Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Miscellany: Stuck in the Bluebook past

I'm writing my seminar paper for Advanced Patent Law, and that means citing sources - dozens of them, all using the Bluebook. The Bluebook is a system of legal citation promulgated by the law reviews of Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Pennsylvania. It's the most widely used format, adopted almost verbatim by many jurisdictions.

What irks me about the Bluebook is its relative intransigence toward the inclusion of digital media. Other citation systems accept websites and web-published content without too much gruff (the MLA Style Manual, for instance), but the Bluebook's nagging insistence upon traditional print sources seems outdated in today's day and age. There's even a convoluted system for parallel citation of printed material, just in case you find out that the info you found in a web search is in dead tree form somewhere, anywhere.

The whole thing is premised on the notion that you can't believe what you read on the Web. To be fair, there's a lot of stuff you CAN'T believe (visit any webforum, whatever the topic, for example). You probably shouldn't cite Shangrila Towers for anything serious.

But there is also a lot of great information available on the web. How about citing a podcast created by a professional astronomer? Or a web magazine that counts actual game developers as contributors? Is there anything that makes the New York Times more accurate than a famous blogger?

Tech: Braid

The platformer-puzzle game has a long history. Back when processors weren't fast enough to render complicated action scenes and 3D spaces, the only way to make a platformer that was interesting to play was to include puzzle elements that the player had to figure out in order to progress.

You can see this in early games like "Solomon's Key" and "Adventures of Lolo" - all the action takes place on a single screen that must be "solved" in order to progress to the next screen. With the release of "Super Mario Brothers," however, it became apparent that smooth fast-scrolling action would dominate platformer design for years to come. "Braid" is a platformer-puzzle game designed by Jonathan Blow that bucks that trend:

"Braid" is a platformer that revolves around manipulating time. The initial mechanic is pretty familiar to gamers by now - you have the ability to rewind the flow of time, to go back to the past. At first you use this to rectify mistakes: a missed jump or botched dodge. But the puzzles quickly ramp up, requiring you to proactively rewind time. Each world features a different mechanic to master - one level features a ring that slows down time to a crawl, another has shadow versions that can reenact, in forward motion, what happened when you rewound time.

There's a story here, too, told in sometimes pretentious bits of text that your character comes across on his journey. The storyline is "ambiguous" in that you could assign any number of meanings to the semi-coherent snippets that appear in the books you read. It's definitely a strange mix - "Braid" has tight gameplay ideas but scattershot writing - but if you don't want to delve into the story, you don't need to.

As a whole, the game is really well-designed. The frustration factor of the puzzles is low since you can skip nearly every puzzle if you're stuck, there are never any "gotcha!" puzzles that require pure trial and error to succeed, and each puzzle concept has a fairly clear solution that might require some lateral thinking. The only shortcoming here is that "Braid" is only a 4-5 hour affair, with limited replayability unless you want to speedrun the game.

Rating: 85/100

Monday, March 30, 2009

Guns: Black rifle on a budget

The current surge of interest in semiauto carbines is similar to what happened after the federal AWB was passed in 1994. What's different now, though, is that the run on these kinds of guns is happening during a full-blown recession. Prices for AR-15s are skyrocketing, and many shops are backordered for months (the lead time from the shop where I got my upper, for instance, has jumped to ~20 weeks). At the same time, though, it's apparent that it might be safer parking your money in a black rifle than in currency that's rapidly being devalued by the U.S. government.

If you're on a budget or you simply dislike the platform, there are plenty of alternatives to the traditional AR. If you're on a really tight budget and you still want a rifle, I'd recommend trying an SKS or a Mosin. If you have a bit more cash to throw around, here are some more options to try:

AK Clone: Prices for AK variants have been creeping upwards for awhile now. Even the ammo is expensive; it wasn't too long ago that you could grab a case of steel-cased Wolf 7.62x39 for less than $100 per 1000 rounds. Now, you'd be lucky to find the stuff at even double that price. Affordable AKM clones can still be found, I guess, but lately even the Romanian WASR-10s cobbled together by Century are selling at or above $600.

Mini-14 or Kel-Tec SU-16: These are both semiauto carbines that accept commonly available magazines. Both are targeted towards the civilian rather than the military market. Both are less expensive than anything but the cheapest ARs. In terms of sheer fun factor, I think the nod goes with the SU-16 (especially the C model, which can fire with the stock folded):

AR-180B/Bushmaster M17s/other 5.56 oddball rifle: These are discontinued or obscure guns that generally took standard M16 magazines and had features that distinguished them, for better or worse, from the average AR. The clunky-looking M17s that Bushmaster put out, for instance, was a bullpup-style carbine with a full-size barrel but an overall length comparable to an M4gery. Since these rifles were consistently outsold by standard ARs, it might be possible to find them at lower prices in some out-of-the-way pawn shop.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Miscellany: A Different Kind of Campaign Trail, Part 8

Most RPG campaigns end with a bang - a final showdown with the main villain, or perhaps a major disaster that can only be averted with quick action and a little luck. It makes sense dramatically, and not just for games. After all, many classic novels and films have ended in climactic finishes, conclusions where the heroes are pushed to their absolute limits.

