Saturday, February 28, 2009

Food: Hogan's

I don't mind a fast food sub now and then, but sometimes I like something a little more homegrown. After wolfing down $5 footlong subs from Subway, you need a palette cleanser, something that's just plain tastier. Enter Hogan's.

It's been a staple here in Gainesville for 25 years, though now I hear they've started a franchise in Tampa. In any case, Hogan's serves up mainly submarine sandwiches and cold beer (there's a full bar with Guinness on tap - yay!). What makes Hogan's better is that they slice the meats and cheeses on the premises, with a deli slicer that sits right there on the counter. I'm not sure how the national chains do it, but the meats at Hogan's just taste fresher.

There's a wider selection of meats here, too. They serve a great pastrami sub that tastes even better toasted. You can't get oddball ingredients, unfortunately (no spinach or hummus on your sub), and the prices are a tad high. Overall, this is one of the better sub places in Gainesville.

2/4 stars

Friday, February 27, 2009

Guns: Accessories for the Home Defense Shotgun

For a long time, my housegun was a plain-Jane 20 gauge Remington 870 with an unwieldy 26" barrel. I switched to a 20" barreled 12 gauge 870 (mostly because of the scarcity of 20 gauge buckshot), and that served as bedroom defense for a long time. I'd still be using it today if I could ever get out onto the skeet range to practice. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case, so I shelved the 870 and went with an AR carbine because that's what I could get range time with.

Still, during those years where the shotgun was my primary housegun, I learned a lot about setting it up for defense, thanks to the folks on various webforums (The High Road and The Firing Line, mostly). Xavier posted about this topic recently, so I thought I'd share my top accessories for the home defense shotgun.

1. Proper Ammo - This is really the biggest and only absolute requirement. I don't make many blanket statements here on Shangrila Towers about guns, but here's one - NEVER use birdshot for defense if you can help it. Go with 00 buckshot or slugs. Birdshot is made for shooting birds and busting clay pigeons, not for penetrating into dense muscle and bone. Even the much-heavier 00 buckshot sometimes has problems with penetration, so why would you use something even lighter?

2. Stock & Sights - At most inside-the-room distances, a shotgun must be carefully pointed in order to hit at all. I won't say "aimed," because you don't really aim a shotgun, especially at a moving target. But you do need to point with your barrel, and a good-fitting stock and visible sights can help you with that. You may or may not opt for fancy tritium front beads - just make sure your eye can track the end of the barrel at all times, even when you're looking at the target. The best way to test your particular setup in this regard is practice at a skeet, trap, or sporting clays range. Go out with your shotgun as it is set up in your home, and practice often.

3. Weaponlight - A cheap polymer flashlight from one of the big flashlight manufacturers (SureFire, Streamlight, Pelican, etc.) will do if you mount it to your gun with a metal bracket. In a pinch, handheld lights not mounted to the shotgun can work if you have an autoloader, but not with a pump, since you'll need both hands to shuck the action. I've already spoken about how much I like my TLR-1 weaponlight, but the prettiest setup is a dedicated foreend light.

4. Sidesaddle/Buttcuff - I'm not as gung-ho about adding extra ammo onto the gun as others, since it's almost unthinkable that you'll need to use more than 6 or 7 shells in a fight. For when the unthinkable happens, though, you might like a sidesaddle or a buttcuff shell holder. Both store extra ammo on the side of the gun, and both alter how the gun weighs and handles. The buttcuff shellholder is a heckuva lot cheaper, so it gets my nod.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

School: John Lott on the Multiple Victim Shooter

John Lott of "More Guns, Less Crime" fame came to talk at the law school today. The talk was a brief economic overview of the costs and benefits of guns and gun control. Specifically, he talked about how concealed carry permits affect the mutliple victim shooter scenario (defined as more than three victims killed by the shooter).

A part of the talk that most gun rights supporters will be familiar with is the persistent exclusion of stories about citizens using guns to stop crime. Whether from the desire to sell newspapers ("if it bleeds, it leads") or from subtle political bias, news organizations in the mainstream media often fail to report defensive gun uses as often as gun crime.

