Tuesday, August 26, 2008

When it rains, it pours


You might not know it from the posts, but things have been fairly somber around here. My grandmother, on my Dad's side, is very ill (Stage IV lung cancer). We're going to fly to California to visit her. That means a blogging hiatus, at least for awhile, until I sort everything out. The experience of my other grandma's passing is still fresh in my mind, and it's hard not to get emotionally exhausted with all that's happened over the past year.

Because Dad's mom lives on the other side of the country, I didn't get to see her often while I was growing up. But family is family, and blood ties seldom fade. The one conversation with Grandma I remember the most was a long walk we took a couple of years ago, with Dad acting as interpreter. I asked her about her entire life then - the toys she played with when she was a girl, the places she had lived in, how she raised my Dad and uncles to be the people they are today. It's weird to be able to condense a loved one to a single exchange, a moment when true communication occurs.

Monday, August 25, 2008

School: The Last First Day

Today I start my last year of law school.

Starting school after the long lull of summer has always been strange for me. It's like slipping into another life - familiar people, familiar routine, but alien all the same for the first few days. I'm really bad in this regard; I'll see a good friend that I've hung out with for two years and forget their names momentarily, just because I haven't seen them in four months.

Here's the obligatory law school musical embed:

News: On Hyperbole (or, "Why I Still Love America"), Part 2

The Democratic National Convention is imminent, and and some have called the designated protest area a "freedom cage."

While I agree that perhaps a closer venue could have been constructed, compare what's happening in Denver to the recently completed Beijing Olympics. In China, the government had several designated protest sites - and then denied the applications of everyone who tried to use them. Heck, it even sent people to prison for daring to apply - sort of a sting operation on free speech.

The RNC location is closer, though still behind fencing. Few complaints from protesters there. I suppose allowing some 25,000 people to congregate across the street from half the government of the United States seems pretty fair.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Tech: Scene It? Lights, Camera, Action



If you ever want to separate the true cinephiles from the wannabe movie buffs, "Scene It?" is your trivia game of choice. I never thought I was that big of a movie fan until I realized my sister and most of her college age friends had never seen movies like "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Some Like It Hot," or even "Citizen Kane." It seems like the younger folks never get around to seeing stuff made before 1970, and this knowledge gap makes it easy for me to win games of "Scene It?."

There are a lot of different game types here, from movie clips followed by straught Q&A sessions to recognizing famous scenes from movies in caricature form. The game comes bundled with 4 "Big Button Pads" and an IR receiver that plugs into a spare USB port on your 360; having a separate buzzer for each player is a nice touch that makes this an easy sell to parties and families. Most of the games are fun (my favorite is a movie quotes contest), and the competition can get quite heated if the participants have comparable knowledge of movie trivia.

There are some frustrating omissions that keep the score lower than it otherwise would be. Downloadable content in the form of extra questions was promised but scrapped, since a sequel to this game is due to be released this fall. This means that the 1,800 questions included on the game disc are all that you're going to get, giving the game a disappointing shelf life. Even worse are the elementary UI/gameplay gripes (I don't think you can form teams, for example). Still, it's entertaining, and I could think of worse ways to spend an evening.

Rating: 70/100

Books: The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios


I enjoyed "Life of Pi," so I figured picking up some of Yann Martel's short fiction in the local bargain bin was a safe bet. There's a certain pleasure in reading a writer's back catalog of works - you see the development of the craft, the honing of the skill necessary to handle a full novel (not that novels are superior to shorter pieces, but they certainly take more time to make). It's only gravy that the book was a few bucks, since the older stuff often gets left behind when an author makes a big splash ("Life of Pi," meanwhile, was selling at full trade paperback price).

"The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios" is the headliner short story of the collection, and it's a sometimes-weepy exploration of the relationship between two friends, one of whom is dying from AIDS. The title sounds confusing, but it's about as literal as you can get - interspersed through the story are facts from the 20th century. The tone is a bit on the maudlin side, but I liked the story's final statement about the creative process.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Movies: Stand By Me



"Stand By Me" is a pretty faithful adaptation of "The Body," a novella by Stephen King. As in the novella, the film follows four boys as they venture off in search of the body of a dead kid. Along the way, there are moments of humor, drama, and tension, with a coming-of-age riff that stands up on its own, rather than being merely a rehash of other works.

Rob Reiner has had a checkered directorial history, with some spectacular highs ("This Is Spinal Tap," "Misery") and some recent colossal misfires ("Alex & Emma", "Rumor Has It..."). Here, he wisely chucked his own preferences for the sake of the story - the main characters smoke cigarettes in the very first scene, despite Reiner's famous antismoking bias. It must have taken a deft touch working with this many young actors, including Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O'Connell, but everything comes out pretty well.

I'd never seen this movie, and I'm sure it's seldom shown on television. Maybe it's the censors; "Stand By Me" is rated R because many of the characters spout foul language. Like "The Princess Bride" (another Reiner adaptation), the pace is brisk, the characters are memorable, and everything is coated in that halcyon late '50s style. The only flaw is the iffy ending (the one big change from the novella, not coincidentally), but overall it's a fine movie.

Rating: 9/10

Food: Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza


Good food is really only half the equation when you're running a restaurant, as Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza demonstrates. ACFP is a chain of pizza restaurants spread throughout south Florida, and Mom and I had lunch in the Palm Beach Gardens location.

They wisely specialize in pizza. You won't find spaghetti or other Italian dishes cluttering the menu, save for a couple basic salads and roasted chicken wings. At one end of the restaurant is a bank of coal-fired ovens, and the pizza that is produced is fairly tasty, if a bit blackened by the cooking process.

My problem with the place was not the food, but the service. For some reason, for the Friday lunch rush, the pizzeria only had two servers out on the floor (serving something like 16 tables). It took ten minutes just to get someone to take our order. I never got a refill of either my cup of coffee or my glass of water, and our plates weren't cleared from the table until we left. I'm giving 2 stars since I think this problem might be unique to this particular outing, but the whole thing is still a bit irksome.

