Sunday, August 30, 2015

Books: Augie and the Green Knight

I've participated in plenty of Kickstarters, but few as whimsical as the one for  "Augie and the Green Knight", a children's book written by Zach Weinersmith (of SMBC) and French comic artist Boulet. If you like quirky stuff like the promo below, you're probably going to like the book:

The story's heroine is Augie, a young girl from our time who stumbles into an enchanted forest one chilly day. There, she finds the treant-like Green Knight, King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table. After Sir Gawain decapitates the Green Knight in a playful beheading game (to no ill effect), Gawain learns that he must come to the Green Knight's castle in a year to be decapitated in turn. Can Augie help Gawain avoid this fate with the power of law and logic? Will the Green Knight ever learn that people don't like to be decapitated? Why is there a newt here?

The book is a charming, modern (but mostly faithful) take on the centuries-old tale of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Like all good children's books, there are some lessons to be learned (Augie is smart, but not wise, and eventually figures out that rules need reasons), but the lighthearted illustrations and tongue-in-cheek narrative make sure you don't take it too seriously. If you have a kid, this would be a great book to read aloud to them, a chapter at a time, until Sir Gawain's quest reaches its conclusion.

TV: Penn & Teller - Fool Us

I've long been a fan of the libertarian comedy-magic stylings of Penn & Teller, and their new show, "Fool Us," has the most intriguing premise in televised magic since "Breaking the Magician's Code":

Every episode, several professional magicians perform a routine live in front of Penn & Teller (as well as a packed auditorium at the Rio in Las Vegas). After the performance is finished, Penn & Teller try to figure out how the trick was done. If they can, they drop hints and references to the magician indicating as much; if they can't, the magician is invited to perform as Penn & Teller's opening act. Finally, at the end of each show, Penn & Teller perform one of their own tricks for the audience.

I think "Fool Us" is a hit because it isn't a reality show competition, like you might expect. Instead, Penn & Teller treat the show as an opportunity to showcase the art and craft of magic. All of the performers are professional magicians, some of them nearly as famous as Penn & Teller (Mac King did a routine, for instance), and by keeping the quality of the magic high, the show is more intriguing than if there were a bunch of amateurs onstage. You'll see some truly wondrous things, like this performance from FISM World Champion Shin Lim (easily one of the most astounding things I've seen on TV):

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Links: Americana Podcasts

It's pretty hard to find indie American-style rock, folk, country, and blues on the terrestrial radio nowadays, which is a bit sad considering that those genres were born here.

There are still artists making this kind of music, though, and thanks to the Internet, they're only a podcast away...

The Americana Rock Mix - Coming at you every week from Bradenton, Florida, the Americana Rock Mix serves up hard-rocking, little-known music for your listening enjoyment. Aside from the mixes (which are great), you'll hear artist interviews, album news, and some entertainingly candid discussions of host Von's personal life.

The Miller Tells Her Tale - To escape the bro-country infecting the airwaves today, sometimes you have to go across the ocean - Scotland, to be precise. Karen Miller hosts this 2-hour show out of Glasgow every week, and it's jam-packed with country and rock, old and new, popular and indie.  She does a fine job (I like how she doesn't shy away from giving negative reviews of an album), but there is something slightly surreal about hearing this sort of music introduced by a heavy Scottish accent.

Freight Train Boogie - Host Bill Frater lends his name and his enthusiasm to this podcast, which plays all the "twangy" stuff that has long been abandoned by the mainstream - we're talking real blues and real country, something you might hear in a smoky bar by the train tracks. In addition to the hour-long weekly shows, you can hit up the FTB website for all the latest in roots rock, alt country, and everything else guitars and harmonica.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Tech: Never Alone

When I was a kid, the only way a video game could be "educational" is if it asked you trivia questions: solve this equation, name the capital of Paraguay, state when was the Battle of Gettysburg. Now, some good games came out of that approach (I still have fond memories of the "Carmen Sandiego" series), but it always felt a bit didactic and artificial.

I'm pretty sure my eight year-old self would have loved "Never Alone":

Created in partnership with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, "Never Alone" is a puzzle-platformer about Nuna, a young girl on a quest to find the source of a mysterious blizzard threatening her village. With her Arctic fox spirit animal, whom you can switch to at any time (a second player can also control the fox), you must lead Nuna through a series of gorgeous Alaskan environments while avoiding both real and fantastical hazards.

Everything in "Never Alone" is steeped in the culture of the Iñupiat people. The overall story comes from a native Alaskan folktale, of course, but most of the gameplay elements are grounded in the heritage of the Iñupiat, too. The enemies, the spirit animal mechanics, and even the levels draw inspiration from indigenous experiences.

For instance, early on in the game, you find mystical bolas. The bolas are a traditional weapon used by the Inuit peoples to hunt birds (the game gives you the option to play a "Cultural Insight" movie clip, with real-life footage and interviews of native people using bolas). From then on, you use the bolas to hit airborne "spirit targets" brought to you by your fox companion, and to crack spots of fragile ice high above your head. It's an interesting and effective way to teach people about the Iñupiat culture, since it allows them to experience it firsthand instead of quizzing them on it.  

