Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Books: Washington's Spies - The Story of America's First Spy Ring

Historian Alexander Rose starts off "Washington's Spies" with a disaster - the legendary capture and execution of young patriot spy Nathan Hale in 1776:

The way Rose tells, it, Hale's ill-fated intelligence-gathering operation was doomed from the start - limited planning, resources, and training meant that Hale was easy prey for the British. And even if Hale had made it back, it was unlikely that the information gained from his single trip behind enemy lines would be helpful to the nascent Revolution. From this painful beginning, a new model emerged: civilian spies living with the enemy using assumed identities to relay information on a regular basis.

"Washington's Spies" tells the story of the men and women in the close-knit "Culper Ring" spy network, many of whom are still unknown. I enjoyed the descriptions of dead drops, coded letters, and spymasters - tradecraft among the privateers and black-market smugglers of British-occupied New York. A couple caveats - it's not a thriller, and it's a dense read (primary sources are quoted as much as possible), so if you want the Cliff's Notes version, you can try watching the AMC drama "TURN: Washington's Spies."

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Movies: Baby Driver

Edgar Wright is best known for his comedy-action collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost ("Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz," "The World's End"), so you might be surprised by the earnest thrills and romance of his latest movie, "Baby Driver":

Okay, so it's not played entirely straight (there's a hilarious gag involving "Mike Myers Halloween masks"), but in most ways "Baby Driver" is a classic heist-and-car-chase movie. There's an embattled protagonist who just has to do one last job, the love interest whom he has to keep his criminal life secret from, and his crooked cohorts who get in the way in the third act. Judged solely on plot and deeper meaning, the film isn't exactly on par with a "Heat," "Ronin," or "Drive."

Where "Baby Driver" does differentiate itself is in its stylish soundtrack, a wall-to-wall mix of classic rock, soul, and more obscure cuts that transforms the film into a two-hour long music video. Throw in an extremely talented cast (it must be nice to have the likes of Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey, and Jon Hamm play your supporting characters), and you have one heck of an entertaining, crowd-pleasing movie.

Rating: 8/10

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Music: Living in Twilight

Posting will be light for awhile, thanks to my profession, but while you wait, why not enjoy some cuts from "Living in Twilight," the new album from jazz pianist Ariel Pocock?

Here's a swinging interpretation of the Cole Porter standard, "I Love You":

And here's the album's title track, a cover of The Weepies' "Living in Twilight":


Overall, it's a pretty good album, with the sort of sensitive treatment you might expect from someone who has drawn comparisons to Diana Krall:


Friday, June 09, 2017

Guns: Ruger Mark IV Recall

I've been working on reviews of both the standard Ruger Mark IV and the 22/45 Lite, but the testing is going on hiatus due to this recall:

The recall covers any Mark IV variant manufactured before June 1, 2017 (read: all of them), so please spread the word. Ruger will cover shipping there and back, and will give you a free magazine for your trouble, so good on 'em.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Tech: Dell XPS 13 review


I've used a lot of laptops to write Shangrila Towers over the years, and the trend has been to seek out as much horsepower as I could afford in a sub 3-pound package. I started out on a tiny Acer Aspire One, moved up to a slightly less tiny HP Mini 210, and then upgraded to a nearly-human-sized Lenovo ThinkPad X120e as my finances improved.

The subject of today's review is the Dell XPS 13, an ultraportable laptop I picked up last year (you can still order it from Dell's website, although now the models pack 7th gen Intel Core processors).

Case Design and Form Factor

Dell bills the XPS 13 as the smallest 13" laptop in the world, and if they're wrong, they're not far off. The bezel around the 1920x1080 display is very thin, allowing the screen to run nearly to the edge of the case. Physically, it's a very slim, very sexy piece of kit, with a brushed aluminum exterior and carbon fiber palmrests. The thin profile doesn't allow for an overwhelming amount of ports, so if you need to connect to a projector, you probably want to spring for the adapter Dell sells.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The XPS uses a backlit island style keyboard that is fairly satisfying to type on. The finish on the chiclet keys is a little slick for my taste, but the keys themselves have good travel, and the keyboard has proven to be pretty durable. One big miss - the touchpad has those annoying integrated buttons that are easy to misclick.

Performance and Battery Life

The XPS is a big step up from my previous laptops in terms of performance. The onboard Core i5-6200U processor and 8 gigs of RAM can handle anything short of intense 3D gaming; even games like Civilization VI run okay. I do wish I opted for a larger hard drive - the 128 GB SSD is just too small for general use in 2017.

At first, this laptop had astonishing battery life (easily over 10 hours), but lately the battery has been draining in about 7-8 hours.


