Thursday, May 18, 2017

Books: Unseen City

There are plenty of days when the closest I get to nature are the trees planted in the sidewalk next to my office building. But ever since reading "Unseen City" by Nathanael Johnson, I've looked at those trees (and their squirrels, and the turkey vultures sailing above them) with new eyes.

The book was inspired by Johnson's daughter, whose innocent questions about the trees she saw on her walks through San Francisco led Johnson down a rabbit hole of discovery. Each chapter of "Unseen City" is a fun portrait of some very common plants and animals - pigeons, snails, ginkgoes - and you'll also learn tips on how to best observe these often-invisible denizens of the urban jungle. The overarching message is that you don't need to go to some national park or exotic rainforest to appreciate nature. It is all around us, if we just take the time to look and listen.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

TV: Mystery Science Theater 3000 - The Return

I've been a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 ("MST3K") since the old Comedy Central days. The premise was preposterous - a guy is trapped in a spaceship and forced to watch awful movies with his robot companions, making jokes all the while - but I ate it up as a kid. My Saturday mornings were filled with obscure B-movies, silly prop comedy, and robot puppets:

I followed the show when it moved to Sci-Fi (before it was "SyFy"), but when MST3K finally got canceled, I resigned myself to never seeing a new episode again. I never predicted that the show would get its own revival on Netflix, courtesy of more than 48,000 determined Kickstarter backers:

So how does the MST3K revival fare in a time when seemingly every beloved '90s-era show is getting a reboot? Really well, actually. The new season features some wonderful cult classics (including "Cry Wilderness," "Starcrash," and both "Wizards of the Lost Kingdom" movies) that strike the satisfying balance of being bizarre enough to be interesting, but bad enough to make fun of. The revival also benefits from being helmed by the show's original creator, Joel Hodgson, who wisely kept everything - the sets, costumes, and skits - cheesy and low-fi.

The jokes are a little different this time around, of course. The original MST3K writing room had a pleasant intellectual Midwestern sensibility in its riffs, but the comments in this one sometimes feel a little mean-spirited (calling out a film for using cheap sets or costumes) or lowbrow (making random fart noises). The streaming format also imposes more serialization than before (it's weird to have jokes reference earlier movies in the season, and to have continuing storylines). For the most part, though, this is a very faithful continuation of a show that I thought was long gone.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Guns: Rangemaster Combative Pistol - class review and report

I'll let you guys in on a dirty little secret - years ago, when I was 21 and applying for my first concealed weapons permit, I didn't actually take a formal CCW class. You see, Florida allows you to satisfy the firearms training requirement with a free hunter safety course, and at the time, I was a poor college student, so I went for the cheap route instead of the proper route.

I mention this mostly because Rangemaster Combative Pistol, taught by instructor Tom Givens, is the type of course that I wish I had taken back then. It's two days (16 full hours) of classroom lecture and range work detailing the why and how of the defensive use of the handgun. If you're interested, here's a report on what we covered - it's by no means a complete breakdown, both out of respect for Tom and because I encourage you to get it straight from the horse's mouth.

Day 1

The Combative Mindset

Tom starts by giving us his background in law enforcement, competition, and (most importantly) in studying and instructing defensive shooting by LEOs and average citizens. After an extensive safety brief using the Four Rules, he talks about the combative mindset by using real-life examples (a disturbing 911 call during a home invasion, an infamous traffic stop, and the tale of a watch store owner who succeeded against countless violent criminals). 

The main takeaways? "Why" you are being attacked is irrelevant - you need to refuse to be a victim, fight for your life, and concentrate on "how" to stop the a--hole. Based on average 911 response times (and even the response time of police coming to the aid of fellow officers under fire), you are going to have to solve the problem yourself.

Defensive Shooting Technique

We move onto the "how." Tom stresses marksmanship because each miss (which includes shots that do not hit the upper chest or soft tissues of the head) wastes precious time - possibly the rest of your life. Also, every bullet launched will go somewhere, so it is completely irresponsible to shoot without knowing where the muzzle is pointed, either by using "the bumpy things on the gun" (the sights) or by actually seeing the top of the muzzle (when shooting from retention).

