Sunday, May 05, 2019

Books: On Grand Strategy


I recently read On Grand Strategy, a history book written by Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis.  The book is a meditation on the balance between working toward a single central goal and pursuing numerous unconnected small goals, between being a "hedgehog" and a "fox," in the words of the ancient Greek poet Archilochus. Gaddis looks at strategic thinking from antiquity to WWII, illustrating interesting parallels between far-flung conflicts like the Peloponnesian War and Vietnam.

On the downside, the prose rambles on a bit - it's very much like reading the transcript of a lecture rather than a traditional work of history.  I also thought there were some notable blind spots in the analysis (Gaddis largely glosses over the bloody grand strategic blunders of Lincoln and FDR, for instance). As a whole, though, the book was a pretty good read.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Miscellany: Krav Maga class journal, month 4

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 fourth month of class repeats numerous techniques (the beginner's Krav curriculum isn't voluminous), so I'll glide over stuff that's been covered previously.

Session 31 was all about kicking: we practiced front kicks, front kicks to a vertical target, "defensive" front kicks, and kicks from the ground.

Session 32 focused on movement. Drills included advancing and punching, retreating and punching, and punching until exhaustion. Then it was front choke defenses.

Session 33 was a special class. Kristina ran us through backward rolls (which I completely suck at), back and side breakfalls, and a simple foot sweep takedown from the front:



Session 34 was another special class. After some basic striking (punches, front kicks, knees), Matt brought in the blue guns and we did a long gun disarm drill. Unlike a lot of krav maga long gun disarms, we trained to wrap the muzzle up with our arm using our bodyweight, which seemed a lot more secure than trying to wrestle a gun away with just your hands.




Session 35 included yet more advancing and retreating drills, elbows and knees, and a special "disruption" drill where we pushed and grabbed people who were focused on striking in another direction.

In Session 36, we practiced punching without gloves, including a right cross from a neutral position. Then we did kicks from that same neutral position, and a bar arm choke defense with a chin takedown for when the escape is stuffed. Same principle as this video:




Session 37 covered forward and rear hammerfists, then kicks from the ground, then rear choke defenses.

We focused on developing"vision" in Session 38 - this meant doing inside and outside defenses, and then a drill where we hit the bags while trying to keep track of whether a third party was raising his left or right arm.

Session 39 was all about the close quarters strikes - knees, elbows, and defending bearhugs from behind. I favored the groin strike, which I found to work surprisingly well.

Session 40 was general striking, exhaustion drills, and one-handed choke defenses.

Session 41 practiced knees, punches, and defenses against bar arm chokes/knives. It reminded me of this scene from "Redbelt":

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Books: Magical Mayhem Limited Series Double Feature

I've been working on my backlog of comics, and I thought these two magic-focused trade paperback collections were worth a mention:


Monte Cook's Ptolus: City by the Spire


I had never heard of Monte Cook's Ptolus campaign setting, so maybe it wasn't surprising that this book was sitting in the bargain bin in my local comic shop. It's not an RPG sourcebook, but a straightforward comic series about swashbuckling treasure hunter Sheva Callister and her adventures in the titular city. The series only lasted six issues, so this is a breezy read if you're in the mood for some swords and sorcery.

Sheva's a great fighter and thief, but otherwise she's in way over her head as she tries to recover a mystical artifact, resurrect her dead friend, and avoid getting fried by otherworldly monsters and powerful arch-mages. "Ptolus" gets the nod from me based on an interesting Indiana Jones-meets-noir tone, pretty good art, and interesting mystical factions that I'm probably going to steal for my next D&D campaign.

Smoke and Mirrors


Many comic books have magic in their settings, but "Smoke and Mirrors" is very much about magic. In the book, stage illusionist Terry Ward is suddenly transported from our world to a parallel universe: one where real magic not only exists, but is so ubiquitous it powers stuff like cell phones. Stranded in an unfamiliar land, Terry finds that his sleight of hand and mentalist tricks seem like "magic" to the people in this new world, and he must use them to survive.

It's a fantastic conceit, but "Smoke and Mirrors" doesn't quite do enough with it. The story centers around Terry's friendship with a teenage boy and his battle with a Steve Jobs-esque tech mogul, so you actually see very little of this strange new world. Still, it's co-written by professional magician Jon Armstrong, and there are actually mentalist tricks woven into the book itself that the reader can try - how many comic books can you say that about?

