20 September 2012

Book 17 of 2012

17) A Princess of Mars (John Carter of Mars #1) by Edgar Rice Burroughs
My wife and I are both huge fans of the TV show Friday Night Lights and generally give anything the creators or actors from that show do a shot. Sometimes they hit (like the movie Super 8 or NBC's Parenthood), but more often than not, they miss, proving that Friday Night Lights is more of an exception than a rule. Taylor Kitsch, Riggins from Friday Night Lights, played John Carter in the movie of the same name, and, despite the punchline it became in the press, we really enjoyed the movie, flawed as it might have been. There was plenty of action, lots of colorful characters, and Kitsch, given the right material, plays a pretty decent southern dude. Plus, Woolah, the giant Martian dog, is adorable.

John Carter, the enigmatic main character from 1860's Virginia, finds himself mysteriously transported to Mars, known as Barsoom to the native population. Inexplicably, Carter also explains that he's kind of immortal, as he has always been a man who appears to be in his 30's yet he doesn't remember his childhood. Fear not, though, as his immortality is never really a plot point that is ever addressed again over the course of the entire story. The weaker gravity on Mars gives Carter tremendous strength, speed, and agility, which he uses to lead the various forces on the red planet against one another and win the heart of Dejah Thoris, the titular princess.

The great thing about e-readers like the Kindle, Nook, or iPad is the tremendous reserve of the public domain, and the copyright for first five novels of the Baroom series expired a while back. Since I enjoyed the film so much, I figured that I couldn't turn down a free book, let alone the first half of a series of them.

Unfortunately, being previously unfamiliar with pulp novels, I found I wasn't a fan of Burroughs' writing style. Since each chapter was originally published by itself in a serialized format, the idea is that every section ends on a cliffhanger to entice the reader for the inevitable next installment. For a story that's set on a fantastical world with several different alien species and technology that was years ahead of its time starring a character that has legitimate super powers who's also immortal, Burroughs sure does give John Carter a Sahara dry personality. The exciting aspects of what he experiences are glossed over for the sake of one boring expositional speech after another.

Plus, and this may just be my anachronistic view of looking at a story that's almost a century old, but it's totally racist, right? The valiant white hero saves the natives from themselves and proves to be better than they are at their own customs, eventually becoming ruler of the entire planet. And let's not forget that the character fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. What's the rule on something like that, by the way? Am I supposed to ignore it or over look it because of the time period or does it skew my interpretation? I'm leaning towards the latter.

25 August 2012

Book 16 of 2012

16) A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire #3) by George R. R. Martin
Having finished this Saturday morning, I have now exhausted my George R. R. Martin reserves, as I bought the first three books of the series when I saw the initial commercial for the HBO show's first season. The knowledge that too few of the characters I really like appear in volume four probably means that me and A Song of Ice and Fire are on a break until the third season begins next April. But that's okay because these books take a long time to read, and it'll be nice to devote myself to something else besides medieval political intrigue, weird incest, sword-fighting, and fire-breathing dragons.

The third book of the series focuses on four concurrent stories, beginning by overlapping with the ending of the second book so the reader can experience what happened in the various areas of Westeros while the Battle of Blackwater took place. Martin really delivers on a number of levels, the least of which are the character perspectives he chooses to utilize this time around: Catelyn, Bran, Arya and Sansa Stark, Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Davos Seaworth and Daenerys Targaryen all return while Jaime Lannister and Samwell Tarly also get near-narrator duties, which makes all the difference. Martin's clever use of perspective illustrates how well he knows the characters and how important it is to keep track of who knows what about everyone else. Plus, Martin devotes more time to the characters I enjoy and less to the ones I'm not nearly as into while managing to push the latter into the former camp by the time this edition ends.

By far, this is my favorite of the series to date. The first book involved a great deal of table-setting and benefitted from reading along as the first season progressed. The second book, in hindsight, is solid, but ultimately just that, because it serves as a long-winded continuation of the first by establishing even more characters and fewer things happening than befits the length of the story. The third book really hits a sweet spot. Each character is endearing and each of them has fascinating, often times devastating, things happen to them that serves to shape, mold and change them.

The first book deals with the compromises power necessitates, while the second is about keeping the perception of power despite the difficulty in doing so. Book three continually asks question, "How does one survive when said power is stripped away?" Several characters find themselves forced to deal with a new playing field when they no longer hold the power they once did, and the ramifications are very enticing.

Most rumors I've read say that this book will be divided into two seasons of the show, and anything less would really do a disservice to the story. So much happens along the way, and there's a huge moment just past the halfway point that would serve as the ultimate season finale cliffhanger that I'll be utterly gobsmacked if it doesn't happen that way. And the ending of the book would also be another awesome reveal for season four. The possibilities for how great this show can be are endless, and I suspect that's when I'll start the series again because the visual stimulation the show provides adds to the desire to experience the world Martin offers.

25 June 2012

Book 15 of 2010

15) Star Trek: Destiny #1 - Gods of Night by David Mack
There are four concurrent stories going on during the first part of this trilogy. First, the USS Columbia must deal with the consequences of a surprise Romulan attack in 2168. Second, third, and fourthly, the Borg are going nuts in 2381: Captain Picard and the Enterprise crew are on the front lines, Captain Riker and the Titan crew are on an exploration mission far from the battle, and Captain Dax (...WHAT?) and the Aventine crew have been tasked with investigating how the Columbia  crashed in the Gamma Quadrant two hundred years ago as a means of trying to discover a new tactic to combat the Borg.

My Star Trek mania in my high school years ran deep. And, trust me, I did myself no favors socially by loving Star Trek as much as I did. One time, I wore a Star Trek: Deep Space 9 t-shirt and two of my friends shunned me for the entire lunch period. Granted, those two weren't really great friends and that incident was indicative of larger problems at the foundation of the friendship (which didn't last much longer after that school year), but even that event didn't stop me from still loving Star Trek. A big part of my mania for the franchise involved reading the books.

Since I grew up on The Next Generation series and Deep Space 9, for my money, is the best Trek series ever produced, I found myself really intrigued when I saw a new novel pop up in the iBooks bookstore. It was based in the years following Star Trek: Insurrection, a movie that wasn't really good, but focused on characters beyond the Enterprise crew and involving the DS9 cast. However, that book's plot followed up on the events from this series, which brings together a host of characters across the four modern Trek series: TNG, DS9, Enterprise and...ugh...Voyager. But it's not all bad! Janeway is dead! Any series where Janeway is dead and Dax is captain instead can't be terrible! Plus, what better way to not feel woefully inadequate at meeting my 2012 reading goal than with a couple of popcorn Star Trek books?

It feels like there should be a huge quality line dividing a licensed novel from run-of-the-mill fan fiction that's available anywhere on the Internet. Often that line exists in the execution of the writing: a story idea might sound great but the author gets so bogged down in the minutiae of reference and flowery language that the writing suffers. Elmore Leonard once wrote a series of tips for writers, the most important being "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it" Holy crap, does David Mack's writing sound like WRITING. From over-the-top and unnecessary vocabulary to self-impressed descriptions of majestic scenery, there are many times when Mack could really benefit from getting to the point. However, when he does get to the point, the writing is banal and mundane with a ton of fan service wanking references.

The end streamlines the stories down from four plotlines to three, which should help things. There does seem to be an intriguing story here underneath all of the writing, enough so that I'd like to continue the series. Were it not for the fact that I dig the characters and the universe so much, though, dealing with the quality of writing would not be an option.

11 June 2012

Book 10 of 2012

Book 9 is on the way. It's just a better book, so it's more difficult to discuss.

10) The Postmortal by Drew Magary
The cure for aging turned out to be surprisingly simple. The implications of the cure are far more complicated. The premise of a world where people don't age but can still very much die sounds like one that's rife with all sorts of social and philosophical commentary; the potential is definitely there. Unfortunately, Magary's first novel feels like a wasted opportunity.

