Tuesday, September 30, 2008

School: Crushed

Posting's going to be rather light for awhile, since Dell delayed shipping my netbook (argh). If anyone has any insights into Section 1983 civil rights actions, I'm all ears.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Guns: CZ P-01 - Detailed review and range report

I wrote this review a long time ago, but with the recent troubles THR has experienced, I thought it might be safer to archive this here.

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About the gun

I bought a new CZ P-01 for $500 + tax (yeah, it's about $50 too high, but "support your local gun shop" and all that). Made back in 2002 during the AWB, this particular specimen came with two neutered 10-rounders and no NSN code imprint on the gun (which I actually prefer).

The P-01 is a very conservative gun - traditional Browning HP-style short recoil DA/SA with a decocking lever and no manual safety. The frame is forged aluminum, not polymer. Every review of the P-01 seems to mention the NATO testing, so I've just done so. Moving on...



Dry-firing & Inspection

The P-01 trigger is about the same as most other CZs I've tried. DA is heavy and smooth enough to work with, with some initial takeup. SA has the typical CZ camming action, giving it a little takeup and some pronounced creep. It's not going to win any awards, but it works well enough.

The decocking lever takes a lot of travel and force to decock, which is a good thing. It's out of the way and doesn't interfere with shooting at all, yet it can be decocked without shifting your firing grip (though the location is not as natural as a SIG). The slide lock is extended slightly from the standard 75, making it a bit easier to use.

The frame is as wide as my RAMI 9mm, but the slide is the same width as a 75. This means that the slide is harder to reach than a regular 75, since your fingers will have the tendency to brush up against the frame. The P-01 has a standard 1913 rail for mounting accessories (I want to get that bayonet they offer for it ).

I was first surprised by the presence of a beveled magazine well. Kind of unnecessary in a pistol IMHO (especially in a double-stack 9mm), but it looks pretty nice and is tastefully done. Also note that the lanyard is built into the main spring plug.



The frame is vertically serrated on the front and back straps. All new P-01s come with CZ's soft checkered rubber grips, which I prefer to the slippery feel of the Hogues. The grip screws, oddly enough, stick out from the grips slightly, but it doesn't cause me any discomfort. The magazine release has been extended noticeably from what a normal mag release on a CZ-75 or a 1911 would feel like.



The barrel is comparable to a regular CZ-75 in terms of thickness. Chamber support looks to be identical to the fullsize model, as well. The ramp angle is pretty sound and rounds have very little trouble moving into the chamber. One issue here is the plastic guide rod; in my personal experience with my 75B through cases and cases worth of ammo, the guide rod is far, far less likely to break than a spring. It does look a bit chintzy in my opinion, but if the gun works...



Shooting

First things first: the P-01 was completely reliable through 400 rounds (ammo shot was 200 rounds WWB 115 gr. FMJ, 100 rounds WWB 147 gr. JHP, and 100 rounds UMC 115 gr. JHPs). No failures, and the slide locked back when appropriate.

I used a neutered mag, a Mec-Gar 16-rounder, and a highly suspect aftermarket 15-round mag and had no problems with any of them, which can be pretty rare in a bottom-feeder. I mixed up JHPs and FMJs, I shot it one-handed and gangsta style, I shot it fast, I shot it slow, and the P-01 just kept coming. The aftermarket mag's spring was very weak and yet the P-01 ate from it no problem.

Now the disappointing part - this CZ isn't as accurate as my 75B. It's even only as accurate as my 3" barreled RAMI. Using the ammo listed above, I regularly got about 3" 5-shot groups, standing, at 15 yards, whereas with the 75B I can do 2" and under even on a bad day.

Conclusion

CZ has some pretty talented people designing and building guns over there. I've already ordered a holster and yet I'm thinking of running over to a gun store and picking up a holster to carry it in right now - I know the gun is 100%.

Quite frankly, I wished the gun shot more accurately. I think the exposed plastic guide rod (versus the plastic guide rod that's hidden in a 75B) is a minus in terms of looks. I think the sights and trigger, while adequate, could be better. But in terms of ergonomics, I believe CZ still has a product that can compete and win with the big dogs like SIG and HK.

One of my pet peeves is having to monkey with a new gun to get it to work. I'll give some slack to pieces that have shot for thousands of rounds and need new springs; that happens with all guns. But a new autoloader that can't feed from its own mags, or can't feed certain ammo, is not something I personally want to carry. Bottom line is, the P-01 works as advertised.

Miscellany: A Different Kind of Campaign Trail, Part 3


Jumping my Dungeons and Dragons campaign to 4th Edition has had some pros and cons. I think it'd be fun to go over 4E from the Dungeon Master's perspective, especially now that I've DMed a couple games and I have a handle on how it all runs. Expect more posts in the coming months about the campaign...

The biggest timesink that any DM faces is encounter balancing. Getting the math right for a particular party is part skill, part art - the challenges you throw the PCs vary based on how many PCs are playing, how skilled your players are, and how their characters are built. 4E makes it pretty easy on the DM: grab some monsters around the PCs' level, reflavor or touch them up as needed, throw in some interesting terrain, and BAM! Instant encounter. I certainly don't remember 3.5 being this easy, even with my low-level 3.5 DMing sessions.

