Friday, January 30, 2009

Sports: The GOAT

Tennis, like most sports, has seen a lot of changes over the years. The racquets have changed - modern designs allow for incredible topspin to be generated on shots. The surfaces have changed - slowing down across the board to emphasize longer rallies. Even the rules have changed; the newfangled Hawk-Eye electronic challenge system now plays a key role in many matches.

Through all these changes, it's probably impossible to crown one tennis player as "The Greatest of All Time." Today's tennis, for instance, is marked by power baseliners, with almost no one playing serve-and-volley any more. You also have to be in top physical condition to scamper along the baseline for hours at a time, which puts a huge emphasis on fitness and conditioning.

On Sunday, the world's no. 1 and no. 2 tennis players, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, will be playing for the Australian Open championship, and perhaps greatness. For Nadal, it's a chance to get his first hardcourt Grand Slam and his sixth overall, to be mentioned along with stars like Agassi and McEnroe. For Federer, the stakes are much higher - he has a chance to tie Pete Sampras' all-time record of 14 Slams.

It's a race against time for Roger Federer, whose career is probably entering its twilight phase. He doesn't dominate like he used to, at least outside of the Grand Slam events. In a best-of-three-sets match, players can now sometimes find enough vulnerabilities in Federer's game to win. In a Grand Slam match (best-of-five), though, Federer can use his nearly unlimited arsenal of shots and his raw determination to win, overmatching his opponents with guile instead of power. On Sunday, Roger will need every bit of his magic if he wishes to defeat Nadal.

Monday, January 26, 2009

School: Trial by Fire

I'm slated to compete in the TYLA National Trial Competition (well, the Regional rounds, anyway), and as you might imagine, there's a ton of preparation needed to participate in one of these things. The irony here is that going to trial is a pretty rare event in today's world, especially for civil lawyers. The time and money it takes to litigate the average case is a pretty huge barrier. That's why people rarely pursue lawsuits without having actual disputes.

Mock trial competitions, though, invariably boil down to style - whoever looks and sounds more convincing wins. The substantive arguments and the actual law (mostly evidentiary objections) are important, of course, but most of them will be pretty similar. All that's left is controlling your voice and your body to convey information in a plausible, interesting way.

You start to notice some pervasive tics when you have others critique what you're telling a jury. I tend to push my glasses up on my face, for example - an almost unconscious behavior that can be distracting for someone watching me deliver a 13 minute argument. I'm not sure how to counteract that tic; maybe I better switch to contact lenses.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Food: Cracker Barrel

The Cracker Barrel chain of restaurants/stores is a study in contrast. On the one hand, it's a well-established piece of American kitsch; the first one opened 40 years ago, and now you can find locations scattered throughout the country, usually next to highways. They're aiming for a slightly southern-tinged American nostalgia, complete with rocking chairs and newspapers on the front porch.

Look at the contents of the typical Cracker Barrel storefront, though, and you'll find a whole bunch of "Made in China" labels. Even the candy being sold is often just flavored high fructose corn syrup. Most people eat breakfast at these places when they're on the road, and there just isn't a whole lot of the old-timey community atmosphere when you have a bunch of tourists sitting in one place.

The Cracker Barrel in Gainesville (the location I'm reviewing) is one of the most well-run operations you could ask for, though. Wait times, even during the notoriously crowded back-to-school weeks, are never too outrageous, and the breakfast is acceptable if unspectacular. You could definitely cook a better breakfast yourself, but sometimes that's a tall order on a sleepy Saturday morning.

2/4 stars

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Miscellany: Bucky O'Hare

Sometimes comic properties fail to get off the ground. For every megahit like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," there's stuff like "Bucky O'Hare." Here was one of those promising but failed comic book ideas that still spawned a lot of adaptations. "Bucky O'Hare" had it all - action figures, a TV cartoon series, even an NES game - but it's pretty obscure nowadays:

The series is about anthropomorphic mammals fighting an interstellar war against a horde of cruel alien toads. Thrust into the action is Willy DuWitt, a native of a strange parallel universe...ours. DuWitt (called a "hairless ape" by the rest of the mammalian crew) is actually a smart kid who accidentally leaped into their universe via his homemade photon accelerator.

Not a bad comic, not a great one, but it probably deserved more than one chance.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Books: Open Grave

4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons rules supplements are usually a hit-and-miss affair. There is a delicate balance between fluff (story and background that, while helpful to DMs who need inspiration, don't actually contain new game rules) and crunch (new monsters, encounters, traps, feats, powers, classes - basically anything with hard numbers). "Open Grave," one of the latest 4E D&D splatbooks, strikes the right balance between the two areas.

"Open Grave" focuses on the undead. The beginning of the book is pretty fluffy, with descriptive text highlighting undead origins, habits, and societies. The middle of "Open Grave," though, features around a half-dozen "lairs" (basically dungeons that can be dropped right into your campaign) all themed around the undead - everything from a creepy cemetery to the skyscraper-sized hollowed-out corpse of a forgotten god. Most of these look pretty fun, and they're written to cover a wide range of player-character levels.

