Monday, September 10, 2018

Miscellany: 2018 BMW 430i Convertible review - Sacrificing Everything

The Kaepernick parodies are old news by now, but Nike's tagline remains an apropos description of the loaner BMW 430i convertible I drove over the weekend. That's because the 430i's main feature - a well-engineered folding metal roof that's almost imperceptible when up - also negatively impacted nearly every other aspect of the car.

Performance - The 430i convertible is 500 pounds heavier than an equivalent 3 or 4-series, but still powered by the same 2.0 liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine. The extra weight is immediately noticeable. Compared to my barebones 328i, the car was less nimble weaving around traffic and slower off the line. Stepping up to an inline six 440i or M4 convertible would solve the latter problem, but not the former.

Trunk Space - When the top is down, the convertible mechanism seriously compromises the 430i's trunk space, more so than a fabric top. You can fit a couple of carry-on size bags beneath the trunk divider, but not much else.

Interior Legroom - It's not quite as cramped as my friend's old F-body Camaro convertible, but the backseat of the 430i isn't particularly comfortable, either. Head and shoulder room is fine, but there's a couple less inches of legroom in the back (and the 4-series didn't have a lot to begin with). Again, blame the space needed for the droptop machinery.

Price - According to the sticker, my 430i convertible's starting price was $50,500, thousands of dollars more than an equivalent 4-series coupe. And while the base model isn't exactly a stripper (18" wheels and LED headlights are standard), you get nickel und dimed in typical BMW fashion for everything else. Leather seats are $1,500, navigation and park distance are $2,000, and Apple CarPlay is an insulting $300 extra.

So why would anyone buy this thing?

The convertible roof is flat-out excellent. When it's up, it keeps out noise and the elements much better than a ragtop - I drove in torrential rain and the interior remained serene. When an opportunity for open-air cruising presents itself, the roof opens and closes in about 20 seconds:

I suppose it all comes down to whether being able to drop the top is worth the many shortcomings listed above. I think the answer is "no" for me, but when you're talking about driving along on a sunny day in Palm Beach, it can be hard to tell...

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Guns: Synchronicity

For whatever reason, my left thumb started getting arthritic and sore a few days ago (it's better now, but I'm getting it checked out tomorrow just to be sure).

For whatever reason, I started seeing video posts about one-handed shooting at around the same time:

I think I'll go to the range and practice some revolver reloads.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Books: Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Adapted and Illustrated by Gary Gianni)

I'll have a big post about this year's Dragon Con up eventually, but for now, let's reminisce about a DC memory... 

Most of Dragon Con's pleasures are ephemeral (sweaty cosplay, sci-fi and fantasy panels, playing obscure boardgames), but there are still plenty of places to buy mementos and souvenirs of the con experience. One of my favorites is the Comic & Pop Artist Alley, where hundreds of genre artists hawk their wares.

That's where I met Gary Gianni, who is perhaps best known for illustrating "Prince Valiant." We shared a love of Jules Verne's immortal "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," as Mr. Gianni was selling his lavishly illustrated graphic novel version (a big hardcover with 64 oversize pages). Needless to say, I snapped up a copy, which he kindly personalized and signed for me.

The story is pretty compressed due to the format, but all the major beats are there, including awesome full page spreads of Atlantis, giant squids, and the final escape from the Nautilus. There's also a bonus story, "The Sea Raiders" by H.G. Wells, that includes similar nautical illustrations from Mr. Gianni. The book would be neat on its own, but it's an absolute keepsake thanks to how I got it.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Music: Tian Mi Mi

My family and I saw "Crazy Rich Asians" over the weekend, and to be honest, we were pretty underwhelmed. While it was fun seeing an all Asian and Asian-American cast in a mainstream Hollywood movie, the movie in question was a maudlin, predictable, and (dare I say it?) boring romantic comedy. "Enter the Dragon" it was not.

I did like the "Crazy Rich Asians" soundtrack, though - not just the meta Mandarin and Cantonese covers of famous Western songs, but also the Chinese standards the producers weaved in, sometimes as subtle background music. Hearing Teresa Teng's timeless voice during a high-society party in Singapore means a lot, even for someone who doesn't speak a word of Mandarin:

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Miscellany: Go-Ped KickPed review

As far as kick scooters made for "last mile" commuting go, I've been very happy with my Xootr Roma. However, I was curious about the other major option in this market segment - Go-Ped's "Know Ped" - so I ponied up the cash and bought the KickPed:

The KickPed is a special stripped-down version of the Know Ped made for a prominent bike shop in New York City called NYCeWheels (quick note - everything on Shangrila Towers is bought at retail with my own money; I am not beholden to anyone and do not get special manufacturer "samples"). The KickPed subtracts the Know Ped's front caliper brakes, gets a simpler clearcoat (or black) finish, and has a narrow, kick-friendly deck. Let's see how the KickPed compares with my Xootr Roma, shall we?

Wheels - The KickPed uses wide rubber wheels that eat up sidewalk cracks like candy. It's a lot more comfortable to ride than the Xootr, which has rollerblade-like polyurethane tires that transmit every road imperfection to your body. Of course, you can't get something for nothing - the wide wheels of the KickPed have more rolling resistance, making the scooter a little slower than the Xootr on level ground.

