Sunday, January 31, 2016

Miscellany: Bicycle EDC

When I'm on a mountain bike, I carry a little bit less gear than I normally do.

Firearm: S&W Shield 9mm in DeSantis Intruder (the holster works okay, but retention is poor)
Wallet: Big Skinny multi-pocket bifold
Spare Magazine: Factory eight round mag (in Comp-Tac Single Mag Pouch)
Flashlight: Fenix LD09 (old version that starts up in medium mode)
Keys: Two bike lock keys (one lock for each wheel) and a bottle opener
Knife: Spyderco P'kal (worn in jeans front pocket)
Multitool: Victorinox Tinker Small (it's basically a scaled-down version of the normal Tinker)

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Guns: SIG P938 review - A Singular Single Stack 9mm


Aside from the 1911, gun makers are introducing relatively few single-action pistols nowadays. There are probably a number of reasons for that, but I think a big one is that today's handgun buyers want the simplest manual of arms possible. In the turmoil of a defensive shooting, a lot of people fear (rightly) that they'll forget or be unable to disengage that safety.

The SIG P938 is an outlier, then, in that it's a single-action in a sea of striker-fired single-stack 9mms - the Kahrs, the S&Ws, the GLOCKs, the Rugers. The pistol even superficially resembles a 1911, though the internals are very different. Is the P938's uniqueness a good thing, or is it an affectation of a bygone era?

First Impressions

SIGs are generally pricey, and the P938 is no exception. The Rosewood model I picked up has a street price of $650, give or take some, which is hundreds of dollars more than comparable single-stack polymer-framed 9mms. For that sort of coin, you wish they did more than give you a single 6-round magazine and a crappy injection-molded OWB holster (in fairness, SIG was also running a mail-in promo that included two more magazines and a gun rug, pictured above). 

Once the gun is in hand, you do see where some of that money is going, though - checkered rosewood grips, checkered front strap, dehorned frame and slide. Despite being a small aluminum framed 9mm, I never got cut or bitten by any part of the P938, which is more than I can say about other guns in this category.

Sights, Trigger, Safety

Most models of the P938 sport the SIGLITE night sights that come on most of the company's guns. They're excellent bright green tritium three dots that are very precise in any light condition, and are one of the biggest selling points on the gun.

On the the other hand, people expecting a crisp 1911-like trigger pull might be disappointed. It's not that the serrated trigger is bad, but it's heavier and creepier than it should be considering the usability penalty imposed by the safety. The safety itself is ambidextrous and positive, but tiny. I have small hands, but I had trouble consistently flicking it on and off at speed.

Range Report Part 1

Out of the gates, the P938's design proved to be reliable, but my particular gun developed a couple of parts-related problems. One of the tritium vials in the rear sight broke (which happens sometimes with night sights), and the two-piece guide rod refused to stay screwed-in (which is a problem unique to the P938, and only remedied by a specialty threadlocker - that is, something with more oomph than Loctite):

SIG shipped me a new guide rod immediately, and gave me prepaid shipping to send in my slide and install new sights, all for free. So, you do pay more, but you get the customer service to back it up.

Here are a few groups from this time period:

18 shots of Winchester Super X 147 gr. TMJ at 10 yards - this was when I noticed the guide rod coming unscrewed. It didn't cause any failures, though:

Winchester 124 gr. (NATO-spec) at 10 yards:

14 rounds of standard pressure 124 gr. Speer Gold Dots:

14 rounds of S&B 115 gr. 9mm, 10 yards:

Range Report Part 2

After everything was squared away, I proceeded to shoot a wide variety of different ammo types through the gun. Reliability was generally excellent, and accuracy was about as good as you can expect from a 16 ounce 3" barreled 9mm.

Here are 7 rounds of S&B at 15 yards offhand, which I think is stretching the limits of what the gun is designed for. I got one light strike in this magazine:

12 rounds of good old Winchester White Box 115 grainers at 10 yards.