2/4 stars

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Movies: Shooter



I never read the book it was based on (Stephen Hunter's "Point of Impact"), but "Shooter" has got to be one of the most brainless pieces of big-budget action cinema ever put to film. It follows Bob Lee Swagger (played by Mark Wahlberg), an expert sniper who struggles to survive a nefarious plot. Here's a little pop quiz to illustrate the movie's curious logic (spoilers for those who haven't seen it):

Q: You're a member of a powerful secret society that pulls the strings at the highest levels of the U.S. government. You want to murder a small-time activist bishop who is speaking out against your drilling operations in Ethiopia (you're in league with the Big Evil Oil Companies - this is Hollywood, after all). Do you...

A) organize an elaborate conspiracy to frame a former Marine sniper in an attempted assassination of the President of the United States, whilst at the same time executing the actual killing of the bishop using an equally talented sniper?

or

B) have some guys kidnap the offending bishop in Ethiopia and shoot him in the head?

The plot of "Shooter" is about as silly as what I've described, only with action-movie sniper antics thrown in. You'll get to see Marky Mark's character blow apart an attacking helicopter's rotor with a manually-cycled .50-caliber sniper rifle, you'll see him survive a couple gunshots and a three-story fall without needing a hospital visit, and you'll see him take down a team of mercenaries nearly singlehandedly.

The most idiotic part of the whole thing was the climactic sequence where it's revealed that the sniper's gun couldn't have belonged to Bob Lee, since he always shaves down the firing pins of his firearms so that they don't fire. To prove the point, he chambers a live round in one of his rifles and pulls the trigger while pointing the rifle at his friend. I suppose in the world of "Shooter," a primer is never seated high, or crud never gets in the firing pin channel. It's irresponsible, it's dangerous, and I seriously doubt a real Marine Force Recon sniper would ever do such a thing.

Rating: 3/10

Links: The Chillcast with Anji Bee


I get most of my music from podcasts now. It's a great way to listen to new artists without having to do a whole lot of work (my PSP has an RSS feed reader - I can grab podcasts anywhere there's an open wifi connection to the Net). One of the more established podcasts that I listen to regularly is the Chillcast, with host Anji Bee.

Anji Bee (a vocalist for Lovespirals) plays a mix of variable-tempo jazz, electronica, and world music that makes for wonderful "scheduled weekly downtime." All of this is punctuated by some interesting commercial spots, sung by Anji herself (talk about getting value for your ad-buying dollar). I never knew I needed a Drobo automated backup system, but after hearing Anji Bee croon about it on the air in a catchy sales jingle, I might need to pick one up.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Movies: La Vie En Rose

The life and times of Edith Piaf, the gravelly-voiced French singer whose off-stage circumstances were often as interesting as her performances, is the subject of "La Vie En Rose," a film directed by Oliver Dahan:



The film follows a fractured timeline, especially considering its biographical nature. You skip to and fro through Piaf's life, tracing moments of tragedy and triumph. Most noteworthy through all this is Marion Cotillard's fine performance as Edith (it earned her pretty much every award in the book). Cotillard's Piaf goes through every emotional extreme imaginable, from love to despair to apathy. Most impressive are the scenes of an older Piaf, looking back at a life filled with incident.

I'd give a higher rating, but I think "La Vie En Rose" is a bit weak for omitting a huge portion of the 20th century - namely, World War II. Piaf's actions during the war are still shrouded in controversy, and I can't imagine this wasn't interesting enough material for this biopic.

Rating: 7/10

Guns: The Minimalist Handloader, Part 3

This week, I'll be taking a look at the raw materials needed for reloading, and how best to track them down.


The great thing about reloading is that the necessary equipment is quite durable. A good press and die set, when properly maintained, will persist for a long, long time. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the components that go into a cartridge, three out of four of which are expended with every shot. Thankfully, you can acquire most without much trouble...



Cases

Fired cartridge cases (colloquially known as "brass") litter the floor of most of the shooting ranges in the country. While most public ranges are okay with reloaders scooping up brass, be sure to check with the shooters on the line and with the owners of any private range. After all, others may be reloading or selling those cases, too.

You can buy brand new cases online, but that's expensive. I've found that "gun show special" bags of fired brass are often iffy, as well. So your best bet is still to collect 'em at the range.


Primers

I like to purchase primers in person, to avoid the hazardous materials fees incurred when shipping from an online vendor (I think they're $20 or so). If you're buying more than a few thousand primers at a time, though, it might be worth it to buy them online if you find a good deal.

If you don't have a place that sells reloading supplies near you, though, finding primers could be a problem. When you do get a chance to buy some, go ahead and splurge - you can buy about 3000 of them for $100, and they keep for a long time when stored properly.

Powder

One of the coolest parts of reloading is that one bottle of smokeless powder can supply a lot of loads, especially when you're talking about pistol rounds. As with primers, powder may be hard to come by in an area with few reloaders, and even decently-stocked stores can lack some common powders (my nearby Gander Mountain didn't have Varget, for instance). Before buying a powder, it's important that you have a load you can use for it from some reputable source.

Bullets

Once you get everything else squared away, the bullet is far and away the most expensive component in the reloading process. Avoid brick-and-mortar stores and buy bullets in bulk online. If you're loading rounds that contain fancy bullets (say, a nice electroplated hollowpoint like the Gold Dot), you can really save a ton over loaded factory ammunition. Thankfully, there's no hazmat fee or anything to worry about, though shipping will be high (you're essentially ordering a bunch of lead).

Storage and Longevity

Bullets and cases are pretty tolerant of heat and cold - I guess you could leave them out in the garage, if need be. The conventional wisdom regarding powders and primers is to store them in a cool, dry place, away from sunlight. It's best not to remove powders or primer from their original packaging. If you follow these guidelines, powders and primer should last for years or even decades without any noticeable degradation in performance.

