Sunday, August 13, 2017

Miscellany: Anna Ruby Falls

The uncharitable would call the town of Helen, Georgia a tourist trap, what with its kitschy faux-Bavarian architecture and obvious focus on catering to Atlanta weekenders. If you can look past that stuff, you can take a visit to the nearby Chattahoochee National Forest and its crown jewel, Anna Ruby Falls.

The hike to the falls is easy and scenic - a paved path neighboring sun-kissed rapids.

Legend has it that a local Confederate soldier, Colonel John Nichols, found the waterfalls while riding in the area. He gave them both the name Anna Ruby, after his only daughter.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Movies: Crowdfunded Creeping Cosmic Horror Double Feature

The '80s were the golden age of special makeup effects. Rob Bottin's "The Thing," Rick Baker's "An American Werewolf in London," Tony Gardner's gruesome "The Blob" ... if you wanted disfigured latex faces and slimy puppets, you were spoiled for choice.

Nowadays, though, to see a guy in a rubber suit terrorize people, you're going to have to support it yourself. Unlike the CGI-fests at the multiplex, today's two movies were funded, in part, by horror fans who are keeping the practical effects tradition alive.

Harbinger Down

Okay, let's be frank - Lance Henriksen has been in far better movies, but you have to give him credit for playing it (mostly) straight in "Harbinger Down":

In the frigid waters of the Bering Sea, a fishing trawler encounters a crashed Soviet lander carrying mysterious cargo. Now, you don't have to be a genius to figure out what happens next, but the threadbare plot and so-so performances are only barely holding up their end of the bargain. The film lacks the tense drama that made "The Thing" such a classic; it never aspires to be anything more than a passable B-movie.

I do respect Amalgamated Dynamics' creature effects, though, which are all the more poignant considering that (1) their work was mostly cut out of "The Thing" prequel and (2) they funded the effects with their own money and $380,000 raised from Kickstarter backers.

Rating: 5/10

The Void

My friends and I are big fans of the Fantasy Flight Cthulhu Mythos board games, and "The Void" is sort of like a giant mash-up of all the tropes in those games. Produced by Canada's Astron-6 along with $82,000 in Indiegogo money, the movie never slips into parody or self-awareness, but it does wear its influences on its sleeve:

In "The Void," a small-town cop brings in a strung-out junkie to a near-deserted hospital, only to find that the place is surrounded by murderous robed figures. Who are they? What do they want? It probably has something to do with the ominous triangles everywhere, but at 90 minutes, there isn't a lot of time to find out, much less care about most of the characters. Still, all the Lovecraftian elements of John Carpenters' Apocalypse Trilogy are here: cultists, body horror, parallel worlds, insanity, and, of course, a whole bunch of tentacles.

Rating: 6/10

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Books: Washington's Spies - The Story of America's First Spy Ring

Historian Alexander Rose starts off "Washington's Spies" with a disaster - the legendary capture and execution of young patriot spy Nathan Hale in 1776:

The way Rose tells, it, Hale's ill-fated intelligence-gathering operation was doomed from the start - limited planning, resources, and training meant that Hale was easy prey for the British. And even if Hale had made it back, it was unlikely that the information gained from his single trip behind enemy lines would be helpful to the nascent Revolution. From this painful beginning, a new model emerged: civilian spies living with the enemy using assumed identities to relay information on a regular basis.

"Washington's Spies" tells the story of the men and women in the close-knit "Culper Ring" spy network, many of whom are still unknown. I enjoyed the descriptions of dead drops, coded letters, and spymasters - tradecraft among the privateers and black-market smugglers of British-occupied New York. A couple caveats - it's not a thriller, and it's a dense read (primary sources are quoted as much as possible), so if you want the Cliff's Notes version, you can try watching the AMC drama "TURN: Washington's Spies."

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Movies: Baby Driver

Edgar Wright is best known for his comedy-action collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost ("Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz," "The World's End"), so you might be surprised by the earnest thrills and romance of his latest movie, "Baby Driver":

Okay, so it's not played entirely straight (there's a hilarious gag involving "Mike Myers Halloween masks"), but in most ways "Baby Driver" is a classic heist-and-car-chase movie. There's an embattled protagonist who just has to do one last job, the love interest whom he has to keep his criminal life secret from, and his crooked cohorts who get in the way in the third act. Judged solely on plot and deeper meaning, the film isn't exactly on par with a "Heat," "Ronin," or "Drive."