Such is the case with my campaign, "Sparks of Fate." The next session will be the final session, win, lose, or draw.

The thing about an end-of-campaign showdown in a pen-and-paper RPG is that all gloves are off. You see, the DM usually works carefully to make sure fights are balanced and that the party is never quite overwhelmed. That's because if all the player-characters die during a fight, everyone loses - you can't play any more. Your connection to the game world is severed immediately.

But the final session is a special animal. The DM can let loose with all his firepower, since the censure following a TPK is removed - the campaign is ending anyway, so no one gets mad if they die. The next few fights in my campaign will be VERY challenging - players beware!

School: All-nighter

"Sleep is the first casualty of procrastination."


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Food: j. doobies

Almost every politician claims to be a friend of the small business, especially in harsh economic times. But whether a small business lives or dies usually depends on how well it competes, not on how much lip service or government assistance it can wrangle. Many small businesses survive by finding a niche and filling it, like j. doobies, a restaurant that opened last year here in Gainesville.

On the face of it, j. doobies should be dead already. There are a ton of competing burrito joints in this town (both big chains like Moe's and local favorites like Burrito Bros.) and j. doobies' menu mostly consists of wraps and quesadillas that aren't too dissimilar from everyone else's. j. doobies has higher prices and smaller portions, too.

j. doobies does have one huge ace in the hole, though - it's open until at least 3 AM every day and until 4 AM Thursday through Saturday. After I talked with the owner, it became apparent that without the late night college crowd, the place would not survive. When you're out for a late night dinner, the extra one or two bucks that you pay over the market standard is justified by the convenience of the place being open. Niche filled.

Ironically, the highlight of the menu, in terms of value for your dollar, are the side items. j. doobies buys very good French fries from an unnamed supplier, and you can taste the difference. The brownies and hummus aren't bad, either; the former is studded with walnuts and raspberries, while the latter is a deep purple-grey paste with an interesting flavor.

So, if you're ever in Gainesville at 2 AM and you need a burrito, you could do a lot worse than stopping by at 20th and 34th and eating at j. doobies.

2/4 stars

Friday, March 27, 2009

Music: Sacrament of Wilderness

I'm springing an epic dragon fight on my players during the next session of my D&D campaign. In order to set the appropriate mood, I'm taking a page from one of my friend's campaigns and playing some music in the background.

You're making your way through an enormous cavern, trying to find the surface. Up ahead, you see a pinpoint of light - an exit! As you clamber forward, the ground trembles. Your friends all draw their weapons, searching the darkness.

Ahead of you, a dragon roars from the ceiling. "Roll for initiative."

Nightwish is a symphonic metal band from Finland, known for their bombbastic hooks and the operatic flourishes of their former frontwoman, Tarja Turunen. "Sacrament of Wilderness," like most Nightwish songs, is over-the-top and borderline kitschy, with lyrics drenched in fantasy and religious allusions. For a fight with a dragon, though, subtle doesn't cut it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Links: Hypercombofinish

It's pretty rare for a blogger to return to a blog that he or she has abandoned. When the typical blog sits inactive for more than a few weeks, it's a pretty safe bet that the creator has given up on it. There are times, however, when blogs return from the dead, like Hypercombofinish. Where once there were year-long gaps between posts, now the blog is updating and running fine.

Hypercombofinish is maintained by cartoonist Chris Maguire (RevolvingDork) and writer Marie Kare (Marie the Bee). RevolvingDork creates awesome videogame-themed webcomics like the one you see above, while Marie the Bee chips in with game reviews and game news, including the "How to Be Me" series of interviews with people in the games industry. Well worth a look if you like video games at all.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tech: Just a matter of time, I suppose...

Well, it finally happened. My Xbox 360 experienced the dreaded "red rings of death." Strangely enough, this is the first video game console that I've ever had break down. My Super Nintendo, which is about 15 years old, still runs fine. I guess they just don't make them like they used to.

I'll send it in to Microsoft, not because I couldn't fix it myself, but because they deserve to pick up the tab for designing such a marginal piece of hardware.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Miscellany: Spring Cleaning

Spring has arrived, and that means a few things happen here at Shangrila Towers. One is fairly severe hay fever (the pollen counts in Gainesville have been uniformly high ever since March started - time to ride the pink dragon). Another is spring cleaning.

My cleaning schedule sort of fell by the wayside during my trial competition, so it feels good to reduce the clutter. Here are my favorite ways to get things in order:

1. Donate stuff: Old books that will probably never get read again? I give them to the library. Old clothes that don't fit? Straight to Goodwill. Not only are you allocating scarce physical resources efficiently, but you're helping other people out, too. It feels good knowing that if some kid wants to read the entire run of "Maison Ikkoku" but doesn't have the dough to buy the books, he or she can read them via the Alachua County Library system.