Brakes/Fender - Subtracting the front brake simplifies things a lot in the KickPed, but I find that I really miss the Xootr's elegant front brake system, which allows you to subtly control speed without resorting to the fender brake.

Deck - This one's a tie, I think - both decks feel really solid and haven't worn down a bit. My guess is that the solid aluminum Xootr deck will last longer, but the KickPed deck is no slouch and offers slightly more traction for wet shoes.

Folding Mechanism - The KickPed is dead easy to fold, but there's some movement in the collapsed package - it isn't one rigid piece like the Xootr. The KickPed is also noticeably heavier and bigger when folded than the Xootr. If you're carrying the scooter through a grocery store or a subway line, the Xootr wins.

All in all, the KickPed is a fine scooter that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend. For the type of lunch-hour commuting I do, though, speed is paramount, so the Xootr Roma is still my choice.

Guns: The Tacticool Remington 870 Wingmaster, Part 2 - The Stock and the Weaponlight

I converted my vintage Remington 870 Wingmaster into a modern home defense shotgun. In Part 1 of the series, I swapped out its unwieldy 30" barrel with a shorter 18.5" replacement, a nearly essential upgrade if you plan on using a shotgun indoors. Today, let's look at dressing up the old girl's furniture:

The wood stock that came on my 870 was in great shape, but it had a few shortcomings. It was a bit long for the squared-up fighting stance that's popular these days, it sported an uncomfortable 1980s-era buttpad, and, most importantly, it lacked any place to attach a light to the gun.

If you are short on funds, it's possible to cut an 870 stock and duct tape a light on yourself. I'm lazy, so I opted to grab Magpul's SGA stock, SGA receiver sling mount, M-LOK forend set, and M-LOK cantilever rail mount.

It's an easy install. Besides what Magpul packages in the box, there are no special tools required, save perhaps a long screwdriver to get the original stock off. The cantilever mount gives you a small section of Picatinny rail on the forend, to which you can attach any light you want.

I opted for Streamlight's excellent ProTac Rail Mount 1 - it screws onto the rail in literally five seconds, it's a bit more budget friendly than the SureFire weaponlights, and it can use both AA and CR123A batteries, which can be handy in a grid-down situation (read: hurricanes). While the ProTac comes with a pressure switch, I used the standard endcap to minimize the chance of a negligent light discharge.

With the shotgun now short as possible without a tax stamp, and with the critical addition of a weaponlight, the shotgun is now ready for duty. There are a few more things to add to make it really boss, though.

Upgrades still to come - magazine tube and sidesaddle, sling...

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Food: Griot Caribbean Take Out

The Bay Bay's Chicken & Waffles location near my office closed up shop not long ago, and in its place opened a Haitian take out joint, descriptively named "Griot Caribbean Take Out."

For $7, you can get a half order of griot (fried pork) and a big ole pile of diri djon djon (mushroom-flavored rice and peas), garnished with a small tub of spicy pikliz (pickled cabbage and peppers) - tasty, unpretentious, and oh-so-filling.

Griot ain't the world's best Haitian restaurant, but it's probably the world's best Haitian restaurant within a 5 minute drive from my office.

Rating: 2/4 stars

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Links: Saturday Admin Podcast-O-Rama

One drawback of being a private attorney is that you have to attend to the business of law - "firm admin," as they call it. This kind of work usually gets shoved to the weekends, when phone calls and emails are at a minimum. It means a lot of hours in a cold, empty office, but also a lot of time to play some great music. Here are some podcasts for the next time you're stuck indoors on a sunny Saturday...

Group Therapy with Above & Beyond - The owners of trance music label Anjunabeats, Above & Beyond, host this weekly show featuring hours of propulsive, progressive electronica. It's mostly Anjunabeats artists, of course, but they do play tracks from other labels.

Music From 100 Years Ago - If you feel like something a bit less modern, try Brice Fuqua's long-running podcast devoted to music from the first half of the 20th century. In between tracks from artists like Bing Crosby, The Boswell Sisters, and Billie Holliday, Fuqua gives quite a bit of educational commentary on the artists and their music.

The Raven & Blues - Dave Raven keeps his finger on the pulse of the UK blues scene from his houseboat in Taggs Island, and the result is this fine weekly show, showcasing mostly indie UK bluesmen and women that will be (ironically) unknown to most Americans.

Books: Planetes

Before Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity made Kessler Syndrome a household word, Makoto Yukimura explored the concept in his hard sci-fi manga Planetes. The comic follows the crew of the DS-12, a ship tasked with the unglamorous job of cleaning up orbiting space debris. There are dangers both natural (the relentless vacuum, space dementia) and man-made (eco-terrorists, trigger-happy militaries), but most of all, the characters confront the big questions of human spaceflight. Why do we want to go up there? And what are we leaving behind?

