Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Hunger Games series

THE HUNGER GAMES , the first book of this series, really fleshed out the setting of the world for this series- a futuristic North America, where starvation is a daily threat for most, monitored by an oppressive Capitol. Each year, citizens of the 12 outlying districts are forced to watch 2 of their own children between ages 12 & 17 battle to the death in a horrific arena, filled with specially engineered, life threatening obstacles...

CATCHING FIRE will grab you again, pull you in, then flip everything upside down! This story leaves you on the edge of your seat, in great anticipation of the upcoming concluding volume of the series. It is set up to be a very exciting tale, and author Suzanne Collins has proven she can live up to great expectations, I can't wait to read the final installment!

Throughout both books, the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, plays a key role in the Hunger Games, and unintentionally becomes a symbol of hope for a revolution. At the same time these massive forces are wrestling for control of the country in which she lives, Katniss is also torn in 2 directions in her personal life when it comes to friendship & love.

Powerful, moving, and heartwrenching. A highly recommended read!

Friday, April 23, 2010

I Am Ozzy by Ozzy Osbourne

Ozzy Osbourne's autobiography is the long awaited story of Ozzy's roller-coaster career as seen through his own eyes. Raised in poverty in Aston, Birmingham, England, and being a social outcast since his early childhood school days, Ozzy's highly unlikely rise to success in Rock N' Roll music is a fascinating story from page 1. Even more amazing and unlikely is the fact that he survived all the self-abuse he caused himself through his numerous harmful addictions and erratic, appalling behavior.

At this point in his life he has the perspective to look back on his life objectively, and he does so with humble & often brutal honesty. Reluctant to take credit for many of his successes, he never passes up an opportunity to thank those who have helped him out at the various stages of his life when he otherwise would have failed, or gone to prison, or been harmed, or may have died. He is not one to carry grudges, and has something good to say about almost everyone he's crossed paths with.

From a fan's perspective, I'm thankful to him for sharing his life-story with us. The context it brings to the music makes the songs more memorable. Some songs that I had almost ignored before, I now consider favorites. Others that I enjoyed for years are given more dimension by the events that gave rise to them. From his years with Black Sabbath, to his remarkable solo-career, the Osbournes & Ozzfests, my fanaticism has been fully rekindled.

Ozzy also mentions several musicians that have inspired him throughout his career. First and foremost are The Beatles. Led Zeppelin & Jethro Tull were other popular bands in the early days of Sabbath. One of my favorite passages was where Ozzy asked Tony Iommi if he'd heard the new Led Zeppelin album, and if he could believe how heavy it sounded. Tony casually replied, "We'll be heavier."

Ozzy also recalls the turbulent 80's with every appropriate emotion. The tragic death of Randy Rhoads, the 'Suicide Solution' lawsuit, the chaotic tour with Motley Crue, the biting-off of heads of bats or doves, the substance abuse and rehab.... Everything you've ever heard about Ozzy is put in perspective by the man who lived it. Check out this book & read it. Your heavy metal IQ will thank you for it!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Many Variations of Chess

On March 7th , I helped supervise an event at my local library where almost every version of Chess imaginable was represented. The event was called "Chess Gone Nutty". This is the 2nd time we've held this program already (previously we had it on October 25th 2008). It was a huge hit! Over 40 people dropped in this time over a 3 hour period to try their hand at a game of chess, either a version they were familiar with, or something completely new to them.

There were over 10 different versions of chess on hand, and a few other strategy games as well. Included this time were: Chess (European/traditional), Stealth Chess, Strato-Chess, Chess4, Chess Empire, Noble Celts, Plunder Chess, Chaturanga, and Xiang-Qi (Chinese chess) as different variations of chess. A couple pop-culture themed traditional chess games: Star Wars Chess-Saga Edition, and Harry Potter-Wizard's Chess. And also a couple non-chess strategy games: Checkers4, and Davinci's Challenge.

Here's a quick look at each game we had on hand this time:

Chess:
Your regular, old game of chess. No twists or fancy rules with this one. Sit down, play a thought-provoking round of the classic strategy game. It's hard to top the mental challenges of the original game, or is it?...