2. Be systematic: I'm not sure if other human beings are wired this way, but I like to clean up and tidy one area before moving onto the next. It's like a tide of cleanliness sweeping through my room - sort of feels like a game of "Tetris," or maybe the baryon sweep from the Star Trek episode "Starship Mine." I also carry a big trash bag while sweeping through the room so I can junk everything that can't be donated, sold, or reused.

3. Music: Mary Poppins was right - cleaning is easier when you have fun doing it. The genre doesn't matter - I've cleaned while playing everything from Jamiroquai ("Synkronized" is fantastic when you're mopping a floor, for instance) to symphonic power metal. Ambient stuff is probably suitable for the nitty-gritty work - nothing like scrubbing a bathroom tub to Indian devotional music from the musical duo Rasa.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Books: So you wanna learn about the history of video games...

I'm writing a research paper in Advanced Patent Law about whether or not gameplay concepts should be patentable subject matter. These patents cover the actual mechanisms in the game interface and game world (like a method for getting the pedestrians to jump away from your car in "Crazy Taxi"), not any physical computer hardware or even software code.

In order to get the broader picture, I've been examining the history of gaming and the games business. Here are two books that stood out:

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

This is an interesting biography of the two people who birthed the modern first-person shooter, John Romero and John Carmack. It starts with portraits of "The Two Johns" during their childhood days, follows them through the early success of shareware games like Commander Keen, details the blockbuster success of "Doom," and finally explains what led to the breakup of the dynamic duo at id software.

It's written by David Kushner, and he does a great job of capturing the anarchic freewheeling of the early days of computing, as well as the "death march" game development cycle that's become common in the industry. There are also smaller details that show that the author must have conducted considerable interviews with the people at id - you learn about the plot of Carmack's D&D campaign, for instance.

Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971-1984

My first video game system was an NES, so I missed out on an entire generation of home consoles - back when game machines had wood grain and one button joysticks. But in truth, the video game industry's roots stretch all the way back to big university labs and bulky mainframes. These machines were simple by our standards, playing games like "Tennis for Two." How we got from there to today's cutting-edge parallax-mapped polygons is a fascinating visual journey.

"Supercade" is a big book that celebrates that journey. It would be at home on any gamer's coffee table, especially if someone appreciates the Golden Age of video games - Pong, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong. Hundreds of games are referenced, some famous, some obscure. There are articles alongside some of the key game entries, but the real fascination for kids today will be at considering how game graphics made up of simple colored blocks and lines could have astounded arcade audiences a few decades ago.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Guns: You can't reload without components

Reloaders, at least in my experience, are not immune to scarcity. They're insulated, sure, since you can stockpile bullets, primers, and powder for less money and in less space than stockpiling loaded ammo. But you still need components, and for some time now there's been a shortfall, as the recent panic over the DoD's stance over previously fired brass shows. In my local sphere, the results of the ammo crunch have been stark, to say the least.

Stopping by the Gander Mountain in Ocala was like stepping into a post-apocalyptic zombie movie. The powder shelves were picked clean, with only a few odd canisters of Red Dot lingering. There were literally ZERO metallic cartridge primers left for sale - only a dozen boxes of shotshell primers. Even the bullet shelf was a bit bare, which is suprising considering that most reloaders get their bullets shipped directly to them in bulk.

Even outside north central Florida, it seems like reloading stuff is in short supply. When I searched for Lee carbide 9mm dies, I discovered that most of the usual suspects (Midway, Widener's, etc.) were out of stock. .223 rifle bullets are also starting to get a little hard to find, perhaps the result of all those new AR owners stockinng up. Buy it while you can, I guess.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tech: OpenOffice.org

In a previous post, I mentioned how the numerous free antivirus and antispyware programs I tried weren't able to clean my sister's computer. But that certainly doesn't mean that software you get off a store shelf is necessarily worse than a free solution.

In fact, ever since my trial license for MS Office 2007 ran out, I've been using OpenOffice.org. OpenOffice is a free office productivity suite that apes the functionality of most of the popular Microsoft Office applications - Word, Excel, Powerpoint, etc. It's pretty staggering how much functionality is here, especially considering that buying a copy of MS Office will set you back hundreds of dollars.

If there is a complaint that can be levelled at free and functional software like OpenOffice.org, it'd be that its performance is not as fast as Microsoft Office. Many parts of OpenOffice depend on Java (either a free implementation or the official JRE), so that doesn't come as a surprise. Still, if you're doing light office work and not crunching enormous spreadsheets, OpenOffice is definitely the recession-friendly way to go.

Food: Bourbon Street Coffee

During exam time, you'll often find me hitting the books at a local coffee shop. Not surprisingly, Gainesville is full of them. Most are downtown or near the university, however, so lately I've been going to Bourbon Street Coffee. It's part of a chain of coffeehouses that's either owned by Ben & Jerry's or partnered with them (there's Ben & Jerry's ice cream sold right inside).

