Saturday, December 30, 2017

Books: Six Frigates

The hard-working men and women of the U.S. Navy are in the news for being worked too hard, but this is by no means a recent phenomenon. In Six Frigates, Ian Toll's gripping account of the early American navy, the deprivations of life at sea are downright harrowing: brutal discipline and horrid weather, punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Then, as now, there were relatively few souls willing to volunteer for voyages that could span from Spain to Sumatra, and that could end in death, dismemberment - or worse.

But there was an undeniable romance to the Age of Sail. This was an era when ships navigated by the currents and stars, when opposing captains gave and accepted challenges for single combat, where entire countries fought for notions of honor, even in conflict with their own economic interests. The politics of the age were different, too. Personal magnetism and old friendships in Washington, D.C. could withstand even bitter partisan fights over issues that would be quite familiar to us today (taxes, trade, military spending).

Six Frigates (faithfully cobbled together from the records of the Department of the Navy) takes us back to this world, where Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison shepherded the original six frigates of the U.S. Navy. Ian Toll takes us from patrolling the Caribbean for privateers to exchanging broadsides with the Royal Navy in the War of 1812. There's quite a bit of Patrick O'Brian in the (nonfiction) narrative, so much so that Toll even quotes a passage from The Fortune of War. If you have even a passing interest in naval warfare, I highly recommend it.

Guns: Langdon Tactical - Tactical Pistols Skills class review and report

A couple months ago, I took a "Tactical Pistol Skills" course with Ernest Langdon of Langdon Tactical at the Homestead Training Center. Ernest has the bona fides: he served for 12 years in the U.S. Marines, including as an instructor for the High Risk Personnel Course (read: self-defense for troops deployed in not-so-friendly places), and he's been a competitive shooter and firearms instructor for decades. In a nutshell, I really enjoyed the class, and if you ever get the opportunity to train with him, here's what to expect...

Disclaimer: Just so there's no confusion, shooting is my hobby. I have been in exactly zero gunfights. I am licensed to practice law, not to enforce it. The following review and report is not meant to teach any "tactical" skills, that's for sure.

Day One

Like a lot of classes, the first morning was a lecture covering all sorts of topics, some familiar (the Cooper color code) and some esoteric (a behind-the-scenes look at gun manufacturing, and why the current craze of striker-fired guns has more to do with economics than effectiveness). The shooting techniques discussed weren't anything unorthodox: modified isosceles stance, a high thumbs-forward grip with the support hand angled forward, and a constant-motion trigger stroke for double-action shots. One thing Ernest emphasized was not to "shoot to the reset"; pinning the trigger to the rear and feeling for the reset after each shot is something dreamed up by GLOCK's marketing department.

Things got a bit more interesting once we hit the range, when we started warming up with some basic double-action and single-action shots at 5 yards. Ernest is really good at diagnosing shooter errors; for instance, in a one-on-one session, he instructed a shooter to fire shots at the instant Ernest yelled, "Now!". The shots were all on target, indicating that the shooter's problems in slow fire were likely being caused by an anticipatory microflinch.

Here's Ernest teaching the press-out and giving tips on concealed carry garments:

Day Two

We spent the entire second day on the range, with a good bit of instruction on the DA/SA trigger press. It turns out most people will actually hit the first double-action shot, but then flub a few of the single-action shots, as they are using too much force and steering the gun out of alignment. That was my experience, anyway:

A portion of the morning was devoted to the famous F.A.S.T. from the late great Todd Green. Ernest was able to demonstrate a sub-5 second run, which was impressively fast in person. Here are some runs, from slowest (me) to fastest (him):

The last part of the day was spent training techniques I rarely get to practice at my home ranges - shooting on the move...

