Friday, November 16, 2018

Miscellany: Krav Maga class journal, session 1

I was getting really out of shape, so I'm taking a local beginner's Krav Maga class. I'll post updates here, mostly for myself but also to give people an idea of what you might expect if you sign up for one of these things.

The first class at Hwang's Martial Arts was free, as is the case with most of these courses. There was one other new student. The total size of the class was somewhere around 10 people, mostly women in their late teens or twenties. We train in a small gym inside a strip mall - I imagine there are thousands of places across the country like this.

We warmed up first by jogging and sidestepping around the room for a few minutes. Every class begins with a warmup - I wonder if they change it up from class to class.

The head instructor, Kristina Hwang, takes me and the new guy aside and gives us some basic instruction on stance, keeping your hands up, breathing, and punching. She advocates a wider stance than you might expect (the first time I throw a punch, she pushes me off-balance from the side to demonstrate the dangers of a narrow stance). She is an unassuming lady, but she hits like a Mack truck and obviously has a lot of martial arts experience (apparently Taekwondo):

We break out a tombstone pad to practice strikes with each other. I'm as frail as a kitten compared to the other newbie (really nice fellow - he goes to the gym several days a week). My jab-straight combinations biff the pad weakly, and I have trouble generating power by turning my hips and pivoting on my rear foot. Each punch is punctuated by a brief exhale - I can get up to about four in combination without having to breathe again.

Kristina shows us a couple more techniques - hammer fists, straight kicks - and then the whole class watches the other instructor, Matt, demonstrate a basic ground fighting technique against someone who is mounting and choking you. You trap one of his feet with your foot, snatch and grab the guy's wrists with your hands, buck your hips up and roll him around on the trapped side, and then follow up ASAP. If you don't execute the technique correctly, the opponent can easily re-establish his weight and prevent you from bucking him off. We pair off to practice it.

The class ends and Kristina and I talk turkey. The expectation is 2 classes per week, every week, for 6 months. It's not terribly expensive, considering the location, and I'll try anything once, so I sign up.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Miscellany: 2019 BMW X3 review - American German Club


During our epic trip to see the solar eclipse last year, the guys and I stopped by the Zentrum, BMW's visitor center and museum next to its Spartanburg, South Carolina manufacturing plant. The cars on exhibit, and the plant itself, told an interesting story - here was a Bavarian company, once known for compact sporty little sedans like the 2002, producing big luxury SUVs aimed squarely at American buyers:

Of course, X3s and other "Sports Activity Vehicles" (to use BMW marketing-speak) are now the company's biggest sellers...but is there any of the old 2002's spirit left in them? I had one to drive for a few days, so I thought I'd find out.


The X3 is classified as a "compact" SUV, but that's relative to what's out there in 2018. The thing is absolutely massive compared to the Lexus RX 300 crossover Mom used to haul us around in 20 years ago, and it's nearly the size of the first-generation X5 from 1999. Unless you have multiple six-footers in your family, I can't imagine anyone feeling cramped a 2019 X3.

Drivetrain and Performance

I tested the xDrive30i model, the overwhelming volume seller. It's got the same turbo direct injected 2.0L inline-four engine and ZF 8-speed transmission BMW uses across its lineup, with familiar pluses (punchy acceleration, smooth shifts) and minuses (unrefined NVH at low speeds, loses some oomph at high RPMs). In a vehicle of the X3's size, the combo provides good but not great performance, and decent fuel economy.

In terms of ride and handling, the X3 feels very solid at highway speed, yet still manages to be a bit more fun to drive than most of the competition. I think the credit for that goes to BMW's rear-biased all-wheel drive system and the SUV's reasonable ride height, which is low enough to be sporty but not so low that you scrape curbs and parking blocks. I suppose you could do some mild gravel roads and trails in the X3, but a hardcore offroader this is not.


If you've been inside any BMW for the last decade, you'll feel right at home in the X3. For some, that's a big negative, but I've never minded BMW's conservative streak in interior design. Materials quality in the cabin was noticeably better than in my 328i, but it better be, considering this is a four-cylinder SUV that stickers for north of $45k.

Tech and Options

The X3 was redesigned for 2018, but it doesn't have the swanky monolithic all-digital dashboard gauge cluster and infotainment screen found in upcoming BMWs like the next-gen 3-series. Instead, you get a weird-looking semi-digital gauge and an old-fashioned center-mounted touchscreen. The car comes with the latest version of BMW's iDrive infotainment system, but wireless Apple CarPlay is extra.