Despite the moniker, there's no particular effort to reflect the coffee culture of New Orleans. It'd be nice if I could order up a fresh beignet, but instead you get the standard issue premade pastries - scones, cookies, muffins - none of it particularly noteworthy. The coffee is unremarkable, too, but the saving grace is that my local shop features "buy 1, get 1 free" on lattes on weekdays. My local Bourbon Street also caters to the college exam crowd - the place has wifi, plenty of power sockets, and is open fairly late into the night. All in all, it's a pleasant place to study.

2/4 stars

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

News: Shrugging

The big news story is how bailed-out insurance giant AIG paid out bonuses to its employees. Plenty of pictures of Congress grilling AIG execs and threatening all sorts of knee-jerk reactions that couldn't possibly be executed, at least if the judge follows basic contract law. Note that it was painfully obvious to the government before the bailout that these bonuses would be paid.

As Breda and many others have pointed out, this is starting to get us into "theater of the absurd" territory. After all, the Feds haven't been in the black for awhile. Why don't they give back their compensation? Not just the politicians, but all those mid and upper-level bureaucrats. AIG may be being bailed out by the government, but the government's being bailed out by us.

It all reminds me of "Atlas Shrugged," when the People's State of Mexico finds out that the copper mine that it nationalized is worthless. Before having the taxpayers take an 80% stake in AIG, maybe we should've peeked inside the copper mine to see what was there and how the mine was run.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Movies: Watchmen

Want proof that comic books have taken over the multiplex? The mad scramble for superhero IPs by the movie studios has finally resulted in the unfilmable "Watchmen" being filmed:

Ah...another day, another big-budget adaptation of a famous comic book series. At the helm is director Zack Snyder, who burst onto the scene with the kinetic "Dawn of the Dead" remake and followed it up with the surprisingly successful "300." His movies have a particular visual style - part slo-mo John Woo antics and part schlocky gore - that's on full display here. Every other scene in "Watchmen" features some kind of object falling or moving in slow motion, often toward the camera. It's derivative, but at least it's interesting to watch.

As far as the actors go, they do a pretty good job. In particular, Jackie Earl Haley's portrayal of Rorschach is excellent. He imbues the role with the proper mix of Clint Eastwood "Dirty Harry" absolutism and pent-up childhood resentment. Matthew Goode is woefully miscast as Ozymandias, not due to any major problems with his performance but because Goode's slim build doesn't really fit the character.

So is the movie any good? Well, Snyder has made a meticulous and very faithful recreation of Alan Moore's comic, so how you feel about the movie depends on how you feel about the actual "Watchmen" story. Moore's work has been praised and analyzed by critics, but to be honest, my friends and I have always felt that big parts of "Watchmen" were pretty flimsy, at least as flimsy as the source material which it purports to deconstruct.

Rating: 6/10

Books: Two from the "Inspiration" section

If you agree with the notion that wisdom is earned and not found, the typical self-help books out there aren't of very much use to you. On the other hand, the experience of someone else might indeed provide some new perspective on a challenge in your life. Here's two from the inspiration section of the bookstore that take this approach:

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch was a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon. After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he gave a famous "last lecture" that became very popular on YouTube. This book is sort of a distillation of the concepts of that presentation, along with some inside info about what was going on in Dr. Pausch's mind when he was creating the last lecture.

It's not a long book - you can read it in an evening. But within its pages you can sense a man making a summary of his entire life - his relationship with his family, his career, and most importantly, his dreams. This kind of memento mori could have been depressing or even overly sentimental, but the wide range of dreams that Dr. Pausch was able to achieve in his 47 years manages to keep things upbeat.

When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It! by Yogi Berra

Another book chock full of stories and life experience - this time from a famous baseball player and one of the all-time great Yankee stars, Yogi Berra. Yogi's known for his twisty, contradictory sayings, and many of the chapter headings in the book are malapropisms that sometimes approach Zen-like levels of obfuscation ("If the world were perfect, it wouldn't be").

Most of the book covers the relationships that Berra had with other people in baseball: umps, general managers, other players. There are some hair-raising stories that emerge from a life lived in the spotlight. On the whole, though, Berra has a pretty matter-of-fact view; he relates the battles he's fought with a mellow approach. The moral of the story here, I guess, is that time heals all wounds.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Guns: Big Bore, Small Pocket

I've used the S&W 642 as a pocket gun for awhile now, and it continues to do the job well. Notwithstanding the popularity of the Chief's Special design, gunmakers continue to roll out handguns that push the boundaries of the pocket gun envelope. Personally, I'm fine with .38 Special, but here's some brief thoughts on the big-bore pocket guns that I've tried:

AMT Backup .45

An interesting gun, and probably one of the smallest .45s you'll ever shoot. The sights are even more rudimentary than a typical pocket pistol - on most AMT Backups, there's no front notch, only two grooves that you line up on the target. Size is comparable to a Glock 26, although it's heavier due to the non-polymer frame.

