Saturday, December 23, 2006

Merry Christmas

I'm taking the next few days off line (other than to check e-mail). Enjoy your Christmas.

For a Christmas message, I have the lyrics of a relatively unknown song, but it's one of my absolute favorite ones. I've posted them over at Millennial Star.

Go check them out. They're a timely reminder of what we should be focused on this season: Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

So little choice...

Well, it's Christmas break and grades are in. So my wife and I decided to rent some movies.

Well, there are a few movies we want to see that aren't out on video yet, but we were surprised at how few movies there were that even vaguely interested us. It seems like, except for half a dozen movies, the last year in movie offerings were pretty lame.

Even the few movies we were interested in seeing, such as Pirates of the Carribean 2 or Superman Returns, more often than not were rather disappointing. All the good stuff is on TV, apparently (though even there, 95% of the offerings are worthless. Outside of Lost, Battlestar Galactica, House, Heroes and Mythbusters, there isn't much worth seeing, IMHO).

We rented My Super Ex-Girlfriend out of desperation and turned it off 1/2 hour or so in. We weren't offended by anything - it was just so darn boring we realized we didn't care about anyone or anything in the movie. It wasn't even worth making fun of, as with many other bad movies. This wasn't a bad movie, it was just banal.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Battlestar Galactica rundown, now that we're in hiatus....

Point 1: We seem to be back on track, at least for now. This episode was rather exciting, and the cliffhanger was gripping.

Point 2: The Apollo/Starbuck affair is annoying, pointless, and adds nothing. I could really care less. It seems forced and adolescent to boot.

Point 3: To quote my wife "I stopped caring about the Cylons four or five episodes ago. They aren't interesting anymore. They obviously have no plan."

Summary: Basically, when the creators focus on the premise of the show: Humanity on the run from a vastly superior force, with all the drama inherent in that situation, the show works. When they instead focus on adults acting like Jr. High kids and villains who act like the kids in the cool clique, it fails. Unfortunately, the creators seem like they want to focus more on the latter than the former.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Writing advice

Back in October, the Daily Texan (the student newspaper here at UT-Austin) for some bizarre reason, published a brief essay by me that gave some writing advice to struggling students. Apparently, this essay became a big hit in the Physics department here at UT. I have no idea why. Anyway, it's available online. If you want to see my column, here it is.

[Please note - the student editors made a few changes that still puzzle me. They managed to render one sentence meaningless, though I'm sure they meant well. Still, the essay is 95% what I sent to them]

Saturday, December 09, 2006

And now, for something completely different....

Over at the forums (yes, I go to the gym six days a week and lift weights 3 - 4 of those days, depending on the cycle at the time), I posted some reviews of common ingredients in nutritional supplements aimed at helping people sleep. Since I don't sleep very well (and never have), I've tried nearly all of them at one time or another. I figured I could share my experiences here as well, so that not just bodybuilders can benefit from my wisdom/foolishness.

I actually sleep a lot better since trying one supplement. But read on and find out (this is slightly edited from the original post here):

For me (focusing on ingredients, rather than specific brands here), this is what works and what doesn't:

Doesn't help me sleep any better, but it does give me more vivid dreams. Extremely vivid dreams, actually. When I was using this, I often found it took an hour or two after waking up before I could figure out that my dreams last night never really happened. However, that is at a 2 - 3 mg dose. At a 1 mg dose I don't notice much difference. The only reason I still take it is because it's part of Alacer's CMA (the name was recently changed to "Emergen-C Sleep Aid", probably for branding reasons and likely because the name CMA was too close to ZMA) formulation, and I otherwise love Alacer's products.

Awful stuff. I wake up groggy, unable to think. Clouds my brain like you wouldn't believe. I don't drink, but if I had to hazard a guess, when I take even small doses of this stuff, I figure this is what a major hangover would feel like.

Kava Kava:
Makes me unable to sleep, since it gives me a killer headache.