We discuss the grip (cover the back of the frame with as much meat as possible, and thumbs up), stance (forearm in line with the gun, elbows extended but not locked, keep your nose over your toes), and sight picture (as long as you can look at the front sight through the rear somewhere, the sight picture is usually good enough). The most emphasis is on trigger press and control - even with everything else correct, if you yank the trigger, you can miss a man entirely from 5 yards away.

Draw from Concealment and Basic Marksmanship

Because of the structure of OK Corral, our host range, we do all the classroom work for Day 1 in a long morning block, break for lunch, then head to the range. Tom covers the four-count drawstroke strictly from concealment, with two main techniques depending on the cover garment - punching and raking with the offhand fingers, and ripping up the garment with both hands.

We do some basic shooting at about 3 yards - conversational distance, the most common range for civilian violent encounters. There are a variety of skill levels on the line, and most people (myself included) tend to miss low left, due to jerking the trigger.

We do get in some practice from longer ranges, including 10 and 15 yards. These types of shots are rare, but they do happen, typically when you need to protect someone else from a deadly threat.

We practice one-hand shooting, "changing gears" (speeding up and slowing down for closer/larger and further/smaller targets), and finish off with a baseline test to measure CCW proficiency - draw from concealment and deliver 3 shots, at 3 yards, in 3 seconds. Everyone passes, eventually, and the range day ends.

Day 2

The Violent Criminal and the 1986 FBI Shootout

We start off again in the classroom. Tom breaks down the number and types of violent criminals in the U.S., along with an analysis of their lifestyle and mindset. There are rare, hardcore attackers - either sociopaths, or experienced criminals who have engaged in so many gunfights that they are not thrown off by getting shot.

Tom then delivers the most detailed breakdown I have ever seen of the 1986 FBI shooting in Miami. There were too many good points to even write down, but here's a few:

(1) Pistols require surgical hits on the right anatomy [a .38+P failed to penetrate the cheekbones of one of the bad guys];
(2) Even one good hit may not be enough [a 9mm JHP hit the bad guy in a vital area, but did not quite penetrate enough to stop him];
(3) Wear your gear [several FBI agents had shotguns that never got used];
(4) Practice single-handed shooting [5 of the people in the fight were hit in the hand or arm].

We break again for lunch, which was graciously provided by Todd Hunter of United Tactical Federation.

Then it was off to the range. Day 2 was a scorcher - big thanks to Girls Got Guns for providing helpful care packages of sunscreen:

Gunhandling at Speed

Tom gives us some formal instruction on reloading. He advises us to forget about the "tactical reload" (a/k/a reload with retention), which has no relevance in a non-military world - we should only reload when the gun is empty, or proactively by dumping the partial mag and getting a full one in as quickly as possible. Speedloads should be done either right after getting to a point of safety, or right before the gun goes into a holster. As for empty loads, Tom recommends the slingshot technique, since slide releases are inconsistent from gun to gun, and may not overcome the inertia of the top round in a full mag.

We shoot a quasi-qualification drill to measure our progress. I fumble two reloads pretty badly, but otherwise do okay.

We have a bit of fun at the dueling tree, pitting evenly matched shooters (as sorted by qualification score) against each other. I get absolutely smoked by the other guy, who is so fast he hits his three targets before I can hit one.

We finish off with discretionary command drills, the casino drill (21 rounds, including 2 reloads, at 6 separate targets at 21 feet, in 21 seconds or less), and malfunction clearances.

Tom demonstrates how easy it is to make a GLOCK malfunction, and the usual tap-rack-bang methods for clearing such malfunctions. One refinement on the standard advice - when you rack the slide, spin the gun so that the ejection port is pointing down.


It's not very often you get to train your fundamental pistol skills with an instructor as good as Tom. I could look up and down the line and see how the students improved, in two days, under his tutelage, and I could see my own scores on the casino drill get better and better (I did manage to shoot one clean run, at the very end of the class - hooray!). If you are thinking of carrying a handgun for self-defense, you would be well-served to take Combative Pistol.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Music: Something to Believe In

One thing the smartphone era has taken away from us is the bliss of waiting in line. Before you had the ability to check your email while waiting for something else to happen, you used to just stand there, noticing everything around you.