The Backup, at least with full-power defense .45 loads, had relatively harsh recoil - the whole "big slow push" that you get from a 1911 doesn't apply to a 20-odd ounce handgun that you can't get a full grip on. Combine that with a long, heavy DA trigger pull, and you have a tough gun to shoot on the range. The Backup seems to have a spotty reliability record, but the example I shot was trustworthy. It still struck me as more of a curiosity than anything else.

Kahr PM40

The polymer-framed Kahrs have long occupied the upscale pocket 9mm market. If you couldn't afford a Rohrbaugh but wanted something a little more refined than a Kel-Tec, the Kahr PM9 was, and still is, a popular pick. The PM40 is essentially its bigger brother.

Overall, it was a fairly shootable package, although the recoil was snappy like most pocket guns. There are actual sights on the PM40, which is a huge deal on a dark target range (or in a dark alley, for that matter). What I didn't like when I shot my friend's PM40 was its tendency to stovepipe. I suppose these teething problems could be resolved with a little diligence, but it doesn't inspire confidence; that might be why my friend eventually sold his.

Charter Arms Bulldog

Like a lot of shooters, I wish the .44 Special was more popular. It's really a fairly practical revolver round - enough power to serve as a defense cartridge, a bigger diameter bullet than a .38, but moderate recoil. The mania over the .44 Magnum kind of took the wind out of the sails of the humble .44 Special. To this day, when I see the former and not the latter on sale in a gun shop, I have to shrug, since for most people the .44 Magnum is just too powerful to shoot regularly.

In terms of small revolvers, there are still a few .44 Special options available from the big-name revolver companies, but the Charter Arms Bulldog is the only .44 snub I've ever tried. It's inexpensive but fairly lightweight, coming in close to the bulk and weight of a K-frame snubbie. You might get away with toting this sucker in a large cargo pocket, but it'll never fit in a normal pair of slacks. In addition, there's the whole look and feel issue - if a S&W is a Toyota, the Charter Arms revolvers are like Kias. That is, they'll both get you where you're going, but the decades and decades of refinement on the S&W are noticeable in everything from the cylinder latch to the trigger.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Food: Chris' Taverna

In general, you can tell how good a restaurant is by how crowded it is. That's not always the case, of course (think of a fast-food joint during the lunchtime rush), but it's a good rule of thumb. People vote with their dollars; a good restaurant will earn repeat business and fiercely loyal customers. That's why my favorite Greek restaurant, Chris' Taverna, is packed pretty much all the time.

Chris' Taverna is nestled in the Pinewood Square shopping center at the intersection of Jog Road and Lantana, at the very western edge of suburban Lake Worth. The place serves Greek food, and it's become quite popular due to the quality of the food and the generous portion sizes. In fact, Chris' Taverna had to expand to a larger space in the shopping center last year because business was booming.

I know what most Greek food is supposed to taste like (I have a friend from Greece who regularly plated up some mean baklava and spanakopita), and Chris' Taverna delivers the goods. It starts with the simple stuff - the gyros are great. Huge helpings of freshly sliced gyro meat (no prepackaged junk like in a quickie gyro joint) are piled into a pillowy pita, along with tomatoes, lettuce, onion, and the all-important tzatziki sauce. You can get a lunch combo that combines the enormous gyro, fresh french fries, and a drink for about $8.

The salads are no slouch, either. The most popular thing on the menu at lunchtime with the soccer mom set is the Greek chicken salad. It features big strips of grilled chicken over an American-style Greek salad (you can also get a traditional Greek salad of chopped tomatoes and cucumber, too, if you're a purist). It's big enough for two people to share, and the good folks at Chris' don't charge you extra if you do.

Chris' Taverna also serves up a good dinner menu. Our family usually starts with calamari, fried up crispy and without the extra oily batter that you find stuck on the calamari of the big chain restaurants. Then, I usually get the lamb shank, which comes with two side dishes (the orzo and fragrant lemon-chicken soup are my favorites). Cap it off with some almond cookies or baklava, and you have a fine meal.

If you're ever wandering around West Palm Beach and you feel a hankering for Greek bistro food, now you know where to go.

3/4 stars

Thursday, March 12, 2009

TV: American Idol

I usually couldn't care less about reality fare like "American Idol," but my Mom watches it, and being home for spring break means that I've had the chance to listen to the show in the background while Mom's in the other room. In the process, I've come to think that "American Idol" is actually a pretty good illustration of some economic concepts.

For instance, look at fixed and variable costs (cost, in the economic sense, is what it takes to produce something). "American Idol" has a big advantage, one that's shared by most reality shows - fewer variable costs. For someone to produce three different "CSI" programs, for instance, you need three casts of actors, three teams of writers, three crews. These costs rise in direct proportion to how much "CSI" you want to put on; they're all variable costs.

The production of "American Idol" is a bit different. Sure, Simon or Paula might demand some exorbitant sum for being a judge, but once you've paid that cost, you can pimp them out all you want. That's why Fox shows so much "American Idol" - the competition show, the results show, the various audition shows. You don't need to craft a different storyline to show William Hung hamming it up. I suppose whatever writers and production staff exist for "Idol" could demand compensation commensurate with the volume of content being put out, but I can't see them charging like regular TV writers do.

