Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Miscellany: Last Minute Holiday Gift Ideas, Part 1 - Books and Music

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe - If you're a fan of the webcomic xkcd, you're probably familiar with its weekly feature "What If?", which rigorously and scientifically describes the consequences of a ludicrous, often-apocalyptic situation (examples include "What if everything was antimatter, EXCEPT Earth?,"If I shot an infinitely strong laser beam into the sky at a random point, how much damage would it do?," and "How long could the human race survive on only cannibalism?"). This nice, hardcover book collects revised versions of the best "What If" articles, and adds quite a bit of new content to boot.

WHO IS IT FOR? Any middle-schooler interested in science or physics.

1989, Taylor Swift - The media saturation for this album (and all things Taylor Swift in general) were at a fever pitch a few weeks ago, what with a passel of glowing reviews, record-breaking sales, and Swift's split with streaming service Spotify. All hype aside, though, "1989" is easily Taylor Swift's most coherent and enjoyable work to date. If you skip the shallow "Welcome to New York," the front half is loaded with some of her strongest songs ("Blank Space," which plays with her media image as a boy-obsessed maneater; "Style," a "Miami Vice" groove made for cruising around in a convertible; "Out of the Woods," a Swift-ian tale of a fragile romance).

WHO IS IT FOR? Anyone who liked watching the Backstreet Boys on TRL in the '90s (Max Martin produced most of the songs on "1989").

5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, Wizards of the Coast - I reviewed the Starter Set a few months ago, but the full D&D 5e books - Player's Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master's Guide - have now been released, and they're all excellent. Each one is chock full of gorgeous artwork, easy-to-understand rules, and (gasp) usable formatting and indices(!). If you were put off by the MMO stylings of 4th Edition, or the clunkiness of 3/3.5e, you'll like this version of the game.

WHO IS IT FOR? The gamer in your life.

The Avenues, Lera Lynn - Mainstream country is a bit of a mess right now (endless songs about trucks, girls in tight jeans, and drinking beer), so if you want to hear pedal steel guitars, you're probably going to have to go indie. Lera Lynn's second album, "The Avenues," is an atmospheric antidote to all the party anthems on the airwaves. Lynn weaves notes of pop and jazz in melancholy melodies that seem to fill up whatever space you're in.

WHO IS IT FOR? Country fans who don't mind listening to songs that are genuinely somber.

Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson - This is the first book in a trilogy of fantasy novels set in "The Final Empire," a dark, ash-stained world that survived a major cataclysm. In the series, people called "Allomancers" have special powers gained from ingesting metals, such as super strength, influence over the emotions of others, and magnokinesis (think Magneto). The most powerful Allomancer is the despotic, immortal, nearly omnipotent Lord Ruler...and the characters in the book are trying to overthrow him.

WHO IS IT FOR? Fantasy fans who also love superhero comics. And superhero fans who like epic fantasy.

Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn - The debut album of husband-and-wife banjo duo Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn is, in a word, outstanding. The contrast of banjo styles (Fleck is one of the world's greatest pickers, while Washburn is an excellent clawhammer player), the musicality brought by the pair to the songs (both have played in multiple other bands before cutting this record)...this is bluegrass at its best.

WHO IS IT FOR? People who play banjo. People who want to learn how to play banjo. And people in general.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Movies: Birdman

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has done plenty of serious, socially-aware dramas before, but in "Birdman," he tries his hand at black comedy - and the results are laugh-out-loud hilarious:

The movie features Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, a washed-up Hollywood actor famous for playing the titular character in a series of superhero flicks decades ago. With the last of his fortune, Riggan attempts to make a comeback by writing and starring in his own play at the St. James Theatre, an adaptation of  Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."

The joke here, of course, is that Keaton himself gained worldwide fame as Tim Burton's Batman (actually, two other main cast members - Edward Norton and Emma Stone - have also starred in big-budget comic book movies). However, while Iñárritu lightly criticizes both the pandering of blockbusters and the pretentiousness of Broadway, he's fundamentally in love with show business of all types, and the only audience that goes home unhappy in "Birdman" is the one that doesn't get to see Riggan's play all the way through.