The third part of the book is crammed with new undead monsters - about a hundred pages worth. Again, these are nicely spread out by level - 1st level undead hounds, new types of mummies, and famous Epic-level D&D deities like Vecna. There's actually quite a bit of D&D fan service here (the monster entries for Ravenloft's Count Strahd and Tomb of Horrors' Acererak are wonderfully true to their pre-3E roots), which is a good thing.

When you look at the total package - nearly 200-odd pages of new dungeons, new monsters, and a potpourri of new game rules for $30 - this is one of the best 4E supplements that has been published.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Miscellany: Puerto Rico

If there's one board game that embodies the Eurogaming scene, it's "Puerto Rico." The game, designed by Andreas Seyfarth, spent a lot of time at the #1 spot at It was eventually dethroned by farm simulator Agricola, but it's still a good choice if you start to get tired of "Settlers of Catan."

The premise doesn't sound too gripping at first: you play as a plantation owner in the colony of Puerto Rico in the 17th century. During the game, you'll acquire colonists and grow crops; each player chooses a role, takes an action with a special privilege, and then all other players take the same action without the privilege. To get victory points, you either ship crops to the Old World or buy buildings, or both, depending on your strategy.

The fun comes after the first few playthroughs, which will most likely be spent blundering through the poorly written rulebook (translated from the German). The only random element in the game are the plantation tiles that appear, and even those can be predicted (the higher value crops are slightly more rare), so it's very easy to formulate and execute a plan to succeed.

There are a bunch of possibilities. Will you try to ship as much corn as possible to the Old World, using your private ship and warehouses to protect your precious grain? Or maybe you'll become a coffee baron, using the riches from the sales of the crop to fund a massive series of building projects? Perhaps you'll diversify, producing and shipping at opportune times and using the Factory building to increase your production profits?

It's really the buildings that make the whole thing go, since each building allows you to break the rules in various ways. This sort of exception-based design can be very compelling if executed correctly (see "Magic: The Gathering" and "Guilty Gear" for prime examples), so it's no surprise "Puerto Rico" is popular.

[One sidenote - the game's "colonists" are dark brown circular discs, and given the real-life history of Puerto Rico, they should have probably been called "slaves." I don't like it when games whitewash history like this.]

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

TV: Heroes

Few television series are as episodic as "Heroes," an hourlong sci-fi/superhero drama created for NBC by Tim Kring. Every episode starts with a short summary of the episode before it, meaning that the chains of continuity run through the entire plot. This is a series where it's almost impossible to jump in unless you watch the whole thing from the beginning:

The premise is pretty simple - seemingly ordinary people across the world are beginning to exhibit strange powers. There's an apocalypse coming that will level Manhattan, and possibly the world, and some of the people are banding together to try to stop it.

I'm about halfway through the first season, and I like the show, but I can see how a lot of people wouldn't. First, the plot relies very heavily on coincidences - people and events are related in a haphazard, random fashion (including one eye-roller that's almost as unfair to the viewer as the end of "The Empire Strikes Back"). Second, the juggling between four or five different sets of characters means that each episode advances the overall plot at a glacial pace. Finally, the whole series is continuity, which means the tone and content of each episode don't really vary (the same problem affects shows like "24").

On the plus side, the acting is pretty decent considering the subject matter. There's some great comic moments from Hiro Nakamura (played by Masi Oka), for instance, with some of them bordering on parody (Oka is a manga fan and a digital effects artist, so the inner nerdiness on display is quite genuine). The rest of the ensemble does a good job, too.

News: Obama Fatigue

Now, I have to admit, I wasn't really an Obama supporter (it's hard for me to root for someone who wants more gun control), but I do wish him good luck. I also appreciate that the inauguration was historic - first president with a Kenyan father and all. I can understand why millions of people wanted to watch.

But you know the media is getting out of hand when on ESPN2, after the Bryan Brothers win a doubles tennis match in the early rounds of the Australian Open, the reporter asks them about their reaction to Obama's inauguration rather than any tennis-related stuff.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Guns: Turning a New Leaf

A few years ago, Ruger's catalog didn't have many firearms tailored for people with concealed carry permits. The explosion of CCW reform and the resulting economic reality, as well as the passing away of William B. Ruger, has produced a marked change in the manufacturer's focus.

Bill Ruger, although a great firearms designer, was never a huge supporter of the Second Amendment (his most infamous line - "No honest man needs more than 10 rounds in any gun" - drew the ire of gun rights advocates nationwide). The change in leadership in Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc. became apparent soon after his death.

Ruger's first entry into the small profile CCW arena, the .380 Lightweight Compact Pistol, was a success. Of course, the LCP was an entry into a proven market segment - the small-frame .380 pistol segment formerly ruled by Kel-Tec's P3AT and the various Bersa .380s:

Now, Ruger's introducing a new part-polymer revolver designed to contend with the S&W J-Frame for pocket revolver superiority - the Lightweight Compact Revolver:

As you can see, it's one of the most interesting new pocket revolver designs to come out in awhile. The all-polymer grip and firing control housing keeps costs down while shaving a few ounces off the weight of the revolver (vitally important for a gun that is naturally at home in a jacket pocket). The trigger seems to solve a lot of the problems that continue to haunt J-Frame designs - a heavy pull and awkward hitching throughout the double-action trigger stroke.