Another problem DMs deal with is sustaining the narrative. Some groups are okay with combat after combat separated only by thin strands of plot, but I think that tends to cheapen fights. In-between fights, D&D has traditionally had some pretty flimsy noncombat encounter rules. The much-maligned (and recently patched) skill challenge system is a good solution if your group has people willing to think on their feet. It's not a perfect system (hopefully they add some feats that affect your tactics and performance in these challenges, if only as a secondary benefit from those feats). You do tend to have the same white-knuckled d20 rolling as in the rest of D&D, since you're only allotted three "failures" before you fail the challenge.

One big part of 4E that needs work is the explanation of how all the bonuses factor into your attacks. 4E combat can be brutal on your PCs if they forget to add in weapon proficiency bonuses to their attack rolls. It's really easy to neglect that random +1 or +2, and suddenly your PCs are hanging on for dear life. The DM usually bears the burden of explaining the rules to new players, so this is one area of the rules that's taking away from the roleplaying.

Movies: Ghost Town

Ricky Gervais is one of my favorite comedians, but even so, it's a bit surprising to see him in "Ghost Town," a fairly standard rom-com directed by David Koepp:



Gervais stars as Bertram Pincus, a misanthropic dentist who has a near-death experience, only to find that he can now see and hear the recently deceased. Greg Kinnear plays Frank, a ghost with unfinished business who "befriends" the snarky Pincus in order to take care of some unfinished business regarding Frank's widow, Gwen (Téa Leoni). When Pincus finds he has an unexpected attraction to Gwen, the plot starts to thicken.

Koepp has penned a lot of blockbuster movies ("Misson: Impossible," "Spider-Man"), and for awhile, "Ghost Town" ably rides Gervais' acerbic wit. The third act, which closely follows standard rom-com conventions, is where the film finally stumbles. Bertram is the kind of character you love to hate, so the whole thing loses air when Koepp starts to mess with that angle. Kinnear and Leoni put in okay performances, but in the end, "Ghost Town" is a movie that's more "pleasant" than "good."

Rating: 6/10

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Guns: My CZ Kadet Review and Range Report

This review comes from an old post I made on THR. Due to the current uncertainty regarding THR's existence, I'm archiving here on my blog to save it:

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Well, I finally bit the bullet and bought the Kadet kit for my CZ 75B. I ordered it from J&G Sales for $250 - you can probably get it cheaper if you search around, but I'm too lazy to do much more than Google "CZ Kadet" and check the prices . J&G was out of stock, so it took about a month for the adapter to finally arrive at my door. The adapter came in the standard CZ box, with 2 mags, manual, test target, and cleaning tools.

ASSEMBLY AND FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The adapter itself required very little fitting (perhaps about 5 minutes of light filing). I recommend making the fit as tight as possible, as it seems that shooting with the adapter naturally loosens the slide-to-frame fit enough to make it easy to remove the slide from the gun. Putting the Kadet kit on and taking it off is fast and simple - it works exactly the same way as a regular field strip.

The overall build quality is high. Though the internals have the slightly rough look common to CZs, the external finish is the same all-business black polycoat found on the full size pistol, and, as you can see from the pictures, it fits in very nicely with the frame. The sights are adjustable, and have a 3-dot configuration that is identical to the stock CZ 75B. The magazines are mostly steel, with a plastic bottom portion/floorplate. The whole affair feels very solid.

Here it is, fully assembled:



Stripped into its component groups:



On the CZ 75 itself:



Sight picture (I know, the front sight ain't centered ):



RANGE REPORT

The slide was slightly difficult to rack at first - it's very thin, and the target sights can get in the way of your fingers. The slide would probably have benefitted from Ruger-style protrusions, though this would have ruined the look of the Kadet kit. As far as weight and balance goes, it basically feels the same as the regular 75B, which is very nice indeed.

I shot a 100 round pack of CCI Mini Mags and about 1000 rounds worth of Federal bulk pack, Remington bulk pack, and Winchester Bulk pack. The adapter proved extremely reliable with everything but the Winchester stuff, which would sometimes have a fail-to-eject (I don't blame the kit - the Winnie bulk back wasn't even copper-plated, and it seemed to be pretty dirty when I shot it - still seemed as accurate as the other bulk stuff, though).

I'm only a beginning shooter, so I only managed about 3" groups at 25 yards offhand with all ammunition. I sincerely believe the gun is capable of better, of course, but I also think it might not be able to match a Ruger, Buckmark, or Trailside in the accuracy department (YMMV).

Typical Federal bulk pack group:



Typical Winchester bulk pack group:



THE BENEFITS OF A .22 CONVERSION

Ever since I got a membership to a local indoor pistol range (http://www.afn.org/~guns/), I've been going shooting twice a week, and even 9mm ammo was starting to eat at the wallet. Using a conversion means meaningful practice with the same holster, trigger, frame/grip, and sights as the full size gun at a fraction of the price. It means you can practice lots of fun drills - draw from the holster and fire, malfunction clearing (every bulk pack has a few duds), and mag changes - without using full power ammo, and with the same controls as the full size gun. Additionally, any upgrades you make to the host gun (Hakan or Omega grips, a trigger job, etc.) are automatically conferred upon your .22 autoloader.

There are numerous other practical benefits. The ability to start off new shooters with a .22 slide and then converting to 9mm on the same gun is nice, but there's also value in starting to learn one-hand and weak-hand shooting/drills with a .22, before moving up to the full power caliber. You could also use the conversion to do anything a regular .22 autoloader can do - from plinking soda cans to hunting squirrels.

