Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Miscellany: Kershaw Skyline review

Can you still find a quality, American-made folding knife for under $40 and on sale in *gasp* Wal-Mart? Yes, as evidenced by the Kershaw Skyline, a liner-locking folder designed for "everyday carry," or EDC.

Let's start with the Skyline's blade. Out of the box, the edge is very sharp. I had a water bottle cap that wouldn't unscrew because the plastic wasn't perforated, but the Skyline easily freed it with only one light pass from the knife. The blade is hollow-ground (there's a concavity on each side). The result is a very light, aggressive slicer with excellent piercing capabilities. It's made of 14C28N steel, an alloy developed by Swedish materials company Sandvik. Sandvik markets steels like these in surgical blades, so you know this stuff can take a razor edge.

The knife is a "flipper" design - instead of pushing open the blade via a thumbstud or thumbhole, you use a lever to literally flip the blade out. It takes some practice, but it works pretty well once you get the hang of it. The pivot point is very smooth, so you really don't have to use a lot of wrist action to open the knife. I prefer the standard opening methods, but the flipper isn't a deal-breaker for me.

The handle is well-designed. The Skyline has a deep choil that provides good purchase for most types of grips. An advantage of the flipper here is that the lever also forms part of the choil; it'll take a pretty hard stab for your hand to go forward on the Skyline. The G10 handles have the consistency of high-grit sandpaper, but they're still not as aggressive as I'd like. Still, they provide adequate traction. The single steel liner and liner lock work well, with good lockup and no play on the blade.

The least impressive part of the Skyline is the pocket clip, which is way too stiff out of the box. You'll have to bend it to even make it usable. The knife can accommodate tip-up or tip-down carry, but only for righties - there are no lefty holes drilled into the knife. With all the EDC knives made nowadays with fully reversible clips, that's quite an oversight.

Overall, though, the Kershaw Skyline is a great, lightweight knife. You won't find many knives that weigh under 2.5 ounces with 3" blades. To get one that's made in America instead of a factory in Guangzhou is a minor miracle.

News: Supreme Court Grants Cert in McDonald v. Chicago

Last year's Heller decision was philosophically important, but of limited practical effect for people outside of the nation's capital. There aren't too many federal-level bans on firearms (the Hughes Amendment notwithstanding), and Heller didn't speak on gun control measures imposed by state and local governments.

Today, though, the Supreme Court agreed to determine whether Chicago's handgun ban is constitutional. Chicago, like D.C., requires registration of firearms within city limits. And again, like D.C., handguns are barred from registration and thus effectively banned. The only difference is that Chicago is part of the state of Illinois; the Court will decide whether the Second Amendment can be asserted against the states via incorporation.

This is the case that could break the back of gun control in America. If Chicago's ban goes down, then so do similar controls in other big cities like New York. There is thus likely to be a much tougher fight this time around (Bloomberg and co. will call up everyone and their uncle to argue in support of Chicago). Here's hoping that all five Heller votes hold up.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

TV: Married...With Children

Mom and Dad were always good at counter-intuitive parenting techniques, so it's not surprising that a fixture of our household was "Married...with Children," FOX's raunchy, subversive sitcom about the dysfunctional Bundy family:

On the surface, MWC is the last show a kid should be watching. Al Bundy, the main character, is a loser shoe salesman with a lazy wife, a dim-bulb daughter, and a horndog son. His neighbors, the D'Arcys, are quite a pair, too; Marcy is an irritating shrew and her two hubbies are self-centered conmen. The characters usually spend the half-hour runtime hurling insults at each other and whining about their sex lives and their bank accounts. Cosby it ain't.

But all that is skin-deep. MWC has a core morality that tacitly confirms the June-and-Ward American nuclear family can still work in the modern world. Al and Peg, for all their bickering, never cheat on each other and never really divorce. Their kids, however screwed-up, are at least going to school and living at home. The shared stigma of being a Bundy seems to bind them together and often unites them against the outside world ("Bundys are losers, not quitters!").

MWC ran 11 seasons (it could have survived for longer if not for FOX's typically bonehead scheduling decisions and the show's rising budget). Towards the end of the run the show became pretty cartoonish, with storylines involving the Devil, Terry Bradshaw, and other gimmicks (an episode of MWC was even broadcast in 3D). Despite the antics, the main reason for MWC's continued success was the talented cast.

