Surly Curmudgeon

   The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.
-- Robert A. Heinlein
  • Somewhere in the crusty outer layer of small towns surrounding the warm creamy center that is Oklahoma City.
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    Saturday, August 28, 2010

    Quote of the Day

    Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.
    -- Yoda

    Posted by Tom, 8/28/2010 8:37:01 PM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Wednesday, August 25, 2010

    A Chance Encounter

    This morning after my workout, as I was headed for the shower, I caught a glimpse in the mirror of a hulking bear of a man, complete with bulging muscles and heaving chest. I ran to get my camera, but when I returned he was gone, replaced by a pasty-white, overweight nerd half-dead from exhaustion.

    Posted by Tom, 8/25/2010 4:50:15 AM (Permalink). 4 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Tuesday, August 24, 2010

    Cash for Clunkers drives up prices

    Apparently when you reduce supply (by insisting that used cars coming in for the program be destroyed), prices go up.

    Used Car Prices Up As Much as 30%

    It is a simple case of supply and demand.

    Trouble is...there are fewer used cars.

    The cash-for-clunkers program took a bunch off the market.

    Not like anyone could have seen this coming or anything, right?

    Hey, thanks for nothing, Uncle Barack!

    Posted by Tom, 8/24/2010 7:08:37 AM (Permalink). 2 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Monday, August 23, 2010

    Thought for the Day

    If you can't find joy in what you do, you should do something else.

    Posted by Tom, 8/23/2010 7:18:04 AM (Permalink). 1 Comment. Leave a comment...

    Saturday, August 21, 2010

    Diet, Exercise, and Alcohol

    About a year ago, my doctor was giving me the regularly scheduled talk about going on high blood pressure and cholesterol meds. We had a brief verbal tussle over it, and I just wasn't interested in medicating myself any more than was necessary. My thyroid medicine is enough, and I was really dedicated to the idea of keeping my P90X program going, even though at this point last year I was nursing an injured arm.

    One piece of advice she gave me was the standard "glass of red wine at dinner" advice for my heart. I said I hated wine, and wasn't much for beer, but I might be willing to try something else. She said it was all pretty much the same, as long as it was consumed in moderation. Red wine has some antioxidants in it, but alcohol in general is a blood thinner, which helps the heart by making it do less work to push the fluid around.

    In my younger days, I was rather crazy on the alcohol, much to my (and Mrs. Curmudgeon's) embarrassment. This led to my largely swearing it off for something like 15 or so years, and this time around I made the determination that I absolutely would not allow anything to get out of hand. Generally speaking, my rule is a maximum of one drink a night except on special occasions, and I've stuck to this rule for the past year with no real trouble. Moderation, it seems, gets easier with age.

    So anyway, I figured I'd do things scientifically and start by searching for a liquor that I could drink on a regular enough basis to do the trick. I wanted, of course, to be a manly man, so naturally I started with whiskey.

    It turns out that there is just as much snobbery and connoisseurship involved with whiskey as there is with wine. It's somewhat less well-known, and doesn't carry with it the hoity-toity ambience of wine culture, but it's every bit as involved in the technical details.

    My journey began with various sampler bottles from the local liquor store... a little of this, a little of that. The brands that didn't pass the first impression were discarded, and the rest were considered for further "research".

    At first, I wanted to experience as many different kinds of whiskey as I could find. Canadian, bourbon, Scotch, Irish, and Tennessee whiskey were all considered. I started with the basics: Jack (Daniels) & Jim (Beam). I found Jack Daniels much to my liking, and it's remained my "staple" drink ever since. Jim Beam tastes like lighter fluid. In fact, out of everything I've tried, Jim Beam is the only one that I'll say I don't like. The term "rotgut" comes to mind. The rest have all been good, though some are better than others.

    I tried Crown Royal as something emblematic of Canadian whiskey, and thought it certainly tasty enough to do the trick. The price tag is a little off-putting, but I'd happily drink it if it's what's available.

    I tried Jameson for a chance at the Irish whiskey, and though it seemed a little "spicy" to me, I could still get along with it.

    A friend allowed me to sample his single-malt Scotch from Glenfiddich, and that was pretty amazingly good. It has a "sparkly" character to it, almost like carbonation, which I really enjoy. That same friend later gave me a bottle of blended Scotch from Chivas Regal, but the sparkly thing was really subdued, like a soft drink that had gone flat. I can drink it, but it definitely wouldn't be my first choice.

