Hussein Osama" crowd, and yet the image allows an indignant presidential candidate the opportunity to denounce a nonexistent attack on his patriotism while getting some free PR time. Here's my take on that:

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Food: Francesca's Trattoria

Decent, sit-down Italian food in Gainesville is difficult to come by. Francesca's Trattoria is a new place on 43rd, across from Las Margaritas, one of Gainesville's most popular Mexican restaurants. Like Las Margaritas, Francesca's is not really concerned with the authenticity of its cuisine, but more about providing the right atmosphere for an oldschool Sicilian dinner.

The menu is fancy, and, while the prices aren't exactly cheap, there's little here that'll break the bank (I had a complete dinner, desert, and drink for about $20 - fair enough). Standouts included the eggplant parmigiana (which I think might be the best in Gainesville), the sausage, and the salads. The cannoli was also good; it had the subtle tang of the ricotta filling and a pleasing pastry exterior.

The service was exemplary, especially for lunch (heck, Francesca herself came out and talked with us a bit). I just hope Francesca's can keep up this level of quality, which, along with the average prices, are the only reason I'm holding back on the coveted 3 stars.

2/4 stars

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Movies: Be Kind Rewind

Michel Gondry, director of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," tends to play with reality. "Be Kind Rewind," his latest effort, is curious in its relative normality. The movie follows a standard Hollywood plot - struggling business has one last chance to make good, and two determined but bumbling friends try to execute the plan.

The struggling business here is an antiquated VHS rental store, and Jack Black and Mos Def play the two bumbling friends. Danny Glover, Mia Farrow, and Melonie Diaz all turn in supporting performances. As the trailer indicates, what begins as a stopgap measure to fool an old lady soon mushrooms into a guerrilla filmmaking phenomenon. The story is heartwarming, I suppose, and the film eschews the usual happy ending with something that's just as hopeful, but perhaps a bit more plausible.

I liked "Be Kind Rewind," but at the same time I don't feel it's worth seeing more than once. For one thing, the movie remakes/parodies aren't as funny as they should be. Some of the low-budget techniques used to replicate expensive special effects are impressive (particularly the "Men In Black" scene), but aside from the initial "Ghostbusters" and "Rush Hour 2" gags, there just isn't much comedy. I would have preferred more ridiculous "errors" and changes rather than impressive low-budget recreations of the originals.

Rating: 6/10

Music: Gorbachov

AnJ is a rock band from Russia, and here's their metal-tinged tribute to Mikhail Gorbachev:

It's officially one of the best music videos of all time, at least on my list. Twinkies + busty Russian ladies + Soviet propaganda + zombie Communists = awesome.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Miscellany: D&D 4th Edition, first impressions

Well, I've played fourth edition D&D for about 15 hours, using a couple of level 1 characters, with two different DMs. Here's some compliments, criticisms, and concerns on the new system:

Character creation is very different. In past editions, you relied on multiclassing and prestige classes to define your character, but now it's all about "powers" (essentially spells unique to a particular class). It's nice that even the fighters get to make meaningful decisions in combat besides "I swing my sword," but it sort of dilutes the skillsets of some of the other classes (a first level Wizard in 4E only has so many tactics). I think the addition of new classes, as well as alternate powers and paragon paths for the existing classes, will be critical for the longevity of the game.

That said, there are at least a couple of viable builds now for each class, in terms of ability scores and power combos. In my case, I could play an effective paladin that wasn't an 18 Strength goliath, since there were plenty of skills that use your Charisma modifier for the attack and damage roll. I do expect the ability bonuses to eventually be overshadowed by the inherent level bonuses you get to all of your skills and attacks; for the first few levels, though, it's all about the scores.

After seeing the skill challenge mechanism in action, I'm more convinced than ever that designing a good skill challenge takes more time than designing a comparable combat encounter. Without the proper context, skill challenges can be as banal as rolling up multiple skill checks and comparing successes and failures. In the future, I think I'll just plainly announce when something is a skill challenge - much like how "roll for initiative" is a verbal signal for a beatdown.

The character sheet needs a lot of work. Your character's powers are supposed to be written on page 2, but there is precious little space for them, and they're really important enough to be on the front page. I suspect people new to D&D, and perhaps new to tabletop RPGs in general, will find it difficult to use these powers without having the full text of the power right at hand to give ranges, effects, damage types, etc. That means a lot of flipping through the PHB, unfortunately.