In the aftermath of MWC, many of the stars have gone to bigger and better things. Sagal starred in "8 Simple Rules" and "Futurama," Christina Applegate survived breast cancer and starred in the short-lived but popular "Samantha Who?", and Ed O'Neill earned a black belt in BJJ from the Gracies (!!!).

Saturday, September 26, 2009


The rush of wind you felt Saturday night was the simultaneous gasp of thousands of Gator fans as Tim Tebow lay motionless on the field during Florida's 41-7 trouncing of Kentucky. Players get injured all the time, but when the player is Tim Tebow, the whole college football world stops in its tracks. Tebow eventually walked off the field, but was taken to a hospital for further testing. The tension was palpable; never has one player been so important to a team.

So important, in fact, that there's a site called devoted to all things Tebow. There are a few other hypertopical sports blogs devoted to individual athletes (e.g. Ruans Federer), but is an in-depth look at every aspect of Tim Tebow, from his on-field heroics to his missionary/humanitarian work in the Phillipines and in Florida prisons. In difficult times like these, it'll have the most up-to-date info on Florida's "Superman."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Guns: Hogue Bantam Grips

One of the oft-overlooked virtues of using a revolver is the ease of modifying the grip shape. Since you'll always have to accommodate the magazine in an autoloader, designing radically lightweight or shaped grips is more difficult. The bulky profiles of double-stack service pistols are even harder to change (even if you figure in the interchangeable backstraps a lot of the polymer guns have nowadays).

Case in point: the Hogue Bantam is a small, lightweight grip that weighs 0.9 ounces less than the Uncle Mike's boot grips that come standard with the J-Frames. The boot grips are already fairly diminutive, but the Bantam grips are smaller. Now, 0.9 ounces might not seem like much, but considering that the gun with the heavier grips is only 15-odd ounces to begin with, it's a significant weight decrease.

The circumference of the Bantam grips is smaller than the Uncle Mike's model, making them better for smaller hands. The Hogue set is of one piece construction, so there are no seams or screws to irritate your hand while you shoot the revolver. The one problem I have with the Hogue grips is that the molded rubber is sticky; it's more likely that a shirt or jacket will get caught on the Bantam material than the stock grips. For people who carry in the pocket, though, the grippiness is a nonissue, and the Bantams are a worthwhile upgrade.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Books: September Science & Math Feature

Back-to-school time can be the catalyst for learning, even if you're not actually in school. Whether it's history, philosophy, or science, your local library is bound to carry something that interests you. Here are a few science books that I thought merited reviews:

The Numbers Game

The fracas over health care in the U.S. naturally lends itself to statistics. Supporters and opponents point to per-capita costs, millions of uninsured, and other numbers everyday in their arguments. After reading "The Numbers Game" (originally published in the UK as "The Tiger That Isn't"), you'll probably view these stats with a bit more skepticism.

Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot, the people behind the popular BBC radio show "More or Less," lead the reader through all the ways that statistics can be skewed, misinterpreted, or just plain botched. Using a variety of examples (including a lively discussion of the UK's health system), "The Numbers Game" helps to reveal just how uncertain most of these hard numbers are. It's not a diatribe against statisticians and census workers, though, but merely a guide for performing sanity checks on all the probabilities and percentages that get thrown our way by the pundits and talking heads.

Death from the Skies!

Reading "Death from the Skies!" is like taking an extended wikiwander through the human extinction pages of Wikipedia. If you ever wondered how a freak coronal mass ejection or rogue black hole could annihilate civilization as we know it, this is your book.

Astronomer Philip Plait (of Bad Astronomy fame) has a talent for describing things on enormous scales (a gamma ray burst that irradiates the entire planet, for instance). Helpfully, though, he also gives you the relative chances of spaceborne disasters - most are incredibly unlikely in the short term. In a bit of serendipity, the only disaster that might actually occur in our lifetimes (an impact from a comet or asteroid) is the one we can prevent. So next time someone proposes to cut NASA funding or derides private space exploration, think about the possible Armageddon lurking out there in the void...

13 Things That Don't Make Sense

The fun part about science is how much that we haven't figured out, all the things we can't explain. No one knows what dark matter or dark energy is, and no one knows how to create life from nonliving components. Heck, scientists can't even agree what life is.