The same amount of rounds at 15 yards. Again, the SIG is accurate enough to make decent hits at this distance, but it's starting to get iffy:

14 shots at 10 yards of Speer Lawman 115 gr. TMJ:

14 rounds of Federal 115 gr. bulk pack at 10 yards:


When the safety is disengaged on the P938, it's a fine CCW pistol. The problem is getting to that point, which requires using your thumb to push down a lever that's the size of a Tic Tac, on a gun that you're only holding with two other fingers. For me, this was impractical. If I were to carry this gun, I would install an extended thumb safety immediately.

Links: Blogrollin' in the New Year

The life of a blog is nasty, brutish, and short. It takes a lot of effort to keep one going, even if you're doing it for a living.  A sudden change in circumstances (a new family, a new job, the abrupt collapse of your media network) can kill a blog in an instant.

I try to keep my blogroll stocked with only regularly updated blogs, so here are a few additions...and subtractions... 

+ Gamasutra: Once upon a time, I wanted to be a computer game developer, so this blog - written by devs for devs - is an interesting behind-the-scenes look on a life that never was. There are articles on the technical and design stuff (best practices for HD remakes) and on the business aspects (how to monetize your freemium game without selling your soul).

+ Destructoid and Kotaku: It's weird to think of Destructoid and Kotaku as the elder statesmen of video game culture blogs, but we are in 2016, and a lot of their competitors have come and gone, victims of the social media age and a dearth of advertising dollars for all but the latest triple-A game releases. I'm mainly putting them on the blogroll to see how long they last.

- Art of the Rifle: Rifleslinger's blog was the story of one person's journey into field riflecraft, an art that is in danger of becoming lost in the frenzy of 14-pound long range precision rifles and tactical carbines. It'll be on the Web indefinitely though, and remains a great resource.

- The Robot's Voice: This website, which used to be called "Topless Robot," was a reliable source of convention reports, movie trailers, bad fanfics, and pop culture news. It will be missed.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Food: My sister's guide to eating out in Atlanta, Georgia

Ria's Bluebird (3/4 stars)

Atlanta has no shortage of great breakfast places, so it takes a lot to stand out from the crowd. Ria's Bluebird, a breakfast/lunch cafe, does it with hearty creative dishes (like a brisket breakfast or a duck eggs benedict) and an interesting location across from the Oakland Cemetery. Founded by the late Ria Pell, a noted local restaurateur and "Chopped" winner, Ria's Bluebird gets pretty crowded pretty fast.

Octane Coffee Bar (3/4 stars)

If you have a soft spot for hipster coffee (you know, the kind where the people behind the counter talk about "seasonality" and "single origin" as opposed to "cream" and "sugar"), you'll love Octane, a local coffee chain with a half-dozen locations spread across Atlanta. It's a bit expensive, but I really liked my cup of fancy pour-over, and you won't find a more relaxing coffee bar in the city.

The Colonnade Restaurant (2/4 stars)

They say that quantity has a quality all its own, and nowhere is that more true than "The Colonnade Restaurant," a traditional Southern-style restaurant that's been around since 1927. That's not to say the food is bad - the fried chicken and collard greens are delicious - but the place is packed because of the enormous portions and reasonable prices (two breasts, two wings, and two sides for $15).

Cafe Jonah (2/4 stars)

My sister is an artist, so it makes sense she'd gravitate to something like Cafe Jonah. Selling "fresh food, coffee, and inspiration," Cafe Jonah donates a percentage of its profits to local charities, and the upstairs features psychic readers and tea time. Of course, food is first, and the cafe features a "pay what you can" Sunday brunch that is head-and-shoulders above the normal breakfast buffet.

(Unfortunately, it looks like Cafe Jonah is closing at the end of February 2016, so go while you can.)