I try to avoid looking at my phone whenever possible, and that's how I heard "Something to Believe In," a mellow Cali soft rock gem from Trevor Beld Jimenez's now-discontinued musical project, Tall Tales and the Silver Lining. Maybe you'll hear it, too, the next time you're waiting in line at a Walgreens for your passport photos:

Friday, April 07, 2017

Tech: Uncharted 4 review

This past Christmas, my friend Ben got me "Uncharted 4: A Thief's End," the final chapter of the "Uncharted" series, and easily the biggest PS4 release of 2016:

The game follows treasure hunter Nathan Drake, who is dragged out of early retirement by the sudden appearance of his long-lost brother Sam (a retconned, never-before-mentioned character). It turns out that Sam is under the thumb of a dangerous drug lord, and he needs Nate's help to do (wait for it...) one last job: retrieve a legendary pirate treasure.

Okay, so the story in "Uncharted 4" isn't particularly original, but the execution is flawless. Developer Naughty Dog has truly mastered the cinematic action adventure genre. The set pieces are not only some of the best I've seen in a game, they're some of the best I've ever seen period. Take this harrowing motorcycle chase through a Madagascar town - I dare say it's as good as the famous desert chase from "Raiders of the Lost Ark":

Gameplay-wise, this is mostly the same "Uncharted" stuff you've played several times before: platform, puzzle, or climbing sequences punctuated by pitched gunfights with fairly intelligent enemies. The formula certainly overstays its welcome in the last third of the game, but the emotionally cathartic ending makes up for it (you'll be misty-eyed if you've been following Nathan's adventures in the earlier games). When the credits finally roll, you'll have experienced a 15-hour adventure packed with the best graphics, sound, and voice-acting this side of Hollywood.

Rating: 92/100

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Guns: Beretta 950B Jetfire review - Blowback Backup


As a gun blogger, I sometimes experiment with old firearms to see how well they hold up in modern times. Today's subject is the Beretta 950B Jetfire, specifically a nice pre-1968 example made in Italy with no external safety lever. These pocket pistols were wildly popular back in the day (the 950 was in production for fifty years), so let's determine whether you might still be able to carry one effectively in 2017.

Form Factor  - "Nice and light... in a lady's handbag."* 

The main thing the Jetfire has going for it is size. Even though it predates the polymer-framed .380s by many decades, its svelte aluminum frame and diminutive barrel give it about the same carry weight as a Ruger LCP II. And, since it shoots (ruinously expensive) .25 ACP, you can stuff eight rounds into the magazine, which is a lot of shots for such a tiny gun.

*I realize these Dr. No quotes refer to an M1934.

The 950 has other advantages. Like the Beretta Bobcat I reviewed previously, the blowback, extractor-less tip-up barrel design allows for loading and unloading the chamber without manipulating the slide. This is a big boon for people with limited hand strength:

As far as ergonomics go, the button mag release is sensibly placed near the heel of the gun, and is well protected by the plastic grips. The gun is single-action only, which gives the little devil a surprisingly good trigger pull. Finally, the sights, though tiny, are actually useful for making precise hits. One major caveat - the 950B versions of this gun are only safe to carry in half-cock, meaning that you have to manually cock the hammer in order to shoot the first round.

Range Report

I tested the Jetfire with a variety of ammunition, including decades-old Remington FMJ cartridges and new-production Remington UMC.

Accuracy was astounding, at least for a pocket pistol. The Jetfire can empty two entire magazines' worth of garden-variety range ammo into a group smaller than a soda can at 7 yards.

10 yards is where things start to get dicey. The tiny little backup gun, which is older than I am, simply can't make surgical hits at that distance. Here's some Remington and Aguila groups to demonstrate:

"It jammed on you last job, and you spent six months in hospital in consequence."*

The obvious downside of being a little blowback .25 is that the Beretta is not terribly reliable. I experienced fail-to-feeds from all brands of ammo in my testing, and 95% of the time it was on the next to last round in the magazine. Being predictably unreliable is better than being randomly unreliable, I guess, but I still wouldn't ever carry this one.


Despite being flawed as a weapon, the Jetfire is still a fun gun. There's a weird novelty in shooting so many rounds out of a pocket pistol, and the recoil and muzzle blast are negligible thanks to the anemic caliber. If you manage to pick one up for a good price, you're getting a tiny little Italian time machine - a carry gun of yesteryear.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Sports: The day I watched Roger Federer play live

David Foster Wallace famously wrote an extended paean that likened watching Roger Federer's play to a religious experience, so I was pretty pumped to see Federer's second round tennis match at the 2017 Miami Open.