    I found that I gravitated toward American bourbon pretty heavily. It has a firey character to it, and the good ones are surprisingly smooth. My decision to try Maker's Mark was inspired by a character in a movie. Knob Creek was recommended by the guy at the liquor store. Jim Beam is supposed to be a proper bourbon, but as mentioned I wasn't impressed by it at all.

    And now, I'm sitting on the deck with a batch of pork chops cooking up on the grill...

    ... and a glass of Woodford Reserve at my side...

    ...which would quite possibly become my favorite if it weren't for the steep (to my reckoning) price. The smallest sampler bottle costs $16, and is only good for 3 or 4 drinks. A full liter likely runs $40 to $50, which is a bit rich for anything I'm likely to drink outside of special occasions.

    Curiously, I've noticed that the better whiskeys seem to be sealed in their bottles with a cork, while the ones I like less tend to be sealed with a standard screw-top lid... with the exception of Jack Daniels of course. Jack Daniels' Single Barrel is sealed with a cork and while I lack the vocabulary to describe what's better about it, there is a quality to it that is much better than the standard black label stuff I usually buy.

    And of course, when drinking whiskey, one's state of mind and intoxication becomes a factor. I'm not going to pretend that the one glass I allow myself doesn't have any effect, because it does. I usually have mine over ice, but the watering effect doesn't do much when you're not really a drinker and you've got 2 full ounces of 80-proof (or higher) alcohol. One of the most intriguing things I've discovered is that the nature and quality of the intoxication changes depending on the drink. Jack Daniels is like a kick in the head. One moment you're stone-cold sober, and the next your eyes aren't tracking quite straight. The more expensive the whiskey gets, the more gradual and surprising the slide into "loopiness" seems to be. Woodford Reserve has a sneak attack character to it, so gradual that it's almost a surprise when you realize you're not fully in control of your motor skills.

    I've heard of a new type of whiskey coming out, from the RoughStock Distillery in Montana. Supposedly it's an "American Western Whiskey", and their description makes it sound like a Scotch bourbon or an American Scotch. Since I like both Scotch and bourbon, it seems I'm going to have to try it out. Of course, it's $60/bottle, so it's not likely to become much more than a special occasion drink for me. I've got plans to order up a bottle, and a friend gave me a bottle of Laphroaig single-malt Scotch, so if I add some Woodford Reserve to the mix and ask my friends what they've got handy, we might just have to have a whiskey-tasting sometime in September.

    It's kind of like a wine-tasting, only manlier.

    Posted by Tom, 8/21/2010 12:24:57 PM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Friday, August 20, 2010

    A Random Sampling...

    ...of the things echoing in my brain last night at 2 AM...

    "My life for Aiur!"

    "This is what I brought you, this you can keep..."

    "Kiss my shiny metal..."

    "plan.addFeature(Feature f) { DBConnection db = new DBConnection(); ...}"

    "You must construct additional pylons!"

    "Bawitdaba da bang da dang diggy diggy..."

    "We have to paint the ceiling before we can paint the walls, otherwise the drips will ruin the walls."

    "$250 per fan..."

    "Kiss my eyes and lay me to sleep."

    ...all at the same time, over and over and over again. And people wonder why I don't sleep well.

    Posted by Tom, 8/20/2010 7:16:41 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010

    Best. Scene. Ever.

    I still watch Smallville whenever I'm on the elliptical, but don't get to do it much since we've been doing P90X workouts. I'm midway through Season 6, and while Clark is firmly in his heroic trajectory towards becoming Superman, Lex Luthor has been really ambiguous as a character. They keep nudging him toward villainy and then pulling him back, and frankly I was beginning to think the character had gone soft, or at least severely indecisive.

    That's why the last scene of the episode "Subterranean" was so cool. It's as if the writers said "enough of this messing around. We need to send a clear and unambiguous message that Lex is on his way to being a real villain, not just a spoiled rich bad boy with a fancy car and a big house."

    Besides the scene's composition, the music is absolutely perfect. Smallville usually closes with some wistful, lullaby-sounding love song by someone like Sheryl Crow or Coldplay or some band that makes the women go all weepy. Not this time! This time we get the soundtrack in Lex's head for a change. Check it out:

    I suddenly find myself anxious to get on the elliptical more often.

    Posted by Tom, 8/18/2010 4:50:21 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Monday, August 9, 2010

    Winter's Bone

    I watch a lot of movies. Hardly a weekend goes by that Mrs. Curmudgeon and I don't head to the local cineplex and take in a film. My most oft-attended genre is science fiction, but I also enjoy romantic comedies, cop dramas, animated films of the Disney/Pixar variety, action-adventure movies, heist movies, and the occasional gangster flick.