The X3 I tested came with a panoramic moonroof, a pricey $1,350 option. I must admit, though, it does work well, and might be worth it to some people.

Rear Seat

Unlike the 2002s of yore, you can actually fit three human beings in the rear bench, though the middle seat is still the runt of the litter thanks to a higher cushion and the transmission tunnel. The middle seat folds down to reveal a center armrest and pass-through, and the rear seats do also recline slightly.


The folks from Munich may have lost the plot in terms of performance-oriented driving over the past decade, but they've upped their game on storage design. The X3's cargo area is massively practical, with a power lift gate, easy split-folding 40/20/40 rear seats, a snap-in cargo cover that stores neatly under the floor, and all sorts of shifting tie-downs. With the seats down, this thing can hold almost anything.


If you're comparing the X3 to the 02 series just on objective performance bona fides, there's not much that's similar. The X3 is literally twice as heavy, with none of the compact agility or raw mechanical feedback you get from the 70's Bimmers. I found it offers a detached driving experience that might leave some cold.

On the other hand, the X3 is an entry-level luxury SUV, not a sporty coupe. When graded on that metric, it succeeds in its mission, and does it better or at least equal to most vehicles in its class. If I were ever in the market for this kind of SUV, I would definitely give it a test drive.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

[Shangrila] Towers of Terror: A Natural History of Hell

Happy Halloween! For the last of my horror-themed posts this month, I'm taking a look at "A Natural History of Hell," a collection of weird tales from Jeffrey Ford.

Horror has long had a metafictional streak (rest in peace, Wes Craven), and many of the 13 tales in Jeffrey Ford's "A Natural History of Hell" concern supernatural storytelling. Whether it's Emily Dickinson trying to divine a counterspell for living death ("A Terror"), or dolls being instilled with words to harness a child's imagination ("Word Doll"), words have terrible power in Ford's universe, and he explores the consequences in neat, evocative prose.

The collection isn't strictly fantasy or horror, and it's at its weakest when it veers from those genres. "Rocket Ship to Hell" is straight-up sci-fi, and the worst entry, "Blood Drive," is a gun control fever dream - "The Handmaid's Tale" for hoplophobes. On balance, though, Ford is a good writer and this is a good collection, so it's worth a read.

Until next year, dear reader - have a great Halloween!

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Miscellany: Dragon Con 2018 Recap - Time is the one thing we can't make, but we can kill

As is my wont, I visited Atlanta over Labor Day weekend to attend Dragon Con with my friends. This year's con had a musical feel - I took in several formidable performances, including one by a living legend. Here are some highlights of our adventures.

"The Armory" exhibit of historical weapons was quite different this year, in that it omitted all firearms. I hope it wasn't for the sake of political correctness; in any event, the exhibit now basically ignores the last 500 years of human warfare.

For my "Into the Badlands" costume, I had to craft a makeshift sheath and jury rig some bracers.

I also dressed up as Seraph from the "Matrix" movies - it's a relatively minor character from a 15 year old movie, but I still got recognized for obvious reasons.

This year, we were hosted by Rob and his family - he was Han Solo, so he was asked to pose with everyone and their brother.

Since we were cosplaying "Into the Badlands" characters, the big celeb draw this year was Nick Frost, who plays Bajie on the show. He was a pretty cool guy, but good Lord, are these autograph prices getting expensive.

Us as the Widow, Gaius Chau, and Sunny:

I took in the "Battle Bots" competition this year - fun, but the robots weren't as good as the ones you see on a televised competition.

Mostly, I spent time watching some awesome performers - Crystal Bright, Unwoman, Gray Rinehart, and, incredibly, famous author Peter S. Beagle:

[Shangrila] Towers of Terror - Halloween (2018 sequel)

Halloween is upon us again, and as usual, I'll be putting up horror-themed posts throughout the month. Here's my review of "Halloween," the 2018 sequel directed by David Gordon Green.

The best entries of the "Halloween" series involve the original film's final girl, Laurie Strode. Played by Jamie Lee Curtis, the greatest scream queen of them all, Laurie is key because she represents a worthy foe for the implacable Michael Myers. Otherwise, Michael just wades through a forgettable horde of horny babysitters and hapless police officers - expected for a slasher flick, but still boring.