Star Wars Chess-Saga Edition:
This game was easily the biggest hit of the event, particularly for the kids that showed up. It is a straight forward traditional chess set, with the pieces depicting all of the most popular characters from all 6 of the Star Wars films. You could tell that even if the kids were not totally into playing chess, they were willing to give it a try just to get to play with these cool pieces! There were always kids watching whoever happened to be playing this chess set, and eagerly awaiting their turn to play! And, okay, nobody could resist suggesting what they thought was the best next move... "Move Han Solo! Put him here!" ... "No you can't do that, see where Count Dooku is!?" ... "What about Obi-Wan? Move him, move him!"

Strato Chess (a 3-D version of chess):
This version is played with the traditional chess pieces, but the board is a 3-tier platform! One side begins play on the top tier, the other on the bottom. Your pieces move between the three levels throughout the game. This brings a whole new dimension to the strategy behind chess!

Xaing-Qi (Chinese Chess):
Chinese Chess or Xiang-Qi is a totally different game from the traditional, European chess. Although derived from a common ancestor, Xiang-Qi has evolved to quite a different game than the version you may be familiar with. The goal of the game may be the same (to check-mate the King), but the rules, pieces, and moves are very different. Perhaps the most fundamental difference is that this game is played on the intersections of a grid, not the spaces on a checkered board. And there are a few differences to the pieces. To start, there is no Queen in Xiang-Qi, but 2 additional pieces called Cannons or Artillery. There is a "box" of nine intersections which the King and his 2 Inner Guards (or Inner Bishops) must remain within for the whole game. There is also a "river" bisecting the center of the game board, across which only Pawns, Rooks, Cannons, and Knights can cross! Could you put the King in check-mate?

Plunder Chess:
This one is just a variation on the rules of traditional chess. (This is the first time we had this one at this event. We were lucky enough to find one around the holiday time.) The new rule with this version of chess? After you capture a piece, the piece that made the capture, gains the ability to move like the piece it captured! This is visually identified by slipping a collar around the enhanced piece that shows the symbol of the piece it recently captured. The enhanced piece still retains its original abilities... Imagine a Pawn that could move like a Knight! Or a Rook that can capture one diagonal space, simple because it has captured a Pawn!?! This game should be fun to try!

Noble Celts:
Again, more or less like traditional chess, except this one is played on a circular board. Imagine a regular chess board, stretched around in a circular fashion until the two edges are connected... This eliminates the 'edge' of the board! Although this makes the Rooks a bigger threat, the layout of the board is hard to get used to. Particularly the Bishops are hard to keep track of, because they move in a spiral fashion. A little confusing to begin with, but again it brings a new dimension to this classic game.

Stealth Chess:
The version of chess where only you can see what your pieces are! Within this game there are a couple different variations of rules. You can either play a straight Chess game, and simply have the headache of trying to remember which piece of your opponent's is which without seeing what they are, or you can really mix it up with a variety of bluff rules! Imagine your opponent moving 3 pieces like a Knight... could you call which one is the bluff? Or maybe you'd like to sneak your Queen up real close to your opponent's King moving it like a Pawn for much of the game, then make the surprise check-mate!

Chess4:
This is a 4-player version of Chess. Same pieces, same rules, just more opponents... unless you play as teams! The pieces are set 3 rows behind the edge of a standard chess board to make room for the 2 extra sets of pieces. There are a couple different variations of the rules when there are more than 2 players playing: does the player who forced a check-mate gain control of the defeated players pieces, or are they neutralized on the board? Either way it introduces some new strategies...

Chess Empire:
Another 4-player variant of Chess, except this one has more pieces! Chess Empire takes the 4-player variation of chess to a new level. To accommodate a larger board and the presence of 2 additional opponents, each set of pieces includes 1 King, 1 Queen, 2 Bishops, 4 Knights, 4 Rooks, 2 Spies (new piece!), and 14 Pawns. The Spy is a new addition in this version of chess. Essentially the Spy is like a miniature Queen: it can move in any direction, only in increments of 2 spaces. With all the additional pieces, strategies in Chess Empire can take a few more minutes to hash out!

Harry Potter-Wizard Chess:
As with the Star Wars chess set, this it a standard chess set with pieces designed after the life-size Wizard Chess set portrayed in the first Harry Potter film- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Unfortunately the pieces don't move on their own, but it still makes for a fun Chess game for any Harry Potter fan. Think you could beat Ron Weasley?