Framed as a blog written with an awfully convenient transcription device (which makes the naval gazing protagonist, John Farrell, all the more unlikeable after the fact) which researchers discover long after "the cure" has been outlawed, the book is divided into four parts, each one separated by a seemingly arbitrary period of twenty years. Most of the entries are from Farrell's point of view, but there are sporadic occasions where Magary plays with voice: article collections or letters from acquaintances. The biggest problem of the book is that the further it strays from the present, the worse the quality of the plot becomes. Arbitrary is the best possible word to describe the series of events beginning with the conclusion of part two and ending with the deus ex blonde chick of part four, along with a myriad of things in between.

There appears to be this habit of newly published novelists to write their stories with the movie option in mind instead of just writing a book that functions as a decent book. While this could all be trumped up to my personal bias having read this book between A Visit from the Goon Squad and 2030. All three of the books show a near-future with enough similarities to the present that it never feels too alien. Egan and Brooks' novels, though, make a more successful effort of creating nuanced characters as opposed to Magary's series of events that might happen in the future to people. There's a big difference between things that happen to folks and characters having experiences.

04 April 2012

Book 8 of 2012

My sixth period students watched Othello, and I managed to finish this book.

8) Undisputed: How to Become the World Champion in 1,372 Easy Steps by Chris Jericho
Top five wrestlers, go! My top five always has at least ten guys in it, like any good top five should. Number one is The Rock. A rotating cast takes up numbers two through four; currently that cast consists of Macho Man, Ric Flair and CM Punk. Other folks that could fill out those three slots include Edge, D'Lo Brown, Steve Austin, Owen Hart, Brock Lesnar, Bryan Danielson (a.k.a. Daniel Bryan), AJ Styles, Darren Drozdov, and Kurt Angle. Number five is always Chris Jericho. I guess that kind of makes Chris Jericho number two of my top five, but I like the idea of a pair of bookends for the list. He stood out enough in WCW, to the point that I would track down tapes (VHS tapes!) of him in ECW and Japan. I vividly remember the day he arrived in WWF after the Countdown to the New Millenium clock finally reached zero, and his involvement in a show is always something to watch closely because even when his storyline sucks, he's still the best aspect of it. The point is that I like Chris Jericho more than the average wrestler.

This is Jericho's second memoir; the first dealt with everything in his career through his run in WCW.  During the Monday Night Wars between WCW and WWF, his decision to leave Atlanta for the greener pastures of McMahon's organization was huge news, and the first book culminates with his debut in the WWF, ending just before he took the stage to interrupt The Rock's promo. This one picks up with that promo and details his first WWF run, but it also splits time between the ups and downs of learning how to function in the new company with him starting his band Fozzy. It's not really a spoiler to say that this book ends with a sequel in mind, as the last page leads up to his return, which was his most successful run to date, both financially and creatively. Jericho has a deal in place for book three, but I imagine we won't see that until after he retires.

Jericho often writes in a juvenile fashion, thinking it funny to add "-ski" (loadski, dumpski, etc.) to words and make pop culture references that just a year after release already feel dated. His first book came across as a series of Livejournal posts that were collected and bound for publication, but that tone and style fit a guy telling the story of growing up in Canada, learning the pro wrestling trade, and finding success all over the world at a young age. Of course cracking wise in a similar vein as his character at the time makes sense because Jericho's character was a bombastic nerd who engaged in malapropisms to get under the skin of his enemies.

But this is the story of a guy realizing both of his dreams (working for the WWF/E and becoming a huge rock star) and reconciling those dreams with the realities of having to treat them as grown-up jobs with the political potholes and mistakes that accompany any place of employment. It's a story that requires a tone slightly more mature than the one he utilizes. There are definitely times when he drops the Jericho character and writes earnestly and times when said crude tone doesn't detract from what he's relating; however, the book could have used some more consistency and sophistication.

It is a book about guys dressing up in tights and acting like they're fighting each other or playing instruments on stage, though. There's plenty of amusing stories and Jericho's journey through the minefield that is the inner-workings of World Wrestling Entertainment is an enlightening one. He's both honest and guarded at the same time, offering insight into how he viewed certain situations but never saying too much that it might come back to bite him. The chapters dealing with Fozzy also shed some light on how a low-level band has to operate in order to get a modicum of success, and that's with the added bonus of having a group of individuals who were already semi-famous.

The book culminates with two milestones: his mother's death and the Benoit family tragedy. Jericho finds closure in the former, going so far as to contact the man he's always held responsible for her becoming a quadriplegic and suffering for the last decade and a half of her life. The chapters dealing with Chris Benoit offer insight into a man wound up tightly, who was able to compartmentalize so many aspects of his personality that his actions both continue to baffle his closest friends and family and yet also make a sort of morbid sense. Jericho presents the man he knew and relates his reaction to the murderous events of that weekend in June of 2007, but, deep down, his confusion surrounding what happened still haunts him. In effect, his efforts to make sense of what Benoit did leads into his comeback to WWE. Jericho gives the impression that he gained his motivation back for the wrestling industry in spite of one of his best friends almost destroying it in an attempt to help it recover.

Overall, Jericho offers a great sequel, but it's definitely dependent on having read the initial volume.

30 March 2012

Book 7 of 2012

Shortly after returning from a trip to Portland, I completed this on our designated rest day.

7) The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
The Puritans! No, wait! Don't go anywhere yet because Sarah Vowell does a really great job of not only making the 17th century Puritans interesting (despite the fact that they kind of aren't), but she relates and connects their trials and tribulations to our modern world. Just what do a collection of ragtag religious zealots have in common with today's society? Why, religious zealotry, of course!

Vowell brings her usual quirky take and nerdy sensibilities to the subject matter, romanticizing the idea that these principled folks moved from England to the harsh unknown of Northern America out of a sense of duty to their religion more so than in an effort to stick it to the monarchy, as most narratives usually frame it. Her enthusiasm is evident from the beginning and makes what would otherwise boring material come to life. The Puritan folk are interesting to her because of their opinionated and writerly ways, something I can totally respect.


Geez, guys, they're still Puritans and it's still a lot of really snooze-worthy stuff dressed up in a really nice Sarah Vowell way. Sarah Vowell is awesome, but the subject matter is weak. I definitely didn't hate it, but it was definitely more medicine than sugar, you know? The book really comes alive towards the last 60 to 70 pages when Vowell starts to discuss Sarah Hutchinson and how she struggled (and ultimately failed) to overcome the prescribed gender roles of the period. Despite only being portrayed in negative and harsh light by her detractors who kept the records, Hutchinson still comes across as the winner in a debate with the accusers of her trial, winning her arguments with logic and being told she loses just because.

The section on Hutchinson is Vowell at her finest. She's still really good during the rest of the book, but it''s a bit more of a chore to get through than I expected.

29 March 2012

Book 6 of 2012

Some close friends got me an iBooks gift card for my birthday, so I went on a Raylan Givens spending spree.

6) Pronto by Elmore Leonard
The first Raylan Givens story showcases a guy named Harry more than it does the hero of the tale. Harry is a bookkeeper for the mob who's been falsely accused of skimming more than the acceptable amount off the top, and it's up to Raylan Givens to save him from a Sicilian hitman. Characters shift between Miami and Italy as Harry fails to retire on his own terms. Meanwhile, Raylan makes the effort to keep Harry alive. While Harry is an interesting guy with an interesting background that includes his involvement in World War II and Ezra Pound poetry, Raylan is the most complex character in the book. He's a guy born in the wrong time who enjoys his cowboy hat and what it allows people to think of him.

Elmore Leonard's books specifically and detective-style novels in general have been a category which I've always had a keen interest but never took the time to read. Serialized books that follow a single character through his or her many adventures feels right up my alley considering my interest in comic books. Plus, of the Elmore Leonard based movies I've seen, it would take less than one hand to name the few that have disappointed. That dialogue and characterization really won me over before I picked up the book, but it's presence here is unavoidable and welcome.

Having been a fan of FX's Justified for it's now two and a half seasons, I entered into the series with a preconceived idea of Timothy Olyphant's single minded portrayal of the US Marshall who tends to have an Old West attitude. The focus on Harry, his girlfriend Joyce, and the various mobsters involved took away from what I thought would be an all Raylan, all the time story. Judging the book based off my expectations isn't fair, either, and I admit that, but it didn't kill my enjoyment completely. Raylan is still wry and stoic...and also a complete badass. It's too bad there are only two other books and another short story devoted to the character.  At least there's still Justified.