Laurie fought Myers to a savage draw and then apparently defeated him in 1978, confronted him again in 1998, and she returns to face him one last time in this year's sequel/reboot, confusingly titled "Halloween":

The 2018 film ignores every sequel (even "Halloween II," which was written by series creators John Carpenter and Debra Hill). Instead, 40 years after the events of the original movie, Michael and Laurie are both old souls and weird mirror images of each other. He's locked up in a sanitarium, she's locked and loaded in a rural compound with a bunker full of food and weapons. So, when Michael inevitably escapes to wreak havoc on Haddonfield once again, it's up to Laurie to save the disbelieving townsfolk (and her estranged family) by becoming predator to the most evil prey.

Director David Gordon Green gets it right in the broad strokes. The movie wisely omits any backstory or motivations for Michael's killing, avoiding the cardinal mistake of the Rob Zombie remakes. It also has respectful nods to every film in the series, even the cult standalone classic "Halloween III: Season of the Witch." And most importantly, Jamie Lee Curtis turns in a stellar performance as a damaged Laurie Strode, itching for one last cathartic battle.

Where the 2018 "Halloween" fails is in the details. The drastically increased body count and constant humor might be de rigueur in a modern horror flick, but they prevent the movie from developing much tension or paranoia. And while John Carpenter provided the film's score and executive produces, the movie still lacks his subtle shot composition and gift for pacing. I think it deserves to be a hit, but hopefully it drives the youngsters of today to see where it all began.


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Guns: The Tacticool Remington 870 Wingmaster, Part 3 - Onboard Ammo

I converted my vintage Remington 870 Wingmaster into a modern home defense shotgun. In Part 1 of the series, I swapped out its barrel, and in Part 2, I swapped out its stock and foreend. Now, let's start cramming some more ammo into this puppy:

The default capacity on a Remington 870 is 4+1 shells, which is not a ton when you consider that most people keep their home defense shotguns with the chamber empty (as do I). So, if you want to have more than four rounds available to deal with an attacker, or if you want to be able to switch to a different type of shell on the fly (say, a slug for a longer shot), you're going to need a way to carry more ammo on the gun.

Magazine Tube Extension

The most obvious way to increase an 870's capacity is by lengthening the magazine tube with an extension. Pros? Such extensions are cheap, fairly easy to install, and don't add too much bulk to the gun. Cons? The longer tube necessitates a new spring, which must be thoroughly tested for reliability, and the extension introduces a "weak link" into the magazine tube that can fail or break where an un-modified firearm wouldn't.

One advantage of using an older 870 for a home defense build is that you avoid having to deal with the infamous "dimples" that interfere with the installation of magazine tube extensions. It's such an annoyance that Brownells even has a tool to remove them:

I picked up a Remington factory 2-shot, 2-piece extension from MidwayUSA that worked just fine with the old Wingmaster..


Even a large tube extension only adds a few more rounds to the gun. If you need to carry 5 or more additional shells, a sidesaddle is a better option.

There are two main types of sidesaddles - rigid aluminum or polymer ones that attach to the receiver using special fasteners, and nylon-looped shotgun "cards" that attach using Velcro tape. I opted for the second type, which I found to be cheaper, easier to install, reliable, more secure, and easier to pull off and on.

Upgrade still to come - sling...

[Shangrila] Towers of Terror - Deadlight

Halloween is upon us again, and as usual, I'll be putting up horror-themed posts throughout the month. Tonight's post is a review of "Deadlight," a zombie apocalypse video game developed by Tequila Works.

"Deadlight" is what they call a cinematic platformer. The game's protagonist, grizzled ex-park ranger Randall Wayne, can't leap 20 feet into the air or safely fall from four stories up like Sonic the Hedgehog. Instead, Randall realistically runs, jumps, and climbs through a somber post-apocalyptic Seattle, all while being hunted by the infected "Shadows" (can't use the "z"-word) and a brutal militia known as "The New Law."

The world of "Deadlight" is beautiful and atmospheric, especially considering this is a 2012 downloadable game running on Unreal Engine 3. The game also smartly discourages direct combat with the infected - come upon more than two or three of them, and you're dead meat unless you have a gun or you run for it. The controls might feel a bit stilted and alien if you've never played games like the original "Prince of Persia" series, "Another World," or "Flashback," but they work well enough.