CONCLUSION

CZ continues to impress me. The 75B has proven to be excellent, the RAMI has turned out to be a great concealed-carry pistol, and the Kadet kit has answered my .22 autoloader needs. Highly recommended!

PROS:
Tough as a brick outhouse
Reliable
Extremely easy to disassemble and clean

CONS:
Slightly difficult to rack the slide
Perhaps not as accurate as other .22 pistols (maybe)
Kinda expensive (you can get a lightly used .22 pistol for about the same price)

Tech: Castle Crashers



"Castle Crashers" is a sidescrolling beat-em-up Xbox Live Arcade game developed by The Behemoth, the company behind "Alien Hominid." Like AH, "Castle Crashers" has a sharp-looking 2D art style that looks like an incredibly well-animated Flash game.

Gameplay is a cross between "Golden Axe" and "River City Ransom," with lots and lots of in-jokes and nods to other classic games of yesteryear. You hack and slash your way through a couple hours worth of gameplay spread over a dozen or so levels. Depth is added via some button combos and a rudimentary stats/items system, but at heart this is a brawler where you'll need an itchy attack finger to survive.

This is probably XBLA's most impressive game, at least in terms of content. You can unlock new characters, dig for new weapons, fight in various arenas - very replayable in terms of seeing new things. Production values are quite high, with most levels having catchy music and good-looking HD artwork. You'll fight a number of bosses, ranging from a mutant ear of corn to a giant cat-fish, and, while some are more fun than others, they're all neat to look at.

My main gripe with the game is that Xbox Live play is essentially broken - matchmaking and even online character profiles are riddled with showstopper bugs. For a title that bills itself as a 4-player adventure, not having working online multiplayer out of the gates is basically inexcusable. I'm really surprised that Microsoft's usual XBLA certification process didn't catch these bugs. I still recommend the game, but only if you have a friend or two who can play on the same couch as you.

Rating: 78/100

Books: Star Trek TNG Technical Manual


Like more than a few boys my age, I watched "Star Trek: The Next Generation" in the '90s. To this day it's still my favorite Trek iteration; the show's tone ranged from silly to serious, but it was always fun. Along the way I inevitably picked up some fan memorabilia, including a few books about the series. One of the best of these was the "Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual."

It's a complete technical overview of the fictional starship that most of action TNG takes place on, the Enterprise-D. Ever wanted to know how the Bussard ramscoop collectors in the warp nacelle pylons work? How about a look at the floorplan of the Captain's yacht, located on the underside of the saucer section? Such minutiae is probably only tolerable if you liked the show, but for fans, this will be an interesting look at ship systems that will probably never see the light of day on the screen (there are also some behind-the-scenes tidbits that are entertaining, too).

Friday, September 26, 2008

Miscellany: Hunting, Then & Now

Here's some persistence hunting, demonstrated by the Bushmen of south Africa. A member of the tribe runs down a game animal over the course of a full day, using both superior bipedal endurance and sheer willpower to eventually exhaust the animal to death:



And here's a modern hunter taking a (well-planned) 1000 yard shot on a stationary antelope. Making an accurate, humane shot at this kind of distance takes a lot of time and care which isn't shown on the video - setting up the rifle and the cartridge load, hours of observation, careful ranging, and patience:

Guns: Range Report & Review - Springfield Armory Loaded Stainless 1911

This is an old review I once posted on THR. Unfortunately, the continued existence of THR has recently been put in jeopardy (you can read the whole tale at Oleg's journal page, linked at the right), so I'm posting it here to preserve it for future use.

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Well, I snagged a Springfield Loaded for $650 new recently, and I just shot it this weekend. Since there's always a lot of interest in 1911s, I thought I'd do a little review, from the perspective of a diehard CZ fan.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The Loaded is a step above the Mil-Spec in the SA product line. I bought it because I wanted a traditional internal extractor and didn't want to fork over the money for a Colt. Made in Brazil, the gun has lots of MIM parts and the fit and finish, while serviceable, isn't as good as some other 1911s I have seen, even other Springer 1911s like the TRP. The gun has a two-piece barrel, a nonstandard titanium firing pin/spring, and comes with two seven-round magazines (Metalform?). The slide-to-frame fit is loose for my taste - admittedly, I don't have any other 1911s to compare it to. It has the ILS system, but as covered in other reviews, it's not too hard to replace.

The main thing I like about the Loaded over the Mil-Spec is the Novak LoMount 3-dot sights - they are definitely nice and to install them on a GI or Mil-Spec would cost a decent chunk of change. I wish they were tritium, though. The other "features" are okay, but I could do without the bump on the beavertail grip safety and the front slide serrations. The ambi safety might be important to southpaws, but it's useless to me. It snicks on and off positively, though. The grips are pretty good, and are probably slim enough for most people, but I'd like to go with even slimmer grips if possible.



DISASSEMBLY AND INSPECTION

I've never owned a 1911 before, so cleaning it was a harrowing experience. The disassembly was simple enough, even with Springfield's silly two-piece guide rod complicating matters.


I finally got the gun apart and realized I didn't have any .45 cal brushes. Arrgh - the perils of a new caliber...



The reassembly was a real PITA, especially getting the slide stop back in (though I did manage to avoid scratching the frame). I screwed up somewhere in the procedure and locked the gun up tight. I ended up cutting my left hand pretty badly getting the slide unstuck. I find my CZ-75B to be considerably simpler to field strip - I could probably do it in the dark, if need be.