Next week: Reloading .38 Special, start to finish

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Books: Heart of Darkness

Summer reading gives you a chance to catch up on works you may have missed. I had never read "Heart of Darkness," the famous novella by Joseph Conrad. Fortunately, Barnes and Noble sells a nice, inexpensive hardcover collection of some of Conrad's short fiction (including "Heart of Darkness"). Small hardcovers are the perfect beach books (durable but easy to tote), so it was just me, Marlow, and Kurtz on the sand that day.

The first impression I had while reading the story was that it was a spiritual cousin to "At the Mountains of Madness" ("Heart of Darkness" was of course written much earlier, so maybe I should say Lovecraft's writing takes cues from Conrad's). The plot is pretty spare - Marlow treks down the Congo in search of a mysterious man called Kurtz - but the setting is the Africa of the 19th century, still forbidding and alien to white men. Marlow's account of the swollen riverbanks and dark verdant jungles have much the same effect as Cyclopean tombs and strange geometries.

The first few parts of the story are pretty literal, but as Marlow edges closer and closer to his goal, things start to get pretty hazy. Fever dreams, life-threatening situations combined with confounding environments, and, above all, the strangely sympathetic voice of Kurtz have made this section of the novella the most puzzling for readers ever since its publication. What is Conrad saying about imperialism? Is Kurtz good, evil, or something else? What really happened out there in the heart of darkness? It's a fun thing to turn over in your head - I guess that's why it's literature.

TV: Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

My friends and I all used to be hardcore "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" players. If you've never seen this computer game, you owe it to yourself to try it - it's a sterling illustration of how to make an educational game fun. It packages geography facts into a fun detective game about chasing international relic thief Carmen Sandiego. Particularly devious clues sent us scurrying to the school library encyclopedias.

The computer game must have been popular in a lot of places, and its spinoff is perhaps the most memorable public television children's game show of all time - that's right, I'm talking about the game show version of WitWiCS?, with an incredible opening theme by Rockapella:



The TV show was successful, I think, because it didn't lose sight of what made the PC game fun to play. A geography quiz show could get real boring real fast, so they spiced it up using a multimedia presentation and fairly elaborate costumes and sets (elaborate for a game show, that is). As in "Legends of the Hidden Temple," each episode centered around an object that had been stolen by Carmen's gang.

The final challenge that needed to be completed to catch Carmen herself was identifying eight countries and landmarks on a continent map with the labels removed within 45 seconds. The problem here is that you had to physically run to and place markers on each spot - very difficult:

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Apologies from the management...

...for the paucity of posts around here lately. Tropical Storm Fay is scheduled to pass by south Florida in the next few days, and Mom's in full paranoid alert mode. We're battening down the hatches as I type this. I suppose it is prudent, given that Mom's garden is filled with enough flower pots (read: ceramic missiles) to give anyone a headache should the storm veer northeast.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Movies: Roman de Gare

I like movies I can watch more than once (Shangrila Towers' movie review system is mostly based on this characteristic, by the way). There are a lot of ways to accomplish this feat: great special effects, excellent performances, an interesting premise. Heck, even a stirring score can lift a ho-hum movie into something that merits a second look.

I do think, however, that the best way to ensure repeat viewings is to have a strong plot, and "Roman de Gare," (literally, "train station novel") a film from Claude Lelouch, happens to have a decent one:



A man (played by Dominique Pinon) encounters a jilted woman at a gas station. Is this man the Magician, a serial rapist/pedophile/murderer? Or is he a schoolteacher abandoning his old life? Or perhaps the ghostwriter of a famous novelist? The answer comes, in time, and once you know how everything shakes out, watching the movie again for Pinon's performance (he's a regular in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's films) is a fun little exercise in perspective.

Aside from Dominique Pinon's rare appearance in a starring role, however, there just isn't much going on in the movie. Things seem to happen in Roman de Gare for the same reason that they happen in the trashy suspense books one reads in an airport - because it makes for a good story. And a lot of the twists are pretty transparent, so if you're really on the ball I think the movie loses a lot of its charm.

Rating: 7/10

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tech: Lost Planet - Extreme Condition



"Lost Planet" is a third-person shooter for the Xbox 360. In the game, humanity has settled the ice world of E.D.N. III. Unfortunately, insect-like aliens known as the Akrid are native to the planet, and they continually menace the population.

The basic shooter gameplay is pretty straightforward. On foot, you have access to a standard assortment of weapons - shotgun, sniper rifle, rocket launcher, etc. The game really shines, though, when you get access to Vital Suits (think BattleTech 'Mechs with just a hint of anime-style agility). The game features many duels with opposing pilots, and landing a solid rocket hit on an enemy Vital Suit is just as satisfying as in other mech combat games.

"Lost Planet" debuted about a year after the 360's launch, and for a first-generation title, most of the visuals still hold up today. The smoke and snow effects are particularly noteworthy - watching enemy Suits explode never gets old. The overall level and creature design won't turn any heads, but it's serviceable.

The core gripe I have with the game is that combat is broad, but shallow. There are quite a few options to deal with enemies, and a bunch of different Vital Suits to pilot, but they all feel pretty similar when executed. And while I understand story is usually an afterthought in an action game, the cutscenes that play before, during, and after missions feel like a complete waste of time. Overall, "Lost Planet" is a solid shooter, but not much else.

Rating: 75/100

Sports: Olympic Shooting

Watching Olympic level athletes is sometimes exhilarating aesthetically, but mostly I just marvel at the lifelong dedication needed to compete at that level. Michael Phelps and Nastia Liukin probably started training when they were kids; there's little hope that the average adult could train up to those standards no matter how hard they tried.

Shooting is different. You don't have to possess a weightlifter's strength or a gymnast's dexterity. In the non-shotgun competitions, you don't even need particularly good reflexes. Good shooting technique can be learned relatively quickly, and even Olympic-level skill is within reach for a novice adult.