I really like the XPS 13. It's probably one of the best choices in this segment, and it's going to be the home of Shangrila Towers for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Miscellany: South Florida Science Center and Aquarium

It's been rainy here in West Palm Beach, so I visited the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium, located south of downtown inside Dreher Park. I remember going there as a kid, back when it was known simply as the "South Florida Science Museum." 

Stepping into the place now, I have to admit that it's a pretty small science museum, even with the addition of a marine biology wing and 10,000 gallons' worth of fish tanks:

Another thing they didn't have on my elementary school field trips was Science on a Sphere, a neat room-sized spherical globe that provides vivid displays of weather systems throughout the Solar System:

There's a new miniature golf course outside (a bit boring, but passable), and the rest of the museum is taken up by small science demo stations and the planetarium. Honestly, I've seen a lot bigger and better planetariums around the country (the one in the new Frost Science Museum in Miami is supposed to be incredible), so it's hard to recommend this one, especially considering that you have to pay an extra fee to get in:

Like a lot of things, the Science Center looked and felt a lot bigger in my memory, but if you don't want to shuttle the kids down to a larger science museum in Fort Lauderdale or Miami, I think the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium will do the job.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day

Today, I headed down to South Florida National Cemetery, to remember that we are free because of the brave.

I visited the grave of Sgt. Justin Johnson, a local soldier who was killed in action at Bagram Air Force Base in 2013:

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Books: Unseen City

There are plenty of days when the closest I get to nature are the trees planted in the sidewalk next to my office building. But ever since reading "Unseen City" by Nathanael Johnson, I've looked at those trees (and their squirrels, and the turkey vultures sailing above them) with new eyes.

The book was inspired by Johnson's daughter, whose innocent questions about the trees she saw on her walks through San Francisco led Johnson down a rabbit hole of discovery. Each chapter of "Unseen City" is a fun portrait of some very common plants and animals - pigeons, snails, ginkgoes - and you'll also learn tips on how to best observe these often-invisible denizens of the urban jungle. The overarching message is that you don't need to go to some national park or exotic rainforest to appreciate nature. It is all around us, if we just take the time to look and listen.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

TV: Mystery Science Theater 3000 - The Return

I've been a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 ("MST3K") since the old Comedy Central days. The premise was preposterous - a guy is trapped in a spaceship and forced to watch awful movies with his robot companions, making jokes all the while - but I ate it up as a kid. My Saturday mornings were filled with obscure B-movies, silly prop comedy, and robot puppets:

I followed the show when it moved to Sci-Fi (before it was "SyFy"), but when MST3K finally got canceled, I resigned myself to never seeing a new episode again. I never predicted that the show would get its own revival on Netflix, courtesy of more than 48,000 determined Kickstarter backers:

So how does the MST3K revival fare in a time when seemingly every beloved '90s-era show is getting a reboot? Really well, actually. The new season features some wonderful cult classics (including "Cry Wilderness," "Starcrash," and both "Wizards of the Lost Kingdom" movies) that strike the satisfying balance of being bizarre enough to be interesting, but bad enough to make fun of. The revival also benefits from being helmed by the show's original creator, Joel Hodgson, who wisely kept everything - the sets, costumes, and skits - cheesy and low-fi.

The jokes are a little different this time around, of course. The original MST3K writing room had a pleasant intellectual Midwestern sensibility in its riffs, but the comments in this one sometimes feel a little mean-spirited (calling out a film for using cheap sets or costumes) or lowbrow (making random fart noises). The streaming format also imposes more serialization than before (it's weird to have jokes reference earlier movies in the season, and to have continuing storylines). For the most part, though, this is a very faithful continuation of a show that I thought was long gone.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Guns: Rangemaster Combative Pistol - class review and report

I'll let you guys in on a dirty little secret - years ago, when I was 21 and applying for my first concealed weapons permit, I didn't actually take a formal CCW class. You see, Florida allows you to satisfy the firearms training requirement with a free hunter safety course, and at the time, I was a poor college student, so I went for the cheap route instead of the proper route.

I mention this mostly because Rangemaster Combative Pistol, taught by instructor Tom Givens, is the type of course that I wish I had taken back then. It's two days (16 full hours) of classroom lecture and range work detailing the why and how of the defensive use of the handgun. If you're interested, here's a report on what we covered - it's by no means a complete breakdown, both out of respect for Tom and because I encourage you to get it straight from the horse's mouth.

Day 1

The Combative Mindset

Tom starts by giving us his background in law enforcement, competition, and (most importantly) in studying and instructing defensive shooting by LEOs and average citizens. After an extensive safety brief using the Four Rules, he talks about the combative mindset by using real-life examples (a disturbing 911 call during a home invasion, an infamous traffic stop, and the tale of a watch store owner who succeeded against countless violent criminals). 