Tech: Axiom Verge

If ever there was a video game that qualified as a labor of love, it's "Axiom Verge," a Metroidvania title with programming, story, art, and music all done by one person, Tom Happ, over a period of five years:

You play as Trace, a scientist caught in a lab accident that transports him to an alien planet. Trace's only hope of returning to Earth is a race of giant biomechanoid titans, the Rusalki. Unfortunately, the Rusalki are dying from a mysterious enemy. Square by square, door by door, Trace must explore and fight through this strange new world to save them - and himself.

Developer Tom Happ must have spent a lot of time obsessing over this game, because every aspect of "Axiom Verge" has been polished and re-polished to a mirror sheen. The controls are perfect - jumping, shooting, and grappling always feel natural, which is an impressive feat considering the huge arsenal you eventually amass. The graphics are retro, but detailed, with a distinct H.R. Giger/E.C. Comics flair to all of the enemies and environments. The music might be the biggest surprise of all - it's by turns energetic, contemplative, and eerie. Just listen to this:

The only things keeping "Axiom Verge" from a higher score are the disappointing final map and boss, and the fact that sometimes the backtracking feels too aimless (the game really could've used a general "objective" marker to help steer exploration). In the end, though, this is easily one of the best Metroid-style games I've ever played.

Rating: 88/100

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Movies: Domhnall Gleeson Triple Feature

Weirdly enough, I've seen three films starring Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson over the past three weeks: "Ex Machina," "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," and "The Revenant." That's a banner year for any actor (two of those movies are huge blockbusters, and the other is well-reviewed high-concept sci-fi), but let's see how he did in each one.

Ex Machina

Gleeson Factor: 10/10

Gleeson is the protagonist of this meditation on artificial intelligence, and his character's cat-and-mouse relationship with a reclusive tech billionaire (played by Gleeson's "Star Wars" co-star Oscar Isaac) is easily the best part of the movie. Unfortunately, the story itself is a warmed-over mishmash of familiar concepts going back to Mary Shelley, but it does move briskly and looks gorgeous thanks to Alex Garland's direction.

Rating: 7/10

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

[everyone's seen the official trailer a hundred times, so here's the George Lucas special edition]

Gleeson Factor: 4/10

Gleeson plays General Hux, a younger, more Nazi-fied version of the villainous Governor Tarkin. He's not the main baddie of the movie, but he absolutely chews the scenery in a long monologue that is such an on-the-nose reproduction of Riefenstahl that you can't help but laugh.  As for the movie, I loved the first hour, but everything went south when J.J. Abrams decided to cut-and-paste Episodes VI, V, and VI into the second half of the film.

Rating (first hour): 9/10
Rating (second hour): 5/10

The Revenant

Gleeson Factor: 6/10

Gleeson's character in this one is a (heavily) fictionalized version of Andrew Henry, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. He plays the "straight" man compared with the resolute Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, in the role that will surely win him his first Oscar) and the devious John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Gleeson manages to convey a righteousness that is tragically at odds with the amoral, majestic wilderness shot by director Alejandro Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.

Rating: 8/10

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Guns: Gun World of South Florida review

There are plenty of indoor shooting ranges in my neck of the woods, but only a select few have earned the coveted Shangrila Towers Seal of Approval™ - i.e., places where I feel comfortable enough to test the guns I review on this blog. Gun World of South Florida is one of those ranges:

Gun World is the brainchild of the late Randy Waltuch (whom I never got the chance to meet). It embodies all the characteristics a person would want in a gun store and shooting range - safety, cleanliness, and courtesy, but without costing an arm and a leg to shoot. The place is divided into two main areas: a well-appointed gun store (above), and two air-conditioned, air-filtered shooting ranges (ten 25 yard lanes and five 50' lanes). There are also classroom areas for CCW instruction, and a very nice lounge next to the range with a TV, couches, and vending machines.