Chaturanga:
This is the Indian ancestor of Chess. It is believed that all variations of modern chess are derived from this game. This game is also designed for 4 players. There are several differences to the rules though. Piece movement is determined by rolling 2 dice. By rule, 2 of the 4 sides are allied against the other pair of 2 armies. Once 2 players have been eliminated, the remaining 2 players then continue against each other, even if they had previously been allies, until a final winner is determined.

Checkers4:
This is a fun game that is often played by families with young children at these events. If the rules of Chess or its many variations are too complicated to grasp, then a spimple game of checkers usually satisfies. However, there is still the twist that this version is designed for 4 players!

DaVinci's Challenge:
Again, this is not a derivative of Chess, but rather a strategy game where 2 players (or teams) take alternate turns trying to build intricate patterns on a game board by placing one of 2 different shaped pieces. You can either focus on building your own patterns, or blocking the patterns your opponent is trying to build. As a result this game grows into a complicated pattern-seeing challenge, almost like a giant version of tic-tac-toe.

Knightmare Chess and Knightmare Chess II:
These variants of Chess were not present at this particular event, but we've had them at previous ones. Each of these games is composed of a deck of role-playing cards (like Magic-The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh, or similar role-playing card games). These cards are specifically designed to enhance, hinder, or alternate the rules within a standard game of Chess. With these cards, many layers of new strategies are presented to the game of Chess. How would you play your cards to expedite a faster check-mate?





As mind-boggling as all these different versions of Chess may be if you haven't heard of them, there are still more out there that we have yet to add to our ever-growing collection. Just a few that we're looking to add at some point in the future: Shogi (Japanese Chess), Janggi (Korean Chess), Keht, Pi-Chess, Chess In The Round, and Omega Chess just to name a few. For now, I encourage you to go and find one of these games that intrigues you and bring it home for your family or friends to try! Most importantly, have fun!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Night of Chicago Bulls' Basketball to Remember...


On February 10th, 2009, the Chicago Bulls faced the Detroit Pistons in an NBA basketball match, but it would be the half-time event that would steal the show...
On this particular evening I happened to be out with family picking up some odds & ends when we decided to stop for dinner. We chose Chili's, and thanks to this decision I was lucky to catch this half-time special right before we left the restaurant for the evening.
Now, just so you know, I'm a huge fan of the Chicago Bulls, and have been since 1991 (I know, seems like I jumped on the bandwagon just in time for the championship years, but I've followed them just as closely every year since!) Having started watching Bulls games when I did, the voice and face of my favorite TV announcer has been Johnny "Red" Kerr.

This evening the NBA & the Chicago Bulls honored "Red" Kerr by presenting him with the Basketball Hall of Fame's 2009 John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award. This award is quite a high honor in the world of NBA basketball, and numerous other icons from the Bulls' organization and Chicago would pay Johnny Red Kerr a personal thank you for his Life-long dedication to basketball and the Chicago Bulls. Among them were...

Former Bulls guard, former announcer, and current General Manager; John Paxson. Paxson is also famous for being the player to clinch the Bulls' 3rd consecutive championship in '93 with a 3-point shot with seconds remaining in game 6.


Former Bulls superstars Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan. These two guys were at the core of each Bulls team that won 6 championships in the 1990's.

Michael even went so far as to give Kerr one last dousing of rosen as was his pre-game ritual during his playing days. The fans at the United Center cheered enormously for Pippen, Jordan, & Kerr during these moments.






Then, just as you thought the honors were about to end, the PA announcer said there was a special Chicagoan who wanted to honor Johnny "Red" Kerr via satellite. Moments later, President Barack Obama, former IL senator and Chicago resident came on the air on the big-screen at the UC to personally thank Johnny Kerr for his lifetime achievement award and all his years of serving the Chicago Bulls, and specifically for being the voice that called all of those championship games for Bulls fans everywhere.

Then, the Bulls went on to defeat the Pistons in an exciting come-from-behind victory. They clinched the victory on Ben Gordon's last-second 4-point play...

For all the years of great announcing, thank you Red!
-J.A.B.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

November 4th 2008: The day the world hoped for change in America, and The United States of America finally agreed.