05 March 2012

Book 5 of 2012

5) I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and high times in stand up comedy's golden era by William Knoedelseder
Dealing with the standup comedy scene in Los Angeles during the 1970's, I'm Dying Up Here focuses on Mitzi Shore's The Comedy Store and the efforts of the comedians to make it big and attempt to get paid until they did. The book focuses on several different comedians, but the main character is the venue, with Pauly Shore's mom serving as the villain of the piece. Shore's argument was that the comics used the store as a showcase to hone their craft while the comedian's argued that the renovations, cocktails, meals, cover and assortment of different rooms provided Shore with enough money to pay the folks that everyone else paid to watch.

The problem with nonfiction audiobooks with a large cast of characters is that it's impossible to keep everything straight. There are at least four Steves and three Toms named over the course of the book, and keeping their stories straight considering that some play ancillary roles and others are vital to the narrative without the visual aspect of seeing how their last names are spelled creates a disconnect that makes it easy to get lost.

The last quarter of the book consists of the negotiations between Shore and the comedians to get compensated for their time on stage, and the minutiae of what each performer should receive and the accompanying back and forth was a numbers game that made me want to skip to the next chapter every time. The same applies to Steve Lubetkin's list of things he felt he required to continue his comedy career, including boots, money for singing lessons and a host of 18 other things with reasons that served to explain why he experienced the outcome he did. My audiobook experience prior to this consisted of books by comedians and fictional stories focusing on a single character's arc, neither of which asks the listener to keep track of too many things other than the narrative.

While Knoedelseder is exhaustive in his research and clearly put the time in to get the story straight, there's very little insight into why these men and women felt the need to become comedians or how they became inspired to do the jokes they did, something that would be just as important as the history of the comedy club that launched so many careers. In that regard, it falls short. The history is pretty fascinating, but keep in mind that history is pretty much all the reader gets.

23 February 2012

UFC Japan

This is the first UFC card in Japan since late 2000. For those expecting a show reminiscent of the Pride FC days, they'll be disappointed because this is more about establishing UFC in a market where MMA has fallen way out of favor. Japan used to be the strongest market around for MMA, but Pride's demise due to the shady practices of its previous owners (The Yakuza is scary!) signalled an end to a boom period where the precipitous fall of the business spoke more to the culture of Japan than it did to the quality of the sport. It's a culture that's really prone to fads and trends, and MMA (and, to an extent, pro wrestling) has suffered because of that.

This show begins at 8:30am Sunday morning in order for the pay per view to air live at 7pm PST/10pm EST here in the US. On the plus side, it's a four hour show, meaning that we get seven fights on the main card.

Joe Lauzon vs. Anthony Pettis - In terms of fight quality, this match and the main event makes this show well worth the money spent. Joe Lauzon is one of the best first round fighters around, whose only flaw is in those later rounds where he has a tendency to gas. Only three of his 21 wins have gone past the first round, and of his six losses, only one has gone to a decision. The man has an exciting style of fighting. Pettis is just as exciting, as he's a guy that is dangerous off his back and is incredibly dynamic with his strikes. While the Showtime Kick can certainly get written off as a fluke, it's not the only crazy thing the guy has shown he can do with his feet. Much like the main event, I'm torn because I really like both guys and find it hard to pick between them. If it goes the distance, this is Pettis' fight whereas an early first or second round stoppage favors J-Lau. Put a gun to my head and I'll probably choose Pettis by decision since I don't see him getting caught in a submission.

Bart Palaszewski vs. Hatsu Hioki - In the UFC environment, few fighters who made their name in Japan have found initial success. The two factors most responsible for this appear to be the transition to a more stringently drug-tested organization and the mentality that an exciting fight is more important than winning. Hioki is the latest Japanese sensation who floundered in his UFC debut, losing to journeyman fighter George Roop. Palaszewski found success in what was supposed to be his featherweight debut against Tyson Griffin, who missed weight. My friends and I have always joked that there's a special gravity in Japan based on all of the Pride fights we witnessed that involved guys getting dropped on their head and somehow not becoming paralyzed. Perhaps that gravity will be on Hioki's side on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, it won't win him the fight. I expect this fight to go three rounds with Palaszewski coming out the winner via KO.

Yushin Okami vs. Tim Boetsch - Okami is so boring. And Boetsch is a big and powerful middleweight. Okami's boredom almost always wins, though, unless it's someone on the upper echelon of the division, which Boetsch is not, so Okami by decision.

Yoshihiro Akiyama vs. Jake Shields - Akiyama is a guy that has had exciting fights but keeps losing because he gets into slugfests when he should be taking it to the ground and continues to get outmuscled by bigger guys at middleweight. To combat the latter, Akiyama is dropping down to welterweight for the first time, a place that makes more sense for the style of fight he's been engaging. That's not the kind of fight you get with Jake Shields, though. He is a grinder who goes for submissions with really rudimentary stand-up, and Akiyama does not have the power to take out Shields. Shields also has a tendency to stick to his game plan way more than most fighters do, his recent loss to Jake Ellenberger notwithstanding. The fact is that Shields will win, probably by decision, but I'm hoping by a submission in the first.

Cheick Kongo vs. Mark Hunt - Mark Hunt is terrible and Cheick Kongo cheats. Kongo by TKO in the second.

Quinton "Rampage" Jackson vs. Ryan Bader - Rampage isn't motivated for this fight but that's because Bader really isn't on Rampage's level. Yes, he's good, but he's not as good as Rampage. Bader will get tired before Rampage does, and Rampage has better takedown defense than Bader does takedowns. Jackson should win by TKO in the third and move on to fight Shogun Rua later this summer.

Benson Henderson vs. Frankie Edgar (c) for the UFC Lightweight Championship - Several of the more famous Japanese fighters will be fighting on the FX prelims, so the main event should be interesting from a crowd reaction point of view because no one there will care about Edgar or Henderson. However, if the attendants give the two half a chance, they'll be in for an exciting bout.

Ben Henderson's nickname of "Smooth" is incredibly appropriate. The guy gets out of submissions and can endure holds that can snap most limbs, tear most joints, or make most men pass out. Oftentimes, the fact that submissions don't seem to work on Henderson can break the will of his opponents, giving him the psychological advantage.He constantly presses the action with his wrestling and finds openings with his strikes. Henderson is also a great student of the game because he knows how to break down and analyze fights. This ability adds to his technique, which is often flawless.

Henderson has fought five round wars in the past, but not against anyone with the conditioning of Frankie Edgar. While Henderson has a distinct size advantage over Edgar, everyone has a size advantage over Edgar and that hasn't stopped him from beating all of his opponents, including Gray Maynard, the one guy who had previously handed him his only loss. In giving up the size, Edgar more than makes up for it with his speed and footwork, which no one in the division can match.

When I wrote about Edgar/Maynard III last October, I said that I didn't like Frankie's eventual chances against either Clay Guida or Benson Henderson. Now that the day is almost here, I can't help but change my tune. This is another occasion like Pettis/Lauzon where the longer the fight goes, the more it favors the champion, and if it ends early, it'll go the challenger's way. At some point early on, Edgar will get himself in trouble, and Henderson has a much better killer instinct than Gray Maynard could ever hope to have, so he'll capitalize. Edgar has proven he's a survivor, though, and if Henderson doesn't win in that moment, I don't see Benson winning. Henderson has a great guillotine choke and really solid body shots with his kicks. He has the best chance of winning if the fight stays on the ground, but Edgar won't let it stay there. Meanwhile, Edgar's stand up, while lacking power, is crisp, technical, and much better overall than Henderson's. The champion will retain. Frankie Edgar wins this fight by decision.

21 February 2012

Book 4 of 2012

After reading this book off and on for seven months, I finally finished this on President's Day weekend. I originally planned to take an extended break from the series after finishing this volume due to the enormity of each book, but seeing that the first POV chapter is Jaime Lannister actually has me rethinking that idea.

