Wednesday, December 24, 2014

TV: Thoughts from the holiday television season...

UNICEF is asking for 15 bucks a month to feed hungry Third World kids, the ASPCA is asking for 18 bucks a month to feed hungry American dogs. Just sayin'...

Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge is like Project Runway crossed with "The Dark Crystal" - a gaggle of very talented puppetmakers create mechanized aliens and monsters, all for a shot at working for the Jim Henson Company. Syfy needs more of this and less WWE.

When I was a kid, I didn't notice the sheer number of coincidences necessary to make the plots in the "Home Alone" movies even remotely plausible. Just in the first movie, there's a lost plane ticket, a case of mistaken identity, and a multi-day phone outage.

I know the Midnight Mass with the Pope is an annual tradition, but it's honestly not all that thrilling to watch. St. Peter's Basilica looks absolutely enormous on TV though.

Miscellany: Last Minute Holiday Gifts, Part 3 - PC and Video Games

(It's Christmas Eve, of course, but thanks to the magic of on-demand downloads, there's still time to give the gamer in your life a great title from 2014)

Bravely Default, Square Enix, Nintendo 3DS - The last few Final Fantasy games have deviated pretty severely from the formula that won so many fans in the 1990s and early 2000s - put together a ragtag group of colorful characters and save the world - but "Bravely Default" is a welcome return to form. If you're hankering for the classic "jobs" system, big honking nonlinear areas to explore, and sidequests galore, you'll find them in this game.

WHO IS IT FOR? Any JRPG fan who felt burned when they started releasing MMO games under the FF brand.

Luftrausers, Vlambeer, PS3/Vita and PC - Some games are hard to explain, but Luftrausers is not one of them. This is basically a Germanic Geometry Wars, done up in a pixelated retro style that recalls the Atari era. Much like the classic game "Time Pilot," you fly an airplane around an infinitely scrolling battlefield, blowing up as many enemy planes, boats, and dirigibles as possible before you die. The controls remind me a lot of the NES game Solar Jetman; you rotate your ship with the analog stick, and your direction matters when using your weapons and your throttle.

WHO IS IT FOR? Anyone who's ever entered their initials with pride on an arcade machine.

South Park: The Stick of Truth, Obsidian Entertainment, PS3/Xbox 360 and Windows - "Stick of Truth" is one of those mascot-based RPGs - sort of a raunchier version of something like Super Mario RPG. Like its kin, how much you'll enjoy it depends on your affinity for the source material. In this case, the game looks, sounds, and feels exactly like a South Park episode (no mean feat), so much so that a casual observer wouldn't even notice it's a game. The actual role-playing portion of the game is pretty standard (your party size is limited to two, and there aren't a ton of items or skills to worry about) but it's just engrossing enough to provide a good framework for South Park zaniness.

WHO IS IT FOR? People who find fart noises funny.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Miscellany: Last Minute Holiday Gifts, Part 2 - Gear Ho' (Ho Ho)

(h/t  to Tam for the post title)

Quark Tactical QT2A, Foursevens - I've previously reviewed the single AA version of the Quark Tactical, and the double-cell version isn't too different. It does make a better gift, I think, because the QT2s are more suited for your car, home, or campsite, rather than carrying on your person. Surprisingly few people EDC a flashlight (when I whip one out in a darkened theater, people look at me like I've just discovered fire).

WHO IS IT FOR? People who need to rig up a reliable weaponlight for their long gun without breaking the bank.

Endura Wave, Spyderco - The Delica and Endura lines are basically the GLOCKs of the knife world; they work great for all of the things someone would realistically use a three or four inch folding knife for. For uses that are basically unrealistic (i.e., Kim Jong Un will dance on Broadway before I ever have to use a knife in self-defense), you can step up to the Waved versions. They're officially licensed by Emerson, they come out wicked fast out of a pocket, and they have a handsome grey handle color, too.

WHO IS IT FOR? That LEO buddy of yours. The hands-on, DIY type. A loved one stuck in a place where s/he can't carry a gun legally, but who needs a lethal force option.

