Saturday, December 03, 2016

Miscellany: Silverball Museum, Delray Beach

I largely missed the tail end of the pinball era, those glory days when skating rink lobbies and family fun centers still had a couple of pins alongside "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Street Fighter II." In fact, by the time I could frequent those places with my own money, the home consoles were starting to kill arcade videogames - the corpse of pinball was already cold.

If you care for a little necrophilia, though, you should probably visit the Silverball Museum, a collection of dozens of playable pinball machines, classic videogames, and other amusements in downtown Delray Beach.

This is a pinball fan's nirvana - for a nominal entrance fee (from $7.50 to $25, depending on how long you want to stay there) you get unlimited play on machines from as early as the '60s and '70s (back when scoring was done with electromechanical reels) all the way to Midway's final, great pinball machines of the '90s, like "The Twilight Zone" and "The Addams Family." You can also eat food and drink beer on both the first and second floor (it's basically a retro "barcade").

Here's a fun one I played - Williams' Gorgar (1979), the first commercially released talking pinball machine, complete with Boris Vallejo-y fantasy art:

All the machines have informational placards and high score trackers, for the true pinball buffs:

There are a few things I didn't like about the Silverball Museum. They pipe in classic rock through speakers, which appeals to the Baby Boomer target demographic, but makes the place unnecessarily loud. There are also usually several machines that are "under restoration" (i.e., down for repairs), which is a bummer considering the price of admission. Still, this is a fun stop for anyone in the area, and well worth a visit.

Miscellany: "It's a me, marketing!"

So just in time to coincide with the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, I learn Nintendo is doing this:

Yup, you are soon going to be able to ride a Koopa Coaster and drink cold beverages from a souvenir Piranha Plant pipe. I am reminded of a quote from Tam: "We must've reached the fat part of our earning curves; pop culture nostalgia is catering to us now!"

Music: Dirt Road

Southern Culture on the Skids is often pigeonholed as a greasy-fried hillbilly party/parody band, but I think that's unfair. Sure, the trio of Rick Miller, Dave Hartman, and Mary Huff have been making scores of songs about backwoods food and sex (sometimes both at once) since 1987, but their most recent album, "The Electric Pinecones," showcases a lot of real musicianship and fun psychedelic rock influences (the record name comes from SCOTS' side project, "The Pinecones," which sometimes opened for the "real" band).

My favorite track is "Dirt Road," which the band describes as a "three-minute ode to séances, thunderstorms and good lovin’ long gone." It's just a genuinely good folk/rockabilly song, with a haunting vocal from Huff and a smokin' guitar solo from Miller in the bridge:

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Food: Cubans on the Run

Fidel Castro leaves behind a decidedly mixed legacy, but one happy accident of his dictatorship was the spread of the Cuban sandwich: ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard between two toasted loaves of Cuban bread. You see, Castro's repressive regime prompted thousands of exiles to flee to Florida, making this wonderful concoction the semi-official sandwich of Miami.

What non-Floridians might not know, though, is that the Cuban sandwich is everywhere in this state. You can actually find some of the best sandwich shops in places like Tampa and Orlando - shops like Cubans on the Run, an unassuming diner off a highway in Casselberry.

The place is open breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and serves up mostly-authentic Cuban-American food at rock-bottom prices. You can get a standard Cuban, hot off the press, for five dollars, with fancier steak and chicken options available for a couple bucks extra. There are also other standard Cuban entrées available, including picadillo, palomilla steak, and ropa vieja.

Don't expect much in the way of ambiance - food is served in plastic baskets or takeout containers, and the inside is bereft of the faux-Havana accoutrements that you might find in a fancier Cuban restaurant further south. Still, I mostly grade restaurants on the food they serve, and Cubans on the Run gets a hearty...

3/4 stars

Viva Cuba Libre!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Guns: S&W 686 PC review (2.5" snubnose) - Plus Size Performance


Smith & Wesson's Performance Center turns out some fascinating semi-custom guns of dubious utility, like the subject of today's review - the 686 Plus PC snub. It's designed as a high-end .357 magnum concealed carry option and comes equipped with all sorts of literal chrome, but is it worth the thousand-dollar asking price?

First Impressions

The 686 PC has a slab-sided 2.5" barrel that actually conceals pretty well. Unfortunately, the barrel is mated to a standard 686P frame and 7-shot cylinder, as well as long wood grips. The package positively dwarfs more reasonably-sized belt revolvers like the Model 60 Pro and the 642.  It also weighs 34 ounces, making it almost impossible to carry in anything other than an OWB belt holster.