A lot of it was old hat for people familiar with Lott's work, but it's heartening to know that the statistics are on our side. For instance, after Israel relaxed its permit requirements in 1972, Lott said, terrorists attacking crowds in public places switched from using machineguns to using bombs. Israeli efforts to stop gunman with police and military were mostly failures since terrorists could merely wait until the uniformed officers were not in the area.

Lott explained that mass shootings are disproportionately affected by relaxed concealed carry laws, because in any given public place there's a good chance someone in the crowd will be armed. Other crimes, though, are not as affected by right to carry, since criminals in those crimes face far fewer potential victims. Lott also argued that traditional criminal deterrents, like the threat of prison and execution, are ineffective for stopping these kinds of shooters, since they expect to die at the scene anyway.

Oh, and for an interesting discussion of the university spree shooter phenomenon and whether the universities should bear the burden of preventing them, see Ben Williamson's seminal note, "THE GUNSLINGER TO THE IVORY TOWER CAME: SHOULD UNIVERSITIES HAVE A DUTY TO PREVENT RAMPAGE KILLINGS?," at 60 Fla. L. Rev. 895.

Monday, February 23, 2009

TV: Nowhere Man

I hear AMC is putting out a remake of "The Prisoner" (it's a big-budget affair, and it stars Sir Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel). For my money, though, I think Lawrence Hertzog's short-lived UPN drama "Nowhere Man" beat them to the punch:

The premise is simple - photographer Tom Veil has a fairly ordinary life, with friends, a wife, and a burgeoning career. Then he takes a picture called "Hidden Agenda," and suddenly runs afoul of a worldwide conspiracy that erases all traces of his existence, including his friends and family (either by death or some mysterious coerced amnesia). Left with no other options, he becomes a fugitive.

It's obviously heavily influenced by "The Prisoner" and to a lesser extent "The X-Files," but the show has a unique identity all its own. Bruce Greenwood, in the lead role, has a likable Everyman quality while still retaining a dogged, animalistic cunning that makes you think he might just stand a chance against the forces aligned against him. Over time, though, he discovers that everything he knows might be a lie...

School: State of Lone Star v. Micah Victor

Well, both our trial teams lost at the Regionals of the NTC. I'm disappointed, of course, but not embarrassed, regretful, or dejected. The effort and polish exhibited by our teams was commendable, and I firmly believe that we did our very best. If anything, the whole experience has shaken my faith in the trial competition process, but that's a grouse for another post.

On the bright side, I'll have much more free time to blog, so hopefully the updates will be coming a little more regularly here at Shangrila Towers.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Miscellany: Adventures in Automotive Repair

There's perhaps no car problem as irksome as a dead battery. It renders the car completely unusable, but it's also a very easy problem to fix - as long as you have the right tools. When my sister's car mysteriously discharged its battery in the dead of night (she claims her lights were turned off, but I'm not so sure...), the quest began.

First, I tried jump-starting her car. The problem here is that jump-starting is an emergency solution, and her battery seemed to be almost completely discharged; her interior cabin lights were almost too dim to see. After about half an hour, I gave up.

After that, I wanted to remove the battery to check it. Unfortunately, unscrewing the nuts holding the battery cables to the terminals proved challenging without the right wrench. I had to pop into my tool chest and hunt around for the right size. Strangely enough, the winner turned out to be a 10mm wrench I bought for working on my bicycle brakes.

Now the battery is charging overnight in a nearby AutoZone (it was at 7V - too low to see if it could still carry a load or not). My suspicion is that I'll have to buy a new one, but I'm still holding out hope.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Miscellany: Watches measure time in more ways than one

In an age where everyone carries a cell phone, the necessity of having a wristwatch has decreased significantly. It's a bit of a shame, really, because while I was growing up, I sort of measured my progress towards maturity by the watches I was allowed to wear. Watches were something big boys got to use.