In terms of style, "Birdman" is a complete 180 from the complex, nonlinear narratives of "21 Grams" and "Babel." The film is shot in simulated long takes; the camera follows various characters as they weave in and out of the St. James Theatre. It's bravura cinematography, to be sure, but perhaps even better is the music, a frenzied mess of (sometimes diegetic) percussion. The soundtrack does a lot to sell Riggan's escalating tension, despite the fact that the plot's stakes are inherently low (no one will die if Riggan's play fails...maybe).

Michael Keaton gives an excellent performance here, one that should handily earn him an Academy Award nod. He's always been able to portray manic obsession convincingly ("You wanna get nuts?"), and Riggan certainly experiences his fair share of that, but Keaton also does good work in the quieter moments of the film. He carefully nurtures Riggan's bond with his daughter (Emma Stone), and his portrayal ensures that the ending of "Birdman" is an emotional catharsis, not a cheat.

Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Miscellany: Washington Oaks Gardens State Park

Drive a couple miles south of Marineland, and you'll find a small, out-of-the-way place called Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. Much of the site used to be Louise and Owen Young's winter retirement home; now, it's open to the public as a state park. 

Washington Oaks is split in two by A1A - west of the highway, there are hiking/biking trails (which are full of mosquitoes), picnic areas, and (as you would expect) a large set of formal gardens. I particularly liked the rose garden in the center of the park, which is fenced in to prevent deer from eating the roses:

On the east side of A1A, there is a beach with interesting coquina rock formations. It's a perfect place to walk around for awhile.

Just watch your step.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Guns: Bersa BP9CC review - The Gaucho Gat


Bersa is an Argentine firearms manufacturer best known for their "Thunder" series of small-framed .380 pistols. These guns have been quite popular in the U.S. for years, so it's a little surprising it's taken so long for Bersa to release a polymer-framed, striker-fired pistol - the BP9CC:

Bigger and cheaper than the competition, the BP9CC looks like a good deal on paper - you get a serviceable slimline 9mm and two mags, all for $400. But is the BP9CC a bargain, or simply cheap?

Size Comparison and Impressions

The BP9CC is one of the largest single-stack 9mm pistols out there. As you can see, it's longer and taller than both the Kahr CM9 and the Smith and Wesson M&P Shield, though the Bersa also holds 8 rounds in a standard magazine. "Large" is relative here - the BP9CC is still easy to carry inside the waistband (I didn't have custom rig for it, but it fit fine into my Remora). Unlike the Kahr, however, it's not suited for pocket carry.

In hand, the Bersa feels...okay. The gun has some of the smoothest grips I've ever felt on a polymer-frame, and it tended to shift around in my hands. On the plus side, there are handy little scalloped sections on the frame for your finger to rest on when it's off the trigger.

Sights and Trigger

The Bersa bears an interesting sight arrangement - the front dovetail takes Sig-style front sights, while the rear sight is GLOCK-sized. I suppose the idea was to give the end-user the most options if they wanted to switch them out. In any event, the default sights are typical 3-dots, and they work fine.

The BP9CC trigger is probably its distinguishing feature. There's a subtle integral pivot safety (somewhat similar to the M&P series), and then a short, pseudo double-action pull to the rear. The pull has noticeable creep, but it's extremely light, especially for a factory gun.

Range Report

I personally don't like shooting most single-stack 9mms. The thin grips impart more recoil to your hand, especially with stout +P loads, which leads to fatigue and flinching. I found the BP9CC to be as snappy as other members of the breed, and it was not a banner day at the range for old Mulliga:

Notwithstanding my discomfort, the BP9CC proved to be quite reliable with a large variety of FMJ and JHP ammo, including Federal HST (my go-to 9mm load), Speer Gold Dots, and my array of 115 gr. range ammo (Winchester, Federal, Sellier & Bellot, etc.). Even though the recoil was a touch wild, and I didn't bother to give it a first cleaning until 900 rounds in, the Bersa never bobbled. Of course, this is a pretty big gun (21+ ounces), so that sort of reliability isn't exactly incredible. Still, you have to give credit where it's due.