The second part of Martin's immense epic that's served as the source for the hit HBO show continues right where the last one left off. Westeros is in turmoil as the country plunges into civil war over who should be the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. Besides Joffrey, the son (in name only) of the recently deceased king, there's Renly and Stannis, brothers to King Robert, Robb Stark, the proclaimed King of the North, along with Balon Greyjoy and Daenerys Targaryen. Frankly, it's a job that's accompanied by problems that someone wouldn't wish on their worst enemy, so it's difficult to understand why they would want it. The same three basic stories continue from before: the aforementioned war to gain control of the Seven Realms of Westeros, Jon Snow and the Night's Watch folks travelling north of the Wall to investigate zombies and find their missing members, and Dany Targaryen trying to return to home with her dragons.

The big difference in reading this volume compared to the first is the lack of the television show as a supplementary guide. Reading the first book concurrently with watching the show revealed the surprising lengths the latter took to follow the former, and the show also took some of the characters that received short shrift in the book and fleshed them out. Thanks to some of those moments, some of which came to the forefront more in this volume, the motivations and misconceptions I may have had were easier to understand. Without the show this time around, I was left to my own devices. That's not a negative, as it has me pumped for Game of Throne's return on April 1, but it was jarring and revealed just how much the show spoiled me for the rest of the books. Considering fans of the series have had to endure a majority of their time as fans without the series AND with long gulfs of time between volumes, there's never been a better time to jump on this bandwagon.

Where the last book was about the relationship between power and compromise, this one deals more with maintaining the perception of power when one recognizes how much their grasp on it can wane. Each of the characters has a tenuous grip on the power they wield, and the differences between many of them comes down to whether or not they recognize how tenuous that grip can be. 

The scope of the story continues to expand, and the note at the beginning of book three explains that some events occur concurrently with the Battle of Blackwater. Knowing that helps going into the third book since, despite how large and encompassing the story is, it felt like a few of the characters were ignored far too much. Robb Stark appears to be having a ton of success, but the reader only gets to hear about it second hand. Some of the characters that do get their own POV chapters are left out in the figurative cold as well. More Davos and Daenerys would certainly be welcome compared to the amount of Sansa, Catelyn and Bran we receive. The Starks are the center of the story and the family the reader is supposed to be rooting for, but too many of the other characters are far more fascinating. But the series so far is literary pizza in the sense that even the bad or boring stuff (food descriptions, I'm looking at you) is still plenty entertaining.

19 February 2012

Top Numbered Somethings: The Simpsons

The Simpsons reached a huge milestone this weekend when it aired its 500th episode. Like any middle-class male whose formative years took place around the same time The Simpsons debuted, my sense of humor owes a huge debt to the absurd shenanigans that take place each week in Springfield. While the quality of the show has waxed and waned since it's heyday of seasons one through eight, The Simpsons is still something I can count on every week for a few laughs while also sometimes managing to reach the heights of its hall of fame days. Here are my five favorite episodes in almost no order.

Homer Goes To College - When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission discovers that Homer doesn't have a college degree, he goes to school in an effort to rectify that and also live out every college comedy movie he's ever seen. Unfortunately for Homer's fantasy, the dean is not a monster, he befriends the nerds, and it turns out that Nuclear Physics 101 is kind of a difficult course. Much like any classic Simpsons episode, it's infinitely quotable and manages to focus on the one storyline the whole way through the half hour. It's also written by Conan O'Brien, demonstrating the depth the writing staff had at the time.

Homer Badman - Through a misunderstanding about a gummy Venus de Milo, a babysitter accuses Homer of sexual harassment. The media firestorm surrounding her accusation is the kind of satire that The Simpsons does best.

Three Men and a Comic Book - As soon as The Simpsons showcased an entire episode about buying an expensive comic book, they had me secured as a fan forever. It's not like comic books got any mainstream attention back in 1991, so getting one of the most popular shows in the world devoting half an hour to the expense of a single issue and how difficult it would be to split ownership between friends spoke to me on a level I hadn't experienced before.

Holidays of Future Passed - Here's an example of territory the show has covered before to varying degrees of success (fast-forwarding to a possible future for the family to see where they end up), and yet it's one that is incredibly sweet without losing the biting humor the show has always employed. There are definitely funnier episodes, but the weight of the show's history pushes this one over the top, especially the montage of family holiday photos at the beginning.

You Only Move Twice - Hands down, this is my favorite episode of all time. Hank Scorpio and his Globex corporation hire Homer and move the family to Cypress Creek because he's the second longest tenured individual at the power plant. Life seems perfect in the new town, but no one except Homer is happy. Also, despite his jovial exterior, Hank Scorpio is a James Bond style villain bent on world domination. Al Brooks steals the show from everyone else as the voice of Hank Scorpio, and his is a guest starring role that no one else has ever really been able to top.

What are your favorite episodes of The Simpsons?

We've spent the last two weeks transitioning from the balcony scene in Romeo & Juliet to finally attacking the first act of Othello.

Thematic dichotomies abound in Macbeth. Keep looking out for those and focus on those paragraphs.

07 February 2012

Book 3 of 2012

My brother and his wife gave me this book for my birthday because I've been a huge Brock Lesnar fan for a long time and almost got them in trouble with their downstairs neighbor once during the Shane Carwin fight by jumping up and down when Brock survived the first round of the fight. There is literally nothing exciting about how I finished this book, though.

For the longest time, I could honestly say that my favorite fighter is Brock Lesnar. I vividly remember hearing the stories of the 300 pound NCAA Division I Heavyweight champion training at OVW who could do a shooting star press. His WWE debut is seared into my brain because poor Maven, Al Snow and Spike Dudley had to take all of those vicious slams the night after Wrestlemania. His time in the WWE was something to behold because he took to pro wrestling so well and so quickly that it was clear he had the potential to be an all-time great. Then he quit. And while I'm still a pro wrestling fan, I started looking at UFC and found myself even more intrigued with a sport that essentially answered the question "What if pro wrestling were real?" And wouldn't you know it? Two years after I became a fan of the sport, rumors started circulating about Brock Lesnar trying his hand at MMA. I've bought every single one of his fights on pay per view, from his debut to his retirement, and even attended his loss to Cain Velasquez live. It was really easy to call the guy my favorite fighter...until I read his book.

All the athletic skill Brock Lesnar possesses makes him fun to watch. All of the bombast and egotism that drives him makes it fun to anticipate when a person can watch him again. But all of those things that make him perfect as a draw are the exact kind of things that make it really hard to like him. Part of Brock's appeal is that he is an intensely private person. He enjoys putting on the show, but he figures that putting on the show is his job. Once he's done with his job, he just wants to go home and be a family man that's left alone. It makes him more intriguing that he wants to play the game on his own terms. I'm not one to spite him that mindset, however he makes a big point on the dust jacket of the book that this is the one time he's letting everyone into his private world. Too bad that it never actually feels that way.

Case in point: during the beginning of his WWE tenure, his daughter Mya was born. The passive voice is key here because he never mentions before that he has a wife or a girlfriend, that he even got someone pregnant. From the book's point of view, Mya was delivered by a stork that decided that Brock Lesnar needed a baby. There's never any insight into what would have probably made a very interesting story. It's all surface level information that could have been gleaned through a quick read of his Wikipedia page. 

His daughter's story is not the only time this occurs. The pattern of the book is as follows: Brock wants to be number one at [insert athletic achievement here]. Brock fails or succeeds. Brock moves on to [insert next athletic achievement here]. People get in Brock's way. Brock SMASH! It's repetitive and, really, kind of boring. He comes across as someone who is hard working, who doesn't buy into any of the hype surrounding the endeavors he engages, but instead wants to make the most amount of money that he can due to his humble beginnings. 

There are two ways to consider Brock Lesnar after reading this biography: either he never lets the reader penetrate the mystique that surrounds him, or the mystique was never really there from the beginning. There's some interesting information from a fan perspective, but, ultimately, it's a disappointing read.

05 February 2012

Book 2 of 2012

I finished this book after waking up this morning. By the way, book one of 2012 was Shakespeare's Othello, which I read and annotated because I'm teaching it for the first time this year. In order to avoid getting sick of it before my students even start reading the play, I'm holding off on a proper review of it. It is pretty great, though.