On the other hand, it is a very radical change from the staid aluminum frame 642 (which has several decades of proven performance out in the wild), so time will tell if it can outperform the old J-Frame. At the very least, the LCR is a sure sign that companies, like people, can change.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Movies: The Omega Man

I've mentioned it a few times before, but I've never sat down and watched "The Omega Man" in its entirety until it found its way onto my Netflix queue. In many respects, the movie reflects the multifaceted personality and career of its star, film legend Charlton Heston:

Heston plays Robert Neville, the last uninfected man on Earth. Most of the population is dead thanks to an engineered plague, with a tiny portion turning into a cult of light-sensitive, disfigured neo-Luddites led by a former TV new anchor named Matthias. There are also some infected humans who still look and act human, although their time is running out. Can Neville find a cure (and avoid Matthias' cult) before it's too late?

There's some interesting stuff in the movie - some nice aerial shots of a deserted Los Angeles, Charlton Heston blasting away at the cultists with a S&W 76 submachine gun, and the presence of Rosalind Cash, whose character eventually serves as Neville's love interest (this was back in '71 - interracial sex onscreen was still controversial in some parts of the country).

As you can see, the movie showcases aspects of Heston's life - battles for racial equality, battles for Second Amendment rights, and a larger-than-life presence looming above it all. It's not a very good movie (the plot is fairly contrived, and the ending feels like a cheesy ripoff of the New Testament), but it's still worth a look on a slow Saturday afternoon.

Rating: 5/10

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Music: Time Sick Son of a Grizzly Bear

One of the neatest byproducts of the music game craze has been the introduction of formerly obscure bands to the limelight. For instance, DragonForce's "Through the Fire and the Flames," the ending track from "Guitar Hero 3," shot up from 2,000 downloads a week to nearly 40,000 downloads. Clearly, being included in a music video game can be a huge break for a band.

So it is for "The Mother Hips," a San Francisco-based band that sounds like a cross between "The Beach Boys" (think psychefunkic tracks like "Good Vibrations") and more mainstream rock like "The Black Crowes." They were on hiatus for around six years (an eternity in the music world). Tracks from their latest album, "Kiss the Crystal Flake," made it to the "Rock Band" video game, though, and that's how I first heard of them.

Here's a portion of a live performance of "Time Sick Son of a Grizzly Bear," one of my favorite songs on the album. You can immediately see how the infectious main guitar riff can get stuck in your head:

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Miscellany: Learning to Eat Healthy, Part 4

Most diet books recommend cooking with canola or olive oil instead of solid fats like lard or butter. Even the healthy oils pack a lot of fat and calories, though, so it's important to try to not use added oil whenever possible. One of the ways to go about it is to use a line of contact grills aggressively marketed by boxing legend George Foreman:

The basic "George Foreman" electric grills are pretty inexpensive (they should be, considering they're all made in China). I bought a stripped down 50 square inch "Super Champ" model for about $20 from Target. It's a pretty bare-bones affair - the unit lacks a temperature control. Heck, the thing doesn't even have an on/off switch.

It works as advertised. The dual contact plates cut most cooking times in half. It's very easy to overcook meat if you don't know what you're doing, of course, but that's not the grill's fault. Most of the drippings are neatly collected in the included plastic drip tray.

One problem is cleanup - you're going to use a lot of wet paper towels to scrub out the grease from the grill surface. The unit also gets fairly hot, so once it's going, you'd better not move it around (in particular, the back of the clamshell becomes quite dangerous). Most problematic, though, is the lack of that classic charcoal flavor. All in all, the bottom-tier GF grill is decent for indoor use, but you definitely get what you pay for.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Tech: Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2

I really enjoyed the original "Rainbow Six" PC games because they allowed fairly detailed strategic planning. Before each mission, you could plot out exact paths through the level for two separate teams of counterterrorists. Combine that with the ability to preplan situational actions (like breeching doors) and AI cues (go in cautiously or guns blazing), and it was actually possible to complete entire levels without physically having to touch the controls, if your planning was good enough.

"Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2" doesn't quite give you that level of tactical complexity, but it does feature enough strategy to make it a much better game than your average Xbox 360 shooter. You play Scott Mitchell, a Special Ops soldier of the future armed with a HUD system straight out of a fighter jet. The "Advanced Warfighter" HUD allows you to seamlessly coordinate artillery support, friendly squads of soldiers, and UAVs during your missions.

The whole concept, of course, is ripped straight from current Pentagon projects (if there's one thing the DoD is good at, it's arming U.S. soldiers with some of the best toys in the world), and it makes for a pretty fun game, especially in multiplayer. Unfortunately, the singleplayer campaign is pretty short (you can finish it in a long evening), and the enemy and friendly AI can be braindead, so keep that in mind before you pick up GRAW 2.

Rating: 85/100

TV: The Prisoner

Patrick McGoohan passed away recently, but his most celebrated work continues to live on - "The Prisoner":

The premise is delightfully surreal - a British agent (played by Patrick McGoohan) resigns, and suddenly finds himself inside a prison called "The Village." The mysterious people controlling the Village are after information, and their struggle to unearth it from McGoohan's character (whom they dub "Number Six") becomes a deadly test of wills. While at first the Village administrators try simple ruses and psychological tricks, they eventually resort to more extreme methods (like mind-altering drugs). The whole thing plays out like a dream, which gives "The Prisoner" a timeless quality.