Decent. I sleep *a little* better. Whereas I usually wake up 10 times a night, with this I might only wake up 7 or 8 times a night. Not much, but I'll take what I can get. I haven't noticed any mood-enhancing or appetite suppressing effects, despite claims on the labels of several products.

The best stuff - in powder form. In pill form, this does nothing for me. In powder form, a 6-7 gram dose does wonders. (It's also sometimes billed as a Growth Hormone enhancer - but I have noticed no Growth Hormone enhancing or fat loss effects).

The one drawback to GABA is the side effect of shortness of breath and tingling of the skin. When I first tried this in powder form, it freaked me out - I was sure I was going to faint. Now that I expect it, it has actually become a signal for the best time for me to be in bed, trying to fall asleep. When the shortness of breath kicks in, if I stay up too much longer, I won't fall asleep as easily.

A lot of the other herbal supplements (Passionflower, Hops, Chamomile, etc.) have been useless for me.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Definitely not Conan.....

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane
by: Robert E. Howard

I'm not a Conan fan. Yes - I'm a total comic book/sci-fi/fantasy geek. But Conan annoys me - the hyper-masculinity, the lack of character development, the adolescence of the barbarian worship. Yet - yet, Robert E. Howard does have one thing many other better writers lack: Energy. His tales sparkle with life, and his prose - while sometimes clunky and cliched - pulsates and moves, twists and turns and refuses to stay put.

Because of that, I figured I would give this book a try. It features one of Howard's lesser known heroes: a 16th century Puritan with an unquenchable wanderlust and an unforgiving desire for vengeance. And I was well rewarded. Solomon Kane is a true original character, the best Howard created.

The science fiction writer Orson Scott Card once wrote that the best stories were written when the author tries to reconcile two seemingly incongruous elements. And that is exactly what Robert E. Howard has done. He has taken the archetypal primitive barbarian that make up most of his tales (such as Kull, Conan, Bran Mak Morn) and placed him in a 16th century setting with an Old World Puritan sensibility. And the combination is powerful: Solomon Kane is a character that deserves a much wider audience. It's too bad most readers will see "by the creator of Conan" and walk on by like I nearly did.

[One note: even Howard's usual racism and ethnocentrism find themselves undercut at every turn. While definitely products of the first half of the 20th century, nearly every tale that seems somewhat racist at its front deconstructs its own cultural assumptions by the end, often poking fun at any ideas of racial superiority. For example, one tale hinges on the idea that all current races - white, black, whatever - are descendants of inferior slave races that once served the true master race: the brown skinned inhabitants of Atlantis. However, because of Howard's quite reactionary (even for the early 20th century) views on race, these tales may upset quite a few readers. Consider this my disclaimer.].

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Battlestar Galactica so far.

Well, the first few episodes of this season were great, thrilling, edge of the seat stuff. The political context was quite obvious, but I was so wrapped up in the epic nature of the first four hours of season three, that I barely noticed it.

However, it's been downhill since then. And the last episode had what I thought was a horrible moral: If you have issues with someone, you should beat up on each other until you realize just how much in love you really are.

Adama and Roslin have the only adult relationship on the show - it seems all the other major characters are stuck in Jr. High.

And what is the Cylon's plan? It seems rather clear right now they don't have one, other than to wander about the universe aimlessly and occasionally have sex with Dr. Baltar.

After listening to a few podcasts, the creators seem to think everything they have made this season is pure gold - and it really isn't. The character motivations would only make sense if the characters were all going through puberty, and the plots are rather tepid and rely way too much on wild, bizarre coincidences (esepcially the one about the escaped POW a few weeks ago).