Final Thoughts

The BP9CC is a pretty good gun in a vacuum, but it's competing in one of the most crowded segments of today's firearms market - the concealed-carry 9mm. If you're a big fan of the trigger, I could see picking one up, but I honestly think most people would be better served with something else.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Books: Corum - The Coming of Chaos

I've never read Michael Moorcock's famous Elric Saga, but I have read an enjoyable work from another part of his Eternal Champion mythos -"Corum: The Coming of Chaos." The book is actually a collection of three novels published in the early '70s: "The Knight of the Swords," "The Queen of the Swords," and "The King of the Swords," though they essentially tell one long story.

At the start of the book, Corum Jhaelen Irsei ("the Prince in the Scarlet Robe") leads an idle life. His race, the elf-like Vadhagh, devote their time to poetry, art, and other intellectual pursuits, and remain aloof from the rest of the world. Of course, this being heroic fantasy, things soon fall apart, and Corum is left to seek vengeance against the forces of Chaos using his sword, his wits, and two otherworldy artifacts - the Hand of Kwll and the Eye of Rhynn.

Moorcock's writing is pulpy and Lovecraftian, and works best when weird darkness intersects with the usual sword-and-sorcery tropes. My favorite part of the trilogy, for instance, is the middle book, which describes a nightmarish journey to the shifting planes of Chaos. If you like reading about mad gods, pitched battles, carnivorous plants, and undead armies, you'll like the "Corum" books.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Links: Jazz Podcasts

I love jazz, but it's devilishly hard to find on the airwaves. Unless your local public radio or university station plays it (many don't), the only way you're going to learn about good jazz music is through the Internet. Here are a few podcasts that might help you in your quest for jazz, old and new:

In the Groove, Jazz and Beyond - Ken Laster hosts this weekly show out of the University of Connecticut's student radio station, WHUS 91.7 FM. "In the Groove" is all about modern and fusion jazz - everything from the classics of John Coltrane to the latest indie releases. The only rule? No "smooth jazz" allowed.

Jazz Boulevard - I've been to Montreal, but I never realized the city had a thriving jazz scene, including an enormous festival. "Jazz Boulevard," hosted by Moz Taylor, is a two-hour weekly show that features the best in Canadian (and non-Canadian) jazz, with a particular focus on acid and world jazz.

Jazz Stew - Like me, Annie Taylor, the host of "Jazz Stew," is concerned that jazz is being ignored by conventional radio. Unlike me, she's decided to do something about it by hosting a podcast featuring an eclectic mix (yes, a "stew") of all genres of jazz from all time periods (including some gems from yesteryear).

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween!

Enjoy this multi-violin arrangement of Michael Jackson's classic "Thriller," covered by Taylor Davis.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mulliga's Halloween Horrorfest 2014: Simpsons Treehouse of Horror XXV Liveblog!

Here at Shangrila Towers, October means Halloween, and Halloween means horror...all month, I'll be putting up special horror-themed features.

I can't believe it's been 25 years since the first of the Simpsons' perennial Halloween episodes, and to celebrate, I'm liveblogging "Treehouse of Horror" XXV. I grew up in the golden age of the Simpsons, and "Treehouse of Horror" was always a highlight of October. Even as the rest of the series started to wane, the vignettes in the "Treehouse" specials are usually creative and fun (except for several awful parody episodes).

Happy Halloween, everyone:

Live Blog Simpsons Treehouse of Horror XXV Liveblog

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Mulliga's Halloween Horrorfest 2014 - Music for Trick-or-Treaters

Here at Shangrila Towers, October means Halloween, and Halloween means horror...all month, I'll be putting up special horror-themed features. Today, let's get in the mood for All Hallows' Eve with a mega-playlist of spooky songs and terrifying tunes curated by yours truly:

Growing old means you can't go trick-or-treating yourself, so I do the next best thing every Halloween: I set up the coolest possible mood for the kids in my neighborhood. At the doorstep, there are speakers connected to my computer, streaming a variety of creepy, interesting, or even funny horror-themed songs to greet the night's trick-or-treaters.

