Thursday, May 12, 2016

Miscellany: 2004 Toyota Tacoma review - A Priceless Pickup

You often hear people say "they don't make them like they used to," but in the case of my old Tacoma, it's true: Toyota simply does not make a compact, single-bench pickup truck like this one anymore, much less one designed by an American (!) and made in America (!!). My 2004 model is a strange relic of a bygone era, when people used pickups to pick up stuff, rather than as glorified SUVs.

At gas stations and banks, random people often stop to ask whether the truck is for sale, a mark of how valuable the Tacoma is in its own way. This is, after all, a working man's truck that has been unfailingly reliable, despite daily commutes, long road trips, and 12 years spent mostly exposed to the elements. The patina of rust on the bumpers just adds character (as well as subtle theft deterrence) to the vehicle.

The truck's interior is spartan. Audio is provided by late '80s technology: an AM/FM radio, a cassette player (yes, a cassette player), and poorly-insulated road noise. The hand-crank windows and manual door locks may not be luxurious, but they eliminate potential points of failure.

The Tacoma has subtle virtues that you only notice after a decade of ownership. The truck is tremendously hard to break into - I once locked my keys inside and watched an experienced smith take a solid 20 minutes to jimmy the lock loose. The single cab design makes it as maneuverable as a compact car, but with a full-size truckbed large enough to haul a lot of junk around. Driver visibility is excellent, thanks to the compressed cabin.

The truck has faults, some major. The wimpy 2.4L V4 engine makes highway merges an adventure, and requires literal pedal to the metal in order to climb a busy on-ramp. The middle seat is uncomfortable for anyone larger than Peter Dinklage. There is almost zero interior storage space - you are not going anywhere overnight with anyone else.

Still, when my folks reclaimed the Tacoma to use as their daily driver, I felt a pang of sadness. Then again, with only 137,000 miles on it, the truck is still a baby - I'll probably see it again...

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Music: All-Star Orchestra

I am one of those cats that loves and appreciates music, but possesses zero talent. Sheet music looks like Greek to me, flats and sharps are indistinguishable to my ears, and I can barely hold a beat long enough to pass a song in Rock Band. Understand that when I see the professional musicians involved in All-Star Orchestra, I don't see people playing instruments, I see superhumans:

All-Star Orchestra is the brainchild of Gerard Schwarz, former music director and conductor laureate of Seattle Symphony. Schwarz gathers together some of the best orchestral musicians from all over the country to record a series of pieces over a few days, with no audience but a host of HD cameras. These performances are broadcast on public television, and excerpted to form the basis for the Khan Academy's online classical music courses. Even if you're not planning on learning how to play an instrument, it's a great way to get a deeper appreciation of classical music.

Movies: A Mad Max retrospective

For no reason in particular, I recently watched all four Mad Max movies, starting with the original "Mad Max" from 1979 and ending with 2015's multiple-Academy Award-winning "Fury Road." Which vehicular vision reigns supreme? Read on...

Mad Max

In the first movie, Max is a hotshot police officer working in a dystopian (but not post-apocalyptic) future. He's got buddies in the department, a chief who rides him hard, and he's a loving husband and father. When events put him into conflict with a vicious highway gang, he'll have to take justice into his own hands.

There are numerous cult film series where the original movie is arguably the best one, even though it lacks the pyrotechnics or plotting of later entries ("Night of the Living Dead," "The Evil Dead," etc.). Unfortunately, this is not the case with "Mad Max." While the film introduces some of the elements that would make the rest of the series memorable (high-speed chase scenes, struggles with wackily-dressed gangs, a sly sense of Australian humor), the pacing is so uneven and slow that I think most people would struggle to finish it, especially those hoping for the madcap action of later installments.

Rating: 5/10

Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior)

The second film picks up years after the original, after a global oil shortage and nuclear war decimate humanity and reduce the Outback to the familiar wasteland that we associate with the Mad Max movies. Max is a drifter who happens upon a group of survivors living in an oil refinery and set upon by the villainous Lord Humungus.

This is the movie that cemented Mad Max's legacy, and the one that everyone remembers. Countless other post-apocalyptic films have parodied or referenced it, but few match its mix of hypnotic intensity and endearing characters. The final highway chase pitting the survivors' tanker truck against Humungus' gang remains one of the best action scenes ever filmed:

Rating: 9/10

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome

In this one, Max's wanderings take him to Bartertown, home of a struggle between two semi-corrupt rulers, the conniving Aunty and the cruel Master Blaster. He'll serve as a pawn in their power game, as well as a leader of a small band of plucky survivors left behind from a plane crash.

"Thunderdome" is an okay movie, with three main highlights: (1) the titular arena, in which two men enter but one man leaves; (2) the final chase scene, which is a still-good-but-watered-down version of the chase from the second movie, and (3) the Tina Turner song "We Don't Need Another Hero"...