...and barricades:

All in all, it was quite a lot of shooting, but I never felt like we were just chucking rounds downrange. All the drills were clearly explained and helpful, our targets were constantly checked and re-taped, and Ernest was able to give a little bit of personal instruction to everyone in the class. If you ever get the opportunity to do some handgun training with Langdon Tactical, I think it'd be well worth your time.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Movies: Coco

Recently, Pixar's been alternating between unnecessary, commercially-driven sequels ("Finding Dory" being the most egregious example), and emotionally satisfying original pictures. I guess I don't mind, given that the studio used to only put out a movie every couple years anyway, but it does mean that you have to stay alert for when they release something noteworthy, like "Coco":

Like last year's excellent "Moana," the movie is a deep dive into a specific real-world culture: Mexico and its famous Day of the Dead.  Our hero is Miguel, a young boy who grows up in a music-hating family.  When he "borrows" a guitar from the grave of legendary musician Ernesto de la Cruz, Miguel finds himself sucked into the world of the dead. His only chance of escape? Tracking down de la Cruz and proving himself a real musician.

It's a bonkers premise, one part Grim Fandango and one part Crossroads, but it works because of the strong characters on display. Miguel faces a genuine conflict between his family and his passion for music, and in his struggle to reconcile the two, he shows a lot more maturity than the typical headstrong Disney youths you might be conditioned to seeing. Some cracking Mexican music doesn't hurt, either, with traditional Pixar composer Michael Giacchino collaborating with dozens of Mexican composers and musicians to get it right.

Rating: 8/10

Music: A Very Violin Christmas

Things have been pretty busy here at Shangrila Towers, and if you're anything like me, long hours at the office are tougher during the holiday season. Of course, one way to cut through the yuletide drudgery is Christmas music; I've been listening to a bunch of it. In particular, I've been jamming to these holiday albums from YouTube's most popular violinists:

Songs of Christmas, Taylor Davis and Lara de Wit

Taylor Davis's collaborations with Australian pianist Lara de Wit are always fun occasions.  The pair recently released "Songs of Christmas," a straightforward collection of festive instrumentals. There are some nice takes on more recent songs, like "Happy Xmas" and Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," mixed in with decades-old standards:

Warmer in the Winter, Lindsey Stirling

Lindsey Stirling's Mormon faith is very well known, so it's no surprise that she's released an album of Christmas music. It's a fresh and upbeat set, with a mix of traditional cuts ("I Saw Three Ships," "What Child Is This?") and original songs, including pop earworms like "Christmas C'mon":

Thursday, November 30, 2017

TV: The Punisher

Marvel's Netflix series have been hit ("Daredevil," "Luke Cage") and miss ("Iron Fist," "The Defenders"), but basically all of them have been guilty of stretching 6-episode stories into 13-episode seasons, like butter scraped over too much bread. Yet what could have been the most one-note series of them all - "The Punisher" - avoids the trap:

A lot of that has to do with Jon Bernthal. Now, I thought Thomas Jane was a pretty good Punisher, but Bernthal is great. His performance is the comic book character brought to life: at turns raging, melancholy, and dryly ruthless. After 13 episodes, you'll get tired of the constant flashbacks to Frank Castle's dead wife and kids, but you'll never get tired of the lead character.

The rest of the cast does their part. Ebon Moss-Bachrach's Snowden-esque Micro is perhaps the most grounded and sympathetic the character has ever been, and Ben Barnes brings charisma and intelligence to his role as Billy Russo (if you know the comics, the name is a spoiler, but it's still fun to see how Russo's arc plays out). There's room to bring either or both back for Season 2, and I hope they do.

At bottom, though, "The Punisher" works because it has a theme - the scars of war, and the camaraderie, consequences, pride, and problems experienced by our nation's veterans. There are some unflinching takes on serious issues (PTSD, guilt, stolen valor), which is not what you'd expect in a comic book show. Many members of the U.S. military have taken the Punisher symbol as their own, and "The Punisher" honors that back.

Books: Stories of Your Life and Others

I spent much of the Thanksgiving weekend immersed in Ted Chiang's short story collection, "Stories of Your Life and Others." I thought it was a very solid read, though perhaps not quite what I expected. The anthology is marketed as "science fiction," but there are only a few real sci-fi tales here ("Understand," "Division by Zero"). A great deal of the book is pure fantasy ("Tower of Babylon," "Hell Is the Absence of God").

