Saturday, May 29, 2010

Miscellany: I-10 Musings

The last time I traveled on I-10 to Houston, I was in grade school, and I was obviously stuck in the back seat. Driving the whole way is a different kettle of fish, and you notice a lot more. Here are some of the impressions I received from that long, strange trip:

Cash Magic truck stop casinos -

It was probably the case when I was a youngster, but there are a ton of casino resorts in Louisiana. "Burma Shave"-style billboards extol the virtues of steak buffets, live entertainment, and 24/7 craps. On the other end of the spectrum, though, are the "Cash Magic" casinos, where tourists, truckers, and people so addicted to gambling that they'll do it at a gas station can get their video poker on:

Wetlands -

In terms of the landscape, the first few hours out from the Florida panhandle look like north Florida. Once you hit the heart of the Gulf Coast, though, you're cruising through miles of picturesque wetlands and swamps. There's enough bayou here to get anyone talking in a crappy Cajun accent. Zydeco music springs into my head, unbidden.

The Road -

When you finally arrive in Houston, you don't just see it, you feel it. After miles of well-maintained highway asphalt, the bumpy drive through the city center feels like you've just been thrown into a rock tumbler. I'm not sure if it's the weather extremes (100 degrees in the summer and occasional freezing temperatures in the winter) or poor funding, or what.

Books: Blindsight

I find that the recommendations of other bloggers are more reliable than a lot of the professional reviews out there. So, when someone like Marko recommends a book like "Blindsight," I pay attention. The book was written by Peter Watts, and it's conveniently available for free (Creative Commons License) from the author's website. I tracked down a hard copy at the local teenager and homeless person adult film center library and dove in.

At first blush, "Blindsight" is merely the latest in a long line of "isolated crew investigates weird object in space" novels (think Arthur C. Clarke's classic, "Rendezvous with Rama"). When Earth is buzzed by thousands of mysterious alien objects, a deep space probe discovers something lurking at the fringes of the solar system. A crew is dispatched to intercept, but it's no ordinary crew; they're the "bleeding edge of humanity," savants with abilities so evolved by surgery and science that they're barely human.

The narrator, for instance, has had half his brain removed, destroying his empathy, but greatly enhancing his ability to observe and intuit the intentions of others. He's the straight man: there's a cybernetically enhanced pacifist soldier, a synesthete who "tastes" UV and neutrinos, a linguist who's actually a gestalt entity made of four separate personalities, all led by a resurrected vampire who can't stand the sight of right angles (the "crucifix glitch").

I don't want to spoil it, but the story eventually yields some good hard sci-fi hypotheticals. What is the nature of intelligence? What is the purpose of consciousness? This is the book for everyone who's ever wondered about the "inner zombie" that drives your car home from work without you noticing:

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Shangrila Towers is hitting the road...

...literally. I'll be driving from here to Houston tomorrow, circling the oil-saturated Gulf of Mexico. If I see anything interesting along the way, it'll go up on the blog. More likely, though, I'll be staring at one long, lonely stretch of highway for 20 hours:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Politics: Kashyyyk ho!

Rand Paul won the Republican primary for the Senate seat in Kentucky. As Tam observed, Paul's campaign has relied heavily on feel-good rhetoric about balancing the budget without any of the harsh, politically unpopular specifics, but it's got to be better than the status quo.

It looks like the Wookie-Suiters might have a profound impact in November. Best to learn the language:

(The Gadsden flag is freakishly apropos, dontcha think?)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Miscellany: Changing Oil on a Toyota Tacoma...Moment-By-Moment Impressions

Dad and I decided to do an oil change in the driveway in an effort to save some cash. Catch is, neither of us had ever done one before. Here's what transpired...

Buying the floor jack, jack stands, wheel chocks, oil filter, oil, funnel, catch pan: "Hmm, I wonder if we're actually saving any money doing this."

Unscrewing the oil pan plug and watching the oil drain into a well-placed pan: "Hey, this is easy! Why on Earth would I pay someone $30 to do this?

Unscrewing the oil filter (and promptly dropping it, as you're twisting an oil-covered cylinder that's upside-down): "&%$%*@! That oil filter is rolling a stain all across the driveway!"

Pouring the pan's contents into an old container: "I wonder how we're going to get rid of this stuff."

Scrubbing the oil stains out of the driveway: "I wonder if we could pay someone to do this..."

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tech: Mass Effect 2

Despite its popularity, the original "Mass Effect" had a whole host of annoying quirks that reflected both the novelty of its particular brand of shooter-RPG hybridization and the relative immaturity of Unreal Engine 3. Everyone knew a sequel was coming, though, so has BioWare finally worked out all the kinks in its epic space saga?

In "Mass Effect 2," Commander Shepard is tasked with a suicide mission against a mysterious new enemy, the Collectors. They're abducting entire human colonies, and it's up to Shepard and whatever team he (or she) can assemble to stop them. In other words, you're saving the galaxy...again.

ME2's story might not seem very fresh, but the rest of the game has undergone drastic changes. The horrid inventory system of ME1 is gone, which means no more sifting through interminable menus in order to equip your specially-modified shotgun. The much-maligned Mako rover driving sequences have been excised, too.

Yet it's not just the annoying stuff that's been cut. Many of the changes seem calculated to make ME2 feel more like a conventional, "Gears of War"-type third-person shooter. Weapons don't overheat; instead, they use "thermal clips" (so you have to reload during firefights and you can run out of "ammo"). Shepard also carries a heavy weapon (grenade launcher, missile launcher, etc.), meaning you can lay waste to enemies like you're playing "Doom II."

Character powers have also been simplified. Power cooldowns are no longer power-specific; whenever you use a power, you are unable to use any powers for a short time. This means battles rely more on your trigger finger and reflexes than on your ability to combo different powers together.