I became acquainted with "The Prisoner" through my public library. It had some grainy old VHS tapes of the series, and I watched them enthusiastically in my youth. The library didn't have the conclusion of the series ("Fall Out") so for the longest time, I didn't know how it all ended. Not that seeing the last episode solves anything - the ending is almost as cryptic as the rest of the series.

Perhaps the most famous aspect of "The Prisoner" is Rover, the semi-autonomous sentry that invariably blocks Number Six's escape attempts. Imagine being in a quaint little seaside town but being unable to leave, since every escape avenue is cut off by a giant white weather ballon. It's the stuff of nightmares, certainly.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Netflix Documentary Showcase, Part 3 - Bigger, Stronger, Faster

For the most part, people don't remember documentaries that follow conventional wisdom or that reinforce what they already know. That's why many feature length documentary directors try to shock or surprise you with interesting arguments - what you thought was bad is actually good, and vice versa.

A prime example is "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*," which takes a contrarian stance on the whole steroids-in-sports controversy:

Director Christopher Bell and his two brothers are anabolic steroid users, and they talk candidly about why and how they use the drugs. A lot of the conventional information about steroids is debunked (or at least challenged) - mostly concerning their side effects (the documentary argues that the side effects have been distorted and exaggerated by the media). There are also pretty strong arguments that a lot of Americans - not just athletes - are using drugs to enhance performance (Ritalin abuse by students, for instance), but that anabolic steroids are unfairly singled out.

While it was a bit out of place, the best segment in the documentary showed how mind-bogglingly easy it is to get into the booming health supplement industry - a sort of Wild West where you can stuff anything into a pill and get it to market. The whole things was crazy enough that it made me wish for some regulation, despite my libertarian leanings.

Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

News: Pulling Strings

I guess asking for preferential loans from the U.S. government wasn't enough - now automakers seem to want Congress to rig gasoline prices to help them sell their new hybrid cars. The basic message is almost disarmingly simple - "We need to be protected from the market."

I can't blame a company for doing everything within its power to survive, but it does make me jealous. If domestic car makers can get something as massively unpopular as a new gas tax pushed through (not to mention a bailout), there's probably no end to what they can get from the Feds. What's next? Puppies? Unicorns?

Monday, January 12, 2009

TV: The Outer Limits (1995-2002 revival)

The twist ending can feel like a copout if it's not handled correctly, especially in feature films (cf. almost anything directed by M. Night Shymalan). For a TV series, the stakes are a bit lower, because at the very most the viewer has only invested 30 to 60 minutes on the "main" story anyway. The 1995 Showtime relaunch of "The Outer Limits," like the original "Twilight Zone," leans on the twist ending pretty heavily:

As the series progressed, the twist endings in the modern "Outer Limits" episodes became more and more sadistic. Wil Wheaton inadvertently destroys the entire human race in one episode, for instance, just because his spacecraft didn't have any windows - he couldn't see he was actually launching a doomsday device at Earth and not an alien homeworld.

Still, even with some awfully unfair twists, I have to admit that I like the show. My main gripe is that most of the episodes could be condensed into a half-hour with little trouble. That same criticism could be levelled at any number of hour-long shows, though.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Books: The Black Dahlia

Historical fiction, to me, always seemed like a dicey proposition. While it's not a universal goal, most writers strive to create stories that are plausible, so for a long time I thought that using a real event as a template was a mild form of cheating. I've discovered, though, that there are some genuinely gripping historical novels out there, like "The Black Dahlia" by James Ellroy.

It's one of Ellroy's L.A. crime novels. The story is centered around the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short, a highly sensationalized case that took place against the seedy backdrop of post-WWII Hollywood. Two partners on the police force are thrust into the investigation, which starts to affect the entire city as well as their friendship.

The political and social ramifications of the gruesome killing are interesting, but the real strength of "The Black Dahlia" is the authentic narrative voice it manages to capture. Ellroy uses fairly good '40s police slang, so you're never really jarred out of the milieu by some anachronism. I guess the moral of the story is, if you're going to rewrite history, do it carefully.

Miscellany: Learning to Eat Healthy, Part 3

A big part of eating healthy is cooking healthy. I don't really know how to cook beyond the bare basics, and it was flat-out intimidating to think about not only cooking a decent meal, but cooking a decent meal that was good for you.

Thankfully, Ellie Krieger's cookboook, "The Food You Crave," contains a boatload of recipes and tricks to get the most out of food without piling on butter, mayo, and oil. Krieger hosts the popular Food Network show "Healthy Appetite," and while she doesn't have any formal culinary training, she was an adjunct professor of nutrition at NYU, so she knows what she's talking about.

In Ellie Krieger's book, there are no "off-limits" foods; instead, some ingredients are to be used "sometimes" or "rarely" instead of "often" (red meat, for instance, is a "sometimes" food, and butter is a "rarely" food). The book is big and well-produced, with some 200 recipes covering breakfast, desserts, main dishes, pastas, and salads. There are color photos and little tips scattered throughout, so it's a lively cookbook.