"13 Things That Don't Make Sense," by Michael Brooks, is a good summmation of all of these mysteries and more, along with the latest research that's being done to crack them. I was familiar with some of the cosmological mysteries, but the story of the mimivirus and the Viking Lander were new to me. I think the book sort of ends on a weak note (the final chapter deals with the niggling persistence of pseudoscience like homeopathy), but it's a decent read nonetheless.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Movies: Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood, by this point, has become almost a character in and of himself. Forever associated with his most iconic roles - the Man with No Name, Dirty Harry - he has an unmatched screen presence which he uses to full effect in "Gran Torino":

Walt Kowalski is a retired widower and Korean War vet who finds himself in a world that's almost entirely different from the '50s Detroit where he raised his kids. Hmong immigrants are moving in next to him, gangs roam the streets of his once-peaceful neighborhood, and even his own son is trying to get him into a nursing home. It's a role made for Eastwood, allowing him to indulge in swaggering menace one minute and quiet solitude the next.

The other actors (particularly Bee Vang, who plays Thao) are inexperienced and have a tough time following Eastwood's tonal shifts. "Gran Torino" has plenty of Serious Drama going on, but interspersed throughout are moments of comedy and playfulness. Remember, the same guy who gave inspired tough guy performances in "Dirty Harry" and "Unforgiven" also hung out with an orangutan in "Every Which Way But Loose."

Where the film really earns its stripes is in the ending, which shows that Eastwood the Director knows how to milk Eastwood the Actor's star power for everything it's worth. By reputation alone, you know there's going to be some heads rolling at the end, but the way it all goes down may surprise you. In that way, "Gran Torino" is sort of a fitting conclusion to all the improbable cinematic bloodshed Eastwood's characters have wrought over the decades.

Rating: 8/10

P.S. For gun buffs, there are some fun parts in the movie. Walt's M1 Garand and M1911 are featured prominently, and most will agree that these two old warhorses do the job just as well as anything made today - just like Walt.


In the world of Second Amendment websites, is one of the main content aggregation hubs - fancy Webspeak for "a place where people put a lot of links to different pieces of info." The newslinks are a mix of gun-related opinion, fact, and discussion from around the country. Some Congresscritter proposing a "smart gun" system in Idaho? You're going to see a link to it on KABA. Anti-gun mayor mouthing off behind a wall of bodyguards? KABA will make sure the words get lampooned properly.

Most importantly, though, are the constantly updated links to instances where ordinary citizens use firearms for self-defense. These are the kinds of news stories that'll never make the national dinner hour news programs, but do appear on local stations across the country. For every spree shooting on the NBC Nightly News, there's two dozen people fending off invaders in their homes, at their workplaces, or out in public. Gun rights are nice in theory, but it's important to see that they work in practice, too.

Miscellany: A Salute to the Stinger Wet/Dry Vac

When it comes to maintaining a household, my Mom and Dad like to get their hands dirty. And we're not just talking about weeding or lawn mowing, but heavy duty maintenance. Chop off branches from a 50 foot sabal palm? Pff, why hire someone when you can do it yourself?

That kind of gung-ho attitude even extends to pressure cleaning the back porch, a twice-a-year ritual that involves several hours of backbreaking labor. We remove all the plants and pots, wash everything with the pressure cleaner, suck up all the dirt and grime that's just been knocked off, and then put everything back. Considering my Mom's passion for gardening, it's a lot of work.

The pressure cleaner is important, of course, but the whole production would be twice as hard if it weren't for the Stinger Wet/Dry Vac, an electric vacuum cleaner once produced by Emerson Tool Company. While one person scrapes all the muck off of the concrete, the other sucks up said muck with the Stinger. Without the vacuum, we'd have to find some way to get all the dirty water and bits of solid matter out of the screened-in porch - not fun.

What prompts the blog post is simple: the Stinger is a marvel of durability. We keep the machine outside, and only use it twice a year, but for hours at a time - a nightmare usage schedule if there ever was one. For many, many years now, the Stinger has just kept on ticking, happily digesting all the rotted leaves, pebbles, and bits of moss that get thrown its way. I see that Emerson is making newer wet/dry vacs, and these may well be worth a look...but we won't be needing a new one any time soon.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Movies: A Patrick Swayze Tribute

There's been a lot of tributes to Patrick Swayze in the media, but I noticed that most of them don't cover my favorite side of the actor's career - his penchant for starring in off-kilter action movies. Here's a rundown of Swayze's best:

Road House - One of Patrick Swayze's first outings after the success of "Dirty Dancing;" the tagline is "The Dancing's Over. Now it gets dirty." Swayze plays a bouncer from the big city who gets tangled in the rough-and-tumble world of a smalltown bar. It's not a very good movie, but it did inspire this incredible MST3K song:

Point Break - Patrick Swayze is a surfer who moonlights as a bank robber in this guilty pleasure from Kathleen Bigelow. This is actually one of my favorite Swayze characters; there's enough moral ambiguity and flat-out craziness here for him to really sink his teeth in.