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Books: The Moth Presents Occasional Magic - True Stories About Defying the Impossible


Dad and I are fans of The Moth Radio Hour, a program where real people tell true stories about themselves in front of a live audience. I think we like it because there's something primal about hearing the experiences of others told in their own voice. Whether it's a daughter saying goodbye to a dying mother, a soldier reunited with a friend from a war zone half a world away, or a couple going through a surrogate pregnancy, the storytelling format taps into basic human emotions that are sometimes lacking in other 21st century fora.

Periodically, The Moth transcribes and collects the most noteworthy stories told on the program into books. I picked up the latest such release, "Occasional Magic," and came away slightly disappointed. While the stories' content was fine and the book was good overall, printed words just can't convey the texture and emotion of a live human being. For instance, Phyllis Marie Bowdwin's wild tale of confronting a street groper in '70s New York City loses a lot when translated to the page - the uproarious laughter of the crowd, the dejection she experiences midway through, the crazed triumph of the final twist. I guess for some things, you just have to be there.

Tech: Diablo - the Ironman variant

Blizzard re-released the original Diablo last month on GOG.com, so I've been doing a few Ironman ("IM") runs through the game. The IM variant has a few simple rules: (1) you must start with a new character, (2) all monsters on each level must be killed, (3) you cannot go back to town, and (4) death is permanent (no save scumming!).

The net effect of these self-imposed limitations is an experience which closely approximates the original Rogue and the other classic games Diablo is based on, because without townsfolk to heal you and provide items, everything becomes precious. Abilities that you would never use in a normal Diablo game, such as the Warrior's Repair skill, become vitally important. Items that you wouldn't even take a second glance at, such as a humble Scroll of Identify, become the most valuable things in your inventory. And monsters that you would normally roll over, like the goat clans in the catacombs, become dangerous threats due to your sub par equipment and lack of resources.

Which is not to say you can't go far if you're persistent - some IM multiplayer groups have even beaten the game on Hell difficulty. For my part, I managed to get a Warrior down to level 15 of the dungeon, the penultimate level. The stat sheet tells the tale - I had zero magical resistances because of my awful item drops, and my character was eventually killed by a a pack of Cabalists who laid waste to his unprotected hide with lightning spells:


It was still refreshingly fun to play a game that the player wasn't guaranteed to beat from the get-go, a game that required skill and a bit of luck to get through to the end.  If you think modern action RPGs are too easy and want a hit of that old Roguelike flavor most games used to have, try firing up an IM Diablo session and see how far you get...

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Miscellany: Lapham's Quarterly


I've really enjoyed my subscription to Lapham's Quarterly, a literary magazine founded by former Harper's editor Lewis Lapham.  Each issue collects and excerpts stories, art, poetry, and essays from across history and around the world, with a focus on a common theme.  What results is a dizzying comparison of perspectives, mostly unexpected, from all of humanity's cultures, ancient and modern. It's like an erudite version of "Reader's Digest," without all the distracting ads.

For example, the most recent issue, "Night," juxtaposes an eighteenth-century poem about a night hag, an eerie nightvision photo of a U.S. soldier, and an essay from F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Crack-Up" about insomnia:



Miscellany: Krav Maga class journal, month 3

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 third month of class repeats numerous techniques (the beginner's Krav curriculum isn't voluminous), so I'll glide over stuff that's been covered previously.

Session 20

This was day 1 of "street clothes" week, so everyone wore everyday attire instead of athletic wear in order to feel the restrictiveness of normal clothing. I came in wearing what I usually wear to the office - a pair of dress slacks, a dress shirt, and a tie. It didn't hamper my movement much, but I got a lot sweatier than normal. We drilled punches, side knees, and front and rear choke defenses with pushes.

Session 21

I missed a couple of classes due to work conflicts and being battered from a ShivWorks ECQC class (much more on that in a later post), so I didn't get to do day 2 of "street clothes" week. In this class, we focused on movement - punching and moving, moving offline to the dead side while striking, and then combined all that with rear choke defenses and learning to pick up weapons of opportunity.

Session 22

This was a back-to-basics class. Punching and elbow combinations, groin kicks while moving offline, and front choke defenses.

Sessions 23, 24, and 25

Honestly, these classes kind of blurred together, due to a combination of work conflicts (I had to miss another class) and familiarity with the material. I do recall practicing round kicks, rear and front choke defenses, and punch combinations. The only really new technique was a side kick from the ground, as opposed to the grounded front kick we had learned in prior classes:



Level 1 review session

This was an optional Saturday three-hour course reviewing the entire Krav Maga Alliance Level 1 curriculum. I signed up because of the three classes I missed in the past month, and because I do eventually want to take the Level 1 test and join the intermediate class.