I tried out two of the salads - a spinach, mushroom and bacon salad with an apple-cider vinaigrette, and a Thai-style beef salad made with flank steak, red leaf lettuce, and shallots. Both were pretty good (aside from the fact that I overcooked the flank steak pretty badly on my George Foreman grill - more about that later), but the spinach salad stood out in particular as being healthy without being bland:


10 ounces pre-washed baby spinach (kinda pricey, but it's convenient)
2 slices bacon, finely chopped
3 ounces Canadian bacon, finely chopped (you can go all bacon if you want a richer taste, or all Canadian bacon for an even leaner salad - hard-boiled eggs can be subbed in for vegetarians)
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 red onion, sliced (about 1 cup)
1 pound button mushrooms, coarsely chopped (since these will brown, don't cut them too small otherwise they'll get lost in the shuffle)

DRESSING (I'd advise making more than this - when I made the recipe, I barely had enough dressing to put over the salad)
1 cup apple cider
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper


Place spinach into a large bowl. Cook bacon in a large skillet over medium heat for about 4 minutes, or until it is just crispy. Add Canadian bacon to the skillet and cook for 2 more minutes, stirring frequently. Remove meat from pan and place on a plate lined with paper towels. Drain any remaining fat from the skillet. Add olive oil and onions to the skillet and cook for about 2 minutes, or until onions soften slightly. Add mushrooms to the pan and cook, stirring frequently, for 2 more minutes. Put onions and mushrooms on top of the spinach.

Add apple cider and vinegar to the skillet and turn the heat up to medium-high. Stir to scrape up any bits that are stuck to the bottom of the pan and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until cider is reduced to about 1/2 cup. Whisk in mustard, salt and pepper, to taste. Pour warm cider dressing over the mushrooms and spinach and toss until the vegetables are well coated. Sprinkle the bacon on top and serve.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Tech: Viva Piñata

The Xbox 360 is known for violent shooters. From "Gears of War" to "Call of Duty" to "Halo" - if it involves explosions, tanks, and machine guns, than you'll find it on Xbox. Next to those testosterone fests, "Viva Piñata" feels almost like a joke - who on Earth would enjoy a game that's about growing a garden and raising cute, stylized piñatas?

"Viva Piñata" is an gardening simulation game that's one part Pokémon and one part Harvest Moon. You'll grow fruit trees, flowers, and vegetables in order to attract new piñata animals to your garden. Along the way, you'll pick up new abilities, encounter new foes, and learn more about the ultra-saccharine game world.

The game is addictive in a maddening, OCD kind of way. It's open-ended, and you can't really "lose," but if you want the highest gardener rank, you're going to have to literally farm certain plants and animals, as well as experiment with a nearly endless list of combinations of seeds, flowers, and fertilizer to get your animals to "evolve." It's ostensibly a kids' game, but there's a lot going on here beneath the hood. The first time I tried to get my two Mousemallows to breed, I realized that the nearby Syrupents were scaring them away. That kind of detail helps to make the world plausible.

There are a number of things keeping "Viva Piñata" away from all-time greatness. The interface has some annoying quirks; every time you want to buy seed or fertilizer, for instance, you're going to have to endure a separate loading screen (you buy seed A LOT in this game, so you can imagine how much of a problem this becomes). Every time you breed your piñatas, you have to complete a tedious minigame (you breed animals A LOT in this game, too).

"Viva Piñata" also lacks some of the complexity of more grown-up sims, like SimCity - there's no real penalties for jamming lots of piñata into a small space, for instance, and you usually don't have to worry too much about feeding your piñatas once they're residents of your garden. Still, this is one of the few Xbox games the whole family can play, and it's charming overall.

Rating: 84/100

Guns: Best AR-15 gizmos

As I understand it, a lot of gun owners bought AR-15 rifles over the holidays, so I thought it'd be fun to talk about the most useful AR gizmos. By "gizmos," I mean all the bits that aren't usually physically attached to the gun - so no slings, lights, or scopes will be discussed here. My top picks, in no particular order:


Loading an AR mag with ammo is pretty easy for most people - just push the rounds in. The problems come when it's time, for whatever reason, to unload a loaded mag. Unlike, say, a 1911 mag, the .223 rounds are in a tight, double-stacked formation that makes it difficult to push off the rounds with just your thumb.

Enter the LULA magloader. It attaches to the top of a standard AR magazine and allows you to unload or load rounds rapidly and easily. A simple, single-purpose gadget, but I could see it being very handy for certain people.

Handguard Removal Tool

If you have the stock circular handguards that come with an AR-15, you know that they can be pretty hard to remove, especially by yourself. My first Bushmaster's delta ring was so tight I had to get my roommate to push it down while I jimmied the handguards off.

This tool uses leverage to greatly simplify the whole process. I'd assume every gunsmithing shop in the country that does AR work hqas one of these lying around, just for convenience.

Otis Cleaning Kit with M16 Chamber brush

I've taqlked about the Otis kits before, but they really shine when you have to clean an AR upper - the tight spaces make a normal cleaning rod somewhat unwieldy. I also like to throw in a purpose-built M16 chamber brush to get at the grime on the locking lugs and the chamber, which most brushes and patches won't even touch.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Sports: Superman? Super Team

It's understandable that the focus of reporters would be on Tim Tebow after the Florida Gators' 24-14 win over Oklahoma last night in the BCS National Championship. After a shaky first half (2 interceptions and only 1 TD pass), Tebow led some masterful drives in the third and fourth quarters to help put the game away, doing it with everything from 20 yard bullet passes to up-the-gut 12 and 15 yard runs. The passion, the leadership - it electrified the crowd, and electrified the media afterwards.