In hand, the gun feels pretty good. The slim finger-grooved wood grips won't be to everyone's taste, but they are nicely stippled and don't add additional bulk to the backstrap. The sights are also excellent - the big bright red-orange front ramp is mated with an adjustable rear sight, which is perfect for a personal defense revolver that can fire everything from .38 wadcutters to full-tilt magnums.

The 686 PC has a chromed trigger (with overtravel stop), a chromed hammer, and an unfluted hammer cut for moonclips (actually carrying the moonclips as a reload is impractical, but they do ease the emptying of the first cylinder of fired shells in a fight). The Performance Center also performs an action job on the gun, giving it a very smooth and light trigger pull in both single and double action.

Cosmetically, I dock the 686 PC several style points because the front sight juts out of the dovetail on both sides, and because it sports a ridiculously large ".357 Mag 7x" billboard etched on the left side of the barrel.

Range Report

In my hands, the short barrel and sight radius somewhat hampered performance from the big snub, at least compared to a conventional 4" barrel 686. I managed to get okay accuracy at 15 yards out of my handloads (158 gr. Speer lead SWCHP over 3.2 gr. Bullseye), but other revolvers can certainly do better, even when yours truly is pulling shots everywhere:

Remington 125 gr. Golden Saber registered similar accuracy (ignore the leftmost shot). This is a pretty light load:

Next up was Magtech 158 grainers, which were all over the place. To be fair, the huge, blinding muzzle flash might have been a factor:

One good characteristic of this revolver is that because of the tuned action and the relatively large frame/grip size, you can still be quite accurate at range with a double-action pull. One bad characteristic of this revolver is that the lightened springs can lead to light primer strikes when the gun is dirty (I believe this is because some of the hammer's impact energy is wasted pushing the round forwards into the cylinder). Another problem is S&W's infamous key lock, which really doesn't belong in a defensive revolver.

Though this gun can certainly handle a steady diet of .357, and the recoil from such loads is not bad at all, I'd still probably carry it with .38 +Ps. Here are two cylinders' worth of Remington HTP 158 gr. +P lead hollowpoints (a/k/a the poor man's "FBI load") at 15 yards:


So would I recommend this gun? Probably not. Though the work done by the Performance Center is pretty good, the 686 PC doesn't exist in a vacuum. Compared with a standard 686 2.5" snub, you're paying about a $250 premium for (1) grips that you may or may not like, (2) a trigger stop that you don't really need, (3) a slab-sided barrel that doesn't seem to improve accuracy, and (4) a cylinder cut for moonclips that are finicky and hard to carry. For most people, I think the better option is to buy the standard snub and do the work you want to it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Books: The Paper Menagerie

Author Ken Liu and I have a few things in common, in that we're both Chinese-American attorneys with a background in computers. It's no great surprise, then, that I enjoyed "The Paper Menagerie," Liu's collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories. Some of the 15 works here are new, most are previously published, but the quality of the stories is uniformly high, and they all draw on Liu's background in some way or another.

There are technology-focused tales, like "The Perfect Match" (a man struggles with an overbearing Siri-like computer) and "Simulacrum" (a man creates a semi-conscious hologram of his daughter). These essentially read like episodes of "Black Mirror" - except they are way better than the actual episodes of "Black Mirror." There are also fantasy stories ("Good Hunting") which draw heavily from Chinese culture. They're fun, and very different from Western fantasy (if you like what's here, check out Liu's silkpunk novels, starting with "The Grace of Kings").

Occasionally, things get poignant for poignancy's sake. I thought some of the emotional beats in "The Regular" and title story "The Paper Menagerie" were forced, for instance, but they were undeniably dramatic. It's merely a small quibble with Liu's writing style; if you like science fiction or fantasy at all, you'll probably like the book.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Veterans Day

Michael, Byron, and Mitch, thank you for your service, and happy Veterans Day!

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Miscellany: 2015 - 2016 Dodge Charger R/T review - My Big Fat American Muscle Car

Thanks to my BMW 328i's unexpectedly long sojourn at the dealer to upgrade its onboard cellular system, I got the chance to live with the latest-gen Dodge Charger R/T for a week. The Charger is a common upgrade at rental car fleets across the country - here's what I liked and didn't like about the vehicle:


Engine: Though it makes 370 horsepower and nearly 400 lb-ft of torque, the 5.7 liter Hemi in this trim is actually the weakest V8 available in the Charger lineup; if you want even more power, you can step up to the 6.4 liter SRT 392 or the almighty supercharged 707 hp SRT Hellcat. The extra juice is overkill except for an enthusiast, I think, since the stock 5.7 gets you from 0-60 in a hair over 5 seconds and runs mid-13s in the quarter-mile. The engine is also smooth and quiet on the highway, since it barely needs to rev to maintain cruising speed.