There is a giant wall of holsters, mag pouches, and other accessories for most popular handguns:

The ranges themselves are well lit and spacious. Each lane/bench is four feet wide, with plenty of room for your guns, range bag, ammo, etc. All ranges are rated for up to .50 BMG. Gun World doesn't meter you by the hour, and they offer prepaid shooting cards that allow you to buy range sessions in advance for a discount. Unlike most ranges, there are dozens of handguns available for rent (though you do have to shoot only ammo you buy at their store through the rentals, which is a common policy).

In the buffer room between the range and the rest of the store, there's a faucet and soap to help you clean up after a shooting session. There are astonishingly few ranges set up like this, even though everyone knows it's mandatory to wash up after you shoot.

All in all, I think Gun World of South Florida is one of the best indoor ranges in the area, and certainly the best range in Broward County.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Books: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

In Mark Haddon's 2003 mystery novel, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," a teen named Christopher investigates the seemingly-random murder of his neighbor's dog. The rub is that Christopher has an unspecified autism spectrum disorder: he is unable to lie, gets fixated on trivial matters for hours, and cannot easily read other people. But Christopher has a gifted mathematical mind and unyielding persistence. Can he figure out what happened to the dog? And what darker truths will he uncover in the process?

I have fond memories of reading "Flowers for Algernon" back in middle school, and "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" evoked most of the same feelings. Like Daniel Keyes's classic, the book's journal entries are fun to read because they're from a narrator whose mind works just a bit differently. An ordinary detective might not go into the homunculus fallacy or the Monty Hall problem while talking about a case, but Christopher does. All in all, Haddon has done a great job of portraying a living, breathing character who happens to be autistic

Like all mysteries, the story loses some steam when the twist is revealed, and the denouement is a little pat for my taste. Still, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" is a fine choice for your holiday reading.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Music: Sounds of the Season

There's a lot of Christmas jazz out there, but the musicianship can be hit and miss - pick the wrong CD, and suddenly your holiday gathering sounds like the inside of a dentist's office. If you'd like to avoid this sort of faux pas, I recommend "Sounds of the Season", an album of tunes written and performed by students from the University of Miami.

UM's Frost School of Music hosts one of the nation's top jazz programs, and this album was shepherded along by some noteworthy faculty, including Grammy-nominated jazz writing professor Gary M. Lindsay.  At heart, though, the tracks were arranged, performed, and produced by students working their tails off.  All the hard work paid off - the arrangements and performances here are uniformly excellent.

My favorite song is, conveniently enough, Rafael Picolotto de Lima's version of "My Favorite Things," featuring vocals and piano by Ariel Pocock:

Saturday, December 19, 2015

TV: Jessica Jones

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is often criticized for lacking strong female characters. Some of that is unfair (most of these superheroes hail from the early '60s), some of that is not (Black Widow inexplicably kidnapped as a damsel-in-distress in "Age of Ultron").

Marvel has (sorta) listened to the criticism in their latest webseries, "Jessica Jones":

Jones is a former superhero-turned-private investigator in post-"Avengers" Hell's Kitchen. Her days are usually spent snapping photos of cheating spouses and tracking down deadbeats, and her nights are drowned in alcohol. But when a missing person case reveals a shadowy villain from her past, she'll have to find the hero inside to save her friends from a fate worse than death.

I loved Marvel's "Daredevil," and I liked Brian Michael Bendis's "Alias," so I had high hopes that "Jessica Jones" would be more of the same - gritty action, fun characters, and a breezy story. Unfortunately, the show only gets one out of those right: Krysten Ritter is very solid and appropriately cynical in the title role, and her costars all do a great job with the material.

That material is a mess, though. The narrative orbits around Jones and a single antagonist for the entire 13 episode series, which doesn't leave much room for anyone else to breathe. And when those characters do get screentime, it's often shoddily plotted - people will often do something very silly, only to be bailed out by an unfair deus ex machina. If you're a superhero or Marvel fan, you'll like at least some of "Jessica Jones," but I can't recommend it to a wider audience.

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