There are other lessons here besides economic ones. Unlike in most elections, people can vote more than once for a contestant on "Idol;" the limiting factor is the time spent voting for a particular singer, since the polls are only open for two hours after the show ends. You can also easily split your votes. During that time, I could put in, for instance, 80 votes for dark horse contestant B and 20 votes for favorite contestant A (who's probably going to make it anyway).

It's the world's largest cumulative voting system. This is, I believe, a potentially more accurate way of gauging support for a candidate, in any kind of election. Additionally, the more-obsessed "Idol" fans will be the ones with the most total votes; a single diehard "Noop Dog" fan can outweigh dozens of casual voters. That makes sense, because one of the end goals is for "Idol" winners to be successful in the recording industry - if you've spent a dozen hours on the phonelines voting for someone, you're fairly likely to drop $10 on the album when it hits Wally World.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Movies: Push

It's no secret that Hollywood abhors risk. When you're pitching a screenplay, for instance, it's natural to fit it into whatever pigeonhole is popular at the moment. The danger here is not that the flood of "me-too" films will drown out truly excellent movies - those will always stand apart from the crowd. Rather, it's that derivative but well-made films like "Push" will get lost in the shuffle:

"Push" is directed by Paul McGuigan, and he does a pretty good job. McGuigan has an excellent sense of pacing, spicing up the movie with good-looking action scenes and the requisite quiet emotional moments. He also puts in details - like the eclectic soundtrack and the Hong Kong location - that give the whole production a decidedly cyberpunk feel (for good measure, there's triads, superpowers, and girls with strange haircuts).

Make no mistake, though: the movie's relentlessly derivative, cribbing liberally from all kinds of source material. In fact, the whole concept is reminiscent of last year's "Jumper," right down to the nefarious organization led by a black man (In "Jumper" it was Samuel L. Jackson, here it's Djimon Hounsou) that's tasked with capturing people with superpowers. There are also precognition shenanigans (think "Minority Report"), and they serve to camouflage a fairly nonsensical "find the MacGuffin" type of plot.

Still, the actors do a good job. Academy Award nominee Hounsou plays a convincingly cool villain, and Dakota Fanning combines deadpan snarkiness with some vulnerabilitiy. Even Chris "Human Torch" Evans puts in a likable performance, which almost warrants a 7/10 rating by itself.

Rating: 7/10

Links: Patent Pending Blog

As you might expect, almost every significant advance in firearms technology since the creation of the Patent Act has garnered a U.S. patent. All the famous firearms of yesteryear - from the Colt Navy, to the 1911, to the Garand - they all received patent protection in this country. Taken together, they represent a fascinating history.

For more about firearm patents, check out "Patent Pending Blog," created and maintained by patent attorney Bob Shaver. Mr. Shaver covers all sorts of technological innovation, not just firearms, so the blog is definitely worth a look for anyone interested in patents.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tech: Left 4 Dead

If you've ever wondered what it would be like if you and your friends got stuck inside a zombie movie, you now have your answer - it'd be like "Left 4 Dead":

"Left 4 Dead" is a first-person shooter from Valve that emphasizes cooperative gameplay. You play as one of four survivors of the apocalypse, on the run from hordes of sprinting zombies straight out of "28 Days Later." The four survivors move from safe room to safe room, and you have to stick together if you want to survive; like in a horror movie, the idiot who goes off by himself soon gets jumped and ripped apart.

There are a lot of horror movie moments here that arise purely out of the gameplay conceits. Since you don't regenerate health, for example, it's common for one member of the group to get particularly banged up (the injured teammate will limp around, moving visibly slower than the rest of the group). The zombie hordes are fairly adept at separating people, so the climactic "last stand" battles at the end of levels often result in one or more teammates being left behind to die. If you elect to try and save your comrades, you can either succeed heroically or be dispatched mercilessly by the zombies - both outcomes are straight out of horror flicks.

The actual design of "Left 4 Dead" is perhaps the most impressive thing about it. There are so many smart design decisions - from how you can see your fellow teammates through walls at all times, to how the game unfailingly prompts you when something special is happening, to how the levels are laid out to subtly propel you in the right direction without ever feeling too much like a railroad. The gameplay is seldom frustrating, even with the AI "Director" system dynamically populating levels with zombies and health/ammo supplies for a slightly different playthrough each time.

A big part of the game is the "Versus" multiplayer component, where a team of four Survivors squares off against a team of four Infected. Each Infected spawns as a special type of zombie with a unique ability, and their job is to kill the Survivors before they reach the next safe room. The gameplay here is wonderfully entertaining, since when you're a zombie you set up ambushes instead of running into them.

How much you ultimately enjoy your "Left 4 Dead" experience, though, is directly proportional to how many friends you can wrangle together in multiplayer. If you buy the game for the Xbox 360 without an Xbox Live Gold account, you're simply not going to have much fun. The singleplayer bot AI is competent, but it pales in comparison to living, breathing people to mess around with. There's also a shortage of content here - after two or three long evenings, you've seen everything the game has to offer, though future downloadable content might remedy this. All in all, though, it's a unique experience that will whet any zombie lover's hunger.