Case in point:



Doubtless there's a lot of talent and dedication involved, but it's nice that shooting is an Olympic game where people aren't locked out just because their parents weren't able to put them into the sport at an early age.

Of course, the formal target shooting you'll see in Beijing isn't exactly representative of the skillsets one might need for self-defense, unless you're defending yourself from highly aggressive (yet stationary) black paper dots. I wonder why practical shooting competition hasn't made it into the Olympics proper. Not enough of a track record? Restrictive gun laws in most countries?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Music: White Rabbit

I was working all day in Coffee Culture, and I think one of the employees had "Surrealistic Pillow" playing on repeat. It's one thing to research antitrust pleading standards, and it's a whole 'nother ball of wax to do it with Jefferson Airplane stuck in your head. Besides "Somebody to Love" (immortalized for me by Jim Carrey's karaoke rendition in "The Cable Guy"), Jefferson Airplane's only other big hit was "White Rabbit."

Jefferson Airplane itself was a casualty of the times, and the '70s saw its dissolution. But if there's one song associated with stoners, LSD, and getting high, it's "White Rabbit." The song plays out like a psychedelic version of Bolero, and laced with enough scattershot Lewis Carroll references to make the whole thing even less comprehensible.

Anyway, here's a live performance from a little music festival in 1969 you might have heard of...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Movies: Batman - Gotham Knight



Batman gets the "Animatrix" treatment in "Gotham Knight," a collection of animated shorts set in the same universe as the recent Christopher Nolan films. I was curious about how others might run with the whole "Batman: Year One"/"Killing Joke" mishmash that Nolan has adopted.

I guess alarm bells should have gone off when I read the list of directors. Whereas "The Animatrix" was directed by some of the most well-respected anime directors around (Koji Morimoto, Shinichiro Watanabe, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, etc.), the people behind the "Gotham Knight" shorts are relatively unknown. The shorts themselves are also more wedded to a single storyline than in "The Animatrix," so you have less playfulness and experimentation.

Like "The Animatrix," the results are a mixed bag - you'd love to see some shorts expanded into full features, while others are fairly forgettable. The overall running length is about an hour, so this is definitely more of a rental than a purchase. If you're a dyed-in-the-wool Batman fan like me, though, it isn't bad, so I give this one a...


Rating: 6/10

Books: Death by Black Hole


Looking at the title, you might think that "Death by Black Hole" is some kind of sci-fi murder mystery. In fact, it's a collection of astronomy essays from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, a columnist for "Natural History" magazine. These are aimed at the non-astronomer, someone who might be literate in science but doesn't know too much about the inner workings of the cosmos.

I wish more people were interested in astronomy. While on the surface it might not be all that practical, I think it gives one a lot of perspective. For instance, it becomes faintly ridiculous to see Russia and Georgia fighting over scraps of land, that, in the cosmic scheme of things, might as well be dust motes.

Tyson's book is a fun exploration of a lot of the oddities of space - like how the photons hitting you from the Sun are a million years old, or how the titular phenomenon works ("spaghettification" is the technical term). I guess hardcore astronomy types won't actually learn much new from this book, but for everyone else, it's an interesting read.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Guns: The Minimalist Handloader, Interlude

The Web has proven to be such a wonderful tool for learning and teaching - especially activities that are kinda obscure. The fact that the craft and art of making ammunition has been preserved in video form is a good sign for the continued vitality of the shooting sports - after all, what use are guns if you don't know have the ammo?

Here are some of my favorite reloading videos. All are instructional, save the last one:

This gentleman gives a great, easy-to-follow overview of Lee reloading equipment:


More on reloading (again using Lee equipment) - the Australian accent kills me everytime:

Here's a sideways video with nice explanation of the Dillon Super 1050 - probably the fastest reloading press commonly in noncommercial use:

Great primer seating troubleshooting vid:

This is the funniest one of the bunch - how NOT to reload:

Sunday, August 10, 2008

TV: Super Mario Bros. Super Show

You wouldn't think a former professional wrestling manager would be the best choice to play a beloved video game character, but "The Super Mario Bros. Super Show" is definitive evidence that even slightly washed-up WWF stars can upstage professional actors:





The "Super Show" had live action segments outlining a basic frame story, with the bulk of the half-hour show's runtime being devoted to a twenty-minute Super Mario Bros. cartoon. I actually find Captain Lou's voiceover work as Mario to be less annoying than Charles Martinet, the "official" Mario voice. Captain Lou's Mario is also a lot more fun than Bob Hoskins' cheerless performance in the awful 1993 Super Mario Bros. live action movie.

Probably the strangest aspect of the live action skits were the guest stars, with everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Magic Johnson (albeit on separately shot video) making an appearance:

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Food: Maxim Oriental Bakery


One of the most unexpected sights in Chicago was a Chinese bakery smack dab in the middle of downtown. Not because Chinese food is rare there - heck, the upscale mall in Chicago had a restaurant called Wow Bao - but because I imagine the rents right off the Magnificent Mile are scandalous, and that it'd be hard to cover that selling baked goods alone. That might explain why when I search for the bakery on the web I can't find it - methinks they closed down.

More fortunate is Maxim Oriental Bakery, a rather typical Chinese/Vietnamese bakery selling all the items you've come to expect from those places - mooncakes, pineapple buns, and sponge cakes. They say location is everything in real estate, and it's really a great spot for a Chinese bakery; it's near both the ever-popular Silver Pond restaurant and a Vietnamese grocery store. The buns and cakes themselves are good but not incredible, but it's hard to complain when you can grab them whilst doing something else.

2/4 stars

News: It's still a good show, even with the baggage

I know the PRC's come under heavy fire for their heavy-handed human rights offenses, as well as their involvement (or non-involvement, as it were) in the Darfur crisis. Heck, that last sentence alone might make you unable to read this Shangrila Towers post inside of China. I also know the IOC, when it comes to corruptions and scandals, is about as dirty as last month's garbage. Intellectually, I know all that, but my jaw still dropped when I watched the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in the Bird's Nest yesterday:



Zhang Yimou and the 15,000 performers (I think something like 9,000 of those were from the army) put on a memorable spectacle. The whole thing had a hopeful theme, with very minor political overtones. When thousands of people onstage opened up umbrellas, each with the picture of a child from a different country, it was pretty stirring.