What follows is my experience...not quite religious, but fun anyway:

Getting to the Open is a chore. The tournament is held on Key Biscayne, and the only way in or out is a causeway that fills up with traffic, especially when a big draw like Federer is in town. Between driving down to Miami, waiting to get into the parking lot, and riding a parking shuttle, it takes a solid two hours from my front door to the entrance pictured above. You can understand why there have been rumblings to move the tournament further inland.

There aren't many interesting matches going on when we arrive, so we file onto a practice court where Rafa Nadal, Federer's old rival, is hitting. This is the closest the average tennis fan will ever get to a megastar like Nadal, and it's an impressive display. Rafa looked incredibly fit and noticeably bulked up from seasons past, and his lefty forehands sent balls hissing and whizzing by the crowd. Aside from Nadal's trademark grunts, I heard awed whispers and camera clicks the whole time.

Finally it was time for Fed's match. The main impression I had was that Roger Federer makes an extremely difficult sport look stupidly easy. His skill is so great, and his (apparent) effort on-court is so low, that just by watching him, you'd never know how hard it is to play tennis at a professional level. The pinpoint serves, rifled groundstrokes, and slick volleys flowed from Federer's racquet in a manner that can only be called...routine. Why doesn't everyone just hit serves into the corners at 120 mph?, you catch yourself wondering.

The whole thing is even more astounding when you consider that Federer is 35 years old, and that most of his contemporaries (Hewitt, Safin, Roddick, etc.) are retired. After several lightspeed service games, you could feel the pressure being put on the opponent, rising American Frances Tiafoe, as if he was fighting something abstract, like geometry or time. Federer won in straights, 7-6, 6-3.

If Roger Federer isn't the greatest tennis player ever, he's got to be darned close.

Watching other people play tennis afterwards was always going to be an anticlimax, so maybe it was for the best that afternoon showers cut the day short. It was still a great day, the day I watched Roger Federer play live.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Guns: Cumberland Tactics Carbine I review and report - Three Days of Fundamentals with Randy Cain

Last month, I took a three-day carbine course at Cumberland Tactics with Randy Cain, a former Gunsite instructor. I thought it was a great class, and a pretty good bargain at $550 considering the amount of material covered and the skill of the instructor.

Below are my impressions of the course - sort of a photo syllabus of what to expect if you train with Mr. Cain. However, this is not a complete or correct outline; I didn't want to plagiarize, and I also think you would be better served to drop the money to get the real thing.

Safety Briefing

Like all reputable classes, we start off with the Four Rules, as written by Jeff Cooper. They are literally set in stone at our host range, Southern Exposure Training Facility. We cover the how and why of each rule, and their application to gunfighting in the real world:

Equipment Notes

Everyone in our class used an optic on their carbine (mostly Aimpoints and clones), and there was only one non-AR in the whole bunch. I learned a very important lesson - EOTechs will go down when it is most inconvenient for them to do so.

I took the course using my tried-and-true six-year-old Daniel Defense DDM4 V3, lightly modified. This is my housegun, and while it doesn't have all the bells and whistles of the newer DD carbines, it is incredibly reliable, lightweight, and bombproof. It didn't give me any problems whatsoever during the course, and shot fairly accurately to boot.

Tactical Movement

One of the major draws of a course like this is the ability to practice shooting on the move, something I almost never get to do. It's extremely valuable to see how accurate you can be at a given speed and in inclement conditions, like the spitting rain we experienced on the afternoon of the first day.

Traditional Shooting Positions

While there is some "up close, fast and furious gunfighting stuff" in the class (as Randy would put it), most of the course was shot at 50 to 200 yards. We go through prone (military, Olympic, monopod), sitting, squatting, kneeling, and offhand, both in slow-fire and in hasty assumption drills.

Two steel plates are provided for impromptu shooting competitions.


Randy hates teaching malfunctions, but includes them because this is, after all, an entry-level course. We go through the typical Type 1, Type 2, and Type 3 drills, but not advanced malfunctions, like a bolt override.