Rating: 7/10

Mad Max: Fury Road

I actually saw "Fury Road" for the first time in doing this retrospective, and, overall, I think it slots in comfortably with the rest of the series. It at times plays a little too much like a remix of the second and third movies, and Tom Hardy's Max feels like a secondary character in his own movie, but it's hard for me to knock anything that has a flamethrowing guitar:

Rating: 8/10

Friday, April 15, 2016

Tech: Hyper Light Drifter review

I love a good top-down action-adventure, and "Hyper Light Drifter" is a stylish take on the genre that scratches the itch felt by old-school Zelda fans:

Developed by Heart Machine and directed by Alex Preston, the game is about a mute swordsman fighting through a ruined post-apocalyptic world. The swordsman is never named; in fact, there's no text in the game at all, except for tutorial tooltips. Instead, the story is conveyed entirely through some of the best pixel art I've ever seen : pictographic word balloons used in interactions with townsfolk, cryptic cinematics, and subtle graphical details (your swordsman coughs up tiny pools of blood from a mysterious illness). The visuals are nicely complemented by a great semi-ambient score from Disasterpeace ("It Follows"), which lends the proceedings a desolate Ico-like flavor.

Many reviewers have dinged the game for being too difficult, but I found "Hyper Light Drifter" no harder than most 2D games in the NES/SNES era. There are frequent checkpoints, so you rarely lose progress, and the bosses are all pattern-based and telegraph their attacks appropriately. It is quite possible to beat the game without ever taking a hit, as evidenced by the ultrahard New Game+ mode that gives you only two points' worth of health.

I personally thought "Hyper Light Drifter" was too shallow, and over too quickly (there aren't many weapons and items in the game, or major puzzles to solve), but while it lasted, it was excellent.

Rating: 83/100

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Guns: Ruger LC9s Pro review - Addition by Subtraction


Ruger's original LC9 handgun was festooned with lawsuit-wary "safety" features, like a magazine disconnect, an absurdly heavy double-action trigger,, and a giant loaded chamber indicator. Frankly, it felt like an artifact from an older, grouchier gun company - one that didn't sell standard capacity magazines, or handguns smaller than canned hams. That's why I (and a lot of other shooters) never felt the need to pick an LC9 up.

Ruger listened to the complaints, and delivered the LC9s Pro. It's a striker-fired version of the LC9 that nixes the mag disconnect and the manual safety, and substitutes in a very light trigger. But are these upgrades enough, given the intense competition from other guns in the single-stack 9mm market?

First Impressions and Size Comparison

In most respects, the LC9s Pro feels like a blown-up, upsized LCP. Like the LCP, the LC9s has a carry-melted slide, a lightweight polymer frame, and non-snag low-profile sights and controls. Granted, there's nothing particularly artful about the package, but it's quite functional as a purpose-built concealed carry handgun.

The big question for most buyers is how the LC9s stacks up against other guns in its class. Pictured below are the Walther PPS (the classic version), the Kahr CM9, the LC9s, and the S&W Shield. The LC9s is significantly smaller and lighter than everything on the table except for the CM9, and unlike the CM9, the Ruger holds 7 rounds in a flush fitting mag::

So we've established the gun is concealable. How does it shoot?

Range Report

I found the LC9s to be a snappy little bugger, even with standard pressure loads. This is to be expected - after all, it was not so long ago that Smith's alloy-framed single-stack autos were considered "small." The LC9s is several ounces lighter than those guns, with a commensurate penalty on the shooter's hands.

The trigger of the LC9s was light...almost too light. Yeah, yeah, I know "equipment is no substitute for training," and that "the only safety is between your ears," and the other gun forum saws. But once the trigger safety is depressed, there is just not a whole lot of pressure required to set the thing off, especially for a carry gun.

10 rounds of Remington's UMC 115 grainers at 10 yards:

10 rounds at 10 yards, Blazer Brass 115 gr.

10 rounds at 10 yards, Winchester 115 gr. white box value pack.

15 shots, 10 yards, Speer Lawman 115 gr.

16 rounds, 10 yards, Winchester Super-X 147 gr TMJ.

16 rounds, 10 yards, UMC value pack 115 gr JHPs:

Obviously, the gun is mechanically more accurate than the above groups indicate. But the LC9s Pro was simply not as easy to shoot as other single-stack 9mms. If I took my time, focused up, and bore down on it, I could print mostly acceptable targets...mostly.


The LC9s Pro is the quintessential "mixed-bag." Pluses include its relatively small size, low cost, reliability, and name-brand recognition. The big negative (for me) was practical accuracy. I'm not sure I'd ever carry it again, but it would be an option, which is a lot more than could be said for the original LC9.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Politics: Donald Trump for President

I usually don't support any political candidates, but this year, I am announcing my endorsement of Donald J. Trump for President of the United States.