Combat, which has always been the core of D&D, is interesting in 4E. Healing, for instance, is simplified greatly in that you'll probably always be at full hitpoints before a fight begins, thanks to "healing surges." Once the fight's on you have limited ways to regain hitpoints, however, especially if you lack a cleric or healing potions. On the administrative side, I believe some of the "lasts till the end of your next turn" skills need to be reworked. It can be a lot to calculate, although not as bad as the variable rounds that had to be rolled and kept track of in previous games.

While I understand the rationale behind simplifying the skill system, there were definitely a few gaps when we played. At one point in a game, we had the opportunity to tie someone up for later interrogation. There's no "Use Rope" skill, however, so we kinda had to fudge it with a Dexterity vs. Reflex roll and a subsequent Strength roll for the prisoner. It all worked out okay, but less improvisational types will not like the rules-light approach to noncombat adjudication.

There's still a lot of time before you can pass a final verdict on 4E. For one thing, I still need to DM a 4E game. But so far, and at the very least, I think I've gotten my money's worth out of it.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Tech: Assassin's Creed

"Assassin's Creed" is one of those games that you really want to like. You play as Altair, an assassin during the Third Crusade, tasked with killing some high-profile evildoers, and from the outset, it's apparent that Ubisoft Montreal spent a lot of time on the game. There's a well-crafted in-game tutorial that actually makes sense in the context of the gameworld, for instance. And if the gameplay doesn't attract you, the high-quality graphics and sound will.

So for the first few hours of "Assassin's Creed," you're having the time of your life. Altair is wonderfully powerful in almost everything he does, whether it's jumping from rooftop to rooftop or scuffling with the game's many foes. The game does a good job of making you feel like a deadly assassin, since even groups of soldiers are no match for you once you learn how to combo and counter with your sword.

But after the fourth assassination or so, you realize that you've seen all there is to see. "Assassin's Creed" is a sandbox-type experience, but without the fun little plastic pail and shovel. Before each of the assassinations, you're forced to do investigation missions that are, to put it mildly, boring. The game just never throws anything different at you. I kept expecting guards on horseback, or ninja-like soldiers specially trained to counter assassins, or something. Instead, you battle the same braindead guards for most of the game.

Towards the end, the combat difficulty ramps up dramatically, with some tough fights near the end that are almost guaranteed to try your patience. Throw in an ending that lands with more of a thud than a blinding revelation, and you have a game that is at once fun to play and enormously disappointing.

Rating: 79/100

News: You know the ammo shortage is bad when...

...people are buying up bricks of .22LR at Wally World because the price might go up in the future...

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Guns: Let's Build an AR! - Part 4

Well, my Heller memorial AR is all together, so it's time to shoot - here's my impressions on the rifle as well as my initial range report:

The first thing I thought when i finally mated my new Stag upper to the lower I had cobbled together was "Dang, this thing is a lot heavier than my last AR." The barrel is a 16" M4gery type, but it's the heavy variety, ostensibly designed for the rigors of fully automatic fire. Given that a happy switch isn't in my future barring a change in federal law, I don't really see the point of saddling what is supposed to be a quick-handling carbine with a bricklike barrel. Oh well.

The overall fit and finish of the upper was good, if unspectacular. The carrier key screws were staked improperly, as I've come to expect from all but a handful of AR manufacturers, but a couple restakings did the trick, and at least the screws came tight from the factory. There was a crack in the finish of the A3 detachable carry handle, but other than that, the rifle was cosmetically fine.

Safety Note: Before actually shooting any homebrew AR, it's important to do a function check - in particular, make sure the safety, disconnector, and trigger are all in working order. If you bought a complete upper you won't need to check headspace, but if assembled your upper from scratch you should grab a set of headspace gauges (should be available from any website that sells gunsmithing tools) and make sure everything's okay.

So I finally got down to shooting, and the first 120 rounds were dismaying, to say the least. The carbine kept "short-stroking" or "short-cycling," a term used when the bolt carrier doesn't move far enough rearward to feed in the next round. I had the exact same malfunction - successful ejection, but with the bolt jammed into the middle of the top round of the mag - about once every five shots or so.

Yipes. So what happens when your new gun doesn't work out of the box? Tune in next week, when we'll diagnose and attempt to treat that all-too-common bugaboo of new ARs - the short stroke.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Movies: WALL·E

"WALL·E," the latest animated feature film from Pixar, is definitely the powerhouse studio's most challenging work. For one, there isn't much dialogue. The two lead characters are robots who speak in sound clips and electronic noises. There are also sharp criticisms leveled at Wal-Mart and modern consumer culture, as well as an obvious environmental theme. This is not your typical summer kiddie movie, in other words.