Ultimately, though, the bright hot spotlight on Tebow (he garnered nearly all questions in the postgame conference, while defensive MVP Carlos Dunlap sat quiet) rightfully belongs to the whole team. As a team, the Gators held together while Oklahoma seemed to collapse down the stretch. The Gator defense in particular had a couple of spectacular stops in goal-line situations to keep Florida close at halftime. The offensive line in the second half started pushing the Sooners around a bit, creating huge creases and holes for Tebow and star wideout Percy Harvin to run through. The Tebow & Harvin show from 2007 is officially gone now - replaced by champions on both sides of the ball.

Miscellany: Learning to Eat Healthy, Part 2

In general, restaurant food is worse for you than home-cooked food. Restaurant chefs really care only about taste, whether the food's from McDonald's, Applebee's, or the corner deli. The consumer has little or no control over how much oil and fat the kitchen uses. What can be controlled, however, are the selections one makes, which brings us to "Eat This, Not That!"

It's a book that makes you look critically at the dishes a typical sit-down place offers. The casual chains, like Red Lobster or Outback Steakhouse, can serve up dishes that are much more unhealthy than anything you'd find in Burger King. Seemingly innocuous plates of chicken or salad can serve up huge amounts of calories, saturated fat, and sodium.

"Eat This, Not That!" helps you to steer clear of these deceptive dishes, providing a few "picks" (meals that are healthy, or at least aren't totally unhealthy) and a few "passes" (nutritional landmines that will bloat your belly) for dozens of national chain restaurants, both casual and fast food. In addition to the main restaurant guide, there are helpful chapters on shopping for healthy foods and planning healthy meals, always with a focus on providing the most nutrients and taste with the least empty calories and fat. There are full color pictures on almost every page, which explains the rather hefty $20 asking price, but it's a fun read.

Netflix Documentary Showcase, Part 2 - Word Wars

The documentary "Word Wars" reminds us that truth is stranger than fiction. "Word Wars" follows the lives of a handful of professional Scrabble players on their road to the national championships, and the results are sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and sometimes just plain weird:

There are characters here more colorful than any you'll find from the average screenwriter. My favorite is Marlon, a pot-smoker who lives in a poor neighborhood. Marlon's behavior is routinely over-the-top; for isntance, he sleeps with a Tijuana hooker the night before the big Scrabble tourney. But for all the antics, he also happens to be one of the best Scrabble players in the country.

The film's real heart, though, is Joel Sherman, whose personal journey (culminating in one of the most moving uses of the song "Across the Universe" in a film that I've ever seen) illustrates the central irony for many of the people in this documentary - they might be misfits or losers in other areas, but on the Scrabble board, they are champions.

Rating: 8/10

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Movies: Rocket Science

Movies, in general, are not realistic. We don't want them to be. When a truly realistic movie comes along, like "Rocket Science," it throws the viewer for a loop.

The film is written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz (who also directed the hit documentary "Spellbound"). It tells the story of Hal Hefner, a stuttering high school student who deals with love and debate competitions as best he can. At first glance, "Rocket Science" seems to be aping quirky high school dramedies like "Rushmore":

Without giving too much away, let's just say that the story of "Rocket Science" doesn't cheat in the ways that most other movies do. There's no magic scene where Hal Hefner loses his stutter and becomes "a normal kid" (which would be insulting to people who live with speech disorders), but the way he deals with it in order to compete at the New Jersey debate championships proves that Hal's no dummy.

Rating: 8/10

Miscellany: Learning to Eat Healthy, Part 1

My New Year's Resolution is simple this year - change the way I eat.

I've blogged in the past about my struggles to lose weight, mostly via exercise (strength training and cardio). My experience over the past Christmas break, during which I got plenty of exercise but didn't lose much fat, made me realize that exercise alone is not enough - you have to eat right. Unless you're Michael Phelps, it's just not practical to work off gut-busting meal after gut-busting meal - you'd be stuck in the gym two or three hours a day.

I'll be posting more in the next few weeks about some of the techniques and tactics I'll be employing.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Tech: Sansa Clip

The flash-based MP3 market has exploded in the past few years. Nowadays you can get everything from a high-faluting $350 iPod Touch (an iPhone minus the phone, sporting Wifi, 32 gigs of memory, and a sleek interface) to a $20 1 GB bargain player from your local drug store. I was in the market for a small MP3 player for working out, and came out the store with the Sansa Clip:

The Clip was $50 at Best Buy for the 4GB model, probably more memory than you need for a gym bag player. It is stacked with features - FM radio, voice recorder with integrated mic, and even the ability to play Ogg Vorbis and FLAC files (with a firmware update). The sound quality is great for such a tiny player - with the execrable stock earbuds, you could still feel punchy bass and decent highs. Use a good ~$100 headphone set, and the Clip will satisfy most audiophiles.