I still remember the first watch I was really fond of - a blue plastic Swatch that looked much like this:

My next few watches were the Indiglo type. There was a switch that allowed you to light up the dial, which was pretty cool to a 6th grader:

I finally settled on utilitarian digital wristwatches with LCD faces. They're tough as nails, water resistant, cheap, and the batteries last for an incredibly long time (I've had the same one in my Ironman for about ten years now, and it still runs fine):

The high-end watch is the next step on the path to adulthood, I guess, when the watch becomes more like a piece of jewelry than a necessary timekeeping device. Here's a nice Maurice Lecroix branded with the name of tennis star Roger Federer:

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Books: Great Expectations

The coming-of-age tale is a fixture of literature, and "Great Expectations" is my favorite version of the concept. Like almost all of Charles Dickens' work, it wasn't originally released as a big, one-volume novel. Instead, "Great Expectations" was serialized in an English weekly magazine, sort of the equivalent of a modern day TV drama. The book follows the saga of an orphan named Pip who mysteriously receives a large amount of money, money that has the power to change him for good or ill.

Here are some of Dickens' best characters - the icy Estella, the noble Joe, the enigmatic convict Magwitch. And of course, there's Pip, who grows up through the course of the novel. Almost everyone can relate to a part of Pip's life, a part of his "expectations" - we watch as he transforms from scared little boy to snobby brat to responsible adult, silently relating his experiences to our own. Dickens' message is clear - money might "elevate" you socially, but what really matters is the good you do for others.

My introduction to the book was a little choppy. It was taught in my middle school, but it wasn't taught particularly well (no fault of our teachers - the circumstances were complicated). I had to bum my own copy out of the classroom library in order to read "Great Expectations" in full. I still remember reading the book in the yellow light of my bedroom lamp, tramping along the Kent marshes with Pip. In some ways, we're still traveling together.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Tech: Wii Fit

The Nintendo Wii video game console has been annihilating its competitors at retail, mostly by appealing to a very different audience than the traditional hardcore gamer. Case in point? The game-that's-not-really-a-game, "Wii Fit":

Wii Fit retails for $90, which includes the game disc itself and a "balance board" that wirelessly synchs up with your Wii game console. The balance board is essentially a sophisticated version of your bathroom scale - it contains multiple pressure sensors that can detect your center of balance. Considering that a normal electronic scale retails for $20-$30, the whole package isn't as expensive as you first think it is.

The included software is pretty basic - you are guided through dozens of exercises and balance games by a cute, animated onscreen version of the balance board. "Wii Fit" includes yoga poses, strength training, aerobics, and balance games. Some of the exercises are pretty challenging (one of them is just a straight push-up competition, for instance), but most manage to use the weight-sensing capabilities of the board in interesting ways.

The game tracks your progress meticulously, which drives you to work out regularly. Think of the time a typical "World of Warcraft" player takes when he or she grinds for experience. Now imagine that instead of leveling up a virtual character, you're getting stronger and more flexible in real life. It's a fairly ingenius way to harness the gratification of completing a game with physical fitness.

Although I like the included balance board, I think the software is still a bit basic. You have a "favorites" menu, but there's no way to set up a long, uninterrupted workout routine. It also would have been nice to have the ability to play back your choice of MP3 music while you work out (other Wii games actually have this functionality). The focus on BMI is also a little strange, too - according to the game, people with muscular, short frames are "obese." Still, with all these caveats, it's a unique experience you can't get anywhere else.

Rating: 80/100

P.S. - Check out this awesome Wii Fit comedy skit:

Saturday, February 14, 2009

School: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Blunt Force Trauma

Of all the classes I've taken in law school, my Forensic Evidence class has easily been the most visceral. After all, most law school courses are pretty dry, loaded to the gills with abstract legal principles and perplexing statutes. In Forensic Evidence, though, we've had lectures concerning gunshot wounds, search patterns, and even death by asphyxiation.

The class is taught by Bernard Raum, an adjunct professor here and a former Baltimore prosecutor. As you might imagine, Professor Raum has encountered some truly horrific crimes in his stint as a prosecutor, and he doesn't hesitate to present these crimes to us. In his words, "these kinds of things happen all the time - not pretty, but they happen."