Suspension: The Charger handles surprisingly well. Simple physics prevents it from having the same cornering characteristics of say, a Camaro or Mustang, but for a 4,000+ pound car, the Charger eats up swooping turns and highway irregularities with aplomb. It's not unlike the feeling you get in a big German sedan - solid and impervious.

Steering and Dashboard: When it comes to driver controls and feedback, the Charger is pretty squared-away. You get a big thick steering wheel with okay amounts of road-feel, an analog tach and speedometer, and a customizable center in-dash LCD that will relay everything from your fuel economy to your oil life. The infotainment unit uses a touchscreen, but has physical knobs and buttons for volume, tuning, and A/C, which I much prefer.


Interior Quality (considering the price): The dealer gave me the standard R/T model, which is essentially a base Charger equipped with the 5.7L Hemi V8. All of the money is spent on the engine; you get none of the niceties on the upgraded (and confusingly named) "R/T Road and Track" version. The cheap seats and hard plastics are acceptable in most American sedans, but a little hard to take in something that stickers for around $34 grand.

Efficiency: The naturally aspirated V8 is nice, and Dodge uses every trick in the book, including cylinder deactivation, but there's just no masking the fact that this is a heavy car with a thirsty truck-sized engine. The Charger's EPA-estimated 16/25 MPG is right on the money; you'll be stopping at gas stations much more often than you would in other cars that have similar horsepower via forced induction.

Trunk Space: Interior room in the Charger is definitely on par with the class (this is designed to be a police cruiser, after all), but I found the trunk to be surprisingly small. The limited cargo space is unlikely to woo people who fled the sedan market for crossovers and large trucks.


Overall, I liked my time with the Charger - it put down plenty of power, and proved to be very livable as a daily commuter. If I were buying one, though, I'd probably save up for the midlevel SRT 392 trim, given that it has the same fuel economy as the smaller V8 and has nicer everything else.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween in '16: Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines

For this year's special run of Halloween posts, Shangrila Towers is spotlighting those infamous creatures of the night - vampires. Keep your crucifix handy, and pray for dawn...

"Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines" is the last project from Troika Games, a studio founded by "Fallout" alums Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky and Jason Anderson.

In many ways, the game is emblematic of the highs and lows Troika brought to the table as developers - great writing, inspired game design which allowed you to talk, sneak, or fight your way out of most situations, and a whole mess of mood-killing bugs:

You play as a fledgling vampire straight out of White Wolf's "World of Darkness" pen-and-paper RPGs. At character creation, you can make anything from a genteel Ventrue to a ghastly Nosferatu. The choices continue on through Bloodlines' very first mission (which allows you to seduce your way to victory without firing a single shot), and its first major quest-givers, a pair of vampire sisters who use you as a pawn against each other, culminating in a very psychological battle.

Unfortunately, due to a strict release deadline handed down by Activision, there are rough edges throughout, and the last part of the game is unfortunately incomplete. The game's protracted development cycle also means it has pretty ugly graphics, even by 2004 standards (it was famously released on the same day as "Half-Life 2"). Still, if you're willing to do some patching and modding, "Bloodlines" is an engaging RPG that just needed a little more time to become a classic - a flawed but beautiful being, like the undead it portrays.

Halloween in '16: I...Vampire!

For this year's special run of Halloween posts, Shangrila Towers is spotlighting those infamous creatures of the night - vampires. Keep your crucifix handy, and pray for dawn...

"I...Vampire!" (1981-1983) was a serialized story that capped off "House of Mystery," DC Comics' long-running horror anthology series. The tale follows Lord Andrew Bennett, who is bitten by a vampire in 1591, but manages to retain his morality. However, when Bennett turns his fiancée at her request, she becomes Mary, Queen of Blood, a malevolent being bent on taking over the world. Bennett follows Mary for hundreds of years, and into the modern day, in a guilt-ridden effort to stop the evil he created:

If you like the "vampire with a soul" trope, "I...Vampire!" is required reading. While Andrew Bennett's ultimate mission is to prevent Mary's undead apocalypse, he often cannot stop himself from helping some random person in each issue - basically, he's a blood-sucking Dudley Do-Right. It's a fun character trait that presages more developed vampire heroes like Joss Whedon's Angel.

The series was popular enough to get a relaunch in The New 52, and the revival is good, but I'll always have a soft spot for the classic run.

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