AT THE RANGE

The Springer proved difficult to shoot well, at least for me. I think the trigger's a tad too heavy (5-6 pounds), but it breaks crisply. Through about 300 rounds of WWB, UMC, and Blazer Brass FMJs, the pistol never bobbled (not much of a test, I know, but .45 ammo is expensive).

When shooting for groups, I shot slow-fire, standing, at 15 yards. The gun is about as accurate as my CZ-75B, but the CZ was of course much cheaper.

The UMC turned in the best groups.



Blazer Brass was usually a crapshoot. This was my best group of the day, and there were some real embarrassing shotgun patterns that reflected on how much practice I need.



CONCLUSION

PROS
- reliable
- accurate enough for defense
- great sights, good grips, acceptable trigger and safeties
- relatively inexpensive with a good company backing it up

CONS
- not any more accurate than my CZ-75B
- so-so fit and finish, "Made in Brazil" on the dustcover
- a ton of MIM, some features/parts aren't to my liking

I really don't know. The pistol fits my hands well, but not well enough to justify the price. I really expected better than CZ accuracy, but I couldn't find it with this particular example. I like the history behind the design, I like that it's a .45, and that it has an amazing trigger reset, but the reassembly reminded me of how old the 1911 really is. If I keep it, I'll get rid of the ILS, get the trigger and action worked over, replace the critical 'near-steel' parts with quality stuff (Ed Brown Hardcore extractor anyone?), and perhaps get a dehorning job (the slide serrations are very sharp).

Is it worth it over the Mil-Spec? I'd say it depends. If you like the Novak sights, and want decent wood grips for your 1911, this will probably fit the bill. It's certainly worth $150 more than the Mil-Spec, which is what I bought it for. Like any 1911 on the market today, though, it probably won't be perfect for you out of the box.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Movies: Strange Days

"Strange Days" is a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Most reviewers seem to classify it as a cyberpunk sci-fi flick, and, in all fairness, there are some of the standard tropes - a dystopian near-future worldview (complete with police brutality and widespread social unrest), a new technology that allows users to experience episodes from other people's lives, and a black market for said technology:



In my view, though, "Strange Days" is more like neo-noir or cyberpunk-lite than anything else. Aside from the POV segments (which feel more like a low-rent imitation of a video camera than anything else), the film doesn't have any overt science-fiction in it at all - no flying cars, no rogue AIs, no worldwide computer network.

It's a decent movie, with strong performances from Ralph Fiennes (who plays a cop-turned-hustler named Lenny) and Angela Bassett (who plays a tough-as-nails single mother/bodyguard called Lornette "Mace" Mason). The pair become embroiled in a series of murders that threaten to destroy LA on the eve of the new millennium. I'd probably score it a bit higher if the editing was tighter - the 2 hour 15 minute runtime feels gratuitous (do we really need to see Juliette Lewis singing onstage twice?).

Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Music: Everlong

Having a killer music video isn't a requirement for having a memorable song, but it sure helps, like the Foo Fighters video for "Everlong." It was directed by Michel Gondry, best known for "The Science of Sleep" and "The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." It's similarly trippy, but the thing most people remember from it is the giant hand that Dave Grohl's character uses to slap the evildoers.

The song itself is pretty good, though I suspect it suffers from too much radio airplay. As an aspiring drummer, the most notable parts of the song for me are the rapid, cascading fills (recorded in the album version by Dave Grohl himself after the Foo Fighters' first drummer left the band). Grohl sometimes does the song solo, strumming by himself on acoustic guitar, but I like the full band experience the best. Here's one the best live versions of the song I've ever seen (performed for Australian television):

News: Weak-onomics

So the economy is all that's ever on the news these days. There are some groanings, as well as some uncomfortable parallels with previous depressions (Warren Buffet puts 5 billion dollars into Goldman Sachs to reassure everyone? Sounds familiar). Here's as good an explanation of the current financial circus as any (from Sheldon, a pretty neat webcomic):


School: The 16th Amendment & Me

"In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes." - Benjamin Franklin

If you ever want a visceral demonstration of how things can get a bit out of hand when it comes to legislation, take a tax class in law school. My Income Tax course supplement, for example, is about twice the size of any other textbook I've ever used. It's only a tiny snippet of the actual tax code, with lots of sections completely omitted, but it still spans thousands of pages, and it's still a PITA to carry around.

Keep in mind the Feds didn't regularly tax income until the 16th Amendment was ratified in 1913. Only a century later, we have today's tax code, which is way too big to fit in one book (even just the income tax sections). The tax code is continually changed and amended by legislators, so much so that you need a new edition of the supplement every year just to keep up.

Monday, September 22, 2008

TV: The Bozo Show



I've heard that in times of stress, forgotten memories crawl up from the deep pit of your subconscious. While a lot of the kids' shows that were broadcast in the '90s are immortalized in YouTube form, there's comparatively scant coverage of "The Bozo Show," a production of WGN that was shown nationally.

As I understand it now, the Bozo character was licensed all over the country, but the WGN version starring Joey D'Auria is the one that I remember. It was a circus-themed variety show for kids, with vaudeville sketches, out-of-studio documentary segments, and of course, the Grand Prize Game.

The Grand Prize Game consisted of tossing a ping pong ball into increasingly distant buckets. The first couple of buckets were a gimme for all but the most inept contestants, but getting the ball into the last bucket wasn't easy. If you managed to complete the task, you received a new bike and fifty smackeroos for your trouble.