The photos of the victims are the hardest part - it's only natural to squirm when you see the battered skull of a dead infant, or the markings on the corpse of a dead woman where she was tortured with a hacksaw. It can be hard to stomach, but it's a dash of reality inside the vacuumed halls of academia.

Music: Talking in Your Sleep

It's Valentine's Day, so what could be more fitting than a song by The Romantics, an '80s power pop band that formed on Valentine's Day, 1977? Here's a clip of their biggest hit, "Talking in Your Sleep":

The video is pure '80s - the hair! The outfits!

Overall, it's a catchy tune, if a little bit off-putting. Like a lot of "love songs" from the '80s ("Every Breath You Take" by The Police, "Never Gonna Give You Up" by Rick Astley), it has just a hint of psycho stalker about it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Guns: Glocks - A Default Recommendation

Sometimes my friends ask me which firearm I recommend for personal defense. There are plenty to choose from, of course, but one pistol that always seems to pop up in these conversations is the Glock. That's not to say that I am a Glock fanboy (heck, I don't even own one). Nor do I think Glocks are unbreakable magic swords. But a pistol like a Glock 19 makes a lot of sense for someone who might not be all that enthusiastic about shooting but wants a handgun for defense.

They're easy to find, first of all - I bet nearly every gun store and gun show in the country has Glocks for sale. This means that unsure buyers can see, feel, and perhaps even testfire the pistol firsthand no matter where they live. I love my CZ P-01, for instance, but I can't guarantee XYZ gun shop in Terra Haute will have one in stock. It just doesn't make sense to recommend a gun that isn't readily available.

Accessories are the same way. The huge popularity of the Glock pistol line means that getting new magazines, holsters, and replacement parts is easy, especially compared to more obscure guns. Tracking down mags for a Steyr S9 might be fun for someone who enjoys the shooting sports, but I imagine it'd be frustrating for the average Joe.

Finally, Glocks are "coolness-proof." By recommending a Glock, any Glock, there's no danger a novice shooter will inadvertently buy something that "looks cool" but is really impractical, like a pistol grip shotgun or a Desert Eagle. It might sound ridiculous, but remember that non-shooters get their firearm information from movies and TV, where a TEC-9 is capable of hitting targets from two hundred yards away. The entire Glock pistol line is geared towards self-defense, so restricting the conversation to Glocks means that whatever is purchased will be at least serviceable.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Music: Living Room

The local library here in Gainesville has some pretty interesting stuff. There's a great graphic novel section, there's stacks and stacks of hard sci-fi books, and there's a wonderful world music stand in the CD collection. That's where I first heard Paris Combo, a musical group that's (unsurprisingly) based in Paris, France.

If I had to pick one eclectic French/Maghreb/jazz/swing group to listen to during a car ride, it'd be Paris Combo. The lead vocalist, Belle du Berry, has a kind of sing-song delivery that reminds me of a Sondheim production. Potzi, whose guitar stylings are clearly influenced by the legendary Django Reinhardt, brings in strains of North Africa in many of the group's songs. In fact, all the members contribute parts of themselves to flavor the finished product - this is a band, through and through.

Here's a music video for their song, "Living Room," off the album of the same name:

Monday, February 09, 2009

Books: A Cook's Tour

My restaurant reviews do a generally poor job of describing the experience of eating. Enjoying a great meal with family and friends is one of the most sensuous activities you can engage in; the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes can stay with a person for a lifetime. Anthony Bourdain does a much better job of describing the sensory overload that can accompany food in his travelogue, titled "A Cook's Tour."

It's ostensibly about Bourdain's search for the perfect meal, but it's really a rambling tour around the planet, sampling some of the best food that the peoples of the world have to offer. And we're not talking about high-faluting Michelin Guide restaurants; Bourdain concentrates on food that regular people actually cook and eat. Your mouth will literally water as he describes watching a family dine on a whole pig in Portugal, for instance.