As some reviewers have noted, there is a certain strain of nihilism running through the stories. Whatever you think of that, it's beyond argument that the pieces in the book are well-written and lucid. My favorite was "Story of Your Life," the basis for the movie "Arrival." I found that the source material wasn't saddled with the film's gussied-up stakes and pat conclusion, and felt more realistic as a result. It's safe to say that if aliens ever visited Earth, man would be left with more questions than answers.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Big Brass Balls

Do manfully and be of good heart: fear not, nor be ye dismayed at their sight: for the Lord thy God he himself is thy leader, and will not leave thee nor forsake thee.

- Deuteronomy 31:6

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Very Literary Halloween, Part 4 - The Haunting of Hill House

For this year's celebration of the macabre, I'm journeying through American horror fiction by revisiting some of its greatest writers. For All Hallows' Eve, we've saved perhaps the best for last - "The Haunting of Hill House," Shirley Jackson's definitive haunted house novel.

Legend has it that when screenwriter Nelson Gidding visited Shirley Jackson about adapting "The Haunting of Hill House" into a movie, he suggested that the ghostly events in the story were actually products of the protagonist's nervous breakdown. Jackson told him that was a nice idea, but that the book was definitely about the supernatural. And so, through Jackson's willingness to embrace genre, what could have been forgotten as trite "psychological fiction" quickly became one of the most influential Gothic horror novels of the 20th century.

The plot is straightforward, almost elemental. A researcher of the paranormal, Dr. Montague, invites three strangers to stay at Hill House over the summer. He explains that numerous tragedies have unfolded at the isolated mansion over the decades, and theorizes that the house is a "place of contained ill will." Unfortunately, that proves to be all too accurate...

Jackson's novel isn't the first haunted house story, but it's unique in that it deftly balances eerie happenings with the emotional states of its characters, a mix of the paranormal with creeping insanity which has influenced everything from "The Shining" to "Sinister." Also helping set "The Haunting of Hill House" apart is Jackson's taut, evocative prose, which sinks its hooks in from the very first lines:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
That passage is so good that you can excuse its reuse in the book's ambiguous, unsettling ending. By most accounts, home was a prison for the Jackson, and "The Haunting of Hill House" presents a nightmare scenario - even death may not be an escape.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Very Literary Halloween, Part 3 - The Dunwich Horror

For this year's celebration of the macabre, I'm journeying through American horror fiction by revisiting some of its greatest writers. Let's look at a classic short story from H.P. Lovecraft, "The Dunwich Horror."

Lovecraft was a master at crafting stories of cosmic fear, where man is dwarfed by forces which can scarcely be understood, much less controlled. But while that lack of agency makes for an unsettling milieu, it can also lead to some pretty passive protagonists. The characters in "The Call of Cthulhu" and "At the Mountains of Madness" don't really do all that much, aside from learning about unspeakable horrors.

"The Dunwich Horror" is a different kind of tale, one that is much closer to the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG. There are heroes (the wizened Professor Armitage), there are villains (the unnatural Wilbur Whateley), and they actually come into conflict with one another on occasion. The story even has a cinematic climax and twist ending, which, while perhaps not as unique as Lovecraft's other work, are much more accessible to a mainstream audience.

As such, it's not surprising that "The Dunwich Horror" has been adapted multiple times, including a feature film starring Dean Stockwell. My personal favorite is this 1945 episode of "Suspense":

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Links: Fireside Mystery Theatre

The podcast is the perfect vehicle for audio drama, and Fireside Mystery Theatre is one of my favorites. The show is taped live every month at the Slipper Room, a burlesque club in Manhattan, and each episode features a slew of spooky stories done in the style of old-time radio drama:

During the summer, Fireside Mystery Theatre also posts dramatic readings of classic horror stories. If you liked my post about Ambrose Bierce's "Can Such Things Be?," you also might like this reading of "An Unfinished Race" and Charles Ashmore's Trail," stories which portend Bierce's own unexplained disappearance...just be sure to mind the shadows:

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