Despite all the heavyhandedness, the film is at heart a silent film romance, in the style of Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. WALL·E, the last robot on a post-apocalyptic Earth, spends his days consolidating all the trash on the planet into neat, skyscraper-sized piles. One day, though, a mysterious robot named EVE appears, and WALL·E is instantly smitten. The relationship between the two, as well as the journey that follows, has the usual Pixar earmarks of quality.

Director Andrew Stanton also wisely steered clear of too much in the way of social commentary. The film has an optimism that turns what could have been a gloomy, dark satire into a more hopeful piece. Even though the Earth is covered in garbage, the movie treats it as a problem that can be fixed with some hard work. Some may still be turned off by the conservation messages in the movie, though.

Where the film really falls a bit flat for me is in the actual execution. The second half of "WALL·E," like many Pixar films, is jammed full of action setpieces and battles. Unfortunately, none ever has the excitement or visual flair of, say, the final airport chase in "Toy Story 2" or the metropolis battle in "The Incredibles." Overall, though, it's another very good Pixar film that's worth watching on the big screen.

Rating: 8/10

Music: Behind Blue Eyes

Some months back, the developers of "Rock Band," my favorite music video game, announced that they would be releasing the seminal rock album "Who's Next" as downloadable content. Unfortunately, it seems the surviving members of The Who have lost the master recordings of some of the songs on the album, preventing the whole thing from being put into the game. Instead, we're getting a "best of" compilation of the band's work on July 15th.

One of my all-time favorite songs from The Who is included in that compilation - "Behind Blue Eyes," written by Pete Townshend. Besides the dark lyrics (which nowadays provoke uncomfortable memories of Keith Moon's tragic death), you have a lot of the best characteristics of The Who on display, from the gentle picking of Townshend's guitar to Daltrey's inspired, almost bitter vocals in the second part of the song.

Here's a great live performance:

Monday, July 07, 2008

Miscellany: Laptop Security

I tend to do a lot of my work in public or semi-public places, so I have to secure my laptop in case I have to leave it unattended for any length of time. There are a lot of different locks available, but they all tend to work the same way - a tab slips into a little Kensington security notch in the case of the laptop and you hope no one has the gall to rip it apart in order to steal the thing.

My Dad once told me that locks are only there to keep the honest men honest, and I guess my Kensington lock does a decent job of that. It's a combo lock with four spinning wheels, so it's not exactly Fort Knox, but it should dissuade the casual thief who doesn't possess something capable of cutting the admittedly thin wire. I definitely wouldn't rely on it for any length of time, but for a short trip to the restroom, I think it does the trick.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Books: The Book of Two Guns - The Martial Art of the 1911 Pistol and AR Carbine

Without knowledge and training, you might as well chuck all those fancy guns in the garbage, and "The Book of Two Guns: The Martial Art of the 1911 Pistol and AR Carbine" by Tiger McKee is a neat chronicle of one man's journey to learn how to best employ the 1911 and the AR. The techniques described will transfer to almost any pistol or carbine, but the book centers around the titular guns. It's basically McKee's training diary, written and illustrated by hand.

Now, some of the techniques and doctrines presented here don't work for me, but I saw nothing that could even remotely be considered unsafe or unsound for self-defense, and McKee is careful never to proclaim his way is the best or only way. The diary is full of his observations and advice on all aspects of shooting, and Tiger's trained with some of the best (he's now an instructor). From mindset to presentation to more advanced topics like using cover and lowlight tactics, it's all refreshingly practical and free of the absurd survivalist Rambo-ism you might encounter from something on a gun show book table. Tiger is the real deal, but he also comes across as a nice guy, too.

Of course, even the best book is no substitute for actual hands-on training. And there are some parts, particularly the equipment section, that are probably outmoded; for instance, Tiger recommends plain iron sights on an AR, but I think modern optics have become almost necessary equipment for fighting rifles (as the experience of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan confirms). Still, it's a highly personal and entertaining primer written in a down-to-earth style, and it's well worth picking up if you have any interest in this sort of thing.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Guns: Your Gas Key & You (A Public Service Announcement)

Just after iffy magazines and broken extractors, the carrier key is probably the most common source of AR malfunctions. I speak from personal experience - my first Bushmaster ran like a top for about a thousand rounds, but then it mysteriously began to short stroke, sometimes badly enough that the bolt stripped off chunks of brass from the top round in the mag instead of shucking it into the chamber.