The game's real problem is that it's only 3 to 4 hours long, with linear gameplay that's too shallow to support multiple playthroughs. I understand the developers originally planned an inventory system, which would have enriched the puzzle-solving and combat; as it is, all you get are uninspiring box puzzles and trial-and-error traps. The hackneyed zombie B-movie plot doesn't help things, either.

I still liked "Deadlight" overall, but it's definitely a $5 game, not a $15 one.

Rating: 73/100

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Books: Blood, Sweat, and Pixels

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a video game developer. In middle school, I dutifully coded elaborate adventure games in QBASIC, and in high school, I studied up on Doom WADs and level design. Reality sunk in somewhere around freshman year, when I realized the terrible trials and tribulations game devs go through: zero job security, ever-shifting directives from management, and, most of all, the dreaded "crunch" (stretches of unpaid, wall-to-wall overtime that can last for months on end).

Now, it's arguably all worth it to create a classic video game that will live in the minds of millions of people, but it is still a steep price to pay. "Blood, Sweat, and Pixels," by Jason Schreier, is a peek inside that world. Each chapter is a compelling behind-the-scenes narrative about the making of a famous game, with plenty of interviews from the developers and publishers themselves. The selected games are a good cross-section of the industry - everything from Kickstarted indies (Pillars of Eternity, Shovel Knight) to AAA titles from major studios (Destiny, Diablo III).

If you're not a gamer, the book might be a little bland, and if you read game blogs regularly, some of this material will be old hat. If you enjoy video games, though, and you ever wondered what it takes to make one, you'll probably like this book.

Politics: Justice

I try to keep Shangrila Towers apolitical, except for gun rights. However, since D.C. v. Heller, where the Second Amendment was literally one vote away from being gutted like a fish, the politics of the Supreme Court are very much relevant to gun owners. This is because the Constitutional protection of the right to keep and bear arms is far from settled - the Heller dissenters are on record about wanting to "reconsider" the decision at the first opportunity.

So, when Justice Scalia unexpectedly passed away, I didn't mind the Republican-controlled Senate blocking Judge Merrick Garland, based on his terrible record on guns. And I breathed a sigh of relief when Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in despite the sexual assault charges that had been leveled against him, because Kavanaugh would likely be a fifth vote to reaffirm Heller:

I'm not particularly proud of viewing the Court in such a nakedly political manner, but it will take a couple of decades for Heller to become settled law like Roe v. Wade has (the Court will never overturn it - there'd be riots in the streets).

Saturday, October 06, 2018

[Shangrila] Towers of Terror: The Twilight Zone

Halloween is upon us again, and as usual, I'll be putting up horror-themed posts throughout the month. Today, let's look at some of the scariest episodes from Rod Serling's classic TV series, "The Twilight Zone."

The After Hours

Rod Serling wrote the vast majority of the first season's episodes, and "The After Hours" is one of his scariest. The story starts with, as Serling puts it, "a most prosaic, ordinary, run-of-the-mill errand" - Marsha White (Anne Francis) tries to buy a gift for her mother in a department store. Things rapidly go south when Marsha is accidentally locked inside the store after it closes. She's all alone - or is she? The script gets maximum mileage out of an otherwise ordinary setting, and it even manages to work in Anne Francis's signature mole...

Twenty Two

This is one of six Twilight Zone episodes that was taped instead of filmed, in a vain attempt to save production costs. It's a shame, because the story (an adaptation of E.F. Benson's short story "The Bus-Conductor") is quite suspenseful. The episode follows a woman being hospitalized for nervous fatigue. She has a recurring nightmare of a creepy nurse beckoning her into a morgue. But where does the dream end, and reality begin?

The piece is anchored by a great performance from Barbara Nichols, who basically spends the entire runtime in abject terror.

The New Exhibit

In most Twilight Zone episodes, there isn't any gore or body count to speak of - this was '60s network television, after all - but a gleeful exception to this rule is "The New Exhibit," starring Martin Balsam.

The episode follows the curator of a wax museum, who is forced to shelter the wax figures of famous murderers (e.g., Jack the Ripper) in his basement when the museum closes down. The figures are astonishingly lifelike - almost too lifelike...

It's not particularly lurid by modern standards, but it still makes for a fun time, especially since this is one of those hour-long episodes from Season 4.

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