Miscellany: Make - technology on your time


I look back on the time spent in the various labs dotting the UF campus - the bottom of the CISE building (AKA "The Dungeon"), the NEB labs (stocked with all manner of electrical equipment), or even the chem labs at Leigh Hall (wear your goggles!) - as some of the most fun I had in college. That's why I'm probably the target audience for ""Make" magazine, a quarterly publication focusing on DIY technology and electronics.

First published in 2005, "Make" (subtitled "technology on your time") features reports on various hobbyists, scientists, engineers, and artists who create interesting projects. The meat of the magazine, though, are the DIY projects, complete with step-by-step instructions for the reader. A lot of these aren't too difficult (especially if you know anything about circuitry and soldering), and some are genuinely useful. Even if you don't do any of the projects, it's still fun to leaf through the projects to see what kind of crazy contraptions people have come up with.

Each volume of "Make" is almost 200 pages, with full-color throughout and decent quality paper. They're also kinda expensive (newsstand price is $15). I sorta wish the magazine was published monthly - it'd be much easier to justify a subscription. Still, if you've ever burned yourself with a soldering iron, you'll probably find something to like here.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Movies: Death Sentence


"Death Sentence" bombed at the theaters, mostly because it's not a very good movie, and partly because Jodie Foster's vigilante vehicle, "The Brave One," was released two weeks later. "Death Sentence" is loosely based on the book of the same name (a sequel to the book "Death Wish"); Kevin Bacon stars as a father whose son is brutally murdered in a gang initiation. This being a vigilante film, Bacon's character soon gets revenge on his son's killer, and the resulting gang war threatens to engulf both him and his family.

There are really only two bright spots in the whole thing - Bacon's decent performance and the often-gory fight scenes (the movie was directed by James Wan of "Saw" fame). Otherwise, the story is even more patently absurd than the "Death Wish" movies. It's one thing to have Hollywood tough guy Charles Bronson mowing down criminals with abandon; it's quite another to have weepy Kevin Bacon doing it while still having reservations.

The movie never seems to know when to go over-the-top or play it straight. Kevin Bacon's character sobs in the shower after a vigilante kill. In another scene, Bacon acquires a bag full of guns and goes from complete novice to shooting it out with a gang of violent career criminals in a few hours (I guess reading the instruction manuals is mroe helpful than I'd realized). If they had picked one approach and stuck with it, the movie might have went somewhere.

Rating: 4/10

In a side note - does anyone know a movie that features lawful concealed carry by a nonmilitary, non-LEO citizen in a positive light? I'd wager they'd be as rare as hen's teeth. In "Death Sentence," an aware and armed Kevin Bacon at the start of the film would've just about voided the entire movie.

Miscellany: PedEgg

File this one under "great ideas that are so simple you wish you thought of them." I had seen the PedEgg infomercials on TV:



but I was very surprised to see one in person - somehow Mom had got hold of one of them.

To answer the most probable first question, yes it does work. Mom reported that the PedEgg scraped at least as good as previous foot grater products, while neatly capturing all that dead skin. The PedEgg also provides a wonderful material for grossing people out - can you imagine throwing the PedEgg leavings onto your hated enemies? How about putting them in their food? Ewww.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Books: Mysteries of the Middle Ages


I've never been a big reader of history books, since it's very difficult for a layman to tell who is giving you their best efforts and who is (ahem) fudging the truth. I picked up "Mysteries of the Middle Ages," by Thomas Cahill. Cahill has achieved fame with his popular account, "How the Irish Saved Civilization," which was on the bestseller lists awhile back. I figured he'd be as good a start as any.

To my surprise, the tone of "Mysteries of the Middle Ages" is breathtakingly casual, almost like my college buddy was explaining medieval history and not my college professor. I understand Cahill is trying to popularize this stuff, but you know you're in uncharted territory when he comments "Take that, b----" about a letter written 900 years ago. More Xbox Live than a history classroom.

There are some great photos, and some of the biographical narratives (especially Eleanor of Aquitaine) are fairly colorful. There isn't much of a consistent thesis, though, and the book wallows in the classical period in the introduction before getting to the nitty-gritty. I'd suggest borrowing from the library rather than purchasing.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Guns: The Minimalist Handloader, Part 2

One of the first questions any beginning handloader asks is, "What equipment do I need to buy?" This installment of "The Minimalist Handloader" focuses on the bare minimum one needs to buy to get a workable portable reloading setup, aside from the components of the cartridge itself.

You've already read your reloading books. You've read posts on reloading forums. You've even watched people reload ammunition on YouTube. Now it's time to buy all the stuff you need...

Reloading Press (REQUIRED)

The press is the device that gives you the leverage needed to perform your reloading tasks. There are some portable methods of reloading that do not use a conventional press - the Lyman 310 tong tool and the classic Lee Loader, for instance. I don't think these are the best ways to go for a portable setup - the Lee Loader is caliber-specific and requires a lot of hammering, and the tong tool is expensive for what it is.




Instead, I bought the Lee Hand Press, a handheld press that doesn't mount on a bench. It's pretty small - it'll fit into the typical backpack or range bag without any problems. More importantly, though, it takes standard reloading dies and is capable of full-length resizing most cartridge brass. This is very important if you want to scrounge once-fired brass from public ranges. A conventional single stage, turret, or progressive press is more convenient if you have a dedicated reloading bench, but I don't, and the hand press works fine.

Dies (REQUIRED)

The dies screw into the reloading press; you pull a lever (or, in the hand press' case, you squeeze two levers together) and ram the semi-loaded cartridge into the die to perform a particular function, whether it's resizing the brass, loading the bullet, or crimping the case.