Rating: 84/100

Friday, March 06, 2009

School: The MPRE

In most states, law students are required to take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination in order to be admitted to the bar. This is separate and distinct from the actual bar examination; the MPRE exclusively tests knowledge of legal ethics. It's also a much simpler affair than the real bar exam - just a two-hour multiple choice test.

Here at UF, all first-year students are required to take a course in Professional Responsibility, so the MPRE isn't really a big deal. In fact, the passing score required in Florida is so low (80 on a test where the possible scores are from 50 to 150) that most of my friends don't spend more than a weekend studying for it. This is markedly different from other law schools, where the MPRE might be the first time a law student bothers to glance at the ABA's Model Rules of Professional Conduct.

I'm taking the MPRE this weekend, and I am studying for it. I do feel like the end goal here, though, is to fashion the law school experience such that people won't need to study the rules in order to determine what's right and what's wrong.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Books: Dungeon Delve

In normal D&D games, the Dungeon Master isn't an enemy of the players. Instead, the DM is the person who runs and guides the adventure, tuning the difficulty to give the PCs a good challenge but not an overwhelming one. After all, the DM has absolute power and could make the monsters in the adventure arbitrarily difficult, so it doesn't make sense for him or her to "play against" the player-characters. The recent D&D supplement "Dungeon Delve" takes a different approach, though.

Here, D&D has become a competitive game, with the DM actively trying to hinder or kill the characters (within the rules, of course). "Dungeon Delve" contains 30 challenging minidungeons, each filled with three encounters. The final encounter of each minidungeon typically features a very difficult fight designed to push the PCs to the limits. Some encounters have such overwhelming odds that only the most optimized parties have a chance at survival.

For instance, there's an encounter designed for Level 3 characters that contains a Level 8 monster. Now, it's hard for a typical Level 3 character to even hit a Level 8 monster, let alone deal enough damage to whittle down its 200+ hitpoints. Even the normal D&D rules caution against using monsters that are 5 or more levels above the PCs. But "Dungeon Delve" isn't normal D&D, it's D&D as a tactical boardgame.

Each minidungeon in "Dungeon Delve" can be built entirely from dungeon tiles that Wizards of the Coast has released, making the whole affair feel rather cut-and-paste. These minidungeons are designed to be either run through in a single night or combined with other encounters or ideas. There are some new monsters in "Dungeon Delve," too, but its bestiary isn't overflowing like "Open Grave" was.

So is this worth the money? I suppose if you need a quick encounter, "Dungeon Delve" provides a quick and easy source that covers literally every level of D&D gameplay, all in a nice hardcover package. Just be careful that you don't throw in too many of those finale encounters, assuming you want your player-characters to survive.

Music: Balloon

It's both a blessing and a curse to collaborate with a well-known musical artist. On the one hand, your own profile goes up considerably, and the collaboration often opens up a lot of doors that might not have been available. On the other hand, you might get caught, orbiting around the famous artist like a moon around a planet. In a field where people value their independent identity, it can be a fate worse than oblivion.

"Wendy and Lisa" (Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman) have avoided the latter fate, as their latest release, "White Flags of Winter Chimneys" confirms. They first came to prominence for their work in the '80s with Prince, but it's readily apparent that Wendy and Lisa have considerable musical talents of their own. Here's the first track off the album, a fairly down-tempo number called "Balloon":

This is probably the most laid-back song on the album, but it's a good example of the complexity and musical texture the two bring to what would otherwise be fairly straightforward melodic rock. Combine that with mature, practiced lyrics, and you have a darn good release.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Miscellany: Sure Plays a Mean Pinball

The pinball machine has been on the decline for awhile now, stuck in the same downward spiral that's afflicted American arcades since the early '90s. The reasons are pretty obvious; in a video gamer culture obsessed with better graphics, the joy of flipping a small silver ball to score points can seem like an anachronism. Add to that an expensive, high-maintenance physical cabinet that takes up a lot of floor space, and you have a losing proposition for a cash-strapped arcade owner.

It's a real shame, because a good pinball player on a well-designed pinball machine is a sight to behold. The endless thack-thack-thack of solenoid-operated bumbers, the flashing lights, and of course the movements of the player all combine into a rhythmic whole. While the continued success of virtual pinball tables in video game form is heartening, it's still a pale substitute for the real thing.

Here are a couple of my favorite pinball machines. If I ever had enough money to buy a den with enough space to hold them, these are the ones I'd get:

Doctor Who - "Doctor Who" has never fared well in game adaptations, since it's difficult to boil down the series into a simple first-person shooter or even a 3D adventure. The pinball version, though, is a real classic, with a beautiful playfield, a neat (if esoteric) ruleset that captures the haphazard feel of the TV series, and fun gimmicks like a vertically expanding platform in the center and a rotating Dalek head on the backboard.