What is the carrier key? It's that little part on top of the bolt carrier than hooks right into the gas tube (it's also called the "gas key" for that reason). Hot gases from the propulsion of the bullet down the barrel get bled into the tube, and the resulting pressure pushes the whole affair back, cycling the action. If the key is loose or misaligned, however, gas leaks out and the bolt carrier isn't driven back far enough, resulting in a failure to eject (or worse) a short stroke that completely brings down the gun.

The carrier key is fixed on there by screws, but as any engineer will tell you, screws tend to come loose, especially when we're talking about environments that are as hot as an oven and undergo hard, repeated mechanical shocks. The popular carbine length gas systems also send the bolt back in a much harsher fashion than the relaxed rifle length systems, exacerbating the problem. There is a way to keep the key from working loose, though - stake them.

The idea behind staking the carrier key is simple. Just whack enough metal from the key into the screwhead, and the blasted thing won't move. But very few companies do it right nowadays, for whatever reason. Before you trust any AR with your life, please check the gas key and make sure the screws aren't going anywhere. If they aren't staked right, use a center punch and hammer and stake 'em yourself. I'm not sure why AR makers keep screwing this up, though. To be frank, it borders on negligence -if the key comes loose at the wrong time, your fancy AR becomes a magazine-fed straight-pull bolt action rifle. If it comes loose at a truly wrong time, you might lose your life.

Movies: The Protector

Here's a few things you'll see in "The Protector" (AKA "Tom-Yum-Goong") that you probably won't see anywhere else:

1. A crack team of assassins composed entirely of extreme sports athletes who rollerblade and BMX their way into battle.

2. A transsexual crime boss who fights with a whip and corset.

3. A baby elephant being thrown through the air by a wrestler.

And so it goes. "The Protector" is a martial arts film that revels in its own absurdity at points, including the hilarious aftermath of an extended fight scene against dozens of mooks. Tony Jaa's fighting choreography combines no-nonsense joint-breaking with high-flying acrobatics in almost every scene. If the average kung-fu flick is concerned with making sure ample amounts of dust fly up with every punch, Jaa's fighting is all about the simulated snap of broken bones.

There isn't much of a plot here, unfortunately. Jaa plays a young modern day Thai warrior entrusted with protecting a couple of beloved elephants that fall into the wrong hands. By the end of the movie, he's tussled with pretty much everyone in Sydney, Australia in his quest to retake the elephants. It's all played pretty straight, with flashes of camp laced throughout.

Okay, so the actual story makes "Enter the Dragon" look like "Citizen Kane," but there are a lot of good stunts here. The fight choreography overall is a bit simpler than the Hong Kong masters. Some of the fights are gloriously over-the-top, though, like when Jaa duels with fighters versed in capoeira, wushu, and wrestling. If you're in the mood for something light but action-packed, you could do a lot worse.

Rating: 6/10

Friday, July 04, 2008

Independence Day

My favorite Founding Father has long been Thomas Jefferson, and a big reason for that is because he wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the most important political documents in history. The Declaration is special not because it announces any radically new philosophy or idea, but because it seeks to be the practical, common sense culmination of centuries of Western thought, from Athenian democracy to the Enlightenment - the end of history, so to speak.

As most commentators have noted, the men who signed it were signing their death warrants should the revolution fail. These were statesmen quite unlike the politicians of today - willing to sacrifice their own property and families rather than continue to be under the thumb of a monarch that was an ocean away. Doubtless each had their own self-serving reasons for wanting the overthrow of the English crown (they were still human beings, after all), but they did not waver, did not flip-flop, did not try to explain away their commitment to the cause on subsequent questioning.

It's part of the American psyche to take these kinds of defiant stands - from the Alamo to Mogadishu, we honor those who go for broke, who are in it till the bitter end.

Anyway, stay safe and have a great Fourth everyone. Here's a little red-blooded patriotism, courtesy of Lee Greenwood and the U.S. military:

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Guns: Let's Build an AR! - Part 3

Heller was affirmed, so to celebrate, I'm putting together an AR-15. This week - the lower gets assembled:

To put together the lower half of an AR, you honestly don't need much in the way of tools. You could get by with a hammer and some roll pin punches, although that means a long and tiresome struggle with several of the construction procedures. I do think it's best to supplement the basic items with a pair of locking pliers (the kind that have an adjustable bolt at the end of one handle), a vise (with appropriate padding or protection to avoid marring the finish of the lower), and some electrical tape.