Red Dawn - Patrick Swayze leads a ragtag team of teenagers against a Soviet invasion of the U.S. in this memorable, utterly stupid action flick from John Milius. Swayze is a member of an ensemble here, and does a decent job of staying earnest despite the outlandish premise.

Steel Dawn - I like to think of this post-apocalyptic tale as the unofficial sequel to "Red Dawn," as it takes place in a hellish post-WWIII wasteland. Patrick Swayze plays a wandering warrior who protects a town from bandits. Probably the worst movie on the list, but the opening scene features Patrick Swayze killing sand people with a sword, making it required viewing if you like cheesy movies.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tech: Scribblenauts

Most video games don't require imagination. Problem-solving? Sure. Logic? Of course. But few games allow the user to tap those deep wells of creativity that lay dormant in the workaday world.

"Scribblenauts," a Nintendo DS game from developer 5th Cell, is one of those few games:

In each stage of the game, you'll have to solve some kind of puzzle, whether it's getting a cat down from a tree or hopping over a huge chasm. As the ad suggests, you can write and summon almost any physical object into the game world to help you.

The dictionary is extensive, covering everything from kitchen utensils to mythical beasts. Solving puzzles can be made as simple or as convoluted as you like...check this clip out:

There are a lot of amusing, emergent interactions that arise from the extensive object-and-characteristic database. I lured a cat out of a tree with a ball of yarn, for instance, and putting a mirror in front of a medusa works how you'd expect. There are some times when you can stump the game (I thought a beekeeper would help me with an angry bee, but instead he was attacked and stung to death), but, on the whole, it's astounding how complete the game's simulation is.

Most reviews dock "Scribblenauts" for its unwieldy controls - moving your character around can be a hassle, especially when you consider that the same stylus is also used to drag and drop objects around the playfield. The production values are pretty basic, too - limited sound effects and animation accompany each object. But those complaints seem like nitpicking when you consider that this game lets you fly a pterodactyl while dangling a hobo over a shark-filled pool.

Rating: 85/100 (most complete hobo-endangering simulation out there)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Movies: The Forest For The Trees

Our local library has a big selection of foreign movies, most of them coming from the Film Movement collection of artsy indie flicks. To be honest, the bulk of the FMC's catalog is ponderous and dull; sometimes I feel like directors use a low budget to excuse torpid pacing. When a movie does succeed in spite of its unadorned production values, it is something of a minor miracle.

That's why I'm impressed with "Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen," or "The Forest For The Trees." It's a student-film by Maren Ade that follows an idealistic young schoolteacher named Melanie who leaves home to live on her own. Everything seems to start out okay (Melanie befriends her pretty shopgirl neighbor and makes an initial splash at work), but soon personal and professional difficulties ensue.

If you find moments of social awkwardness painful to watch, then this movie will make you grit your teeth. Melanie's slow slide into loneliness and despair is brought to life with an incredible performance by Eva Löbau. The movie doesn't have enough of a plot to sustain its 80-odd minute runtime, but it remains absorbing due to the acting.

The ambiguous ending doesn't overstay its welcome and leave much open to interpretation. Director Maren Ade also gets major props for good use of Granddaddy's 2000 single "He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot":

Rating: 7/10

Friday, September 11, 2009

Miscellany: The Caldwell Theatre Company presents "The Whipping Man"

The Caldwell Theatre Company

The Caldwell Theatre Company has been operating in the Boca Raton area for decades, skipping around from location to location like an itinerant vaudeville troupe. It has a permanent home now, just a block away from the dilapidated, abandoned strip mall where it used to reside.

It's easy to pass right by the Caldwell's new home on North Federal Highway. The Count de Hoernle Theatre is, after all, a nondescript cream-colored building with a smallish parking lot. Inside, though, is one of the few surviving theatres in this part of south Florida.