The DS-12 crew are "astronauts" in the sense that they live and work in space, but they're treated like glorified garbagemen in the setting of Planetes. Their day-to-day struggles will be familiar, despite the spectacular scenery: determined Hachimaki needs the money to buy his own ship, Captain Fee chafes against terrestrial authority, stoic Yuri searches for a memento of his dead wife, and rookie Tanabe wants to prove her worth to the rest of the crew.

The writing in Planetes deftly balances comedy (a house-trained - well, a spaceship-trained - cat) with poignant drama, and the artwork is uniformly excellent. I do think the momentum wanes in the second half of the series due to some subplots that don't go anywhere; still, if you're in the mood for a realistic depiction of human spaceflight, it's a great choice.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Guns: Dan Wesson Valor review - The Goldilocks 1911


When I was a poor college student, I mistakenly bought 1911-style handguns at a price point. I didn't understand that the M1911 design came from a pre-CNC, pre-MIM era, when laborious cutting and hand-fitting was required to hew guns out of steel and wood. Most manufacturers these days simply don't bother, which probably caused the hit-and-miss reliability in the cheapo Brazilian, Chinese, and Filipino pistols I was purchasing at the time.

I have a bit more sense now (and a bit more disposable income), so I wanted to give the 1911 another chance. Enter Dan Wesson's line of 1911s. They're three times as expensive as the overseas-produced guns I shot back in the day, but the Dan Wessons have a reputation as some of the best non-custom guns you can buy. And while you can easily spend two or three times what the average Dan Wesson costs on a custom 1911, the return on that investment is questionable.

I spied a DW Valor, a classic full-size Government .45 ACP in stainless steel, and took the plunge...

Fit, Finish, and Features

Dan Wesson claims that every part on their 1911s is "hand-fit, polished and blended." It certainly felt that way with the Valor. The slide was glass-on-glass smooth, and the barrel bushing was so tight that I initially need a bushing wrench to field strip the thing (it got easier with time).

The bead blasted finish on the gun was attractive, though not as fancy as the black "Duty" finish Dan Wesson applies to some of their pistols. Every major edge was slightly dehorned, including the rear of the slide and the front of the dustcover.

The Valor was packed to the gills with pretty much every 1911 feature you would want - slightly extended safety and slide stop, slim VZ G10 grips, 25 LPI checkered front and backstraps, extended beavertail, and tritium sights (Dan Wesson's clone of the Heinie "Straight Eight" style, with Trijicon inserts). None of the controls were ambidextrous, though, so lefties might want to look elsewhere.


The Valor was extremely tight out of the box, and needed a break-in period before it ran reliably. I experienced several failures to feed in the first few hundred rounds, mostly with JHP ammo. This was expected, per Dan Wesson's instruction manual:
Generally what you will see during this break-in process is failure to go into battery and or sluggish slide operation. This is normal for tightly fitted 1911’s and will begin to work itself out during the break-in process.

Obviously, I prefer pistols that do not need to be broken in (not everyone wants to blow 100 bucks on ammo just to get a gun to function right), but it's not a deal-breaker if the gun eventually flies right.

The 10-8 Extractor Test

The Valor seemed to be running fine after the break-in, but as a precaution, I performed the 10-8 Performance extractor test and a general course of fire designed to test reliability with hollowpoint ammo.

When the gun passed that test, I started shooting groups and carrying it. For testing purposes, I pitched the Dan Wesson-branded magazines and stuck to widely available, generally well-regarded 1911 mags - Wilson 47Ds, Colt and Wilson all steel 7-rounders, and Chip McCormick Power Mags.

Range Report

I try not to review any gun here on Shangrila Towers without putting it through at least a thousand rounds, but I went overboard with the Dan Wesson. It went through a couple years' worth of testing, including a three-day pistol course with Randy Cain (review forthcoming). 

In that time, the Valor exhibited all the virtues of the 1911 design - a very crisp trigger, excellent balance and "pointability," and easily-controlled muzzle flip. The gun was also reliable; it worked regardless if I was shooting one-handed or in awkward positions. But probably the biggest change from those old .45s in college was the Valor's laser-beam like accuracy with most loads:

Federal HST 230 gr., 20 yards -

Hornady Critical Defense 185 gr., 20 yards -

Blazer Brass 230 gr., 15 yards -

Winchester White Box 230 gr., 15 yards -

and even some mystery reloads from the gun range I shot at -

Concealed Carry Impressions

A full-size steel 1911 conceals better than you might think, thanks to the gun's slimness relative to the caliber, and its tendency to cant forward (which helps conceal the long grip and muzzle). You do still need good gunleather to support the weight - I can wholeheartedly recommend the Milt Sparks Summer Special and Mean Gene Leather's "Shooters" Belt for that purpose.


The Valor is certainly the best 1911 I've ever owned, but is it the best pistol? I'm not sure - setting aside the issue of .45 ACP versus other calibers, a GLOCK 30S holds two more rounds and weighs a full pound less, while a S&W M&P45 Shield holds almost as much ammo and is nearly small enough to ride inside a pocket.

I will say this: Dan Wesson makes a great gun for the money. If you're in the market for a well-made 1911 that hits the sweet spot between bargain barrel rattletrap and high-dollar custom, they should be at the top of your list.

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