The show earned my trust in the first two seasons, but it hasn't earned my trust yet this season. Here's hoping they pick it up soon.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Top Ten Things Learned from Tears For Fears

10. Schrodinger's cat is dead to the world.

9. Everybody wants to rule the world.

8. You can change.

7. It's world gone crazy keeps a woman in chains.

6. One and one and one make two

5. Everybody loves a happy ending.

4. Love is God's mistake.

3. It is too late for anyone to believe.

2. Nothing ever changes, unless there's some pain

1. Life is not a cake to separate.

Of course, this labels me as a Tears for Fears geek. Anyone who (like me) can name where each of these comes from without doing a net search should be very afraid.

Friday, October 06, 2006

I think I'll start posting again....

Especially since the new season of Battlestar Galactica started tonight.

A great two hour opener. I could see some complaining (or celebrating) that this is critical of the war in Iraq (especially since series creator Moore has quite clearly expressed his disdain for all things Bush), but I don't see it.

Well, strike that. Baltar's line "no one has been tortured" seemed forced and probably was Moore letting his political bias slip a bit too much. But the rest doesn't really work, since the nature of the "occupation" and "resistance" in both the real world and the Galactica universe are of completely different types.

The use of suicide bombers by the humans was a bit odd, but that seems to stem from the common liberal misconception (and the show's creators are liberal, even though they are, I think, very well balanced in their approach to the show) that people blow themselves up in that way because they are depressed.

But whatever. The show has earned my trust, and it's compelling viewing no matter what.

Monday, May 22, 2006


I never use bookmarks.

Well, in the sense of using the kind of bookmarks sold at bookstores. Instead I tend to use whatever is handy: A receipt, a piece of paper from earplug packaging.

I wonder how many seriously addicted book lovers/readers like myself actually use "real" (i.e. commercially produced) bookmarks. My guess is that "real" bookmarks are used by people who want to look good rather than those who actually devour books at rates of several a month.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

An unusual read (for me).

Icebound by Dr. Jerri Nielsen

I'm not a big fan of partially ghostwritten "autobiographies" written about the newsmaker of the moment and released on the quick in order to capitalize on whatever meme the media is stuck on at the moment. But Dr. Jerri Nielsen's adventures in Antarctica seemed a bit more worthwhile and interesting than the types of stories this genre usually encapsulates. [For those who don't quite remember, Dr. Jerri Nielsen was the "winter over" doctor at the South Pole station in 1999, when she discovered she had breast cancer.]

I listened to the audio book, and I have to give two warnings:
1.) The unabridged version is read by Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who is clearly not trained. The reading is monotone nearly all the way through (except when she cusses), and this can be jarring. But by the end of the second tape I was used to it.
2). The book suffers from too clever by half attempts to be poetic. I assume these are the fault of the co-author Maryanne Vollers. Luckily they never become so ludicrous as to destroy interest in the narrative.

The narrative is great. The only rough spot is at the beginning, when Dr. Jerri Nielsen has to paint a sympathetic picture of herself as a woman who went through a nasty divorce and lost custody of her children. Since the current legal system almost universally favors mothers in custody battles, and since part of the impetus for the divorce was an affair she had, Dr. Jerri Nielsen treads this ground lightly and manages to come off fairly well despite all that. Her description of her ex-husband could come across as bitter, but instead it comes across as more or less accurate (especially given his later actions after the divorce while she was in Antarctica fighting for her life).

Once she gets to Antarctica, the narrative picks up. The descriptions of the culture, scenery and politics of the South Pole are enjoyable, picturesque and engrossing. Once she discovers she has breast cancer, the narrative takes on an air of danger that makes it as gripping as any action movie.

A Highly recommended book - especially since most of us will never visit Antarctica, this seems to me the next best thing.

[I understand there was a TV movie starring Susan Sarandon based on the book, but I haven't seen it and have heard it takes quite a few liberties with the tale].

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Comics - 2/1/06

Fantastic Four #534 (Marvel): I thought this was a Fantastic Four comic. Instead, we have a Hulk comic with the FF guest starring. A decent tale - and since I like the Hulk more than I like the FF, I won't really complain. But it seems odd the first really well told story of JMS's run on the FF barely features them.