There are lots of good resources on the Web if you need a step-by-step guide(Check out these two install guides from, available here and here, and this video from Life, Liberty, Etc.). Here's a few highlights from my experiences:

The hardest part of the build for me was the installation of the trigger guard roll pin. It's not too difficult to start the pin in the hole with a hammer, but driving it all the way flush to the receiver's "ear" is a time-consuming process without a proper vise (I had to make do with a block fo wood and a couple decks of playing cards). You have to be careful, too, because it's possible to break the receiver here by putting too much stress on the "ears" of the trigger guard.

The second hardest part was the installation of the bolt catch assembly (the part of the AR that locks the bolt back after a magazine is emptied). It's frustrating at best to install with just a pin punch, and impossible if you don't have a small enough hammer or a long enough punch. I used an alternate method that worked flawlessly - cover the jaws of that pair of locking pliers with multiple layers of electrical tape to avoid scratching up the gun too much, and gradually press the pin in there by clamping it with the pliers. You might want to put tape on the receiver, too, just to make sure nothing gets scratched.

A part of the build that gets an undeserved reputation for being tricky is the assembly of the front pivot pin detent. Some simple precautions (like throwing a blanket over your work area in order to catch the detent in the event the spring launches it skyward, or at least working in a small uncluttered room) mean you'll never have to worry about losing the detent. I merely employed the pivot pin itself to depress the detent into the hole, and then slid the pivot pin into its final resting place.

All in all, if you know what you're doing and have the right tools, you could probably put the whole thing together in minutes. And at the end, you'll have the satisfaction of making something with your own hands, as well as the knowledge necessary to change out grips, stocks...even the trigger and hammer assemblies.

Next week - Sighting in and Test-fire

Food: Coffee Culture

My go-to coffehouse, Kay's Coffee, is closing down in the next few months (the owners are turning it into a Japanese-Korean fusion restaurant), so I've been forced to find other places to work. My three requirements are free WiFi, nighttime operating hours, and good coffee, and you can find all three at Coffee Culture, a coffeehouse on 13th (it's several miles north of University).
The place is cozy - it's about half the size of Kay's, with a bookshelf full of paperbacks that you can read at your pleasure and boardgames to while away the time. When I visited Coffee Culture, the air conditioning was broken (and this is Gainesville at the end of June - you might as well sit in a sauna). Even then, it was still bearable, which is a testament to the comforting vibe that runs through the joint.

It'd all be for naught if I didn't like my cup of coffee, but I did. Their default blend is a dark roast that doesn't have much of an aftertaste, but it goes down easy enough. Coffee Culture doesn't serve breakfast sandwiches or other bistro items, which is disappointing, but their deserts (a variety of muffins and pastry bars) were good. "Coffee Culture" seems to be a chain, with at least a couple locations in Gainesville, so I have no idea if they're all like this one. Still, I think I'll be coming back to at least this particular location in the future.

2/4 stars

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Movies: Wanted

James McAvoy is quickly becoming the new heartthrob from the British Isles (he was the love interest in "Becoming Jane" and "Atonement"). It's not surprising, then, that he's in almost every frame of "Wanted," a comic book adaptation directed by Timur Bekmambetov (best known for "Night Watch"), and that the movie largely rises and falls based on his performance.

McAvoy plays Wesley Gibson, a man trapped in a boring office job, wasting his life away. One fateful night, however, he runs into both a man out to destroy him, and a mysterious woman who protects him. He soon learns that he's the son of a famous assassin, and that he's inherited his father's superhuman physical abilities.

The film differs significantly from the comic books in that the guild of assassins is depicted not as a cadre of supervillains, but as a force for stability. McAvoy is strongest here when depicting Wesley in his awful, office drone life, or when showing Wesley feeling joy and confidence with each assassination he participates in. The third act, though, is a bit less fun, mostly because McAvoy never really presents rage and the thirst for revenge appropriately.

The film is pretty derivative, with obvious cribbing from "The Matrix." We've seen this brand of carefree, effortless gunslinging before in "Equilibrium," too, and to be honest, it's just not as fresh this time around. Still, the production values are high, the action scenes are decent, and it's a fun popcorn movie that probably has the most impact on the big screen.