One section of the book hit home in a particular way - Bourdain's trip to Vietnam. You see, between Mom and my Grandma, and the numerous Vietnamese restaurants in Houston, I've eaten almost everything that Bourdain mentions in the chapter. I can personally attest to the intoxicating aroma that comes from the kitchen when you start scorching an onion for soup broth, or the way grilled pork on skewers tastes when it's fresh off the grill. If you aren't able to get my Mom to cook for you (she makes the best snail soup I have ever tasted, ever), then reading "A Cook's Tour" might be the next best thing.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Movies: Breaking Away

There are some notions that are quintessentially American, and one of them is a love for the underdog. It started with the birth of our nation (thirteen upstart colonies versus the might of the British Empire) and it continues to be portrayed in American film. The best-known sports underdog movie is probably "Rocky," but I'm also a big fan of "Breaking Away":

"Breaking Away" actually captures a lot of conflicts in its 100 minute runtime. Dave Stoller wants to pursue his passion, which is cycling, but his blue-collar father doesn't understand. Neither do the college students who live in his town. And not even a professional Italian racing team appreciates Dave's talent. Trying to "break away," in life and in a road race, can be difficult, but you can do surprising things if you have help from your friends.

The real star of the story is the cycling, though. How many movies show someone truing a bike wheel? My favorite part is when Dave manages to overtake a big truck on the highway using his bike.

Rating: 8/10

Saturday, February 07, 2009

TV: Doctor Who

I always wondered how people from England who grew up watching "Doctor Who" reacted when they saw the show here. After all, the series was (and is) often relegated to late-night PBS stations in the United States. I have a soft spot for "Doctor Who," becoming a solid fan of the Tom Baker and Sylvester McCoy versions of the character when I was in middle school. Despite my fondness for the show, the thing I most remember when I was watching were the PBS pledge drives that tried to convince viewers to donate:

The primetime airings of the revived series on the Sci-Fi Channel in the U.S. have lightened the stigma of being a Whovian, but in many ways, "Doctor Who" is still a niche property here. Show a picture of Darth Vader or the U.S.S. Enterprise to the average Joe, and they might be able to identify it. Show a picture of the Doctor's TARDIS to the average American, and you'll almost certainly be met with blank stares.

It's a shame, really, because the basic premise - a time-travelling alien who has adventures across the Universe - is so open-ended that you can insert almost any type of story. Most of the early Doctor Who serials were pretty basic (standard monster-of-the-week stuff, like "The Seeds of Doom"), but there was always a charm about the whole affair. "Doctor Who" was written with the whole family in mind - that doesn't happen very often in sci-fi.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Tech: Star Fox

The Super Nintendo wasn't an underpowered machine for its era (hardware-wise, it matched up well with its main 16-bit rival, the Genesis), but the intensity of the early '90s console war prompted Nintendo to release games that contained the Super FX chip. The chip was an onboard coprocessor that had to be included in every game cartridge, but it allowed primitive 3D graphics in an era where "Doom" was the bleeding edge. Only a handful of Super FX titles were ever released, the most important being "Star Fox."

Even without the hype of new technology, "Star Fox" is a classic game. You pilot a futuristic space fighter against hordes of enemies, with polygonal buildings and structures impressively scrolling towards you. You don't actually have control over your path (your ship is restricted to a narrow corridor), but otherwise the controls are fluid - you can climb, dive, bank, and barrel roll with effortless precision.

Even with all the hoopla over the 3D graphics, the sound design wasn't neglected. The music of "Star Fox" was penned by legendary video game composer Koji Kondo (of Super Mario and Zelda fame), lending some gravitas to the explosions and laser fire that occurs onscreen. Those shooty bits sound pretty satisfying, though; when a big boss explodes, a deep rumble fills the speakers.

The game's most impressive level is an epic fight against the "Space Armada," a huge flotilla of ships controlled by the villain Andross. The whole thing feels a lot like "Star Wars" since you actually fly through several of the battleships during the level:

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Books: The Magic School Bus

Educational books aimed at children tend to be hit-or-miss. Most of them either get too technical (a surefire way to bore or confuse a kid) or simplify the subject matter too much (meaning that the child doesn't really learn anything). "The Magic School Bus" series of science picture books, written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen, strikes a happy medium. In each book, Ms. Frizzle and her class of students take a seemingly impossible field trip in their school bus - through the center of the Earth, or deep under the ocean.