Viewed strictly as a puzzle-platformer, "Never Alone" is only okay - it's short, the controls are sometimes a hindrance, and there are several harsh trial-and-error challenges near the end that get old fast. Still, "Never Alone" takes you on a journey through another world, which is all I can ask a game to do.

Rating: 80/100

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Guns: S&W Model 60 Pro review - Packing The Tre Pound

Smith & Wesson produces dozens of different .357 Magnum revolvers, but most of them are too big to be practical for concealed carry. For instance, their flagship .357, the 4" barreled S&W 686, weighs two and a half pounds and is nearly 10" long. That's way too much gun (at least for me) to pack on a daily basis.

There are some carry-oriented .357s, though, like the S&W Model 60 Pro. Weighing in at only 23-odd ounces, and using the small five-shot "J" frame, this is one option for people who want to CCW a .357 wheelgun. But is it a good option?

Fit and Features - Going "Pro"

The Pro series is somewhere between S&W's standard production line and their Performance Center guns. The Pros are not custom guns by any stretch of the imagination, but they have features and finishes that are a bit nicer than the everyday Smith.

In the case of the Model 60 Pro, the gun has a slabsided barrel and a racy slanted underlug with a cutout for the ejector rod:

The Model 60 Pro also features special half-checkered, half-stippled wood grips. The checkering and stippling is mostly cosmetic, because the grips are glossy and smooth overall. The grips fit my hand well, mostly because they did not have any finger grooves on them:

The 3" long barrel, though not unique to this model, gives the gun some nice advantages over a normal J-Frame snubbie. One often-overlooked benefit of this barrel length is an ejector rod long enough to knock out magnum cases:

Sights and Trigger

Unlike a Performance Center Gun, the Model 60 Pro does not come with an action job from the factory. This means that the gun's double-action trigger pull is just as heavy as any other J-Frame. It's a big obstacle to practical accuracy, and will probably be a dealbreaker for people who don't regularly practice with revolver triggers.

The Model 60 Pro comes with the same adjustable rear sight as other S&W .357 J-Frames, but the front is a Trijicon green night sight. The topstrap serrations do a good job of leading your eye to it, but I found the tritium insert to be quite small and dim:

Range Report

Though it has an all-steel frame, the Model 60 Pro is about as small as a .357 can get without being painful to shoot.  I found the gun's recoil to be pretty stout with hot .38 +Ps or moderate .357s, and nearly uncontrollable with full house 158 grain magnums. Touching off one of those babies lit a massive fireball in front of me, and flipped the muzzle several inches into the air (I have genuine sympathy for the poor sods who buy an 11-ounce S&W 360PD to fire .357).

I conducted most accuracy testing for the Model 60 Pro with .38s. Here is a 25 yard group, offhand, with my 158 gr lead light target handloads:

Of course, in the interests of science, I also shot some .357s through the little bugger. Here is Remington's 125 grain Golden Saber JHP load (a fairly light magnum load) at 15 yards:

Another group of my handloads, using a 158 grain LSWC, at 20 yards:

Finally, the range's .38 mystery handloads worked well at 20 yards:


In some ways, the Model 60 Pro is a poor choice for CCW. It's bigger than a single-stack 9mm, holds less ammunition, and is more difficult to shoot. If your goal is simply to carry the most effective  weapon that can fit in a 23 ounce, 8" long size envelope, there are a host of other guns that I think would work better.

That being said, I do carry this gun, It's accurate, small enough to fit inside-the-waistband (a rarity for a revolver), and handles anything from powderpuff .38 wadcutters to fullbore .357s. If you need a companion gun for your Airweight .38, you could do a lot worse than the Model 60 Pro.

Movies: Inside Out

It's no secret that Pixar's been in a funk lately, spurning original ideas in favor of half-baked sequels (e.g., "Cars 2"). As such, it was a good sign that their newest film, "Inside Out," bore no resemblance to anything they had ever done:

"Inside Out" portrays the emotions of eleven year-old Riley - joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust - as she moves cross-country to San Francisco. The move and the stress associated with a new home cause big changes for Riley, and it's up to her emotions to keep her happy...or so it seems.

Being a child of the '90s, I thought this movie would basically be an updated version of "Herman's Head" - bickering and bantering between funny emotions (voiced by Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, and Bill Hader), awkward situations for Riley to get caught up in, and everything ending happily ever after. Instead, "Inside Out" gave me a very mature take on human emotion, especially for a "kid's" movie. If you're tired of the messages that a lot of movies send - that tragedy is an obstacle to overcome, rather than a part of life - you should probably see this one.

Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

TV: Daredevil

I don't think the Bennifer-era adaptation of Daredevil is as bad as people make it out to be, though it definitely has more than its fair share of cringe-inducing camp (a playground fight? really?). However, for those who always wanted a darker, grittier, Frank Miller-ier version of Matt Murdock, Marvel has delivered in a big way:

The 13 episode Netflix series follows a fledgling Daredevil as he battles New York's criminal underworld and comes to grips with his unique powers. The early stories depict Matt's double life as a costumed vigilante and a lawyer, focusing on his relationships with his friends Karen Page and Foggy Nelson. The series takes some neat twists and turns from there, though, eventually devoting quite a bit of time to Daredevil's nemesis, Wilson Fisk (played with award-worthy aplomb by Vincent D'Onofrio).

It's an easy show to like. The performances are excellent, and the production values are incredible - most scenes have the moody lighting you'd expect from a big screen crime drama, not a superhero web series. The dialogue can get fairly clunky (characters constantly reference "Hell's Kitchen" and "my city," to the point where it's become a meme), but the fight scenes pick up the slack nicely:


Music: Libertango

A few weeks ago, Dad and I went to see a concert put on by The Symphonia, a non-profit chamber orchestra formerly known as the Boca Raton Philharmonic. The concert, titled "A Little Latin Night Music," was an interesting blend of well-known string pieces conducted by Kyle Prescott and performed before an appreciative outdoor crowd in Mizner Park.

I particularly liked the arrangement of "Libertango," Piazzolla's famous tango nuevo. Too bad there wasn't a place to dance...

Miscellany: Eldritch Horror - Mountains of Madness review

My friends and I are huge fans of Eldritch Horror, Fantasy Flight's world-spanning board game based on the H.P. Lovecraft Cthulhu Mythos. One big omission from the original game, though, was a scenario based on Lovecraft's best story, the haunting novella "At the Mountains of Madness." In that tale, a group of explorers travel to Antarctica, only to encounter an enormous abandoned city full of strange writings and unspeakable evil.

Fantasy Flight's Eldritch Horror expansion, unimaginatively titled "Mountains of Madness," aims to put you in the shoes of those unlucky explorers. It includes a brand new Antarctica sideboard, as well as some non-Antarctic-related goodies - investigators, encounter cards, Ancient Ones, and assets:

The overall effect is to make an already epic game even more epic. Even if you don't use the Antarctica board or the new cold-themed Ancient Ones, the new cards add a lot more options and a lot more flavor to the game. It's also more balanced than most Fantasy Flight expansions - none of the new cards appear to be gamebreaking, and the inclusion of a "focus" mechanic does a lot to smooth out the randomness of the base game. If you're at all a fan of Eldritch Horror, this is a must-buy.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Guns: Walther PPS review - Thin before it was cool

The release of the GLOCK 43 generated a lot of hubbub last month, but those looking for a Tenifer-finished, single-stack 9mm have had a very good option for about a decade - the Walther PPS:

First Impressions - Would a GLOCK by any other name shoot as sweet?

Yes, it's made by German-speaking people in Germany rather than German-speaking people in Austria, but the Walther PPS is still similar to the G43 in many respects. It's striker-fired, with a blade-type trigger safety, and it's significantly thinner than a double-stack pistol like a G26:

A better comparison might be made with another single-stack 9mm, Bersa's BP9CC. With the PPS sporting the extended 8-round magazine to match the BP9CC's default capacity, the two guns are fairly comparable:

Features - "Judge me by my size, do you?"

Overall, the Walther PPS is bigger and heavier than the M&P Shield or the G43, but it does have some unique features that make it worth a look if you're considering this type of gun.

1) There's a bright red cocking indicator that extends from the back of the gun as the trigger is pulled. This gives the user a visual and tactile indication of the position of the striker, and it's quite useful for safe reholstering.

2) The PPS has an accessory rail, unlike most single-stack semis in this size category (another option if you need a light rail is the Springfield XD-S).

3) There are 6, 7, and 8 round magazines available to adapt to different concealment requirements.

4) The gun uses interchangeable backstraps that might provide a better fit with some hands.

5) The paddle magazine release is fully ambidextrous.

Range Report

Shooting the PPS is, well, GLOCK-like, and therefore kinda boring. The trigger is neither distractingly heavy nor pleasingly light, the sights are bog-standard three-dots, and I shot the gun okay, but not well:

I found the PPS to be very reliable, though not perfectly so. About every thousand rounds, I experienced a failure of some sort, which is par for the course in guns of this size:

At 10 yards, I was getting decent groups with various types of ammo (pictured here - Georgia Arms Canned Heat and Speer Gold Dots)

At 15 yards, the groups opened up, but not terribly so (like all my pistol targets, these 15-round groups were shot offhand):

Conclusion - An Overlooked Gem

I like the Walther PPS. It's quirky, but not in any way that would make it impractical for self-defense. It has the drawbacks of being slightly larger and more expensive than its single-stack brethren, but other than that, this is a well-made, solid gun.

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