Rating: 6/10

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Sports: The Two Faces of Roger Federer

From what I've seen of him in the past couple of years, Roger Federer has exhibited two playing modes.

One is the form you'd expect of someone who is the world's number one tennis player and a 12-time Slam winner. It's been called JesusFed, NinjaFed, or TMF-mode ("The Mighty Federer") by the guys over at MTF. In these periods, Federer's play is truly a cut above even the rest of the extremely gifted ATP tour players. He moves faster, he hits more accurately, and he seems to have an uncanny awareness of where his opponents are on the court. The most recent instance has been in the 2007 U.S. Open quarterfinals against Roddick:

But there is another side to Federer, whom many have called the greatest player ever to hold a tennis racquet. This is "Cruise mode" Federer, who is content to simply do enough to win matches without pulling off anything special. The world number 1 reverts to your average aggressive baseliner - a vicious forehand, decent movement, but little aggression.

I've seen Fed casually wait out his opponents' service games, preferring to simply serve for the match rather than try to break. I've seen Fed keep blunting back the same slice backhand over and over, seemingly hoping that the guy on the other side will miss. It's troubling when even the world's greatest can slip back to this passive play in a French Open final. In 2008, he essentially waved the white flag and got bageled by Nadal in the third set:

But now Federer is back on Wimbledon grass. Can he even make it to the final? And can he beat Nadal, who is red-hot and getting even better? It should be an interesting week - either dizzying success or disappointment.

Miscellany: A Fast Move

It's amazing how many things people accumulate in modern times. While it's true folks didn't move around much before the Industrial Revolution, I can't imagine that it was as much of a pain as it is now. Having to load all your furniture, as well as the doodads and knick-knacks of a life spent in a consumer culture, makes you truly appreciate Thoreau's exhortation: "Simplify, simplify." My friend had to move out of his place hastily, so we found this out firsthand this past weekend.

Our first stop was to grab a U-Haul truck at Parks Place, one of the most interesting U-Haul locations I've ever seen. It's at once a convenience store, a bait and tackle shop, and a U-Haul moving center, all crammed in one unassuming little store run by a family (their elementary school-age daughter ran the cash register - it was adorable). Flattened moving boxes crowd up alongside the freezer case, and you can purchase both packing tape and Penthouse from the same counter. Too bad they don't sell ammo.

We picked up the truck, and then started the arduous process of loading stuff on. Unfortunately, the couch that sat so long in the living room was impossible to squeeze out the front door; I have no idea how the movers managed to coax it there in the first place (I also recall a similar struggle to get our couch through - suffice it to say, when I sell my unit, it's going to come with furniture included). Objects were broken, injuries were sustained, but by golly, we were going to get the U-Haul loaded in the short time we were allotted, no matter the cost in property or lives.

Oh, and a tip for people wishing to move large or unwieldy objects - the "Forearm Forklift" pictured above does work, but it's not as convenient as you might think, since you have to thread/shimmy it underneath anything you want to lift. The straps were also difficult for me to use, given that my broken arm this past spring has prevented me from working out or even lifting anything heavy for months.

Finally, we managed to offload all the big stuff into some temporary storage my friend had acquired. My friend's going to have to repeat the whole rigmarole in about a month or so, but hey, at least you don't have to do it every day.

TV: Randy Jackson Presents America's Best Dance Crew

I'm not a dancer, but my sister is. From her, I've learned to appreciate not only a well-performed dance, but the long hours of practice necessary to rehearse complicated choreography and difficult moves. I've also started watching the second season of "Randy Jackson Presents America's Best Dance Crew" (ABDC), hosted by Mario Lopez:

There's a lot of dancing competitions on TV, but ABDC doesn't feature B-list celebs. Instead, teams of very talented young men and women perform dances to various hiphop, R&B, and pop songs. The show obviously skews towards the type of dancing that's popular with the urban youth of today, but that hasn't stopped many of the crews from innovating with almost Broadway-like moves:

One caveat to mention is that the fans still pick which teams are in the bottom two for each week, with the judges (Lil Mama, JC Chasez of 'N Sync fame, and hiphop choreographer Shane Sparks) selecting who will be kicked off. This ensures, though, that the level of competition is very high - all three judges know what to look for in a dance routine, and it's pretty interesting to see how the little details - a move of the hand here, a facial expression there - can make a performance special.