2) Cool Hand Luke by Donn Pearce
For the longest time, I had no idea this book existed because the movie starring Paul Newman has always stood on its own as such a timeless piece of cinema that I never thought to question its origins. A few minor events are switched around from novel to film, but the things that happen are familiar. Lucas Jackson, a war "hero," gets sentenced to two years in a Florida chain gang and is too bullheaded for the guards' liking, so they proceed to try and get his mind right by breaking him down.

While the movie is a character piece, and the book does focus on Luke as the central figure, Pearce spends the majority of the novel detailing the harsh life of the chain gang. It's written in first person from the perspective of another prisoner who admires Luke for the savior-type leader that he is but also recognizes that no good outcome can result from Luke's behavior. Pearce provides insight into Luke's past, explaining how and why Luke's time in World War II led to his disillusionment with religion and disdain for authority.

This is a good book, and I really enjoyed it, but that enjoyment is also somewhat tainted by the film. Paul Newman and George Kennedy so encapsulate those characters and the movie itself is such a classic that it's difficult not to compare the two. Much like Fight Club, this is an occasion where the film trumps the original work. In both cases, the filmmaker decided to focus on the characters and landed actors that could do a great job fleshing them out and making them whole. That streamlined approach helps achieve the status it still holds today. Meanwhile, the book, by discussing the cruelty and despair of the chain gang life, touching on the depravity that men sink to during war, and merely hinting at the savior figure that Luke becomes in the eyes of the camp has a more scattered view. By tackling so many themes, it fails to accomplish getting a point across about a single one of them.

As a companion piece, to the film, this is an interesting read. On its own, it's merely just good but not really great.

03 February 2012

UFC 143

This show is light on star power but heavy on fights that look decent on paper and that are tough to predict.

Ed Herman vs. Clifford Starks - Herman is on a two fight win streak following a terrible knee injury. As a TUF finalist all the way back in season three, he's always been a guy that could never really take things to the next level. He's an appropriate gatekeeper for Clifford Starks, an undefeated prospect known for his wrestling. I literally have no opinion on this fight as I never saw Starks fight before, but I'm going to root for him because I don't particularly like Ed Herman and what's a fight card without me going out on a limb with a long shot? And when we don't know enough, we always go with a decision, so Clifford Starks will win by decision.

Renan Barao vs. Scott Jorgensen - A few years ago, I went to watch UFC 79 at my wife's cousin's place with a large crowd of casual fans. Crowds like this are sometimes problematic for me because I tend to get a little nuts when I really focus on a fight, and it results in some weird looks thrown my way, not unlike when I attempt "humor" in any of my classes. During the course of the fight between Melvin Guillard and Rich Clementi, Clementi performed a picture perfect sweep, transitioning himself from the guard position on his back to full mount on his opponent. The fighters in the UFC are so well-rounded now that it's rare to see something like that performed with such ease at such a high level, and I deeply appreciated it the same way someone could appreciate a double play or complex lay up (Those are sports things, right?). I expressed as much in front of this crowd by saying, "Beautiful!" Cue the weird looks and comments, but, for reals, it was beautiful.

And you know what else was beautiful? Renan Barao fought Brad Pickett back in November and took his back after knocking him silly, sinking in both hooks, in such a fluid, quick motion that you'd think this guy has super powers. It was amazing and showed that Barao is for real since Pickett is no slouch. Jorgensen is a guy that is in the upper echelon of the bantamweight division, but lost recently enough to the champ that he's needing to build himself back up. Unfortunately, fighting Barao is not the way to do it because he's also riding a 27 fight win streak.  Barao has the potential to be the Jose Aldo of the bantamweight division, which is not good for Urijah Faber or Dominick Cruz, and especially terrible for Scott Jorgensen since he'll be losing to Renan Barao by submission in the second.

Josh Koscheck vs. Mike Pierce - Back in November, I explained at length why I don't like Rick Story (and, by extension, Jake Ellenberger) because he's just a guy that is completely interchangeable with any other guy. Add Mike Pierce into that same equation. All three are welterweights, too, which really doesn't help. None of them have had a fight I remember well. Granted, I watch a ton of fights, but I do so in the hopes of recognizing enjoyable fighters. Of the three, Ellenberger has been the most impressive, but none of them have shown a hint of personality. This is not to say that Pierce (or Ellenberger or Story) are not good fighters, but they're just so stereotypical in the their attitude and style that I get bored writing about them, let alone watching them in action. So whatever. Josh Koscheck will either attempt to knock him out or get knocked out, and I'll bet on the former over the latter because it's the safe way to go. Josh Koscheck wins by grinding out a decision.

Roy Nelson vs. Fabricio Werdum - As claims to fame go, being the first guy in a decade to beat and submit Fedor Emelianenko is pretty great for Fabricio Werdum despite the fact that he lost the follow up match to Alistair Overeem. Werdum will be able to hang his hat on that accomplishment for at least another two years, and it goes to show how dangerous he is on the ground. But Roy Nelson has his belly on his side, along with a better stand up game, devastating knock out power, and a black belt in jiu-jitsu. His portly appearance makes people underestimate his ability. Nelson is talented and smart enough to know how to neutralize any submission attempts by Werdum and vice versa. The same cannot be said for Werdum's rudimentary and pedestrian striking. The X factor in this fight is Nelson's wrestling: he's good enough to keep the fight wherever he wants to take it. Werdum is a guy I'd pick against a lot of people in the heavyweight division, but Roy Nelson has all the tools to get the job done here. I expect Nelson takes the fight by TKO in the second round.

Nick Diaz vs. Carlos Condit for the UFC Interim Welterweight Championship - With Georges St. Pierre injured and out until late 2012, the UFC has decided to create an interim championship between its top two contenders. It's appropriate that said contenders are the final Strikeforce and WEC welterweight champions, respectively.

Carlos Condit is a finisher who always has exciting fights. All but one of his wins have come by way of KO or submission. He effectively uses kicks, punches, and knees, all to devastating effect and has a solid ground game to match. His only UFC loss is a split decision to Martin Kampmann that easily could have gone Condit's way.

Nick Diaz is similar in that he always has exciting fights. He doesn't utilize kicks in the same way as Condit, but he more than makes up for that in his volume of punches that have pinpoint accuracy. They don't look like they pack much power, but he's the only guy to make BJ Penn's face look like it went through a meat grinder after three rounds of fighting. For fun, Diaz competes in triathlons (which really speaks to his wacky personality...more on that in a second), so his gas tank is one of the best in the entire sport. It also accounts for his standard game plan, which is to push forward and overwhelm his opponent with more punches than they can handle. He eats far too many shots in the process, but each of his punches finds the mark so well that he almost always comes out the victor in those exchanges.

The difference between these two guys outside of the cage is where the real story lies. Carlos Condit, for all the accolades someone can heap upon him as a fighter, is still just a guy and does nothing to set himself apart from any other MMA fighter out there. Unlike most sports where a team mentality often overwhelms the individual stars that exist, MMA and UFC specifically is completely star-driven. Carlos Condit is a very good fighter. He's not a star.

UFC 143 is the Nick Diaz show. He is compelling, partially because he's so good but also because he's pretty nuts. He's not Chael Sonnen nuts either, where it's clear that he's pandering to the audience to garner more attention. He just doesn't want to play the game that everyone expects him to play in how someone is "supposed" to act. In an age where everyone appears media savvy to some extent, Diaz refuses to join in. He won't be friends with other fighters he might face, he'll complain about the fact that he wants to get paid more, and he'll call out the fact that he thinks GSP is faking his injury because the latter is too scared to fight the former.

Because of that GSP dust up, Carlos Condit has almost become an afterthought in the build up to his own fight. GSP, Nick Diaz and the UFC fanbase want to see those two fight so bad that it almost feels like a foregone conclusion the fight between them will be the next one that takes place. Condit can spoil those plans. His knee strikes have knocked out guys with better chins than Nick Diaz and a well-timed one can counter a body shot pretty well. But that's just me hedging my bets because Nick Diaz will fight his Nick Diaz fight, Carlos' weakness, his cardio, will be the deciding factor. Nick will earn a TKO in the fourth round to set up the biggest PPV fight of 2012.

31 January 2012

Don't call it a comeback!

LL Cool J knows what does and doesn't qualify
as a comeback.