Falcon-II, Maxpedition - I usually use a Pygmy Falcon-II for dayhikes, but the plain old Falcon-II has more features overall. There's a spot for a water bladder, sternum and waist straps, and lots of compression snaps (you can cinch this sucker down flat if you're not carrying much). This is, I think, the better bag for travelling on an airplane, as you can use the outer compartments for snacks, books, and toiletries, while reserving two big inner compartments for laptops and clothes.

WHO IS IT FOR? People who want to constantly get mistaken for soldiers.

Spec Plus Gen II SP-43, Ontario Knife Company - It's astonishing to me what passes for a "bush" knife these days; most of the stuff in the big box aisles wouldn't survive a season of hard use. The Spec Plus Gen II series is way more practical - tough fully coated spring steel, big no-nonsense Kraton handle, nylon sheath with a good button snap. The SP43 in particular is right at that sweet spot of being large enough to baton wood for your firepit, but still small enough to keep in your garage or car, rather than at the bottom of a closet.

WHO IS IT FOR? The guy/gal who wants an old-school Army-style KA-BAR (which are indeed good knives), but really probably needs this.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Miscellany: Last Minute Holiday Gift Ideas, Part 1 - Books and Music

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe - If you're a fan of the webcomic xkcd, you're probably familiar with its weekly feature "What If?", which rigorously and scientifically describes the consequences of a ludicrous, often-apocalyptic situation (examples include "What if everything was antimatter, EXCEPT Earth?,"If I shot an infinitely strong laser beam into the sky at a random point, how much damage would it do?," and "How long could the human race survive on only cannibalism?"). This nice, hardcover book collects revised versions of the best "What If" articles, and adds quite a bit of new content to boot.

WHO IS IT FOR? Any middle-schooler interested in science or physics.

1989, Taylor Swift - The media saturation for this album (and all things Taylor Swift in general) were at a fever pitch a few weeks ago, what with a passel of glowing reviews, record-breaking sales, and Swift's split with streaming service Spotify. All hype aside, though, "1989" is easily Taylor Swift's most coherent and enjoyable work to date. If you skip the shallow "Welcome to New York," the front half is loaded with some of her strongest songs ("Blank Space," which plays with her media image as a boy-obsessed maneater; "Style," a "Miami Vice" groove made for cruising around in a convertible; "Out of the Woods," a Swift-ian tale of a fragile romance).

WHO IS IT FOR? Anyone who liked watching the Backstreet Boys on TRL in the '90s (Max Martin produced most of the songs on "1989").

5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, Wizards of the Coast - I reviewed the Starter Set a few months ago, but the full D&D 5e books - Player's Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master's Guide - have now been released, and they're all excellent. Each one is chock full of gorgeous artwork, easy-to-understand rules, and (gasp) usable formatting and indices(!). If you were put off by the MMO stylings of 4th Edition, or the clunkiness of 3/3.5e, you'll like this version of the game.

WHO IS IT FOR? The gamer in your life.

The Avenues, Lera Lynn - Mainstream country is a bit of a mess right now (endless songs about trucks, girls in tight jeans, and drinking beer), so if you want to hear pedal steel guitars, you're probably going to have to go indie. Lera Lynn's second album, "The Avenues," is an atmospheric antidote to all the party anthems on the airwaves. Lynn weaves notes of pop and jazz in melancholy melodies that seem to fill up whatever space you're in.

WHO IS IT FOR? Country fans who don't mind listening to songs that are genuinely somber.

Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson - This is the first book in a trilogy of fantasy novels set in "The Final Empire," a dark, ash-stained world that survived a major cataclysm. In the series, people called "Allomancers" have special powers gained from ingesting metals, such as super strength, influence over the emotions of others, and magnokinesis (think Magneto). The most powerful Allomancer is the despotic, immortal, nearly omnipotent Lord Ruler...and the characters in the book are trying to overthrow him.

WHO IS IT FOR? Fantasy fans who also love superhero comics. And superhero fans who like epic fantasy.

Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn - The debut album of husband-and-wife banjo duo Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn is, in a word, outstanding. The contrast of banjo styles (Fleck is one of the world's greatest pickers, while Washburn is an excellent clawhammer player), the musicality brought by the pair to the songs (both have played in multiple other bands before cutting this record)...this is bluegrass at its best.

WHO IS IT FOR? People who play banjo. People who want to learn how to play banjo. And people in general.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Movies: Birdman

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has done plenty of serious, socially-aware dramas before, but in "Birdman," he tries his hand at black comedy - and the results are laugh-out-loud hilarious:

The movie features Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, a washed-up Hollywood actor famous for playing the titular character in a series of superhero flicks decades ago. With the last of his fortune, Riggan attempts to make a comeback by writing and starring in his own play at the St. James Theatre, an adaptation of  Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."

The joke here, of course, is that Keaton himself gained worldwide fame as Tim Burton's Batman (actually, two other main cast members - Edward Norton and Emma Stone - have also starred in big-budget comic book movies). However, while Iñárritu lightly criticizes both the pandering of blockbusters and the pretentiousness of Broadway, he's fundamentally in love with show business of all types, and the only audience that goes home unhappy in "Birdman" is the one that doesn't get to see Riggan's play all the way through.

In terms of style, "Birdman" is a complete 180 from the complex, nonlinear narratives of "21 Grams" and "Babel." The film is shot in simulated long takes; the camera follows various characters as they weave in and out of the St. James Theatre. It's bravura cinematography, to be sure, but perhaps even better is the music, a frenzied mess of (sometimes diegetic) percussion. The soundtrack does a lot to sell Riggan's escalating tension, despite the fact that the plot's stakes are inherently low (no one will die if Riggan's play fails...maybe).

Michael Keaton gives an excellent performance here, one that should handily earn him an Academy Award nod. He's always been able to portray manic obsession convincingly ("You wanna get nuts?"), and Riggan certainly experiences his fair share of that, but Keaton also does good work in the quieter moments of the film. He carefully nurtures Riggan's bond with his daughter (Emma Stone), and his portrayal ensures that the ending of "Birdman" is an emotional catharsis, not a cheat.

Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Miscellany: Washington Oaks Gardens State Park

Drive a couple miles south of Marineland, and you'll find a small, out-of-the-way place called Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. Much of the site used to be Louise and Owen Young's winter retirement home; now, it's open to the public as a state park. 

Washington Oaks is split in two by A1A - west of the highway, there are hiking/biking trails (which are full of mosquitoes), picnic areas, and (as you would expect) a large set of formal gardens. I particularly liked the rose garden in the center of the park, which is fenced in to prevent deer from eating the roses:

On the east side of A1A, there is a beach with interesting coquina rock formations. It's a perfect place to walk around for awhile.

Just watch your step.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Guns: Bersa BP9CC review - The Gaucho Gat


Bersa is an Argentine firearms manufacturer best known for their "Thunder" series of small-framed .380 pistols. These guns have been quite popular in the U.S. for years, so it's a little surprising it's taken so long for Bersa to release a polymer-framed, striker-fired pistol - the BP9CC:

Bigger and cheaper than the competition, the BP9CC looks like a good deal on paper - you get a serviceable slimline 9mm and two mags, all for $400. But is the BP9CC a bargain, or simply cheap?

Size Comparison and Impressions

The BP9CC is one of the largest single-stack 9mm pistols out there. As you can see, it's longer and taller than both the Kahr CM9 and the Smith and Wesson M&P Shield, though the Bersa also holds 8 rounds in a standard magazine. "Large" is relative here - the BP9CC is still easy to carry inside the waistband (I didn't have custom rig for it, but it fit fine into my Remora). Unlike the Kahr, however, it's not suited for pocket carry.

In hand, the Bersa feels...okay. The gun has some of the smoothest grips I've ever felt on a polymer-frame, and it tended to shift around in my hands. On the plus side, there are handy little scalloped sections on the frame for your finger to rest on when it's off the trigger.