The main takeaways? "Why" you are being attacked is irrelevant - you need to refuse to be a victim, fight for your life, and concentrate on "how" to stop the a--hole. Based on average 911 response times (and even the response time of police coming to the aid of fellow officers under fire), you are going to have to solve the problem yourself.

Defensive Shooting Technique

We move onto the "how." Tom stresses marksmanship because each miss (which includes shots that do not hit the upper chest or soft tissues of the head) wastes precious time - possibly the rest of your life. Also, every bullet launched will go somewhere, so it is completely irresponsible to shoot without knowing where the muzzle is pointed, either by using "the bumpy things on the gun" (the sights) or by actually seeing the top of the muzzle (when shooting from retention).

We discuss the grip (cover the back of the frame with as much meat as possible, and thumbs up), stance (forearm in line with the gun, elbows extended but not locked, keep your nose over your toes), and sight picture (as long as you can look at the front sight through the rear somewhere, the sight picture is usually good enough). The most emphasis is on trigger press and control - even with everything else correct, if you yank the trigger, you can miss a man entirely from 5 yards away.

Draw from Concealment and Basic Marksmanship

Because of the structure of OK Corral, our host range, we do all the classroom work for Day 1 in a long morning block, break for lunch, then head to the range. Tom covers the four-count drawstroke strictly from concealment, with two main techniques depending on the cover garment - punching and raking with the offhand fingers, and ripping up the garment with both hands.

We do some basic shooting at about 3 yards - conversational distance, the most common range for civilian violent encounters. There are a variety of skill levels on the line, and most people (myself included) tend to miss low left, due to jerking the trigger.

We do get in some practice from longer ranges, including 10 and 15 yards. These types of shots are rare, but they do happen, typically when you need to protect someone else from a deadly threat.

We practice one-hand shooting, "changing gears" (speeding up and slowing down for closer/larger and further/smaller targets), and finish off with a baseline test to measure CCW proficiency - draw from concealment and deliver 3 shots, at 3 yards, in 3 seconds. Everyone passes, eventually, and the range day ends.

Day 2

The Violent Criminal and the 1986 FBI Shootout

We start off again in the classroom. Tom breaks down the number and types of violent criminals in the U.S., along with an analysis of their lifestyle and mindset. There are rare, hardcore attackers - either sociopaths, or experienced criminals who have engaged in so many gunfights that they are not thrown off by getting shot.

Tom then delivers the most detailed breakdown I have ever seen of the 1986 FBI shooting in Miami. There were too many good points to even write down, but here's a few:

(1) Pistols require surgical hits on the right anatomy [a .38+P failed to penetrate the cheekbones of one of the bad guys];
(2) Even one good hit may not be enough [a 9mm JHP hit the bad guy in a vital area, but did not quite penetrate enough to stop him];
(3) Wear your gear [several FBI agents had shotguns that never got used];
(4) Practice single-handed shooting [5 of the people in the fight were hit in the hand or arm].

We break again for lunch, which was graciously provided by Todd Hunter of United Tactical Federation.

Then it was off to the range. Day 2 was a scorcher - big thanks to Girls Got Guns for providing helpful care packages of sunscreen:

Gunhandling at Speed

Tom gives us some formal instruction on reloading. He advises us to forget about the "tactical reload" (a/k/a reload with retention), which has no relevance in a non-military world - we should only reload when the gun is empty, or proactively by dumping the partial mag and getting a full one in as quickly as possible. Speedloads should be done either right after getting to a point of safety, or right before the gun goes into a holster. As for empty loads, Tom recommends the slingshot technique, since slide releases are inconsistent from gun to gun, and may not overcome the inertia of the top round in a full mag.

We shoot a quasi-qualification drill to measure our progress. I fumble two reloads pretty badly, but otherwise do okay.

We have a bit of fun at the dueling tree, pitting evenly matched shooters (as sorted by qualification score) against each other. I get absolutely smoked by the other guy, who is so fast he hits his three targets before I can hit one.

We finish off with discretionary command drills, the casino drill (21 rounds, including 2 reloads, at 6 separate targets at 21 feet, in 21 seconds or less), and malfunction clearances.

Tom demonstrates how easy it is to make a GLOCK malfunction, and the usual tap-rack-bang methods for clearing such malfunctions. One refinement on the standard advice - when you rack the slide, spin the gun so that the ejection port is pointing down.


It's not very often you get to train your fundamental pistol skills with an instructor as good as Tom. I could look up and down the line and see how the students improved, in two days, under his tutelage, and I could see my own scores on the casino drill get better and better (I did manage to shoot one clean run, at the very end of the class - hooray!). If you are thinking of carrying a handgun for self-defense, you would be well-served to take Combative Pistol.

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