I'm not sure why I remember that.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Guns: Range Equipment

Aside from the basics, a trip to an outdoor shooting range benefits from having a few niceties around. Here are some that I've found are particularly handy:



Spotting scope - This is a monocular scope with a huge amount of magnification and a tripod for resting on a range bench. It's almost essential for shooting at a large public rifle range, since you simply can't call the firing line cold every time you want to check how your three-shot group looks, especially when people are in the next lane emptying mag after mag from their EBRs.



Staplegun - Most of the ranges I go to have low-tech target stands - simple frames made of wood and cardboard, essentially. If you want to put up a paper target that isn't a "Shoot•N•C" style sticker, you need a staplegun. Scotch tape will work in a pinch, but any light-duty staplegun will be better.



Benchrest - A good amount of the shooting I do isn't actually for testing my aiming skills, but for testing out the rifle and the rifle loads I've cooked up. You can improvise a benchrest using anything from your hat to a rifle case, but the real thing works the best. The cheapo kind can be found at Wally World, but if you want something fancy, it'd be best to hit a specialty shop somewhere.

Sundries: mosquito repellant, sunscreen, baseball cap - Shooting outdoors in Florida in the summer can be brutal - without some DEET on your epidermis, you're going to get sucked dry. Suncreen can be important if you're in a place that doesn't have covered shooting positions. A baseball cap helps to absorb sweat (that would otherwise go all over the rifle stock), shade your eyes, and deflect spend cases.

Sports: Half of winning...is not losing

Football, especially college football under the new clock rules (which cut down the average number of plays in a game by 10%), is a game about mistakes. And the SEC season opener for the Florida Gators yesterday was a good example of that. Here's some highlights (you can see how Tennessee fans started streaming out out after the Vols went scoreless for three quarters):



You see, UF didn't really beat Tennessee as much as Tennessee beat themselves. There were two incredibly costly turnovers in the red zone, there were failures on special teams (Brandon James, UF's star punt and kick returner, had a field day) - just a lack of preparation and practice on the part of the Volunteers. The Gators, for their part, gave UT enough rope to hang themselves with, with Tim Tebow playing well, but not as spectacularly as his Heisman-caliber 59-20 performance against Tennessee last year.

Food: Back Yard Burgers


Our family has adopted the saying, "You can have it good, cheap, or fast, but not all three at once." Fast food proves the point - when you're getting a burger, fries, and soda in 5 minutes for $5, you really can't expect a quality product if you're being honest with yourself. So, you make do with the best you can find.

In this area of the country, "Back Yard Burgers" is one of those one-step-above-McD's type of places. Their shtick is that they only use Black Angus beef in their patties. As any burger meister will tell you, though, even grocery-store grade ground chuck can taste excellent if it's cooked right, so that's a wash. Their default burger is good, with a strong charcoal-like flavor and decent ingredients, but I like the french fries (you can get seasoned OR waffle) the best.

2/4 stars

Movies: Mean Creek

The Culkins have sometimes had a rough time of it, with much-publicized custody battles and drug woes occasionally splashing onto the tabloids. It doesn't seem to affect their acting ability, though, as you can see from Rory's role in the 2004 film "Mean Creek":



Rory Culkin (best known for his role as Mel Gibson's asthmatic son in "Signs") stars as the lead character Sam, a likable kid who is getting bullied by George, played by Josh Peck (before Peck hit it big in the TV series "Drake & Josh"). When Sam's brother and friends hatch a plot to pull a prank on the unsuspecting George, the consequences of the decisions they make will change their lives forever.

"Mean Creek" is only director Jacob Aaron Estes second movie, but there's a lot of talent here. The film is part "Stand By Me," part "Deliverance," with a relaxed, natural style that pervades the acting, dialogue, and cinematography. I think the plot here is the largest weakness, with a rather implausible character reversal occuring right in the middle of the movie. In my experience, a bully is a bully - they just don't get nicer.

Rating: 7/10

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tech: Rock Band 2

"Rock Band 2," a music game from Harmonix, is a good example of a "more-of-the-same" sequel. It uses the same game engine as the original, and thus it really doesn't change the existing "Rock Band" gameplay. You still have guitar, bass, drums, and vocals, with all the music game conventions fans have come to expect. The game even reuses the vast majority of the existing art assets:



The biggest reason to plunk down your hard-earned $59.99 are the 84 new songs included on the disc. There are some incredible, iconic rock tracks here - everything from "Pinball Wizard" to "Everlong." Even the pop-rock songs are good this time around ("You Oughta Know" by Alanis Morissette is an inspired choice, especially for bassists).

But going to this new game doesn't mean abandoning your old songs. In a smart move, Harmonix has rigged it so both downloaded songs from the first "Rock Band" as well as 55 of the 58 on-disc songs can be ported seamlessly into the new game. The practical upshot is that RB2 is bursting to the gills with songs - my personal library has over 250 tracks.

For a "Rock Band" virgin, RB2 is the undoubtedly the best place to start. But for people who've already got their mileage out of their fake plastic instruments, you may be disappointed if you were expecting another rock revolution.

Rating: 80/100

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

TV: Those Seinfeld/Gates commercials

They're weird. And they don't seem to be promoting anything (the first spot only has a cursory mention of Microsoft, for example, and the second video doesn't mention it at all).



I suppose that Bill Gates still equals Microsoft to a lot of people (being one of the world's wealthiest men will tend to do that), but this is an awfully subtle way of keeping the company and its products relevant in the minds of computer users.