Sights and Trigger

The Bersa bears an interesting sight arrangement - the front dovetail takes Sig-style front sights, while the rear sight is GLOCK-sized. I suppose the idea was to give the end-user the most options if they wanted to switch them out. In any event, the default sights are typical 3-dots, and they work fine.

The BP9CC trigger is probably its distinguishing feature. There's a subtle integral pivot safety (somewhat similar to the M&P series), and then a short, pseudo double-action pull to the rear. The pull has noticeable creep, but it's extremely light, especially for a factory gun.

Range Report

I personally don't like shooting most single-stack 9mms. The thin grips impart more recoil to your hand, especially with stout +P loads, which leads to fatigue and flinching. I found the BP9CC to be as snappy as other members of the breed, and it was not a banner day at the range for old Mulliga:

Notwithstanding my discomfort, the BP9CC proved to be quite reliable with a large variety of FMJ and JHP ammo, including Federal HST (my go-to 9mm load), Speer Gold Dots, and my array of 115 gr. range ammo (Winchester, Federal, Sellier & Bellot, etc.). Even though the recoil was a touch wild, and I didn't bother to give it a first cleaning until 900 rounds in, the Bersa never bobbled. Of course, this is a pretty big gun (21+ ounces), so that sort of reliability isn't exactly incredible. Still, you have to give credit where it's due.

Final Thoughts

The BP9CC is a pretty good gun in a vacuum, but it's competing in one of the most crowded segments of today's firearms market - the concealed-carry 9mm. If you're a big fan of the trigger, I could see picking one up, but I honestly think most people would be better served with something else.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Books: Corum - The Coming of Chaos

I've never read Michael Moorcock's famous Elric Saga, but I have read an enjoyable work from another part of his Eternal Champion mythos -"Corum: The Coming of Chaos." The book is actually a collection of three novels published in the early '70s: "The Knight of the Swords," "The Queen of the Swords," and "The King of the Swords," though they essentially tell one long story.

At the start of the book, Corum Jhaelen Irsei ("the Prince in the Scarlet Robe") leads an idle life. His race, the elf-like Vadhagh, devote their time to poetry, art, and other intellectual pursuits, and remain aloof from the rest of the world. Of course, this being heroic fantasy, things soon fall apart, and Corum is left to seek vengeance against the forces of Chaos using his sword, his wits, and two otherworldy artifacts - the Hand of Kwll and the Eye of Rhynn.

Moorcock's writing is pulpy and Lovecraftian, and works best when weird darkness intersects with the usual sword-and-sorcery tropes. My favorite part of the trilogy, for instance, is the middle book, which describes a nightmarish journey to the shifting planes of Chaos. If you like reading about mad gods, pitched battles, carnivorous plants, and undead armies, you'll like the "Corum" books.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Links: Jazz Podcasts

I love jazz, but it's devilishly hard to find on the airwaves. Unless your local public radio or university station plays it (many don't), the only way you're going to learn about good jazz music is through the Internet. Here are a few podcasts that might help you in your quest for jazz, old and new:

In the Groove, Jazz and Beyond - Ken Laster hosts this weekly show out of the University of Connecticut's student radio station, WHUS 91.7 FM. "In the Groove" is all about modern and fusion jazz - everything from the classics of John Coltrane to the latest indie releases. The only rule? No "smooth jazz" allowed.

Jazz Boulevard - I've been to Montreal, but I never realized the city had a thriving jazz scene, including an enormous festival. "Jazz Boulevard," hosted by Moz Taylor, is a two-hour weekly show that features the best in Canadian (and non-Canadian) jazz, with a particular focus on acid and world jazz.

Jazz Stew - Like me, Annie Taylor, the host of "Jazz Stew," is concerned that jazz is being ignored by conventional radio. Unlike me, she's decided to do something about it by hosting a podcast featuring an eclectic mix (yes, a "stew") of all genres of jazz from all time periods (including some gems from yesteryear).

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween!

Enjoy this multi-violin arrangement of Michael Jackson's classic "Thriller," covered by Taylor Davis.

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