Nick Fury's Howling Commandos #4 (Marvel): Since a good chunk of the team is comprised of werewolves, they really are "howling" - although Nick Fury barely appears in this series. This series started off slow, with nearly unintelligible story and art. Issues 3 & 4 have gotten better, as they make more sense. But I still can't tell what's going on.

Beowulf #6 (Speakeasy): ?????? After a great initial start, the last two issues of this series devolved into subpar art and barely comprehensible storytelling. Beowulf originally dies while fighting the dragon. The same thing happened with this series - the last good issue was when he fought the dragon in the subway system. We find out who the Knights of the Blood really are, but it's an offhand revelation that means little - and the ending really wants to tie up most of the plotlines up to this point, but it just can't quite do it.

JSA Classified #8 (DC): Just the other day, I was thinking: "There aren't enough tales featuring the Golden Age Flash." Well, someone at DC must have been reading my mind. Though I am usually creeped out by tales where people loose their free will because of magical enchantments.

Angel: Old Friends #3 (IDW): A officially approved sequel to the TV series. Fred and Wesley return (but aren't they dead? And if Fred is alive, than who is Illyria?). Oh, yeah and then Spike finds himself fighting - Spike? My only complaint is that these issues always feel too short: The story is progressing nicely, but I hate having a commercial break that lasts a whole month.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Comics 1/25/06 (also my birthday)

Another year older. *sigh*

Serenity: Those Left Behind (Dark Horse): A trade paperback collection of the comic book series that bridged part of the gap between the Firefly TV series and the Serenity movie. A must read for fans of either. Special Bonus: It's canon, as it was part written by Joss Whedon himself!

Exiles #76 (Marvel): More reality hopping fun. The team picks up a non-mutant super-hero (Spider-Man 2099). A lot happens, even though not much gets done. But hey - it has Longshot!

Daredevil #81/461 (Marvel): Outgoing creative teams don't usually go out on depressing notes like this. Yet every move feels right. Bendis got his start doing Noir-ish crime comics, and it shows. Bendis will be missed. Hopefully the next creative team can get Daredevil out of this mess (hopefully).

The Pulse #13 (Marvel): Jessica Jones finally has a baby. And Luke Cage does the right thing and proposes. The dialogue is witty and clever. And J. Jonah Jameson deserved everything Jessica Jones told him on the phone while she was giving birth.

Defenders #5 (Marvel): A mildly funny ending to a bizarre limited series. In the end, nothing that happens means much. And I'm not sure what to think of series where male rape is a source of laughter.

Fallen Angel #2 (IDW): Peter David's best work, ever. (I can't say that phrase enough). The theology is a bit shaky, but I can suspend my disbelief enough to make the series work. More about "Lee's" origins, and an old aging Hitler makes out with a young African-American lady: What more could you ask for?
Best bit of dialogue:
Black Mariah: You smell like a distillery. What happened?
Fallen Angel (Lee): Ran into an old . . . associate. He gave me some bad news.
Black Maria: Really. And what would that be?
Fallen Angel: God's forgiven me. How much does that suck?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Sci-Fi Fridays 1-20-06

Stargate SG-1: Okay, if a bit predictable. Haven't I already seen this episode? (Oh, wait that was on Star Trek - or maybe it was Red Dwarf....)

Stargate: Atlantis: What the hell---? Music by alien survivors from Atlantis (in another galaxy) sounds a lot like 21st century Celtic Fusion. Where did they get the synthesizers? Stargate: Atlantis has been getting better lately, but this episode was a huge stepback.

Battlestar: Galactica: It's taken me a bit to absorb this one. BSG is the best show on TV right now, period. Lost is a close second, and 24 an even closer third, but BSG beats them all. This is a show that takes its stories seriously. There isn't an ounce of fat on the stories, and the dialogue is terse, with nary a wasted word in sight.