The one category where the Clip loses handily to Apple is in design. The unit has a chunky plastic feel that's just no match for the iPod Shuffle's teeny-tiny, brushed metal form factor. Still, a standard mini-USB port and a removable pocket clip means that this player could easily serve as a main MP3 player for someone with a smallish music collection. And at $50 (the same price as the 1GB Shuffle, which has no screen at all), it's not a bad deal at all.

Food: Carmine's

North Palm Beach has its share of good Italian restaurants, and my parents like Carmine's La Trattoria, despite its high prices. To be fair, Carmine's has the good sense to offer half and full portions, but even the full portions of dishes like the ~$25 linguine aragosta probably won't fill you up if you're really hungry, since the menu is mostly a la carte.

The food is pretty good, but the biggest draws for Carmine's La Trattoria have nothing to do with the menu. The ambiance is great - the outdoor patio, for instance, is right next to the marina, and there's live entertainment in the evenings (usually just a singer). I also thought the service was good, with a friendly manager and owner coming to greet us (Mom and Dad visit Carmine's more than most, so YMMV).

Rating: 2/4 stars

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Miscellany: Fun Depot

The family fun center is a common business. These establishments generally combine the joys of the video arcade, the go-kart circuit, the mini-golf course, and the laser tag facility all in one. One of the sorriest examples of their ilk, though, can be found in Lake Worth, just off I-95 and 10th Avenue North: Fun Depot.

My sister nicknamed it "Fun Ghetto" because in truth, the place was pretty "sketch." The arcade was actually fairly good, with the usual assortment of gun games, DDR machines, and racing cabinets, along with the standard carnival-style ticket dispensing machines. Once you stepped into the other areas, though, it became apparent that this is a second-class clone of better places, like Boomers!.

The go-kart track was a sad, twisted affair. The go-karts themselves were in disrepair, with cracked and battered body shells and heavily-throttled engines that moved them around at a sluggish pace. You also only received a paltry two laps per go-arround.

Next was the "food" stand. Now, in a place like this, I don't expect great cuisine, but the monstrosities that were served to us - greasepan fries and bricklike pretzel bites - were not meant for human consumption. I mean, the place made McDonald's look like La Tour d'Argent. To top it off, it took twenty minutes to get our food.

By far the highlight of the day was the laser tag room. It's much smaller than most laser tag facilities, but it cleverly segregates the opposing teamswith barriers, preventing the kind of nose-to-nose fighting that a standard dungeon or maze can create. There was also lots of cover, which made the whole thing feel like playing "Gears of War" for real. If you ever go to Fun Depot, play laser tag and the arcade, and for God's sake, bring your own food.

Food: Five Guys Burgers and Fries

I take comfort in the fact that very few places can cook a burger better than one you can cook yourself. Unlike steak, where restaurants get most of the fancy USDA Prime marbled stuff, the home chef can start out with the same quality ground beef as any restaurant. It then all boils down to the cooking, and few restaurants boast someone who'll cook with the same care and love as homemade.

The "Five Guys Burgers" chain of fast-casual restaurants tries pretty hard, but in the end, loses just the same to my Dad's Weber grill. First of all, their burgers are almost as expensive as an actual sit-down joint - if my burger alone is going to be $5, I expect something good. The burgers are pretty good, but I've had better (Okeechobee Steakhouse's steak burger and the New Deal Cafe's burger spring to mind). On the upside, you have a wide choice of toppings.

The best value on the menu, strangely enough, is the fries. They're greasy, they're hot, and "Five Guys" gives you a ton of them. A "large" serving will easily satisfy the fry cravings of three or four people. My Dad generally doesn't go through the trouble of frying up potatoes when he grills a burger (I figure most people who grill burgers at picnics skip the fries), so in that respect, the burger-and-fries combo offered by "Five Guys" fills a specific niche.

Rating: 2/4 stars

Monday, January 05, 2009

Books: Back to Basics

Postapocalyptic fiction is popular because it's always fun to imagine how you'd fare in such a situation. Truth be told, most of us would be in trouble; the modern conveniences we take for granted have shielded us from the harsh realities of survival. You can find books that try to show some of these forgotten skills - foraging, skinning game, creating shelters from the land. The vast majority have a grim tone and don't tell you anything about what to do after your basic needs are satisfied.

"Back to Basics" takes a different tack. This is the kind of book that would come in handy for second-generation survivors after a nuclear war, because it covers various skills that, while maybe not strictly necessary to your immediate survival, help to make the world a less dreary place. If you've ever wanted to create your own maple syrup, or your own toys, or even your own wind generator, "Back to Basics" has the ideas that might help you build it. There aren't specific blueprints for a lot of these (the illsutrations are more for inspiration than for construction), but it's nice to dream about making your own jellies and jams after the bombs fall.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Guns: Building a Better Reactive Target

If you're used to plinking with soda cans out in the woods, a more strict venue like the Gainesville Target Range can be a bit of a shock at first. I do think shooting at plain paper targets is essential for training ("paper never lies"), but even I have to admit that it's fun to shoot something that reacts once in awhile.