A lot of this is economic; live theatre is a luxury. For the privilege of having breathing human beings perform on stage in front of you, you pay several times what you would at the cineplex. But, speaking as a former drama geek, there's an irresistable draw there, something that dead film stock cannot offer.

The audience's energy energizes the actors. Levity is greeted with appreciative laughs, but in times of high drama, the crowd can be deathly silent. The CDC's stage is an intimate one, with only 300 seats, all of which are close enough to get a good view. The acoustics are good enough to pick up stage whispers and other subtleties.

The Whipping Man

The production I saw at the Caldwell was "The Whipping Man," a play written by Matthew Lopez. It was directed by Clive Cholerton and starred Nick Duckart as Caleb, John Archie as Simon, and Brandon Morris as John.

Set in the days following Lee's surrender at Appomattox and Lincoln's assassination, the story weaves some unlikely connections that bind both events and people. More specifically, it tells the story of a wounded young Confederate soldier who returns home to find his family's two slaves and not much else. The soldier's family is Jewish, and the Passover Seder has a huge role in the plot.

There is an obvious potential for conflict here, and questions of religious faith and morality are explored during the runtime. Despite all the weighty issues, the opening act was humorous (at least that's how it played at the Caldwell). The last third had the revelatory twists that people expect from a play, although here they were pretty predictable.

I wish the performers mastered their Southern accents better (Brandon Morris in particular sometimes sounds like Foghorn Leghorn). The beats came a little quick in the first part of the play, with much of the dialogue being hurried through. As it went on, I think the performers got a little settled and started delivering better. Overall, it was an interesting show, and a good example of what can be done with three people, ninety minutes, and a bit of imagination.

September 11th - Worse Than This

The present always seems to look bad, since people have short memories. Mounting unemployment, a rancorous health care debate...if you looked at the grim attitudes around America, you'd probably think these are the biggest challenges we've ever faced.

Eight years ago, things were worse. Eight years ago, people openly wondered if we'd see another World War, or if terrorists would attack with nuclear weapons. Eight years ago, people hung on every news report to find out the extent of the destruction - and whether any of their loved ones were among the fallen.

All the stuff on the news cycle just seems trivial by comparison. How can anyone care about Jon and Kate or Michael Jackson when a life-and-death struggle with radical Islam is still being waged? In a ravine in Kunar, on a dusty dirt road in Basra, the mission remains. Keep the roads open, keep the people working, keep the elections running. Because eight years ago, things were worse.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sports: The Mirror Match

In an individual sport like tennis, everyone plays the game a little differently. There are dozens of "correct" ways to hit a serve, for instance. Even looking to the larger issues of match tactics and strategy, people have different styles. Serve and volley vs. baseliner, clay court grinder vs. power hitter...all the various shots and movement patterns add up to a pretty idosyncratic package for the average tennis pro.

Every once in awhile, though, you meet a person who plays like you.

That's what happened to Melanie Oudin, the 17 year-old underdog who found herself playing a night match on Arthur Ashe Stadium, the largest in tennis. Her opponent was Caroline Wozniacki, a top-10 player. To get to this match, Oudin had defeated four Russians with powerful groundstrokes.

But Wozniacki was different from those Russian women. She is, to put it bluntly, a "pusher." She concentrates mostly on playing great defense, using good movement to recover to a neutral position after hitting a deep, safe groundstroke. Occasionally, she'll use a strong serve or good angle to force an error or hit a winner, but mostly she wins through attrition - frustrating her opponents into making errors.

Oudin has a similar style. To be fair, Oudin's forehand is a pretty good shot that can easily win a point, but her net game and serve aren't good enough for her to reliably end points with pure offense. So she uses her movement (which is indeed world-class) to keep her in rallies, forcing opponents to hit just one more ball. Wednesday night's quarterfinal, in essence, was pusher versus pusher.

It wasn't particularly pretty tennis to watch, especially if you're used to the all-out artistry and athleticism of men's tennis. In the ensuing battle, rallies routinely went into the double-digits, with both women waiting for the other to blink. In the end, Oudin pulled the trigger a little too often, and lost her match with Wozniacki 6-2, 6-2, with literally 2/3 of Wozniacki's points coming from Oudin's errors. Oudin actually hit more winners than Wozniacki, but made far more unforced errors. During the last part of the match, her irritation was visible - wouldn't you be annoyed if someone used your tactics against you?