Politically, BSG is either all over the map, or not on it at all - in either case, it's a perfect example of what happens when the storytellers care more about telling great stories and producing art instead of pushing an agenda. More TV shows should follow this example.

Becaue of this, I doubt there will ever be "a very special episode" of BSG. And that's a good thing.

Monday, January 09, 2006

3 TV documentaries I found absolutely fascinating

I probably should be doing something productive, but since school doesn't start until next week, I've been watching a lot of TV. Here are three documentaries I saw, with brief reviews:

Absolute Evel: The Evel Knievel Story on the History Channel
I'm not a big fan of extreme sports, or motorcycle stunts, but this was on just after the Houdini documentary I'll review below, and since Johnny Blaze (the original Ghost Rider) was a stunt biker somewhat inspired by Evel Knievel, I figured I'd give it a try.

I was rather impressed. Not by Evel himself, but by the filmmakers. This documentary is told mostly from Evel's point of view, as he narrated 85% of it or so. The filmmakers let him speak for himself, augmenting his narration with archival footage, occasional comments from others and other standard things you'd expect to find in a documentary of this type. About the only time the documentary looses steam is when another narrator occasionally intrudes and it falls into "VH1 Behind the Music" clichés.

Evel comes across as a rather fascinating character. A sexist philanderer and apparently incapable of any self-reflection, he still comes across as rather charismatic and intelligent. He justifies or glosses over his faults (including the time he beat the author of an expose book up with a baseball bat), blames most of his accidents on someone else - yet you can't help but like the guy. In his heyday (before I was born and when I was very young) he was a huge phenomenon, and you can see why - despite his arrogance and harshness, he's quite likeable. He's quick with a witty remark, able to express his ideas clearly (even when he seems unsure of what he is trying to say, he sounds like he knows exactly what he means) and able to make good comparisons. He's plain spoken, but he also comes across as a man driven by impulse most of his life.

On camera, in his old age, he looks awful, almost like you would expect someone who has broken over 50 bones in motorcycle crashes to look. His son, who appears briefly at the end, comes across as more well-rounded and self-reflexive, but Evel was clearly the trend setter.

Madness of Henry VIII on the National Geographic Channel

Solid history, this helped me put figure out the continuity of Henry the VIII's bizarre reign (such as how each wife died and in what order he married them, as well as which wives had to deal with Woolsey and which ones had to deal with Cromwell).

The thesis is basically: Henry the VIIIth was one crazy king. Driven to insanity by lust and greed, he died an obese monster.

This documentary had some interesting tidbits and solid scholarship, but it also came across as a documentary for the MTV generation. It had the feel of a music video. Also, there were several recurring visual leitmotifs of flowers wilting, bread turning moldy and clouds passing over a castle. The music was quick, frantic and obviously influenced by rock - and if that wasn't enough, the music played underneath the comments by scholars, adding an odd dichotomy when their comments were more dry and academic (though some comments were more flavorful, and one of the historians shouted 80% of her comments, as though in a heated argument).

If you can get past the frantic music and MTV style editing, there's some good, solid history here.

Houdini: Unlocking the Mystery on the History Channel.

Apparently, Teller (of Penn & Teller) can talk, but only if his entire face is cast in a shadow (so you can't tell if it's really him, I guess) and he's talking about Houdini.

Anyway, this is structured around a private collector who auctions off "the largest collection of personally-owned Harry Houdini artifacts and memorabilia." There's not a whole lot new in here about Houdini, though I find it odd that after a long section on Houdini's war on mediums, psychics and spiritualists, it ends with a large group of magicians attempting a séance to contact Houdini. However, apparently Houdini left behind what he would say if he ever came back, and only one (or was it two?) people know what it is, so there's no chance anyone could fake a return of Houdini's spirit (it was also done it a fully lit room with none of the traditional trappings of spiritualists - it was just a large group of people chanting "come back Houdini!"). Of course, Houdini didn't come back.

A nice overview of his life, and a cool glimpse at some of the rarer items associated with his life.