    All of those aside however, my absolute most favorite kind of movie is what I've dubbed the "small town" genre. Great examples of this include Sling Blade, A Simple Plan, and of course Fargo. My friend Tom the Impaler gave me a perfectly elegant description of the small town genre when he said it's a movie set in a place "where nothing ever happens, but today something did".

    Winter's Bone is such a movie, and I found it fantastic. Set in the Ozark woods of southern Missouri, it follows the trials of 17-year-old Ree Dolly as she tries to save her family's little shack of a house from being seized by bail bondsmen after her father used it as collateral to get out of jail, and then disappeared. Throughout the story she is stonewalled by her relatives and introduced to the family's rather rough code of justice. She's goaded on by the bail bondsmen's overlooming threat to take the house, leaving her and her younger siblings homeless, and desperately tries to find any avenue by which she can see her way clear of the problems they face.

    If "small town" is my favorite genre, my favorite kind of story is probably "the individual vs. society", and that is what Winter's Bone is about. It's an individual struggling to grow and adapt to a changing set of circumstances, being held back by society -- two of them, actually, family and "the law" -- and ultimately managing to change one while satisfying the requirements of the other.

    As I reflect on the film, what has been most fascinating to me is the fact that throughout it all, despite Ree's rough treatment at the hands of her extended family, everyone is actually trying to protect her from the realities of the family business (and presumably to protect themselves from the exposure). There are no truly malevolent characters in the story, only people with conflicting agendas, and I think that makes for a far more engaging tale than one of primal good & evil.

    I've made no secret of the fact that I'm deeply in love with rural America, and my love of the small town genre is merely an extension of this. I've been accused of having romanticized notions of rural life, but it's hard to see anything romanticized in movies such as this one. Near as I can tell, it's a pretty accurate (one might say "grittily realistic") portrayal of life for the rural poor. What truly surprises me however, is the venom with which some city folks attack the movie and its notions.

    The New York Times did a review of the movie, and the comments of some of the readers are downright insulting to anyone who loves or lives in rural America. One guy liked the movie, but only because it reaffirmed his worst Deliverance-esque notions about the evils of rural life:

    I feel coddled in the comfort of warm New York hands after seeing this very, very good picture about a lifestyle one would not wish on their noisiest of neighbors. It reminds us all that the grass, in different areas of the country, is not necessarily as green as one would think. This amazing little piece of work really puts you front and center of a life of poverty, drugs and violence in small town America. It makes me amazed that people are still intimidated by big cities.
    -- Tim Schreier, New York, NY

    Tim apparently thinks that what Ree needed was a good social worker to take her siblings away and put them in a foster home, or a drug sweep through her neighborhood to round up all of her malcontent family members. None of this would have solved anything for her, but it probably would have assuaged Tim's social guilt some.

    Another woman was sadly clueless about any sort of reality as regards poverty in rural America:

    For me, I just didn't understand people's motivation. Why was Ree so scary? She was asking simply where her dad was; she wasn't threatening to go to the police or do anything else. She's 17. Wouldn't everyone just ignore her? My problem with the film was that the actions and reactions made me say "huh?" Why did Teardrop take an ax to that guy's windshield? How could Ree not know anything about the bond when her dad had only disappeared a couple of weeks before? Why didn't Ree have a job or a boyfriend? Why did she sometimes like the neighbors but then become so upset when they asked to take in her brother? My point is that this story is contrived. It does not grow out of character or a knowledge of the social conditions of that place.
    -- Catherine, Portland, OR

    Ree was scary to the family because, while she was part of the family, she wasn't in the "inner circle". They mistrusted her motivations, thinking that she might want revenge on her father and/or his associates for putting her in the predicament. This much should be obvious to anyone with half a brain.

    Ree didn't know anything about the bond because her dad didn't tell her about it. She didn't have a job or a boyfriend because her entire life was consumed with looking after her younger siblings. She was POOR, you idiot!

    Perhaps I'm being too harsh, and Catherine from Portland has simply lived a comfortable enough life to where she's never had to seriously contemplate homelessness. I've faced it a time or two in my life, and it is a primal sort of panic one experiences. I was fortunate enough to be able to fall back on relatives and friends, but it's clear in the movie that Ree has no such support structure. The only opportunity available to her is the Army, and it doesn't solve any of her problems. It boggles my mind that Catherine from Portland doesn't get this.