Dies come for nearly every rifle and pistol caliber you can think of. I prefer to buy the kits that contain all the dies needed for a particular caliber. The carbide dies (which require no case lubricant) are a convenience, but they're more expensive (especially for rifle calibers).

Priming Tool (REQUIRED)

You can prime a cartridge either on the press itself or via a handheld priming tool. Priming is pretty simple - basically just pushing a primer into the little pocket at the bottom of the brass until it's seated. I prefer using a separate tool (specifically the handheld Lee Auto Prime), since it cuts down on the amount of stuff you have to switch out on the press.

Powder Scale (REQUIRED)

This is one item that you cannot go without. To illustrate: a grain is 1/7000th of a pound. It is basically impossible to tell the difference, visually, between a powder charge of say, 3.2 grains of Bullseye and a charge of 4.2 grains of Bullseye, especially when it's already been dropped into the case. Yet, according to Speer Reloading Manual #14, the former is a fairly mild .38 Special target load for a 158 grain bullet, and the latter is dangerously above .38+P pressure for a 158 grain bullet. Weigh your charges!

You can buy both electronic and beam balance scales. The electronic ones are easier to read and use, but the beam balances don't require any batteries and operate in a fashion that's easy to understand. In either case, it's a good idea to check the scale's readings by measuring something of known weight (like a bullet).

Eye Protection (REQUIRED)

This is mostly for the priming process. When you push the new primer into the back of the cartridge, there's a small chance that the primer will explode, showering hot material out the case mouth. Normally, a popped primer can't cause any physical damage, but the hot material is fully capable of damaging your eyesight. Wear chemical eyegoggles (the kind that completely seal your eyes) and you'll be fine.

Lubricant (REQUIRED for non-carbide dies)

Resizing brass involves a lot of friction, and it's definitely possible for the case to get stuck inside the die (it's a pain in the butt to remove). A light film of lube on the outside of the case will prevent this from happening. There are a ton of different case lubes out on the market, but they're all pretty cheap. Brass headed for a carbide die usually doesn't need case lube.

Case Trimming Stuff (REQUIRED for rifle calibers)

The typical bottleneck rifle cartridge undergoes some pretty severe deformation from the pressures of firing. After resizing a rifle case, you'll usually have to trim off some material off the case mouth in order to get the maximum length back in spec, especially after several reloads. Skipping this step can, of course, be very dangerous - an overlong case can generate enormous pressures.

Thankfully, there are a lot of gadgets and doodads available for trimming cases. If you want the simplest solution, just buy a hand cutter (the Lee case trimmer set requires a cutter, lock stud, and the appropriate shellholders and gages for each caliber - but they're all pretty cheap). The ne plus ultra of case trimming is the Giraud powered trimmer - almost $400. After trimming, you'll need to chamfer the rough edges inside and outside the case - the Giraud does this for you.

Case Cleaning Stuff (optional)

Case cleaning is usually not required, unless a case is truly dirty and might damage your die. The cheapest way to clean a case is to polish it by hand using #00 steel wool. Those opting for faster cleaning can go for liquid methods (either a homebrew detergent or Iosso case cleaner) or dry methods (vibratory tumbling). In my travel kit, I include a few pads of steel wool and some gloves in order to polish the nastiest looking cases - be sure to grab a container to catch all the steel wool filings you'll generate.

Powder Measure & Powder Funnel (optional)

A powder measure drops a preset volume of powder into a case. They're not necessary, but they are convenient, and they're practically required if you want to load large quantities of ammo in one sitting. Be sure to check the powder you're dropping with a scale before, during, and after the charging process.

A powder funnel fits neatly over an individual case and allows easier pouring of powder into it. You could jury-rig this, but they're very cheap, so you might as well pick one up.

Calipers (optional)

As you can see above, case trimming is very tedious unless you have some pretty specialized tools. A pair of calipers will allow you to separate safe cases from unsafe cases, minimizing your trimming. Calipers can measure loaded cartridge overall lengths as well, to make sure your bullet seating is adequate.

Bullet Puller (optional)

Reloaders make mistakes - it's only human. Rather than throwing that mischarged cartridge in the trash, you can attempt to salvage the components with a bullet puller. It's also much safer to pull a bad round than to leave it floating in circulation, with the risk that it could find your way into your other ammo loads.

That does it for this installment. Come back next time where we'll look at the components that actually make up a cartridge.

Movies: Into the Blue

There's a certain genre of Hollywood films that's pure, cotton-candy escapism. It's hard to put a label on this genre, but whether they're comedies, dramas, or action movies, they all have three things in common - a sunny tropical location, a cast of photogenic young stars and starlets, and antics that involve treasure-hunting or drug dealers. Examples include "The Beach," "Fool's Gold," and "Into the Blue":





"Into the Blue" stars Paul Walker and Jessica Alba. They play a happily-married young couple living in the Bahamas. Walker's character moonlights as an amateur treasure hunter, and when he finally finds the big score, things get complicated.

Surprisingly enough, I didn't hate the movie quite as much as I thought I would. There's a ton of live action underwater cinematography, and I'd be lying if I said the constant presence of a bikini-clad Jessica Alba wasn't welcome eye candy (the flick doesn't forget the ladies - the tropical setting is a convenient excuse for Paul Walker to be barechested most of the movie). Josh Brolin also turns in a suitably slimy performance as a competing treasure salvager.

To be sure, though, the movie is insanely dumb. It's hard to really encapsulate all the strange stuff in this movie, so I'll give an example - Jessica Alba's character, an expert diver, mentions that shark attacks on humans are extremely rare (which is true). And yet later on in the movie, on two different occasions, there are sharks who attack people. Add to all this stupidity a story that isn't very intriguing, and you have a movie that is best seen for free, on TV.

Rating: 4/10

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Tech: Frustration in Game Design


I broke down and finally got a GameFly account. "Culdcept Saga," a turn-based card strategy game for the Xbox 360, was the first game they sent to me. Normally I'd write a review for the game, but to be honest, I couldn't finish it.