The debut book of the series, "The Magic School Bus At The Waterworks," takes one of the blandest, most boring parts of elementary school science (the water cycle) and actually makes it nominally interesting. Once the series turned to science subjects that kids are actually interested in, like the Solar System and the human body, it became a huge hit that spawned a popular PBS cartoon.

One of our assignments in elementary school was to create our own "Magic School Bus" book. Even after all these years, I remember my take on the series - "The Magic School Bus Explores Asia." I had Ms. Frizzle's class explore everything from the Great Wall of China to the Himalayas. More geography than science, yes, but such nuances are lost on seven year olds.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Miscellany: The Total Party Kill

In party-based roleplaying games, the "total party kill" or "wipe" occurs when everyone in the party catastrophically dies in a single battle. For computer MMORPGs like "World of Warcraft," this can actually occur pretty often, especially if people stop cooperating. Thankfully, in most computer games, the consequences of a TPK aren't dire - you might have to resurrect yourself or reload your game, but you're not really stopped from continuing to play.

Tabletop RPGs are a different animal. TPKs are usually pretty rare in a well-balanced and well-played campaign, since the difficulty of encounters is custom-tailored by a living game master. Additionally, in most pen-and-paper RPGs, you are able to run away if you feel overmatched (most of the time it's pretty obvious when you should run). But, through a series of unlucky dice rolls, poor tactics, or simply unbalanced monsters, it is definitely possible for everyone's characters to die.

This effectively grinds the campaign to a halt. It's tedious to replay the encounter again, after all, since tabletop encounters are long, drawn-out affairs. It also feels gamey to "skip" the encounter and move on with the story, and it can gut the tension of a campaign if there's no risk of failure. Every gaming group handles character death differently, but I suppose what's important is that everyone has fun. After all, it's only a game.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Movies: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is one of the most popular sci-fi comedies ever made. I only read the novels as a kid, but the first version of the story was actually a BBC radio production. One of the most recent adaptations is the 2005 film directed by Garth Jennings.

The movie covers the misadventures of Arthur Dent, a put-upon Everyman who finds out that his good friend is an alien, the Earth has been destroyed, and his old girlfriend is dating the Galactic President. In other words, it's a mostly-faithful recreation of the plot of the novel, with some new plotlines being woven into the existing fabric. Overall, it starts and ends in the same place.

The biggest new addition is the romantic relationship between Arthur and Trillian, something that I believe is unique to this version. Other than that change, it's the HGG we all know and love, just with a shinier set of paint. Effects-wise, the production values are off the charts. Anyone who cringed at the absurd Zaphod makeup used in the BBC TV series won't have to be embarrassed here. All in all, it's a good movie, but a bit predictable for longtime fans.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, February 02, 2009

Guns: The Great AR-15 Bullet Debate

Some scoff at the .223 caliber itself, but it's important to realize that even within the universe of the .223/5.56-chambered AR-15 rifle, there are differing opinions as to what bullet is best for self-defense.

On the one hand, there are people who like using the same bullets used by the U.S. military. The military's M193/M855 rounds don't look very special at first glance - the M193 is a garden variety 55 grain FMJ and the M855 has a steel insert to help penetration. Supposedly, though, the high velocity of the .223 round and the physical profile of these bullets mean that they fragment inside a target instead of just passing straight through it, causing more damage.

On the other side are folks using more conventional choices - hollowpoints and other rounds designed from the ground up to expand upon impact. These tend to be more expensive, but proponents argue that they wound more reliably (even fragmentation supporters acknowledge that sufficient velocity is needed for a bullet to fragment).

Sometimes the discussion gets grisly, with armchair commandos posting battle reports from Israel, Iraq, and Afghanistan dissecting the performance of the 5.56 round on human bodies. I think gauging the effectiveness of a bullet through anecdotal evidence isa bit dodgy, and even testing with ballistic gelatin or other materials can be extrapolated too far. For my part, I reload ordinary FMJs, but I sometimes buy specialty defense ammo (like the Hornady specialty stuff).