    And then there is the woman who compared the movie -- unfavorably -- with Deliverance:

    Why would any Missourian want to be in this film? If you want to see brilliant films with similar themes, there's "Frozen River" and even the classic masterpiece "Deliverance," which at least juxtapose glorious nature along the physical rivers of life upon which humans engage in their horrors and in their own sublime acts.
    -- carolh85, New York, NY

    Deliverance might be a good movie, but it's clear where carolh85's bias lies. "Why would any Missourian want to be in this film [--as opposed to a film like Deliverance]?" Well, let's start with the fact that Deliverance equates visiting rural folks with prison rape. It's a movie designed to instill and reinforce deep-seated fear and loathing of all things rural.

    Winter's Bone is not. The main character did not come from the city, get abused by the country folks, then go back to the city. She comes of age in a place where she only somewhat understands the customs, and tries her hardest to adapt while at the same time protecting her own interests. She doesn't want any new trouble with anyone, her father's actions have put her in conflict, and she has to find a way to resolve the conflict. I don't know if it could be called a "pro-rural" movie, but I do know that it does absolutely nothing to undermine -- and plenty to strengthen -- my love of rural America. Deliverance mostly makes me hate city folks.

    There are others, mostly griping about the film's plot being "thin", but these are clearly people with no grasp of the real-life drama that happens all around them. Epic battles are waged, won, and lost in the everyday lives of everybody on this planet. Every day offers an opportunity to be the hero or the villain. The simplest problem for some can be a monumental challenge for others. Winter's Bone is about one such challenge... one that's a little higher stakes than most of us are used to, but no less "realistic" just because it involves a subculture with which some are unfamiliar.

    Seriously, see the movie. I'm calling it the best so far this year.

    Posted by Tom, 8/9/2010 4:58:08 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Saturday, August 7, 2010

    StarCraft II

    I've been playing SC2 for a little over a week and a half now, so I figured I'd write a bit of a review.

    The single-player game is Terran-only, and serves to transition the player from the original StarCraft's units to the new ones. Firebats and Medics weigh heavily in the early game, and are used pretty much throughout the campaign, while other units like Wraiths also make an appearance. Unfortunately, a player's reliance on them tends to screw with their ability to adapt in multiplayer, so I'm not sure how valuable the single-player campaign is for multiplayer training, beyond some very basic stuff.

    The single-player campaign also has this sort of cinematic part to it between missions, to move the story along (I think Blizzard calls it story mode). It's entertaining for the most part, and they do a good job of keeping the player engaged, but sometimes I found it frustrating because I just wanted to get to the next mission and get on with the fighting.

    In multiplayer, Blizzard has added a host of new features to help the player ramp up his skill. The first of these are the Challenge Match scenarios, where the player has a specific goal (kill X number of units, survive for X minutes, etc.) that illustrates a particular type of gameplay. The challenges have 3 levels of success in the mode of olympic medals: bronze, silver, and gold. Bronze is generally easy enough to do in a couple of tries. I've only made gold in one scenario, and some of the others I don't have a clue how gold is even achievable.

    There are also the usual play-against-the-computer custom games, with variable difficulty, which are incredibly valuable training tools. I've been working on some of these, and having a fair degree of success. My friend Jason and I have had one opportunity to work on our 2-player skills, and we've got a long way to go. I don't yet have any prospects for a 3-player team.

    Finally, Blizzard introduced the "practice league", where each player is limited to 50 total games, to keep the experts from destroying the noobs. The practice league has modified maps with rocks blocking the various entrances to bases, so new players can learn the basics and gain some confidence without having to worry overmuch about being rushed by the opponent. The downside to this is that it creates some new strategies as players ignore basic defense and race up the tech trees to mass huge numbers of advanced units that they would never be able to deploy in a real game. I've lost some matches to people who do this, and I'm looking forward to meeting them again on the unmodified maps, where more realistic build strategies will be rewarded.

    On the other hand, nothing underscored the value of Void Rays like having 8 of them rammed down my throat. The guy who made 30 of them, however... let's just say I should have played that with more patience, and I probably could have beaten him by starvation.

    Anyway, StarCraft 2 is a worthy successor to Blizzard's long line of real-time strategy (RTS) games. It's everything one would expect in a Blizzard game, and more. I'd give it a 4 out of 5, with the one disappointment being that the single-player doesn't map to multiplayer as well as I think it should, but that's probably purely subjective on my part.

    Posted by Tom, 8/7/2010 6:13:11 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...