Maybe that's the point - even if the ads aren't very effective, they're a refreshing change from Apple's "I'm a Mac and you're a PC" TV spots, which tend to be rather blunt and in-your-face. The Mac spots were very effective at the beginning, but I think a lot of users tired of them and the smug tone they adopted.

Links: Blogroll Update

Just a random sampling of some blogs that I frequent - I also added them to the blogroll sidebar:

Home on the Range - One of the best blog titles I've ever run across, simultaneously conveying big Western spaces, a hot stovetop, and the crisp report of a firearm ("range" being susceptible to many interpretations). You'll see delicious food, fun gun reviews, and some other stuff.

Twenty Sided - Gaming in all its glory, with some strong coverage of the current DRM/piracy issues in PC gaming. Shamus Young, the author, has a taste in games is very similar to mine, so when he brings up game design topics, it always makes for a fun discussion.

The Smallest Minority - A very popular blog mostly focused on news and politics. Kevin writes from (and often quotes) numerous sources, skewering the MSM and collectivism with their own words.

Miscellany: Apples to Apples


Most of the board and card games featured here at Shangrila Towers contain heavy doses of strategy. Whether you're trying to puzzle out your position in "Tigris and Euphrates," looking down at a crap "Magic: The Gathering" hand, or trying to bluff your way to a big payout in Texas Hold 'Em, I tend to play games that require more skill than chance.

Once in a while, though, you just want to play a simple game with friends. "Apples to Apples" is a fairly mainstream card game that fits the bill perfectly. Players take turns being the judge. The judge picks out an adjective card ("sloppy," "macho," "frustrating," etc.) and all the other players pick out a noun card from their hand that they think best matches the adjective. The judge decides who is closest, that person wins the round, and play continues with a new judge.

If you just played it straight through, with no interaction, it'd be a fairly dry game. Thankfully, the judge always explains why he or she is rejecting certain cards, and some spirited (and hilarious) discussion can ensue. It's a fun enough party game, I guess, so give it a whirl if you have a willing crowd.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Happy Belated Birthday, Shangrila Towers

I've been at this for two years solid now, and I've found blogging is a great way to satisfy the urge to write (in my case, to write about the world and everything in it). You also get to interact with interesting people, either through comments, blog-to-blog interactions, or just plain reading someone else's work.

There's a lot of great stuff lined up for Shangrila Towers! I've already planned a few multiple-post articles reviewing some big new items, like the Dell Inspiron Mini 9. I know my posting has been a bit spotty as of late - still adjusting to my new school schedule.

Music: Tom Sawyer

I'm in a celebratory mood, despite all the bad stuff that's happened over the past few weeks. I'd even venture to say that I have a cautious optimism - I'm not Pangloss-like or anything, but believing the doom and gloom being tossed around the Web (especially in an election year) is a recipe for becoming out of touch with reality.

Which brings us to today's song selection, "Tom Sawyer," a popular song by Rush. It's long been a favorite of mine (libertarian-influenced prog rock featuring one of the world's greatest rock drummers? Bring it on!), but I never actually owned a copy until I saw "Moving Pictures" on sale for $7 in the UF law school bookstore, of all places (they also had other classic albums, like "2112" and Nirvana's "In Utero").

Here's a live performance from the old days. Even back then, you can see how dedicated Rush was to reproducing the studio sound of the album (Alex Lifeson, for instance, is using floor pedals to trigger effects in addition to playing guitar):



No, his mind is not for rent
To any God or government
Always hopeful yet discontent
He knows changes aren't permanent
But change is.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Tech: The Great Netbook Hunt

All the netbook hoopla started off with the Asus Eee, a tiny $300 laptop with a 7" screen and just enough power to run basic productivity applications. Since then, Asus has priced itself out of its own market with a bewildering array of options (including the Eee 1000, a 3 pound beast of a netbook that retails for nearly $600). It seems like every computer manufacturer on the planet is trying to fill the void, as this Cnet story indicates:



I got interested in netbooks after I started to realize that lugging around a 7 pound laptop from class to class gets old, fast. I first tried locating an Acer Aspire One, a well-reviewed netbook that once sold for the bargain price of $350. Unfortunately, at that price point, the One has the singular disadvantage of being impossible to find. Best Buy had some in stock a few weeks ago, but they've quickly sold out, and the market has fixed the real world price of the One at about $400.

Enter the Dell Inspiron Mini 9. It's undoubtedly the most configurable of the netbooks (you can add in more RAM, a bigger SSD, Bluetooth, and even a higher-quality integrated webcam), but the big draw for me is the miniscule form factor combined with acceptable battery life. I ordered one recently, and hopefully, it'll make taking notes in class less of a chore (as well as increase the number of Shangrila Towers posts I can make a day):

Miscellany: Hive


Most strategy games strive for "depth" - a nebulous term that describes how many effective tactics are available for winning the game. Without depth, a game often boils down to one optimal path that gets replayed over and over again (tic-tac-toe, for instance).

It's hard to measure "depth," so people tend to use state-space complexity (a measure of how many unique legal positions exist in a game) as a shorthand. Naturally, this skews the depth discussion in favor of games with huge playfields, like Go. But suppose you don't have a place big enough to plop down a 19x19 grid? Then you might whip out Hive, a tile-based game developed by John Yianni. It's a good example of how to limit a playfield while maintaining some sort of depth.