In terms of story, ME2 offers the most to returning "Mass Effect" players, since they can import their old characters directly into the game. Events and characters from the first game will be reflected in ME2; characters that you killed in ME1, for instance, will be absent. The thrill of taking my old character back for another spin around the cosmos ultimately outweighed most of BioWare's questionable design decisions.

Rating: 88/100

Monday, May 10, 2010

Books: Open

What if you hated something you were insanely good at? That's the fundamental dilemma explored in "Open," an autobiography of tennis great Andre Agassi, written with (substantial) help from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J.R. Moehringer.

In the book, Agassi provides an inside account of the intense, obsessive training a child tennis prodigy is subjected to: being forced to practice in his backyard on his father's custom tennis court, beign encouraged by his father to skip school in order to play tennis, being sent away to Nick Bolletieri's hypercompetitive Florida prison tennis camp. If you've ever wondered the blood, sweat, and tears it takes to return a 130 mph serve, here's your answer.

Agassi also lets loose with candid details about his personal life, a life lived in the harsh spotlight of the rock star fame he garnered as a mass market tennis rebel. Agassi explores his doomed marriage to Brooke Shields, his insecurities, and the friends and family who helped him along the way. Agassi seems to size up everyone in the book, from his loving but submissive mother to his fellow players.

These are the times when "Open" reads like a petty screed, with Agassi airing out every grievance he has against some of the greats of the game. Michael Chang's Christianity annoys him, Jim Courier taunts him, Pete Sampras is a lousy tipper. In interviews after the book was released, Agassi claimed the jabs are a record of what he was thinking at the time, but the ugly spat he got into with Sampras at a charity exhibition seems to belie that explanation.

Another bombshell dropped in the book is the revelation that Agassi took crystal meth and lied about it in his subsequent drug test. The fallout from that admission seemed to reverberate through tennis: from Martina Hingis and Richard Gasquet's positive tests for cocaine, to Wayne Odesnik pleading guilty to importing HGH and playing a tournament in Houston the next month. At the very least, "Open" may be remembered as sparking the public debate about doping and drug use in pro tennis.

Overall, though, the book is much more than insults and secrets. Agassi's warm words for his wife Steffi Graf, as well as the humor laced through the work, are enough to mitigate some of the distasteful blows in between, and Agassi acknowledges as much. That's a pretty good life lesson to get from a sports autobiography.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Music: Dick Robinson's American Standards By The Sea

A lot of people talk about their "dream job," but it seems like Dick Robinson actually landed one. You see, his job consists of cruising around the world on his high-tech 70 foot yacht, the Airwaves, while playing cuts from the Great American Songbook for his internationally syndicated radio show, Dick Robinson's American Standards By The Sea.

The show features selections from artists both old and new, but the musical style is always comfortably familiar: big bands, great crooners, swinging ballads. In addition to the tracks, Robinson conducts interviews with various musicians. He's entertained legends like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett as well as lesser-known singers like Al Martino and Harry Connick, Jr; as you might guess, there are a lot of interesting stories to be mined from the world of show business.

To give you an idea of what the show is actually like, here's an interview and performance from famous cabaret singer Marilyn Maye:

News: How do you say "Who is John Galt" in Greek?

Greek's fiscal crisis has been brewing for months now, and the austerity measures the Greek government is implementing (including cuts in public sector compensation and hikes in consumer taxes) have predictably been unpopular. Some of the protests ended in violence; rioters killed three bank employees by setting their building on fire with Molotov cocktails:

(A note for all those media types who go into hysterics about those racist, "hatriot" Tea-baggers - the riots in Greece show you what a truly violent minority looks like.)

I can't muster much sympathy for these protesters. These loans aren't some Treaty of Versailles-like humiliation or IMF plot - they're literally a bailout of the Greek government, which shackled itself to the euro and is now seeing the downside of not being able to control its monetary policy. The corruption and inefficiency in the country is so severe that even if Greece defaulted on all its debt payments right now, they're still not bringing in enough revenue to pay for all the government goodies that need to be doled out.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

News: No reasoning with the unreasonable

Last Friday night, two store clerks at a Circle K were murdered by masked robbers. Here's an excerpt from Andrew Marra's write-up in the Palm Beach Post today (the mugshots in the link sidebar are not the suspects, BTW; the Circle K killers are reportedly either white or white Hispanic):

Investigators said the unfolding of Friday night's robbery and double homicide at a Circle K in Greenacres, revealed in surveillance camera footage partially released today by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, indicates both clerks were executed without provocation.

As far as detectives can tell, they had not resisted, disobeyed or challenged their masked attackers.

"The public should be outraged," said Sheriff's Sgt. Rick McAfee, adding that the clerks, Ralston Muller, 39, and Michael Dean Bennett, 48, were "gunned down in cold blood."

"Experts" (including some well-heeled police chiefs) often tell people not to resist criminals, since resistance would only prompt more violence. There is some truth in that sentiment; many robbers are just after the money, and yielding to their threats can be part of a calculated strategy to get them out of the door as quickly as possible.

In the case of the Circle K murders, the whole thing was planned from start to finish; the two masked men were in and out in less than a minute. Robbers can do this because they walk into convenience stores and banks expecting to find submissive victims. Nothing ever disrupts their OODA loops, so whatever their plan is - whether it's stealing cash or shooting hostages - they can execute it, fast.

The Circle K murders, however, also illustrate a harsh reality: when you're bargaining with someone who has taken the social contract and ripped it up into confetti, all bets are off. There was no apparent reason to kill Mr. Muller and Mr. Bennett, who were, by all accounts, perfectly average Joes just trying to earn a buck. In the end, though, the two thugs didn't need a reason.