Yesterday, at 7:30 in the morning, I cast my vote for president of The United States with an immense hope that my voice would contribute to millions of others who would stand up and speak strongly for a change in the governing of our nation. Later that evening I watched an historic election be counted, tallied, and written in the history books. I saw the system of the electoral college function to reflect once again the true will of the people, without significant suspicions or areas of significant doubt, as it was certainly intended to. I felt emotions of a magnitude that I had never felt before rise within myself as I listened to the words spoken by the president-elect, Barack Obama, as he announced the victory of his presidential campaign, and the voters who chose him, to the world. This is a day that I will never forget, and remember always as a symbol of what it means to be an American, and a voting citizen of The United States of America.

I feel I should share with you the atmosphere I felt at the lunchroom at my workplace on this historic day. I happen to work at an institution with an immense diversity of nationalities, and I am grateful for the many opinions I get to hear on a daily basis. Yesterday, this was the group I broke bread together with: 2 Americans (including myself), 2 Argentinians, 1 Greek, 1 Swiss, 1 French, 1 Chinese, and 1 British. The sentiment at the table was unanimously in favor of Barack Obama's chances to win the presidency. One of us even commented that we were like the United Nations. We all shared a little laugh at that comment.

The biggest moment of the day, however, had to be when the confirmation was released that Barack Obama would be elected as the next President of The United States. It took several minutes to fully sink in that the election had finally, and decisively, gone in the direction of the will of the people. First it was John McCain, who delivered a heart-felt humble concession of the presidential race with the utmost respect and dignity. He further called on those who had supported him, to join him in supporting Obama as our new president. In spite of all the negative ads that were run by both sides in this long campaign, I truly believe both candidates have many goals in common, and I trust McCain to keep his word in continuing to work with Obama toward those common goals.

Then, it was Obama's turn to tell the country that he had won the presidency. In true Obama fashion, he quickly made the speech about the people who have supported his cause as he acknowledged everyone in the world from allies to enemies, from supporters to opposers, and all facets of the voting population. He told a captivating tale from the perspective of a 106-year-old voter, citing every crucial event in history within her life time, and reminded us that we are a resiliant people, who should always stand together when times challenge us and temp us to just fall apart. It is true that only time will tell to what degree any president is able to succede and meet the challenges of their time. But Obama gave me more hope with his words in these dire times than any president I can remember. Though I support him now, and am excited for his victory, I remind myself that the decissions of any president should always be scrutinized by the people of these United States. Though the president is our elected leader, it is always our will they should follow, and our opinions great or small, that they should consider. I pledge my support to Barack Obama as he prepares to assume office, and I encourage every American to do the same.

Enough politics now! I shall try to get back to reviewing books, movies, and other events in my life for your reading enjoyment!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Mistaken Identity, by Lisa Scottoline


This was an excellent read from one of the best crime drama/mystery writers out there. Scottoline draws on a bit of personal experience to build the characters in this court-room thriller... In the "Acknowledgements" at the end of the novel, she mentions that she met her own half-sister late in life (similar, but in different context than how the main character met her "twin"). I was lucky enough to hear Lisa tell the story in person when I attended a book signing she held in my community in support of the release of Dirty Blonde. Turns out her father apparently had an affair at some point in the past, and his daughter from that relationship had become a fan of Lisa's writing. She knocked on her door out of the blue one day, just to introduce herself. The emotions connected to such a discovery were great fuel for much of the writing involved in Bennie's character in Mistaken Identity.


But lets focus on the story now:
Bennie answers a call from a women's prison death row to find the inmate, Alice Connely (who looks shockingly similar to herself) claim she's her lost twin sister. Attempting to look at the case subjectively, Bennie eventually takes the case. Her investigation into the circumstances that left Alice on death row lead to more questions, many of which Alice is reluctant or unwilling to answer.
The authenticity of Alice's claim of both her relation to Bennie, and the circumstances of her case seem more and more in doubt as the story progresses. With her mother suffering a mental condition that leaves her unable to verbally communicate, Bennie has no choice but to try to track down her elusive father to get some answers about Alice.
The mysteries of family secrets grow in intensity right along with the tension of the life-or-death trial up to the story's conclusion. I hope you check this book out and enjoy it as much as I did!
Happy reading.