Monday, September 07, 2009

A Labor of Love...Happy Birthday Shangrila Towers!

Hooray! Shangrila Towers is three years old, which is like thirty in blog years. Time for a sappy celebratory song from Icelandic band Sigur Rós:

Hoppípolla is really the perfect song for commemorative montages, isn't it?

Friday, September 04, 2009

Guns: The Detail Strip

To "detail strip" a gun means to disassemble it all the way down to its component parts - usually all the way down to pins and springs. It's an interesting activity, since a successful detail strip and reassembly simultaneously gives a gun owner more and less confidence in a given firearm.

The detail strip provides more confidence because if you know how to take a firearm apart and how it works, you'll generally be able to diagnose and correct any problems that it might have in the future. Without the ability to do a detail strip, you're going to have to ship your gun back to a factory or leave it with a qualified gunsmith. Either will cost money and time.

It also takes away your confidence, because it makes you realize that most firearms have dozens and dozens of fiddly bits. The failure of any one of them could turn your gun into a really awkward paperweight.

For my part, the only handgun I've ever detail stripped is my CZ-75B. It's an older design, so the detail strip isn't as easy as a GLOCK, but most people should be able to get the gun apart without too much trouble. I've had to replace the trigger return spring, the extractor spring, and the firing pin - strangely enough, the much-maligned CZ slide stop is still working fine. Go figure.

Thanks to the Web, you can find instructions for disassembling just about any popular firearm. Here are some links to help you detail strip a CZ-75B:

Dr. Strangegun: Past the pins
A Do-it-yourself Trigger Job from CZF
Another CZ-75 Trigger Job
Tutorial for Trigger and Return Spring Replacement

Movies: Foreign Language Film-o-rama

Our library down here has a pretty extensive selection of foreign films. Most of them are plodding and talky, but a select few are engaging enough to be worth your time. Here are my picks:

The Counterfeiters

Sometimes it seems like the quickest way to get an Oscar nod is to set your film during the Holocaust/WWII-era ("Life is Beautiful," "Schindler's List," etc.). The cynical part of me says this is because many of Hollywood's biggest producers, actors, and directors are Jewish, but, even when viewed objectively, there is indeed plenty of drama to be mined out of that miserable time. "The Counterfeiters" leverages its brutal concentration camp setting to the fullest:

A group of prisoners is enlisted to help the Germans counterfeit the English pound in order to destablize their economy. In exchange, they are given better beds, better meals, and a better chance at survival. Director Stefan Ruzowitsky does a decent job in portraying the bleak Holocaust atmosphere, but he takes few risks (the movie has the same washed out, desaturated look you've come to expect from WWII films).

Thankfully, the actors pick up the slack, lending their characters the mix of quiet determination, guilty gratitude, and naked fear that comes with their position as cogs in the German war effort. Karl Markovics is the lead counterfeiter, a conman who quickly gains the sympathies of the audience. My personal favorite, though, was Devid Striesow's spot-on portrayal of Sturmbannführer Herzog, the calculating, ruthless, and ultimately pathetic SS commander in charge of the operation.

Rating: 8/10

Nobody Knows

Japan is infamous for two things - overpopulation, and the overwhelming feelings of social isolation that can occur in spite of that overcrowding. "Nobody Knows," a film by Hirokazu Koreeda, explores that duality:

Loosely based on a true story, "Nobody Knows" follows four siblings who live in a small apartment with their habitually absent mother. As the mother starts to disappear for longer and longer periods of time, the kids face a desperate struggle for survival.

Koreeda directed the surreal "After Life" in 1998, and it's clear he knows a lot about getting the most out of an ensemble cast, even one composed of teenagers and children. The slow pace of the movie gives full effect to the gradual transformation of the children's cramped world; the viewer can almost smell the rotting garbage in the apartment. When the credits finally do roll, it feels like a relief.

Rating: 7/10

The Lives of Others

"The Lives of Others" tells a story set in East Germany, years before the Berlin Wall fell. The year is, appropriately, 1984:

The movie has elements of romance and political thriller, but it's ultimately a character drama about two men, Wiesler and Dreyman. Both of them initially believe in East German socialism, even though they witness the heavyhanded way it is implemented (stark police controls and political corruption).