If your range doesn't allow you to place debris on the berm to shoot up, consider mounting objects on the target stands. I saw once gentleman at our range with an interesting setup - he connected a chain to a golf ball that allowed it to dangle from the bottom of the stand. At 100 yards, it's a fairly challenging target, even for his tricked-out 24" AR-15 (a Bushmaster Varminter, IIRC).

Another thing I saw people do was tape paintballs to their targets. I'm not sure if this is kosher on most ranges (even with biodegradable paint, plastic paintball fragments must be a pain to clean up), but it does make for an interesting splatter when your aim is true.

Music: If I Didn't Care

The "Fallout 3" video game soundtrack introduced me to "The Ink Spots," a vocal group popular in the '30s and '40s. Apparently, they were one of the most important musical acts of their time, serving as the precursors to the R&B and doo-wop sounds that would become popular later in the century.

Songs from The Ink Spots are usually chosen by modern day productions for their ability to evoke the '40s era while still being enjoyable. The sparse instrumentation and honeyed vocals pack a punch sixty years later. Here's a music video of their breakout hit, "If I Didn't Care":

Movies: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

It's not revealed until the credits roll, but David Fincher directed "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." In hindsight, the movie displays all the earmarks of a Fincher film - Brad Pitt in the lead role, good production values and camerawork, an aggressive refusal to edit extraneous parts of the story, and a certain pretension/ambition that invariably falls short of the mark.

Benjamin (played by Brad Pitt) is born with a remarkable trait. He physically ages in reverse, becoming younger as the film goes on. Orphaned at a young age, he is adopted by the caretakers of an old folks' home, but strikes out on his own in order to find his place in the world.

Pitt here is tasked with portraying an old man in a young man's body, but I think Cate Blanchett steals the movie from him; her older versions are more wise and more laden with burdens than Pitt's latter incarnations. As always for a Fincher film, the story takes some unnecessary detours (an uninteresting WWII stint and an overlong affair with a lonely woman played by Tilda Swinton). By the third act, the film feels like it's run out of gas, though the ending isn't as terrible as Fincher's other movies (*cough* Alien³ *cough*)

Rating: 6/10

Netflix Documentary Showcase Part 1 - King Corn

Netflix's streaming service for the 360 has a number of fine documentaries available, so this week I'll be featuring the cream of the crop:

"King Corn" is a documentary about corn farming in the United States. That might sound pretty boring, but in many ways, this is one of the best documentaries you'll ever see about nutrition and how industrialized nations feed themselves. It follows two friends, Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis, who move back to small town Iowa in order to grow an acre of corn and follow it through the food supply.

There are a lot of striking images in this particular documentary - mountains of corn, city-sized cattle feedlots, acres and acres of verdant fields. There's an underlying shock factor, too, since the vast majority of corn grown nowadays either becomes livestock feed or is processed into sweetener. The creepiest part of the film, for instane, is when a high fructose corn syrup industry rep is interviewed - her overly polished sales pitch is smarmy.

My only complaint against the piece is that it feels a little one-sided. Modern corn farming is presented in a mostly negative light, with the biggest dissenting voice coming from former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, who points out that modern farming allows the U.S. to grow more corn with less labor than ever before (Butz grew up in a small family farm, and there isn't a whiff of hypocrisy about the man).

Rating: 8/10

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Links: Topless Robot

I'm always on the lookout for interesting blogs, if only to refine my personal blogging technique. One of the best "grab bag of topics" blogs I've run across is "Topless Robot," which covers everything from the latest geek movie gossip to the "Top 8 Most Awkward Berenstain Bears books."

My favorite posts are the ones that cover strange happenings in the comic book world. I mean, isn't it great to have someone point out this Spider-Man panel?

Tech: Netflix Streaming Video

I tried out the Blockbuster DVD-by-mail rental service for awhile, but I've recently switced over to Netflix. The main reason for the change was because of a new feature Netflix offers - unlimited on-demand streaming movies and TV shows via the Internet, along with the usual snail-mail one DVD-at-a-time service.

It's an incredibly convenient feature - you can easily watch the first season of "Heroes," for instance, without having to endure the drudgery of sending and receiving for each individual disc of the DVD set. Since I have an Xbox Live Gold account, I can even stream the movies straight from my 360. Needless to say, for a movie buff, this kind of functionality is nirvana. Some of the titles look fantastic if you have a capable broadband connection (HD or near-HD quality).

There are a couple drawbacks. The selection of DVDs available for streaming isn't very good, and it doesn't seem like they're adding titles at a rapid rate. You also can't add titles to your instant streaming queue from your 360; instead, you'll need a separate computer connected to the Web. Overall, though, it's a well-implemented way to watch movies on-demand for very little cost ($10/month).

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year

New Year's Eve has always been a nice excuse to light up some fireworks, pop some champagne, and enjoy the company of others.

I'm a big fan of fireworks, but I have to admit, there's nothing quite as foolhardy as lighting up consumer-grade mortars in the backyard. I mean, I routinely visit a rifle range and fire bullets from hand-assembled cartridges that reach speeds of 3000 ft/s. Even for me, though, lighting up the average firework is a more dangerous proposition in many ways.

But, even with all the safety concerns, it's been a family tradition to shop at the local grey-market fireworks store, plop "Sky King" brand bottle rockets up, and launch them into the night sky. I hope everyone's having a great New Year's, and don't get burned!