Clearly, this blog has seen better days when it comes to the frequency of posting. Part of the reason for the infrequency of posting has to do with the fact that some jerks robbed my house in the early part of December, which definitely has an adverse effect on how much a person wants to interact with the world. Fortunately, no one was hurt and the damage was minimal. The things they took were just that: things. No one was home at the time (Although, our personal Batman-style detective work points to the fact that the perpetrators were teenagers interested in skinny jeans and anime, so my presence filled with menacing teacher looks may have been a deterrent.), and our dog was perfectly fine.

My wife and I are at the point now where we can joke about what a terrible guard dog our Spider-Man is; he barks incessantly at a perceived doorbell or knock, whether it's someone actually arriving at our house or something that occurs on television, yet a real threat to our abode leads to me arriving home to a perfectly happy dog.

I'm torn as to whether I should carry the burden of trying to catch up on all of the days I have missed in the nearly two months since I last wrote a classroom post, or if I should cut bait in the hopes of maintaining a motivation for writing. I'm leaning towards the latter. As a compromise, I'll merely discuss what we've gone over instead of doing a day by day breakdown. Heck, if that works better overall, I might adopt that for classroom posts in the future.

After finishing up Fahrenheit 451, we focused on a research style project where you read through several articles on the idea of juvenile justice. You completed an essay on the subject after going through a plethora of pre-writing activities.

When we returned from winter break, we began to focus on the life and times of William Shakespeare in preparation for the third quarter text. Our focus will be on Othello this semester, but, since it's the first time I've taught that play, we'll also turn our attention towards Romeo & Juliet at times. This will serve the dual function of expanding your knowledge of Shakespeare's plays while also providing you the core literature the college prep classes cover.

We also spent a good portion of time on sonnets and iambic pentameter in an effort to prepare you for the style of writing Shakespeare employs. This is not to say that every single thing in either Romeo & Juliet or Othello will appear in this style, but it does prepare you for the diction and syntax present in the plays. Today, we'll be focused on reading through the famous balcony scene from Romeo & Juliet.

After completing the senior literature project, we spent some time on Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales. However, the time available towards the end of the semester couldn't do justice to the time needed to properly cover the literature. I know this breaks everyone's heart.

When we returned from break, we also started our focus on William Shakespeare. This is the one time of year where the subject matter of both my senior and frosh classes dovetail, presenting both opportunities and challenges in how to differentiate the instruction for the varying levels. You focused on reading through the cleverly titled Shakespacket, writing a short four paragraph essay with the provided topic sentences.

Now, we are currently in the thick of reading Macbeth, having just completed act I today in class. Everyone should be looking for examples of thematic dichotomies in the text in order to complete the paragraph due on Friday. Remember that a key aspect of completing said paragraph is to be able to distinguish your evidence from your analysis through highlighting.

23 December 2011

UFC 141

This is a two fight card, and I'm not going to pretend like it's not. The only problem is that the UFC got cold feet by not putting it on New Year's Eve. The company always has a show right around the weekend of New Year's, but when the biggest party night of the year rolled around on a Saturday this year, they chickened out and put their biggest main event of 2011 on a Friday instead. It's a missed opportunity, and I hope it doesn't cost them.

Nam Phan vs. Jim Hettes - Hettes is an undefeated submission specialist who has finished all of his fights inside of two rounds. Phan is a middling striker who puts on entertaining fights. Hettes takes this by rear naked choke in the first.

Vladimir Matyushenko vs. Alexander Gustafsson - Gustafsson is a great young prospect while Matyushenko is a past-his-prime dude nicknamed the Janitor. Gustafsson wins by TKO in the second.

Jon Fitch vs. Johny Hendricks - ...zzzzzzzzzzzFitchbydecisionzzzzzzzzzzzz...

Nate Diaz vs. Donald Cerrone - All right, now we're talking!

Donald Cerrone has deserved the spotlight for a good long while now, and getting the semi-main event slot for his second pay per view main card appearance is a nice way of doing it. He's riding a six fight win streak, finishing four of his opponents in the process and looking impressive with each outing. Cerrone has had some mental hurdles to overcome in the past, having a tendency to lose the early rounds before realizing he's in a fight, but ever since he transferred over to the UFC from the now defunct WEC, he's looked energized and come across as a title contender. There are few people in the UFC's midcard I anticipate watching more than the Cowboy.


Guys, the Diaz brothers are tremendous because they're each individually more of a cartoon character than Chael Sonnen could ever hope to be with the added benefit of actually believing everything they say. While Nick is the crazier of the two, Nate certainly holds his own. For instance, the story goes that Cerrone, being the sportsman that he is, went up to Diaz at a public workout event to shake his hand. Diaz promptly slapped it away and called him a few choice words that are bleeped on television, explaining that they were in the same division so Cerrone was out of line. I wish I was making this up, but that's just Nate Diaz.

Thankfully, he fights as well as he talks, putting on a career best performance against Takanori Gomi back in September. However, Gomi is a shell of his former self and has had a terrible UFC run, so was that fight a case of Diaz taking his game to a new level at lightweight or looking great against an awful opponent? Regardless, the UFC brass saw Nate in a new way after the fight. Before that, he made a run at welterweight and lost two in a row, mostly because he couldn't handle the size advantage that most fighters in the division have over him.

Of the two, Cerrone has the better technical striking and Diaz has the better ground game, while neither are great shakes as wrestlers. Diaz can overwhelm opponents with his barrage of pitter-patter punches, but Cerrone has pretty great head movement and a solid chin and his kicks are enough to give a guy like Dennis Siver the shakey legs. Cerrone also is good enough on the ground not to get caught in a Diaz trap, while I can't say the same for Diaz when it comes to Cerrone standing. Another factor is that Cerrone trains with some world-class wrestlers at Greg Jackson's gym, so he probably gets the nod there despite the fact that neither guy is known for their takedown ability. How he wins isn't as clear to me, but I don't see anyone else but Donald Cerrone coming out the victor on this one. Let's say that Cerrone wins by TKO in the third.

Brock Lesnar vs. Alistair Overeem - Let's address the elephant in the room first for anyone who has been paying attention to the recent hubbub: this fight should not be happening due to the Nevada State Athletic Commissions. Call it incompetence at best or a conflict of interest at worst, but after it took Alistair Overeem 27 days to get a urine sample to the commission when they attempted to do a 48 hour drug test back in the middle of November, the fight should have been cancelled. As a fight fan, I'll still be glad to watch this bout, but, man, does it make them, the UFC and the sport as a whole look bad when shenanigans like this take place.

Overeem is a world class striker and a world class HGH and steroid abuser. See, this is what's great about being a fan of the sport who just happens to enjoy writing about it as opposed to a journalist or anything else where I'd have to be politically correct in my choice of words. Up until 2007, Overeem was an okay light heavyweight with a tall frame and a lean physique. A year later he put on 50 pounds of muscle and started destroying scrubs in Japan in the heavyweight division, where no one does any kind of drug testing. Stranger still, his face started to change shape, and a common side effect of growth hormone usage is a thickening of the jaw and bones in the head and face. No matter how much muscle a dude puts on, it's not all that common for their head to change as much shape as their body. Overeem, by the way, attributes his new body (and head girth) to eating horse meat. No, really.

But that's besides the point, isn't it? The point is that he punches and kicks really hard and can do so pretty accurately. And his opponent does not react well to getting punched in the face. Overeem also has a solid kimura and a pretty good guillotine, both of which he applies with more power than he does technique.

Don't mistake my criticism of Overeem for his suspect musculature for hypocrisy when I repeat for the umpteenth time on this blog that Brock Lesnar is my favorite fighter. Defending him and the fact that he's built like a man and a half is pretty easy considering his history of always being a giant. And who knows? Maybe they're both juicing. I like Brock more and that's all that really matters.

Also, he's going to win if he plays it smart. Not playing it smart would be to attempt to stand up for any length of time whatsoever at all with Overeem, and I don't see Brock doing that. Frank Mir laid out the exact game plan that I envision over at Yahoo. Brock will attempt a takedown, Overeem will sprawl, Brock will then power through and bull him against the fence where he'll trap him. Overeem will attempt to stand, and might even do so a few times, but lathering, rinsing and repeating the same strategy from Brock is all that will happen once he does stand up.