I heard "The Lives of Others" was a little controversial in Germany (it's hard to shake the lingering division caused by the Iron Curtain), but it's really a good film that explores the symbiotic relationship between an author and his or her audience. The movie has a message that is the direct opposite of Orwell's seminal novel: even in a cheerless, grey Communist "republic," the creative spirit is hard to kill.

Rating: 9/10

Food: No Starbucks, No Problem

Even in this recession, Starbucks still has a decent share of the coffee market, especially when it comes to the calorie-packed white-mocha-frappa-whozits that cost $4 a hit. Some of this is earned (Starbucks' fancy-schmancy specialty drinks do taste quite a bit better than their low-budget counterparts at McDonald's IMHO), but I suspect most of the dominance is due to sheer market inertia. Even after all the store closings, the brand is still ubiquitous (and therefore strong).

But, for those times when you want something at least a little off the beaten path, here are two alternate coffeehouse chains that each offer something that the black-and-white two-tailed mermaid doesn't:

Crescent City Beignets

Even though it's horrifically crowded at any time but the early morning, Café du Monde is still one of the most famous restaurants in New Orleans. This is due to two things - the chicory spiked coffee and the beignets (French style fried doughnuts). Crescent City Beignets makes a game attempt to swipe some of the blissful deliciousness of the combo.

CCB was started in Houston when its owners found out that Café du Monde wasn't franchising. It serves a variety of New Orleans dishes, but the core experience is still centered around coffee and beignets. It's really not difficult to make a decent beignet (fried dough is hard to screw up), so if you can't make the drive to Decatur Street, just eat here.

Indigo Coffee

Going into the second day of the bar exam, I realized I probably needed a little caffeine to navigate through the 200 multiple-choice question MBE. As any good test-taker will tell you, a morning jolt of the stimulant can really wake you up - or give you the jitters if you're not careful. I stopped in at Indigo Coffee, a generically-named chain of coffeehouses based in Tampa.

Indigo's default blend is fairly good. It's probably not bold enough for some people, but I found it smoother and more drinkable than the brewed coffee at Starbucks. The House blend went well with cream and sugar, and I wasn't too buzzed afterwards. I'd pass on the food, though (most of the menu was composed of disappointingly bland premade pastries).

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Miscellany: "McFly!"

The below video is amusing, especially for members of my immediate family:

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Guns: Changing CCW Attitudes in Texas?

Over the past few years, I've noticed that more and more businesses in Houston are ditching the silly 30.06 sign that bars entry for CCW permit holders. Instead, they post signs like this:

I think this is the non-51% sign (there's some kind of 51% sign that bars and nightclubs post to give proper notice to CCWs - I'm not sure what it looks like, so if you're carrying in Texas, look at the statutes). In any case, lawful concealed carry seems to be unaffected by signs like these (except perhaps in obvious 51% establishments - again, I'm not a Texas lawyer).

The trend could be chalked up to simple ignorance, of course; maybe businesses are really meaning to use the 30.06 sign. It could be, though, that owners are starting to realize that the 30.06 sign is harming their business (by ostracizing permitholders) without actually providing any benefits. It's not hard to believe this is the case, especially in generally gun-friendly Texas and in the somewhat conservative Vietnamese-American community. Anyway, I thought people carrying in the Lone Star State might be interested.

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Miscellany: The Coarsening of Air Travel

Remember back in the 1990s, when people thought air travel couldn't possibly get any more uncomfortable? Cramped seats, awful meals, lost baggage?

The above was a snippet of a Seinfeld special from 1998. It's charmingly out of date (you probably can't bring even safety razors onto an airplane nowadays), and really, could anyone have predicted how bad things would become after 9/11 and the recession? My recent jaunt on Continental proved to be exemplary.

Now, since you're charged $25 per bag to be checked in, no one checks in bags. This means that the interior of the plane has become even more cramped, with passengers shoving "Goodfellas"-esque duffel bags under the seats. It also means that boarding and debarking the plane take longer than ever.

Forget about inflight meals. I remember when you could get at least a passable breakfast or lunch on these planes - a banana, a bowl of Cheerios, milk. Now you're lucky if you get a 60 calorie bag of pretzels or peanuts on most flights. I suppose real food equals extra weight, and extra weight equals extra fuel consumption (not to mention the added labor cost of dealing with loading, serving, and disposing of food).

Cue nostalgia trip...