Living in Palm Beach County, I have a unique perspective on Trump. Who could forget his scuffles with the Town of Palm Beach over his yuge American flag? Or his case against the county for diverting air traffic over his club? This is a guy who doesn't take things lying down; when someone wrongs him, he responds in the most American way possible - a lawsuit.

In fact, there is no candidate with greater respect for the rule of law. When Trump was asked whether he would be open to waterboarding and torturing suspected terrorists, he said that if those things are now illegal, they should make them legal. When pressed on whether there should be punishment for violating a hypothetical abortion ban, he said yes, because if you break the law, you should be punished...unless you're a woman.

And all of this pales in comparison to Trump's main policy centerpieces - the ban on Muslims entering the country, and the Wall:

This April 1st, I want you to join me in supporting Trump - let's make America great again.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Books: The Punisher - Welcome Back, Frank

In the 1980s, Marvel pumped out numerous titles devoted to the Punisher, but the glut in the market led to writers running out of ideas for the iconic antihero. Frank Castle went from waging a lonely war against crime to being a supernatural angel of vengeance, and then resurrected as a pulpy fantasy monster, "Franken-Castle."

"Welcome Back, Frank" (Punisher (2000) #1-12) is one of Garth Ennis's seminal takes on the Punisher, and it's a back-to-basics version - no Microchip, no Battle Van, and definitely no aliens or monsters. Instead, it's just Frank versus a hoard of colorful gangsters, including the cackling Ma Gnucci and the Russian, an insane (and insanely strong) killer.

The comic is bloody, but not as violent as the Punisher MAX series - illustrator Steve Dillon and inker Jimmy Palmiotti keep things cartoony rather than gory. Ennis also inserts plenty of sardonic wit amidst the carnage (this is the one where the Punisher punches a polar bear). The new season of "Daredevil" on Netflix, starring Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle, cribs liberally from this run, even basing an entire episode off the famous rooftop confrontation between the Punisher and Daredevil in issue #3:

Monday, March 07, 2016

Miscellany: Florida Strawberry Festival

I took a road trip to visit the Florida Strawberry Festival, an annual fair in Plant City.  The Festival attracts about 700,000 visitors from all around Florida (and beyond), who come for carnival rides, live music, and of course, a celebration of all things strawberry. After loading up at Fred's Market Restaurant, an all-you-can-eat buffet of delicious down-home food, I pushed my way through the crowds to see what the Festival was all about...

My first stop was the "Belmont Festival of Magic," a charmingly old-school magic performance. None of the illusions were earth-shattering, but it was all delivered in a warm, friendly manner.

Next up was a show by The Gothard Sisters, a trio of actual sisters performing Celtic and folk music and dance. I had heard their music before, but they actually sounded better live.

A lot of the stuff at the Strawberry Festival is standard for a large fair. Just like in the South Florida Fair, there are racing pigs, and they are popular:

Plant City is more agricultural and rural than Palm Beach County, of course, so the poultry, livestock, and plant showcases are more involved. They didn't have any cows giving birth when I was there, though.

There's a healthy Latino community in the area, and an entire stage was dedicated to Ā”Hola! Plant City. The mariachi band was quite good, and the effect was heightened by the beautiful weather.

The headliners of the night were Donny and Marie Osmond. If you paid extra money, you could reserve a decent seat; otherwise, you were stuck in the grandstand furthest from the stage.

I brought home a lot of strawberries, which were actually pretty cheap (a full flat - 12 pints - went for $9). All in all, it was a great trip - if you like strawberries, that is.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Politics: Donald, where's your trousers?

After Thursday's Republican presidential debate, in which the front-runner jokingly reassured voters that there was "no problem" with his (*cough*) manhood, I couldn't resist:

Friday, March 04, 2016

Tech: XCOM 2 review

XCOM 2 assumes that humanity lost its war against the aliens in the first XCOM game, and imagines Earth under the boot of an extraterrestrial occupation with sinister ends:

As in the original game, the player controls squads of 4 to 6 soldiers in turn-based missions across the globe. This time, however, you're part of a ragtag resistance force, constantly pursued by both the aliens and their (semi-)human collaborators, ADVENT. The guerrilla warfare conceit is a much better fit for XCOM's core gameplay, and it also ties in with a fun new "concealment" mechanic that allows you to ambush alien troops.

You'll need all the help you can get, though. XCOM 2 is a brutal, uncompromising game even on the easiest difficulty.  Right from the start, you'll be facing enemies that can mind control your soldiers, revive fallen enemies as zombies, or blow your squads apart with grenades. Battles invariably become intricate tactical mazes where you'll scan every inch of the map for precious cover.

It's tense, high-wire gaming that I honestly can't recommend to everyone. As if that weren't enough, XCOM 2 is also hampered by some inexplicable technical bugs, including a terrible framerate and glitchy animations even on my high-end PC. Yet even with all those faults, there's a palpable satisfaction when you win against the seemingly-impossible odds the game throws at you, and it's not a feeling many titles ever pull off.

Rating: 87/100

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