Well, that'll just lead to a boring decision then won't it?

No, faceless question asker, it won't. This is where the important distinction between the two men comes into play. Overeem is mentally weak and will break. Whether that happens before or after he gasses out is up in the air, but both will happen. Fifty pounds of extra muscle is all well and good until a person is forced to carry it around with another guy of equal size attempting to keep one down for the better part of a fast-paced five to ten minutes. The guillotine and kimura won't play a factor after that, and for all of the talk about Brock Lesnar not being able to take a punch, he sure does know how to hit really hard, especially on a prone opponent. That'll easily set Overeem up for an arm triangle.

Brock wins this fight in the second round by submission. 

05 December 2011

Book 33 of 2011

I finished this shortly before performing my staff duty at work as the ticket seller for the play.

33) My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor
Jill Taylor is a renowned brain scientist who had a massive stroke due to a golf ball sized clot in the left hemisphere of her brain at 37 years old. It was the best thing that ever happened to her.

Taylor's story came to me through a TED talk that another teacher showed me while we both were teaching One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Much like Chief, her brother is schizophrenic, which led her to study the brain as a means to find out why his perception of the world differs from that of everyone else. Her stroke gave her the opportunity to study the effects from a unique perspective and discover that the impairment a stroke entails also allowed her the chance to reboot her personality.

Taylor provides a great deal of insight into how the brain works, something she always studied in theory but discovered in practice when the clot essentially silenced the left half of her brain. The left hemisphere is the language center of the brain, but, more importantly, it's the part of the brain that puts everything we see or experience into context. Conversely, the right hemisphere is all about experiencing the present moment, taking in the here and now in such a way that Taylor compares the time when the stroke silenced her left hemisphere to experiencing Nirvana. Since her left side could not provide the context of the past, present or future, she no longer knew where the borders of her body ended and the rest of the world began. She goes into great detail about how her life was changed by the stroke, both in taking the 8 years to fully recover and noting the ways in which she consciously made decisions to avoid the emotional baggage that hounded her pre-stroke.

While the content of the book is fascinating, the layout and structure take away from the whole. The last four to six chapters really drag as she gets into flowery descriptions about letting the right brain take over and leaving the left brain behind every once in awhile. A better editor could have spread out the experience of the stroke and subsequent recovery over the course of the book with the chapters on how best to establish a right brain connection interspersed in between as a way to bring things together in a more cohesive way. Plus, toning down or getting rid entirely of how appreciative she feels towards each of he individual cells would have increased my enjoyment and decreased my frustration at the repetitiveness of her writing.

Still, it's a fascinating story that allows someone to experience the kind of empathy needed when dealing with someone who has had a stroke, and her guide for doing so in the back of the book will be invaluable for anyone suffering through the experience.

Here's the original video, which, if you're a senior, you'll see again in the spring.

29 November 2011

A Tale of Two Games

New video games in my house are pretty rare outside of a sudden and/or unexpected cash influx, and to get two new games inside of a month is like finding the Loch Ness monster hanging out with Bigfoot. Yet, here we are, as I've acquired both Batman: Arkham City and WWE '12. Both are sequels to popular franchise games, but that's about the only thing the two have in common.

Arkham City takes place a year after the events of 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum and opens the world to include a large portion of Gotham City's slums, which have been converted to an enormous prison/police-state. It's a tremendous concept, with gameplay that builds on the original and then exceeds it. There's a very defined version of Batman and his outlying universe that Rocksteady is creating with these games. While it's not the version of Batman I envision of the character due to him generally being a jerk to everyone all of the time and how he oddly feels compelled to save a girl he kind of likes instead of the hundreds of people dying at one point in the story, I dig that the creators are forging their own mythos that plays somewhere in between the comic books and the Christopher Nolan movies.

Additionally, the downloadable content provides some awesome alternatives for the challenge maps as a way to keep them from being too repetitive. Playing as Robin or Nightwing makes the game worthwhile since each one has unique gadgets and different fighting animations. My hope is that Rocksteady continues to pump out the DLC on a regular basis, maybe adding a new side mission or two in addition to the challenge maps because I don't want to have to wait another two years for the next sequel, which will be interesting since the next step up would be Arkham State, and I can't imagine what the scope of that game might entail.

WWE '12, on the other hand, feels like a mixed bag of a game, albeit one that's starting to grow on me. THQ, the folks in charge of both the WWE and UFC license, always appear to have the best of intentions but somehow manage to fall just a little bit short in their sports entertainment endeavors. Their latest addition is an attempt at a reboot by turning away from the Smackdown vs. RAW name they've employed for the last seven years. Unfortunately, it's not a reboot that is successful in reinventing the game, but there are some improvements that don't have me completely hating it as much as my initial impression led me to believe.

Let's look at the positives first. The game has the WWE presentation down. It looks about as perfect as fake fighting which attempts to portray itself as real but also tries not to be real ever can possibly get. The entrances capture every nuance of each wrestler, the moves are easily identifiable, and the level of customization has never been higher. As a visual experience, WWE '12 is the best wrestling game ever produced. THQ has also improved the WWE Universe mode, where you can customize and book three different television shows that build to the monthly pay per view, over last year's initial foray. To top it all off, both The Rock and Brock Lesnar are in the game, which is what really sold me on buying it the first week. The latter is an especially popular guy to make as a created superstar, so it's pretty awesome that we get the real deal this time around. Yet, the game is far from perfect.

One of the main reasons why I don't purchase games too often is because the replay factor on the games I like is really high. WWE or UFC games lend themselves to both long or short periods of play time, so playing one match or a series of them isn't a problem. But WWE '12 changes the gameplay to the point that I almost took the game back the day I purchased it. Cooler heads prevailed since the new grapple system clearly requires a learning curve that I was too stubborn to accept. Even though it was a blow to my pride, I switched the difficulty to Easy for the time being until I start to improve.

At the same time, there are still a ton of problems with playing the game. Running strikes and grapples are nearly impossible to vary thanks to the new tap and hold methods of implementation. Most of the time when I attempt the secondary running strike or grapple, I still end up attempting the standard one. For a game touting that players will have to vary their attack when facing the AI, this doesn't help. The reversals are also spotty (or I just stink at them) despite hitting the right trigger at the prompt on a fairly consistent basis.

By far the worst aspect of the game is the new dynamic camera system that's supposed to approximate WWE television presentation. Instead of the standard elevated camera utilized in the past, the game now takes the approach of WWE TV by showing most of the match from the hard camera side. While this works for their show, it completely robs the player of any depth perception and destroys any possibility of a match that flows as a quality wrestling showcase. Instead, there are tons of missed moves and comical pratfalls that makes playing more frustrating than fun. The camera also doesn't adjust when folks uninvolved in the action, like a tag partner or manager, stand in the way. In an effort to portray realism (ironic considering the subject matter of pro wrestling) by not having tag partners become translucent, they wind up interfering in huge way. Additionally, the referee is always in the way of the action in the match, which I don't remember ever being a problem in a WWE game before.

I guess I still need more time with WWE '12. Maybe getting used to the new control scheme will alleviate some of these problems. Once UFC Undisputed 3 comes out in February, though, I doubt I'll continue playing WWE '12.

Monday, November 14 - You took the Fahrenheit 451 final and I checked your agendas. These should be entered into the grade book by the end of the week.

Tuesday, November 15 - After receiving a list of words from The Sniper, you worked with a partner to predict the usage and utilize words in context.

Wednesday, November 16 - You continued the work from the day before and also determined the definitions of a new set of words based on the way they were used in context.

Thursday, November 17 - Having completed the assignment from the previous two days, we read The Sniper together as a class.

Friday, November 18 - We read the story called The Last Spin, which served as an introduction to our Juvenile Justice unit we started the following week.

Monday, November 28 - After completing a quick write discussing punishment differences for adults and people your age, we determined the characteristics of a child, an adult and a juvenile. Our goal was to figure out for ourselves the factors that make up a juvenile and how to differentiate between the three different concepts.