Where "Baby Driver" does differentiate itself is in its stylish soundtrack, a wall-to-wall mix of classic rock, soul, and more obscure cuts that transforms the film into a two-hour long music video. Throw in an extremely talented cast (it must be nice to have the likes of Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey, and Jon Hamm play your supporting characters), and you have one heck of an entertaining, crowd-pleasing movie.

Rating: 8/10

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Music: Living in Twilight

Posting will be light for awhile, thanks to my profession, but while you wait, why not enjoy some cuts from "Living in Twilight," the new album from jazz pianist Ariel Pocock?

Here's a swinging interpretation of the Cole Porter standard, "I Love You":

And here's the album's title track, a cover of The Weepies' "Living in Twilight":


Overall, it's a pretty good album, with the sort of sensitive treatment you might expect from someone who has drawn comparisons to Diana Krall:


Friday, June 09, 2017

Guns: Ruger Mark IV Recall

I've been working on reviews of both the standard Ruger Mark IV and the 22/45 Lite, but the testing is going on hiatus due to this recall:

The recall covers any Mark IV variant manufactured before June 1, 2017 (read: all of them), so please spread the word. Ruger will cover shipping there and back, and will give you a free magazine for your trouble, so good on 'em.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Tech: Dell XPS 13 review


I've used a lot of laptops to write Shangrila Towers over the years, and the trend has been to seek out as much horsepower as I could afford in a sub 3-pound package. I started out on a tiny Acer Aspire One, moved up to a slightly less tiny HP Mini 210, and then upgraded to a nearly-human-sized Lenovo ThinkPad X120e as my finances improved.

The subject of today's review is the Dell XPS 13, an ultraportable laptop I picked up last year (you can still order it from Dell's website, although now the models pack 7th gen Intel Core processors).

Case Design and Form Factor

Dell bills the XPS 13 as the smallest 13" laptop in the world, and if they're wrong, they're not far off. The bezel around the 1920x1080 display is very thin, allowing the screen to run nearly to the edge of the case. Physically, it's a very slim, very sexy piece of kit, with a brushed aluminum exterior and carbon fiber palmrests. The thin profile doesn't allow for an overwhelming amount of ports, so if you need to connect to a projector, you probably want to spring for the adapter Dell sells.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The XPS uses a backlit island style keyboard that is fairly satisfying to type on. The finish on the chiclet keys is a little slick for my taste, but the keys themselves have good travel, and the keyboard has proven to be pretty durable. One big miss - the touchpad has those annoying integrated buttons that are easy to misclick.

Performance and Battery Life

The XPS is a big step up from my previous laptops in terms of performance. The onboard Core i5-6200U processor and 8 gigs of RAM can handle anything short of intense 3D gaming; even games like Civilization VI run okay. I do wish I opted for a larger hard drive - the 128 GB SSD is just too small for general use in 2017.

At first, this laptop had astonishing battery life (easily over 10 hours), but lately the battery has been draining in about 7-8 hours.


I really like the XPS 13. It's probably one of the best choices in this segment, and it's going to be the home of Shangrila Towers for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Miscellany: South Florida Science Center and Aquarium

It's been rainy here in West Palm Beach, so I visited the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium, located south of downtown inside Dreher Park. I remember going there as a kid, back when it was known simply as the "South Florida Science Museum." 

Stepping into the place now, I have to admit that it's a pretty small science museum, even with the addition of a marine biology wing and 10,000 gallons' worth of fish tanks:

Another thing they didn't have on my elementary school field trips was Science on a Sphere, a neat room-sized spherical globe that provides vivid displays of weather systems throughout the Solar System:

There's a new miniature golf course outside (a bit boring, but passable), and the rest of the museum is taken up by small science demo stations and the planetarium. Honestly, I've seen a lot bigger and better planetariums around the country (the one in the new Frost Science Museum in Miami is supposed to be incredible), so it's hard to recommend this one, especially considering that you have to pay an extra fee to get in:

Like a lot of things, the Science Center looked and felt a lot bigger in my memory, but if you don't want to shuttle the kids down to a larger science museum in Fort Lauderdale or Miami, I think the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium will do the job.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day

Today, I headed down to South Florida National Cemetery, to remember that we are free because of the brave.

I visited the grave of Sgt. Justin Johnson, a local soldier who was killed in action at Bagram Air Force Base in 2013:

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.

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