Most of these are very common Halloween songs ("Monster Mash," "Ghostbusters," "Thriller," etc.), but there are some lesser-known gems on the playlist, too:

"Anna of Covington House" - This is a cut from electronic composer Richard Bone's album, "The Ghosts of Hanton Village." The first half of the track is all eerie piano and willowy synth - perfect for scaring little kids. Several of Bone's pieces are on the list, but if it was available on Spotify, I'd basically just drop in "The Spectral Ships," Bone's dark ambient masterpiece based on ghost ships from folklore:

"Country Death Song" - The Violent Femmes' Christian-tinged sophomore album, "Hallowed Ground," featured this cheerful little ditty about a father who loses his mind, pushes his daughter down a well, and then hangs himself, giving him a "short trip to Hell." Just the thing for greeting neighborhood children!

"Dance of Pales" - There are plenty of horror-themed video games, but perhaps none are as enduring as the "Castlevania" series, which started in 1986 and is still going strong today. For men of a certain age, Michiru Yamane's elegant piece from the all-time classic "Castlevania: Symphony of the Night" automatically evokes images of annoying waltzing ghosts.

"The Ghost of Smokey Joe" - The legendary Cab Calloway's greatest creation was "Minnie the Moocher," but he also often sang about Minnie's boyfriend, Smokey Joe. This fun track brings Joe back from the dead at his scat-singing best ("I've got a date on my estate down in Hades/Call my chariot so I can go/And should the Moocher walk in/Just tell her you've been talkin'/To the ghost of Smokey Joe!").

"Midnight Monster Hop" and "Midnight Monsters Hop" - Two not-very-similar songs with confusingly similar names. "Midnight Monster Hop" is a psychobilly song by the Young Werewolves, a band from Philadelphia that was formed in 2002. "Midnight Monsters Hop" is a 1959 novelty rockabilly song recorded by Jack Huddle and Jim Robinson. I like them both, though.

"Murder in the Red Barn" - Let's be could put a lot of Tom Waits's discography on the playlist, and it would work as creepy ambiance. This one's extra super-duper creepy, though, since it's based on a real-life murder in England.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Mulliga's Halloween Horrorfest 2014 - Eldritch Horror

Here at Shangrila Towers, October means Halloween, and Halloween means horror...all month, I'll be putting up special horror-themed features. This time, we'll be looking at Eldritch Horror, a board game designed by Corey Konieczka and Nikki Valens:

Fantasy Flight Games has released numerous H.P. Lovecraft-themed titles, each one focusing on a different level of the Cthulhu Mythos. Mansions of Madness took players through derelict buildings and cultist strongholds. Arkham Horror sent players racing around the streets of the titular city. Eldritch Horror raises the stakes even higher - now the whole world is at risk from the Great Old Ones:

The game is divided into three phases. In the "Action" phase, everyone takes turns moving around the globe, buying items or allies, and otherwise preparing for the challenges ahead. In the "Encounter" phase, the players fight monsters or resolve encounter cards. Finally, during the "Mythos" phase, numerous random (and usually bad) events occur.

The goal is to complete enough encounters (e.g., kill a special monster, explore a special location) before the Great Old One awakens and destroys the world. Each "encounter" is a little paragraph-long story that sets up a particular challenge, like fighting an ancient mummy at the Pyramids, breaking up a cultist ring in Shanghai, or getting detained by police in Rome. Your success or failure depends on your stats, your character's unique abilities, and the items you have in your inventory.

Overall, my group liked Eldritch Horror, since it plays like the most content-rich choose-your-own-adventure book ever. The gameplay is quicker and less fiddly than Arkham Horror, while the random nature of the encounter cards largely prevents the "dictator" problem common in co-op games (where one experienced player tells everyone else what to do). And, as always, FFG packs the box with best-in-class components and nice artwork, giving the game an excellent Lovecraft feel.

I do have some complaints. Out of the box, there aren't many encounter cards, so you'll see repeats sooner rather than later (if you expect to play more than a few times, the "Forgotten Lore" expansion - which contains hundreds of new cards - is basically a required purchase). Another downside is that there's not much to resolving encounters; usually, you read what the card says and roll some dice. Nearly all of the player choice in the game boils down to making sure you're in the right place with the right stuff, which might be off-putting to people expecting the game to be more interactive.

Despite these flaws, Eldritch Horror is a really great cooperative title that gives you the same globe-trotting, occult-discovering feel of the best Lovecraft stories, but without the tedium of some of FFG's other games. While Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness are both pretty good, if you're going to only get one Lovecraftian board game, this is the one to get.

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