The object of the game is to surround your opponent's queen bee with other insect pieces (either yours or your opponents). You place various insects (spiders, beetles, ants, etc.) into the hive and attempt to maneuver them in for the kill. The insects have different ways of moving around the hive, with one huge limitation - they cannot break or separate the hive (all the pieces must be adjacent to each other after each move, in other words). It's a good way of boiling the action down to a manageable level, and the game is both portable and fun because of this limitation.

Friday, September 12, 2008

News: Scare Tactics

It's probably because I've spent my whole life in Florida, but the rather dire warnings officials have promulgated in Texas and Louisiana always seem to ring a bit hollow. You see, in Florida, we expect to get hit by multiple hurricanes every single year. All the building codes take this into account, especially after the property damage caused by Hurricane Andrew.

That doesn't mean people down in south Florida aren't well-prepared with canned food, bottled water, and other supplies, but it does mean a lot of people will bunker down in the face of a mere Category 1 or 2 storm rather than evacuate, especially if they don't live in a mobile home or the like. For storm neophytes, here's a little segment from CBS going over the basics:

Thursday, September 11, 2008

9/11




The day it happened was a half school day, so towards the end of the morning we started seeing the first videos of the attacks in NYC and Virginia. Obviously, classes basically stopped, and we were glued to the TVs.

The most vivid memory I take from that morning was the sight of my philosophy teacher, who had a daughter who was a police officer in New York. My teacher was frantically calling everyone she knew up there, hoping to hear from her daughter. The phone lines were jam packed, and the look of desperation and fear on her face has become, for me at least, a permanent reminder that violence against others can have horrific consequences.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Links: Board Games with Scott

Today's featured link is a pretty interesting video blog - "Board Games with Scott." It's a show that explores top-rated alternative, independent, and European-type board games. In each installment, host Scott Nicholson describes a board game from top to bottom, demonstrating basic gameplay, the game's physical components, and the strategies that may be necessary to play the game well. Here's an example:




The show works, I think, because of Scott's naturally easy-going demeanor. Anybody who doesn't mind having people on the Internet watch him LARPing has some serious stones. I wish he'd go through some of the all-time classics (like "Tigris & Euphrates"), but all in all, Scott's reviews are essential if you're on the fence about a strange new board game.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Movies: Teeth

I could say a lot about the premise of "Teeth," a low-budget black comedy/horror film directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, but it's probably easier (and more entertaining) to show you the trailer:



The story of "Teeth" is wacky, tongue-in-cheek, and surreal. There's some plodding predictability here that hampers the effect that the sometimes-disgusting silly parts have - soon you expect every male Dawn comes into contact with to rape her. Thankfully, Jess Weixler pulls off a rather guileless and believable performance, so Dawn always has the sympathy of the viewer, no matter what his or her gender might be.

There are a number of swipes at conservative religious types (especially at abstinence-only sex education), although the movie overall does seem a bit hypocritical. The only normal relationship in "Teeth" is the conventional, happily married life - all other couplings inevitably turn ugly (and bloody), which would seem to go with Dawn's initial leanings toward chastity. Additionally, the ...ahem...weapon Dawn uses in her struggles is never portrayed on-screen, mirroring her censored schoolbooks on human anatomy. Then again, maybe I'm overthinking a movie where the central theme is vagina dentata.

Rating: 5/10 (but only with friends supplying heckling and running commentary)

Guns: The Minimalist Handloader, Part 4 (long)

This week, we'll be taking a look at the entire reloading process, start to finish, with a series of pictures illustrating the whole thing. I was going to use .38 Special as an example, but I decided to use .223 Remington in order to show case trimming.

We start with fired brass. You can use 00-grade steel wool to polish a case pretty easily. Note that I tend to keep the ones I fire, so none of them are too dirty - if you use pickups from your local range you may need to get more comprehensive methods of cleaning.


Lube the outside of the case. avoiding the shoulder and outside of the neck. Make sure to lubricate the inside of the neck with a Q-tip, however.


Resize and deprime the case using the press. I like to use a separate dedicated decapping die for military brass - those crimped in primers can be a headache to punch out if you're busy resizing a case in the same motion.


The next few steps are optional for once or twice-fired handgun cases, but they're aboslutely essential for rifle cases. Measure the case length and see if it's okay. In this photo, 1.766" is over the max length for a .223 case, so we have to trim.


Here's the simplest trimmer you can buy - a shellholder and case length gage combo with a screw in trimmer. It's slow going if you don't have a power drill to put the shellholder in.


Trim the case mouth. Not all cartridge brass is identical - I've found my WWB and S&B cases trim easily, while the Prvi Partisan milsurp .223 cases can be a bit "gritty," for lack fo a better word.


After trimming, chamfer and debur the inside and outside of the case mouth.


That's it for the case length. Now ream out the crimp on the primer pocket. You can swage it if you want to get fancy, but the reamers seem to work fine.


Clean the primer pocket out. I've found that the primer pocket brush RCBS makes is aces for this work.


Now we get to the stuff where you need to pay attention. The previous steps could be done while watching TV - these next ones cannot. Pictured above is me using a hand-priming device to prime empty cases. It's pretty safe, but wear eye goggles!.




Next, weigh or measure your powder charge and funnel it into the case. This particular load is 20.8 grains of H335 driving a 55 gr boattail FMJ.



You're almost done - just seat the bullet. If you're loading for an AR-15, it's best to do an extra crimp to secure the bullet in place (I suggest only buying bullets with cannelures).