The Scrambler

My favorite timed drill of the day was one where you started off at about 75 yards prone, then moved forward toward the target, shooting in positions of decreasing stability - sitting, squatting, kneeling, and offhand. Only first-round hits count, which teaches you to prioritize getting a good shot rather than rushing.

Night Shoot

Another thing I've never done is shoot outside at night. Southern Exposure is in a rural area, so it gets pretty dark pretty quickly, as Randy demonstrated in a drill.

For weaponlight fighting, I learned the priceless mnemonic - Up, ON, BANG, OFF, Down.


These were taught on the last day, and never with a loaded carbine. Even then, it's another skill that most ranges will not let you practice.


The final drill was shooting behind a barricade, using a variety of unconventional shooting positions (rollover prone, SBU, etc.). You had to "duck walk" behind the cover forward and back, which is almost ridiculously difficult on your quads. This one made my pretty sore for a few days.


I had a fine experience with the guys at Southern Exposure and Cumberland Tactics, and I'd recommend them to anyone in Florida looking for some firearms training. I will definitely try to be back for a handgun or shotgun course.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Miscellany: Notes from Byron Kerns Survival School - the Bare Bones class

If you ever get the chance, I recommend taking a class with Byron Kerns, a wilderness survival instructor who teaches in Florida and Georgia. My friends and I completed his popular "Bare Bones" course and found ourselves changed at the end; when you know what you need, it's easier to let go of what you don't need.

To give you an idea of what you're getting into, here are my notes from the class, minimally edited. This is not comprehensive by any means - we learned a heckuva lot more than what is outlined below:

Shelter Site Selection

Sunrise and Sunset - know when they happen.

Ground - ants. Above - limbs. Level - water drainage?

Transpiration Bag

Use clear bag, rock to weigh down, most plant surface area. Pine trees work the best. As much sun on the bag as possible. Close tightly!

Priorities of Survival

Positive Mental Attitude = #1 priority

Two extremes - apathy/give up (not enough stress) vs. panic (too much)

STOP - Sit down, Think, Observe, Plan.

Fears - death, darkness, loneliness, animals, ridicule

Stressors - hot, cold, hunger, boredom, thirst, lack of sleep, weather, health, terrain, bugs

Purposes of a fire - morale, drying clothes, boil water, cook, light, signal, heat, protection, meat preservation

Wilderness First Aid = # 2 priority

Take control of victim
Look at injury - two circles is bad (pit viper), straight or halfmoon is good
Circular snake retina is good (except for coral), elliptical is bad
Is there pain/swelling?
Snakebite kit can be used as placebo

Wound - direct pressure (5-10 min), elevate

Other priorities - personal protection, shelter, fire, signals, water, food

Rule of 3s - 3 minutes air, 3 days water, 3 weeks food.


Fire starting - Fatwood/tinder, pile it, strike it with spark

Fire triangle - fuel, oxygen, spark/heat

Fire Method - platform and brace (allows control of airflow)

Smoke means either => lift wood for air, or you have wet wood.

"Gears" of a fire: first gear = tinder (ignite with spark), then kindling, then fuel

Iodine pills should be grey - they don't last long (a few months after opening)


Fishing - fishing line, tide pool, netting, hit 'em with a club

Signalling - three fires/stones/whatever = distress. White vs. black smoke. Intermittent signals. For attracting a plane - higher fire is better.

Trapping is very difficult. But fairly easy to make traps and snares. Takes days, even if you are good. Need to know animal behavior.

Weather prep. Tent condensation. Leave ego at the door. Wouldn't have gone if I knew the forecast. Can use tarp to shield tent. Buy good gear.

Longterm starvation

Positive mental attitude and overcoming fear.

Hypothermia (more clothes, close in)/hyperthermia (lay down, clothes off, sip water, elevate legs). Medkit contents: Tums, Melatonin, Antidiarrheal, Visine, Sunscreen. Allergic reaction - local v general. Fire burn = need water.

Alaskan Pack Strap Demo


MyTopo - agonic line. isogonic line. Lensatic compass is tough, though almost any working compass can do in a pinch.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

In Memoriam

"A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what a ship is for."

- Laurel Clark, STS-107 Mission Specialist

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