The Twilight Zone - Another complex pinball machine, with some neat gimmicks and props, the coolest of which was a working mini gumball machine that dispensed balls during play. Strains of the classic "Twilight Zone" opening theme beckoned players, and the numerous references to the series on the cabinet artwork did the rest. I haven't done so myself, but I distinctly remember someone in the local arcade achieving "Lost in the Zone" mode where 6(!) balls are present and all targets are available.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Tech: When it comes to spyware removal, TANSTAAFL

During my undergraduate years in computer engineering, I was exposed to the modern youthful programmer élan that snides at everything closed-source. In this world, people like Linus Torvalds and Bram Cohen are the model - open source software, open protocols. You make money on the back end through service and support, not up-front with licensing to end-users.

There's always a suspicion, though, that what you get for free isn't as good as what you pay for. Sometimes the suspicion is unfounded (I'll be reviewing OpenOffice next week to provide a counterexample to this particular post, for instance), but sometimes TANSTAAFL - "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch." When my sister's laptop became plagued by a piece of malware masquerading as a legit spyware removal program, I found that most of the free antivirus and anti-malware programs were worth what you paid for them - nothing.

Fed up with the whole thing, I bought and installed Norton Antivirus, which is available nearly everywhere software is sold for the comparatively exorbitant price of $40. But it did the job. After the very first scan it had removed the exact malware without me having to know a single thing about computers. No tearing out registry entries, or messing with the startup configuration, or squinting at which processes were active. Best of all, it had a pretty small memory footprint, smaller than some of its free-to-download counterparts.

For the most part, it's probably more efficient not to visit questionable websites or download strange software. Nearly every computer programmer realizes the danger of executable code, which is why their workstations and laptops tend to run smoothly, antivirus or no. If you're a non-programmer like my sister, though, you might as well fork over the cash for something that works.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Food: Stay Classy, Tallahassee

While the trial competition didn't work out quite like I'd planned, I did get a free trip to Tallahassee. It was the first time I had ever been to Florida's capital city. If you ever find yourself in Tallahassee, Florida, here's some quick reviews of where we ate (and drank, after finding out the results):

Po' Boys - I've been to New Orleans and had some excellent "poor boys" (seafood-filled submarine sandwiches), so comparing the real thing to this Florida chain might be a bit unfair. Still, the downtown location we visited had pretty miserable service, although the actual food wasn't terrible. Don't get the jambalaya - it's a gooey, flavorless mess.

1/4 stars

Andrew's Downtown - A sports bar in downtown Tallahassee has a quite different challenge than a sports bar elsewhere. You're in a high-faluting setting, so the normal fare (chicken wings, burgers, fries) won't quite cut it. Still, that doesn't mean your menu will actually be any better than the neighborhood sports bar; for instance, my sesame-crusted tuna was served with near-inedible rice pilaf. The Guinness on tap was warm, too - give me Ale House any day.

1/4 stars

Fusion Cafe - We were a bit adrift after finding out we weren't advancing to the semifinals, so it was time for a little drinking. Fusion is a pretty good place for it - there's a separate bar area with a ton of relaxed seating and full food service. I was a bit surprised - not only did they serve up a decent Irish Car Bomb, but the food (Asian fusion - mostly sushi - with some random menu items like steak) wasn't bad.

2/4 stars

Red Elephant Pizza and Grill - No, it's not a secret GOP think tank, but a casual restaurant chain with a handful of locations. I could see it becoming pretty popular; the portions weren't bad, and most of the food was decent. I liked my salad that had chicken salad on top, and I'm not even a big chicken salad fan.

2/4 stars

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Miscellany: A Different Kind of Campaign Trail, Part 7

The default 4th Edition D&D game contemplates a smooth but relentless progression from Level 1 to Level 30. The player-characters start the campaign as heroic but mostly ordinary individuals, and at the highest levels have powers and abilities rivalling a demigod. For instance, at these later levels, many classes get the ability to resurrect instantly during combat.

I'm starting my campaign up again after a very long hiatus, and all the PCs are going from 4th level to 16th level. Level 16 isn't quite into demigod territory, but the PCs are definitely super-powerful - able to face down mighty monsters like Fire Giants and Earth Titans as equals. They aren't just saving villages or towns, but entire nations and continents.

There are definitely some pitfalls in accelerating PC advancement this quickly. The most obvious is that your players are a little out at sea when it comes time to roll for initiative. A Level 16 character has a plethora of attack and defense powers, as well as a full arsenal of magic items, so combat takes a little while to get used to at this level.

More subtle problems exist, too. The entire tenor and plot of a game has to change with a level increase this dramatic. Unless you want to pull an Oblivion and level all the enemies up so that the goblins are wearing astral plate mail, the PCs' foes have to be bigger, better, and more badass. And it's not just the monsters - the world suddenly seems smaller in comparison. The PCs can call upon magic rituals to teleport from continent to continent, or they can employ advanced flying mounts. Heck, even breaking down doors is easier.

Still, I'm looking forward to the challenge of creating content for PCs of this level.