There were a number techniques we practiced that I had never done before, including:

Straight Punch with Retreat (not the strongest punch, and the timing is tricky)
Straight Punch Low (not usually used for self-defense)
Eye Strike (not a terribly difficult technique, so they don't spend much time on it)
Inside Defense vs. Low Straight Punch (elbows and upper forearm deflect punches)
Choke Front 1-Handed (one hand escapes, one hand strikes)
Ground - Side Position (as opposed to being on your back)
Ground - Round Kick (sort of a scissor kick against someone to your side)

Sessions 26 through 30

In these sessions, we focused a lot on shadowboxing as a training method, and moving while hitting. The only new technique was a disarm against someone with a gun to your back. I learn I'm not going to be invited to the Level 1 test at the end of the month; I have to work on my movement and choke escapes.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Food: Victoria's Peruvian Cuisine

Good restaurants are like living organisms - if you stay in an area long enough, you'll see them expand and reproduce as they get more and more popular.

A prime example is Victoria's Peruvian Cuisine. The first time I visited, many years ago, it was a quiet hole-in-the-wall that not many people knew about. I loved the food and kept coming, though, and now the place is more than double the size, with a spin-off casual rotisserie chicken joint in the same plaza and a Lake Worth lounge.

The crowds may be bigger, but chef Julio Leon's food hasn't changed much. It's still the same delicious ceviche and tiradito, the same delectable bistec and jalea:




Really, almost everything on the menu is good, and every guest I've ever taken to the place has loved it. If you're ever in Lantana and jonesing for some Peruvian food, there really is only one option - Victoria's.

4/4 stars

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Movies: Solo: A Star Wars Story

In my eyes, the House of Mouse's takeover of the "Star Wars" franchise has had decidedly mixed results. The new sequel trilogy started off strong, but then made the first six movies irrelevant by the second act of "The Force Awakens." The spin-off movie "Rogue One" was a pretty decent action flick, but it felt like a throwaway since it didn't tell us anything we didn't already know.

That said, all of the new movies have been profitable except for "Solo: A Star Wars Story." The movie had a famously troubled production, and it tanked when it was released six months after "The Last Jedi"...did it deserve to?



Seeing "Solo" on Netflix probably helped, because this is a small stakes heist film about the origin of everyone's favorite space rogue, Han Solo. It's more like a TV series than a big-budget action piece - while the effects were good enough to get nominated for an Oscar, they're more like juiced-up versions of a "Firefly" episode than the grand battles we're used to seeing in "Star Wars."

What saves the movie is the game cast (Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover are excellent as Han and Lando), a straightforward script that has a lot of humor, and workmanlike direction from Ron Howard. There's a certain freedom that comes with working on a story that doesn't have to connect to a 9-film arc, and Howard and Co. milk it for all it's worth.

Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Guns: PHLster

PHLster is one of those rare holster makers where I can wholeheartedly recommend their entire lineup. I have bought several of their products (with my own money...no such thing as a paid promotion here on Shangrila Towers), and I've used them in both daily carry and training courses. Each one is excellent:

Skeleton holster - This minimalist appendix inside-the-waistband holster is slim, comfortable, and tough as nails. I used it to carry both my G26 and the G17T force-on-force trainers in a Shivworks ECQC class, and it never let me down, despite all the rolling around and wrasslin' inherent in a Craig Douglas course.


Skeleton universal magazine carrier - A decent solution to an age-old problem: getting a generic pouch to retain a wide variety of double-stack magazines, including the mags for your weirdo Hungarian Blast-o-matic 9mm.  PHLster uses a shock cord wrap that tensions the pouch for polymer double-stack magazines (think GLOCK and M&P), thought it might not work as well for slimmer double-stack designs.



City Special revolver holster - This is the best AIWB revolver holster I've ever used, bar none. I have a couple of the early ones for my S&W 642 and 640; the newest versions have been remolded to fit almost any J-frame, including ones with Crimson Trace grips.

Flatpack tourniquet carrier - While I don't generally carry a tourniquet on the belt, I've found the Flatpack is a great way to stash a CAT or SOFT-T on a backpack strap or bike frame.




TDI Fightworthy Sheath - The Ka-Bar TDI is a good small fixed blade that comes with a middling sheath. PHLster's popular Fightworthy sheath remedies all the OEM sheath's retention and draw issues, in a package that's much smaller and more concealable. It's spendy, but worth the coin.

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