The basic gameplay was okay, I guess (it's like playing Monopoly, except instead of paying rent you do battle with fantasy creatures and spells), but the thing that really sent me scrambling to hit the eject button was the fact that you cannot, to my knowledge, skip the computer-controlled players' turns. When AI character #1 meets AI character #2 in battle, you have to watch the tedious card battle sequence on-screen, with no stake in the outcome whatsoever. This can happen over and over again in a single game, and it's just no fun to sit there, controller in hand, and wait for the computer to stop playing against itself.

It's a good illustration of the cardinal sin of game design - frustrating the player. There are a lot of different kinds of challenges in games, like beating a boss monster or solving a puzzle. But there should never be a time when the game designer forces you to not play the game.

Culdcept isn't the only offender. A lot of RPGs (both massively multiplayer and otherwise) have bits where you have to grind the same monsters over and over again in order to get strong enough to move the game forward. You might have your machine turned on, your fingers might be moving, but you aren't really "playing" the game in any meaningful sense - you're being told to wait to play the game.

Other games resort to things like fetch quests and backtracking, which to me are really lazy decisions on the developer's part. You may recall my review of "Devil May Cry 4," whose developers thought they could stretch a 5 hour game into a 10 hour game merely by forcing the player to backtrack through a half-dozen areas that they've already traversed. Even the acclaimed Zelda series resorted to fetch quests in "Wind Waker," with a Triforce treasure map sequence that seemed interminable (especially puzzling considering the finale of that game was so epic).

4th Edition D&D provides a great example of an explicit disavowal of the "make the players wait" strategy of design. 4E D&D emphasizes "finding the fun" - and not sacrificing the players' time or interest in the name of simulating a fantasy world. If a sequence isn't fun, skip or fast-forward through, and don't stop until your players are engaged once again. Of course, that kind of neatly-tailored game design might only be possible with a live DM at the helm...

Monday, August 04, 2008

Miscellany: Gerber Clutch


I like to keep a multitool on my keychain at all times - life has a way of throwing situations at you where a screwdriver or blade saves the day. It has to be small, because I'm lugging around a cell phone, wallet, and often a 642. Unfortunately, the TSA confiscated my old multitool - a Leatherman Micra that I liked a lot. Rather than get bitter, I decided to shop for a new multitool.

The one I grabbed was the Gerber Clutch, a rather inexpensive little unit that features a pair of centrally mounted spring-loaded mini-pliers. I suppose you could use it as a jury-rigged wrench if need be - other than that, I didn't think these were too useful. Better are the screwdrivers - there's three sizes (including a thin-style Phillips head) and they're sure to come in handy. I also think the blade on this model isn't bad.

There are some caveats, though. The tools do not lock in place, so you really can't use this thing for anything that requires serious force. The bottle cap opener is really awful, one of the worst ones I've used, though it gets the job done eventually. Finally, the tool as a whole feels a bit cheaper than a comparable Leatherman, but then again, it is cheaper.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Movies: Bulletproof

When you're reloading, especially with my portable setup, I think it's a good idea to put on a movie to relieve the tedium of doing some of the non-critical tasks (depriming brass or cleaning primer pockets, for instance). Such a movie has to be boring enough to not merit your full attention, but interesting enough to drift into and out of when the situation warrants.

"Bulletproof," a 1996 action movie starring Damon Wayans and Adam Sandler, is about as aggressively bland and forgettable as any movie has a right to be, so it's a perfect candidate for this type of thing. You know it's mediocre when the trailer gets the name of one of the main characters wrong:



As you can see, it's a fairly by-the-numbers witness protection/buddy cop type of film, with Wayans playing the straight man for once. He's guarding Adam Sandler's character, a smalltime hood who has turned state's evidence and is being targeted for assassination. You've seen this plot before, and, in truth, it's not all bad. The action scenes are pretty laughable, but James Caan gives a decent performance as a drug kingpin (James Caan naturally settles into the role of a heavy - it's Sonny Corleone all over again). Again, though, this is more reloading fodder than watchable action-comedy, so make sure you have something to do.

Rating: 4/10

Interesting sidenote - if you take a look at their filmographies, you'll see 1996 was when Sandler really took off ("Happy Gilmore") and that it's also the year Damon Wayans fell into relative obscurity as a marquee film actor after his starring roles in movies like "Blankman" and "Major Payne."

Books: Life of Pi


"Life of Pi" is a novel written by Yann Martel. In the book, Pi Patel, an unfortunate Indian youth, is stranded in a lifeboat after his vessel's sudden sinking. His only companion is Richard Parker, he's in the middle of the Pacific, and supplies are running low. The big problem with the situation, though, is that Richard Parker is a 450-pound Bengal tiger.

It's an interesting adventure book mostly centered on Pi's relentless struggle for survival, but there's some fairly prominent religious themes here, too. One of the characters says that Pi's ordeal would make you believe in God. I'm not sure that's true, but the book definitely makes a strong case for agnostics to get off the fence, if only to get "a better story" out of life.

I liked it overall, but I think the book's main failing is a common one with these marooned/castaway stories: there's barely any semblance of a plot. The great wide ocean and the lengthy nature of Pi's journey (spoiler - he ain't rescued an hour after the shipwreck) are sort of a license for lazy plotting. I suppose this might be intentional, but it still would make it hard to reread in the future.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

TV: The Lost Room

Sci-Fi Channel puts out a LOT of miniseries and made-for-TV movies every month, and only a handful are worth commenting on. One of these is "The Lost Room," a miniseries starring Peter Krause, Julianna Margulies, and Kevin Pollak:



During Detective Joe Miller's investigation of a mysterious homicide, he comes upon a motel key that is imbued with the power to turn any garden-variety wooden door into a portal to a strange motel room with even stranger rules. After entering, you can exit the room to literally anywhere in the world with another wooden door, and things placed inside the room disappear when you close the door.