Monday, November 14 - You completed the final timed writing and turned in your books for the last annotation check. Please make sure to finish reading the book even if you didn't complete the annotations. Missing out on that 25 point annotation check is one thing, but if you don't finish reading the book, it will seriously hinder your ability to do well on the culminating paper.

Tuesday, November 15 - After turning in the final article selection assignment, you received a final work day to complete the CD Creation project.

Wednesday, November 16 - We discussed in-text citations and how to properly implement them in your paper.

Thursday, November 17 - You turned in your CD Creation project. We then continued reading through Beowulf.

Friday, November 18 - We completed reading Beowulf and you received time to complete the dialectical journals, which I will collect on Wednesday, November 30.

Monday, November 28 - You received the guidelines for a properly formatted works cited page.

20 November 2011

Book 32 of 2011

32) God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Athiest and Other Magical Tales by Penn Jillette
One half of the magical duo Penn & Teller, Penn Jillette is a noted blowhard, but an entertaining one. He's cultivated this personality since his act with his partner has seen him become the talkative one of the two and they're pretty successful. The book makes the case for a secular collection of commandments to replace the Biblical version while liberally sprinkling in stories from his own experiences inside and outside of his life as an entertainer. Jillette is firm in his own beliefs and has no qualms discussing them here, as both a libertarian and an atheist.

15 November 2011

UFC 139

Sadly, this might be a show that I don't see, but it's got some far-reaching implications for the light-heavyweight and bantamweight divisions, so I'd feel remiss if I just ignored it since my opinion alone is the sole one available on the vast Internets about the sport of mixed-martial arts. Besides all that, it's a card that, while lost in the shuffle of the recent glut of shows, is deep on potentially awesome fights. If Miguel Angel Torres fights on the undercard, then you're looking at a really packed night.

Stephan Bonnar vs. Kyle Kingsbury - Both guys are riding win streaks, Bonnar at two and Kingsbury at four, but it's Kingsbury who has looked the most impressive of late with two fight of the night bonuses under his belt and a wider array of skills to accompany his impressive new physique. Bonnar has languished for quite some time and is getting older as a fighter. Kingsbury is the younger guy who appears to finally be putting all of the pieces together to take his game to the next level while Bonnar starts to settle into a newer position as a broadcaster. By no means am I suggesting that Bonnar hang it up, but I don't like his odds in this contest. Kingsbury will get the decision in what will probably be a slobberknocker of a fight.

Martin Kampmann vs. Rick Story - Kampann lost a pick-em fight against Diego Sanchez that easily could have gone his way and came out the losing end in Jake Shields' UFC debut. Meanwhile, Story, a guy who comes across as the meatiest of meatheads in every interview he ever does, was riding a six fight win streak and probably in line for a title shot until he took a fight against Charlie Brenneman on short notice less than a month after the biggest win of his career against Thiago Alves. In a convoluted set of circumstances that can only happen in MMA, he was set to fill in for an injured Anthony Johnson against Nate Marquardt when Marquardt tested positive for performance enhancing drugs and subsequently got himself fired the day before the show. Instead of headlining against a big name dude in Marquardt, Story wound up facing a dude in Brenneman who had thought his fight was cancelled earlier in the week. IT IS CONFUSING, THIS FIGHTING THING.

Anyway, it wasn't a smart decision on Story's part since his body was exhausted from overtraining and attempting to peak it for a second time so soon after his last fight, resulting in a loss to the much fresher Brenneman. I explain all of this mostly to remind myself who Rick Story is since, besides this story and the aforementioned meathead comment, I always get him confused with Jake Ellenberger. They look alike (with Ellenberger being a little bit more notable for resembling a mini version of Rich Franklin) and are so nondescript and forgettable despite being decent fighters that I can never be bothered to care about their fights. Meanwhile, I like Kampmann enough to remember who he is but only if he's facing a guy that I think can make his fights memorable and exciting. Technically, Story can do that, but I am not in the mood to care. Plus, Story just rubs me the wrong way, if it wasn't already obvious. Story will get the decision, but I'm hoping for a Kampann win.

Urijah Faber vs. Brian Bowles - Here's the first in our triple main event: a number one contender's match for the UFC Bantamweight Championship. It's been well-established that mine is a household squarely in the California Kid's camp, as he is my wife's second favorite fighter. That being said, Brian Bowles is long overdue for a rematch for the championship he lost to Cruz. Bowles' biggest enemy has been time since his year on the shelf after losing the belt hurt his visibility.

It doesn't help that Bowles, despite being an exciting fighter won his last fight in a boring match against Takeya Mizugaki and has a personality that's akin to watching paint dry. There's no doubt in my mind that Brian Bowles is a perfectly pleasant fellow, but, man, he's boring. Whatever excitement he generates in the Octagon pales in comparison to the disinterest he creates in every other possible situation. He is the prototypical MMA fighter in that he trains hard and does his utmost to respect every other fighter he's up against. Ask him who he wants to fight next and he'll say, "Whoever the UFC puts in front of me." That's a fine attitude for some fighters to have, but a variety of personalities creates stars, and what many of these young fighters don't realize is that calling people out and being more than the respectful, hard-working athlete allows them to make a name for themselves off the established name of others.

Urijah Faber is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. He's outgoing, clever and a crowd pleaser outside of his fights as much as he is during them. That's where the lack of personality hurts Bowles. Despite winning two in a row and his sole loss being a literal and figurative bad break to the current champ, Bowles is here in a number one contender's match-up against Faber, a guy who has lost four championship bouts. Because he's a draw that has a large fanbase, and even though his last fight was a loss to Dominick Cruz, Faber is again vying for a title shot that should theoretically already belong to Bowles.

All of this means little in terms of the winner, though. And Faber is going to win because he's the superior wrestler and grappler. Bowles has a tight guillotine choke and dynamite in his hands, but Faber is too fast and too powerful to get caught. Faber will get the win with a submission in the second.

Wanderlei Silva vs. Cung Le - Originally pitting the San Jose native against the much larger and much more dangerous Vitor Belfort, Cung Le instead makes his UFC debut against the former Pride Middleweight Champion. Le is a passable enough wrestler who uses it defensively to employ his devastating and dynamic striking. Without question, Cung Le has the best kicks in MMA. Everyone knows it and everyone he faces plans for them, yet he's still able to employ them every single time, which just goes to show how great he is. Unfortunately, he came into MMA fairly late in life and is getting on in years. Plus, he fights so rarely that rust has to be considered going into this fight.

Meanwhile, Wanderlei Silva is technically younger than Le, but in fighting years, this guy is ancient. For most of his career, he earned his nickname "the Axe Murderer" by plowing through opponents utilizing the windmill strategy. He moved forward non-stop, eating punches in an effort to land more than his opponent and eventually knock the guy out. A guy's chin can only take so many punches, especially from folks who have more technical striking, and now Silva is bearing the brunt of all of those years of abuse. He's 2-4 in his UFC career and his jaw has turned to glass, but a fighter is always the last one to know when to retire. That's just sad. Cung Le wins this by knockout in the first round.

Mauricio "Shogun" Rua vs. Dan Henderson - This five round fight appears to have implications for two different weight classes.

Rua is coming off a decisive victory over Forrest Griffin. He appears healthy, which is always a concern with Shogun, and his main weapons are his forward motion and technical striking combined with a great submission game. He's attempting to get back into the light heavyweight championship picture and a win over the current Strikeforce Light Heavyweight champ can go a long way towards making that dream a reality, despite how convincingly he lost the title to Jon Jones back in March.

Then there's 40 year old Dan Henderson, he of the granite chin, caveman face and right hand forged from the power of a thousand volcanoes. Additionally, he's world renowned Greco-Roman wrestler. He's riding a three fight win streak, with the biggest victory coming earlier this year against the vaunted (or overhyped...take your pick) Fedor Emelianenko. With his return to the UFC, Henderson hopes to make a statement that defies what most folks his age should be able to do. He's mentioned that with a win here, he'd like to challenge Anderson Silva to a rematch at middleweight, since Hendo is a small light heavyweight who has fluctuated between 205 and 185 over the course of his career. Can he do it?

Eh, I don't think so. This is a fight that favors Rua and I see Shogun winning with a submission in the third or fourth round.