Unfortunately for Det. Miller, his daughter (played by Elle Fanning, who exhibits the same eerie precociousness as her sister Dakota) is accidentally lost inside the room. Now Miller must hunt down the remaining Objects that were taken from the strange motel room (each one of which has a different supernatural power) while avoiding those who would try to take the Key from him.

It's a great premise, and the execution is pretty good, which explains its high IMDB rating. Overall, it feels like a mix of the rules-based paranormal hijinx of "Death Note," the superpowers of "Heroes," and the detectivework and factional politics of "The X-Files." Some of the situations are a bit eyebrow-raising (enemies become allies and vice versa a little too often for my taste), but the DVD set is definitely worth a spot in your video rental queue.

Guns: The Minimalist Handloader, Part 1


Introduction

I've always wanted to get into reloading ammunition, mostly because of the supposed cost savings. With .223 and .38 Special prices getting scandalously high (the former is up to $400 a case, while the latter is hovering at about $300 a case), it makes more sense than ever to make your own ammunition if you plan to shoot a lot.

In the next few months, I'll chronicle my journey into the world of reloading, all with an emphasis on portability and simplicity. I was inspired by this post on THR, this article, and this one, too, and my goal will be to get most of the tools necessary for making safe, reliable ammunition to fit into a garden variety .30-cal ammo can. I don't have space for a reloading bench (or even a suitable countertop), and I don't have the budget for anything fancy.

Your first purchase - information

Handloading your own ammunition requires much more information than shooting does. I learned how to shoot and maintain firearms via the Errornet (THR and TFL, along with a smattering of marksmanship sites). That will not work with reloading. You cannot trust some strange recipe or process you read on a web forum; if you want to roll your own ammo without losing any of your precious fingers, you'll need reloading manuals with proven, tested load data from bullet and powder manufacturers.

I picked up the latest editions of the Speer and Hornady reloading manuals to start with; many dedicated reloaders eventually acquire a whole bookshelf full of manuals. Old editions of reloading handbooks from the '80s and '90s are perfectly safe to use, and often provide different loading data that may be useful if you have an oddball powder or bullet. I also ordered a copy of "The ABCs of Reloading," a good overview of the reloading process that recommends caution at every turn and provides some helpful advice for a novice.

I think the best way to get started is to buy the books first, and read them carefully. If you decide the whole affair seems like too much effort, just sell or give away the books and you haven't lost much. Once you do decide to take the plunge, read web articles like the ones I linked to in the opening paragraph (or this series of articles) to get a handle on what sort of equipment will be necessary. Then, head over to a place like MidwayUSA and get all your stuff!

Next week: A look at the essential tools needed to reload rifle and pistol ammo

Miscellany: Summer Calisthenics

If you conceal a firearm inside the waistband, you have probably experienced firsthand the difference that being in shape has on your ability to carry. When I'm thin and svelte, my P-01 rides without a second thought. In my current condition, engorged by months of having a recuperating broken arm, I can barely get the darn holster on my belt, let alone finagle a blocky 9mm light-rail-equipped slide into the thing.

It's an excellent prod to losing weight. When you can't carry your favorite gun, and are reduced to toting around a pocket revolver because your gut has grown to John Goodman-in-"Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" proportions, there's a definite resolve to get in shape. Time to hit the jogging trails, I suppose.

If I ever get the chance, I''ll make an infomercial about this whole concept - "Tired of not being able to strap on your $2000 custom 1911? Want to have room to tighten your Wilderness Instructor's Belt? Buy the Flabmaster 5000 and watch your carry options increase as your waistline decreases!"

Friday, August 01, 2008

Guns: Savage Mark II F .22 LR rifle


Learning to shoot doesn't have to be expensive. For around $117 (the price of a couple Xbox 360 games), you can pick up a Savage Mark II from Wally World. The Mark II is a bolt-action .22 rifle that can help anyone learn (or in my case, relearn) the discipline needed for rifle shooting. Add in a bulk pack of .22 LR ammo, ear and eye protection, and targets, and you have literally everything necessary to get the basics down on almost any range, indoor or outdoor.

The Savage series of bolt-action rifles has always had some good bargains (their centerfire rifles in particular have long been the darlings of the "need an accurate new production bolt action without breaking the bank" crowd), and the Mark II F is no exception. The gun comes with iron sights and a black synthetic stock. The newer versions are also equipped with the AccuTrigger (Savage's user-adjustable trigger system), but my closeout version from Wal-Mart has the older, plain Jane trigger.

I tend to go with bolt-action rimfires over semiautos for teaching purposes because nothing encourages bad shooting habits like having more than one shot on tap. There is a tendency to blast away when you don't have to do anything to cycle the next round; working the bolt forces you to shoot one straight trigger press at a time. Additionally, learning to work the action with authority on a Mark II will help a newbie learn how to properly operate other manually operated shoulder guns, like lever and pump actions (that is, forcefully).

Accuracy was good enough in my book - the big front post completely covered not just my target, but the cardboard it was stapled to at 50 yards, so the fact that my groups opened up to a few inches at that distance didn't really bother me. I had to drift the front sight a bit to get the proper point of impact, but other than that, the rifle was ready out of the box. I wish Savage redesigned its magazines and magazine latch (compared to Marlin's system, they feel cheap and not very positive), but as a whole, I think they did a good job here.

Music: Lassoo

The Xbox Live Marketplace has a regular "Emerging Artists" section in its music video store featuring musical acts that are just becoming popular. Normally, the quality of the bands showcased is hit-and-miss. I was pleasantly surprised, however, when I viewed an "Emerging Artists" music video from The Duke Spirit, an English band.

I downloaded their most recent album, "Neptune," from eMusic and gave it a listen. The music is definitely reminiscent of Sonic Youth, which could be a good or a bad thing depending on your tastes. You have layered, grungy guitars, the emotive wailing of frontwoman Liela Moss, and an overall style that sounds like a lineal descendant of the Pixies.

My favorite tune from the album is Lassoo:

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