So there you have it. You've just reloaded .223 Remington with basic hand tools, all of which will fit inside a backpack and won't require any power source save elbow grease.

That wasn't so hard! Well, to be honest, it is pretty laborious, but if you can follow directions and pay attention, you'll have match grade target ammunition for much, much less than what it would cost to buy it.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Music: KCRW

For some reason, finding the right radio station in California was a chore. Maybe musical tastes differ on the other side of the country, but my Mom, bless her heart, couldn't find a soft adult contemporary station to save her life. For our part, my sister and I stumbled on KCRW, a relatively famous NPR/indie music station originating from Santa Monica College.

They offer streaming music over the Net, as well as podcasts. The flagship show for us during our stay in Cali was "Morning Becomes Eclectic," a show that features, as you might imagine, a diverse blend of music. They present live, in-studio performances every so often, like this one:

Food: All India Cafe


Indian buffets are pretty run-of-the-mill by now, but we managed to find a decent one in Santa Barbara. The All India Cafe is a restaurant that nestles happily in Santa Barbara's downtown, a stone's throw from the ocean. There are a few locations in California, but this particular one has the virtue of a great sea breeze to really stoke the appetite for curry and chutney. How did it fare?

Pretty well, I'd say. Highlights included the mint chutney (fabulous when teamed with the lamb vindaloo), a slightly spicy eggplant bharta, and fresh garlicky naan. The atmosphere was interesting, too - big flat panels on the walls showed off some of the best of Bollywood dance numbers. I wasn't a huge fan of some of the dishes (I've had much tastier tandoori chicken, for example), but all in all, a great deal for only $9.

2/4 stars

Miscellany: Back to Basics


During the trip to California, I spent a lot of time either at the hospital or out and about with family. I decided to go one step beyond "paleolithic computing;" I went out and bought the cheapest blogging device in the modern age: a pen and a shirt-pocket-size memo pad.

There are certain advantages to going back to pen and paper when traveling. It's cheap, obviously - the whole shebang was about 75 cents (would have been less, but I decided to spring for the fancy memo pads). You can bring the memo pad through security without having to lug out some electronic device for the TSA to inspect. The package is light, quick to start up, durable, and almost completely inconspicuous.

One big problem is that you have to retype everything once you get access to a computer. Another is that not everyone has great handwriting; it took me a while to decipher my own chicken scratches, for instance. But if you never want to lose an idea on the road, and if you don't want to carry any CMOS circuits on you, then paper it is.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Movies: Persepolis

Revolution can be fun at first, as "Persepolis" demonstrates. It's an animated film adapted from Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel, and it starts with much hope for change in Iran on the eve of the revolution:



Well, we all know how that went. And "Persepolis" is sometimes courageously unflinching in its portrayal of the fundamentalist regime. The movie's not out to criticize, and it never lets a political message sink the plot, but making cartoons that might offend radical elements of Islam has been, well, difficult in the past.

The movie does a good job of following young Marjane through adolescence and into her young adult years. The art style is unique, nicely aping Satrapi's books, and the stark use of black and white for much of the runtime gives the film a grittiness and emotion that would be lacking otherwise. There are also some hilarious moments involving '80s music - look for references to Michael Jackson and "Eye of the Tiger," specifically.

Where the movie sputtered a bit for me were the lengthy bits detailing Satrapi's life outside of Iran, and the various relationships she entered. The pace lets off here, and by the time both the plot and Marjane collect themselves and regroup, the passion of the opening 45 minutes has been diluted. Even with that caveat, though, it's still a good movie, and a good example of animation that isn't aimed at kids.

Rating: 7/10

Politics: Palin

I didn't want to get into the political scrum this cycle, mainly because the choices - Obama and McCain (or, in "Battlestar Galactica" terms, Baltar and Colonel Tigh) - are pretty similar when you really think about it. Both are sitting U.S. Senators, both have platforms that can be summarized as "goody bags with something for everyone" (examples - Obama promises a tax cut for families, while McCain promises portable, affordable healtcare), both have had enough media exposure over the last few years to last a lifetime. Ho hum. Another election.

And then there's Sarah Palin.

A fairly hardcore conservative and undoubtedly a shrewd politician, Governor Palin was a surprise choice for the VP spot. I won't comment on the merits of most of her policies; you can read about those elsewhere.

What is relevant for this blog is that Palin is the most visibly, definitively, unabashedly pro-gun rights candidate in a presidential election from a major party in...well...it's been so long I can't remember (maybe JFK? He was a lifetime member of the NRA, too - but gun control wasn't much of an issue back then). This isn't someone who hunts for photo ops, or is too squeamish to handle a modern carbine (sorry for the audio - this is inside an Army rifle simulator, BTW):

Tech: The Best of XBLA (Summer of Arcade Edition)

I've done several features covering the best titles available for the Xbox Live Arcade download service for the Xbox 360, but this past summer Microsoft has been bending over backwards to roll out blockbuster title after blockbuster title. Here are a few you might want to check out:

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2



The original "Geometry Wars" is an all-time XBLA classic, but its sequel really ups the ante. Although the asking price is now $10, you get a barrelfull of new gameplay modes, multiplayer options, and updated HD graphics that look great without sacrificing the original's neon space-age aesthetic.

As before, your task is to survive by destroying the hostile geometric shapes that constantly swarm all around you. Some of the modes probably aren't as polished as they could be ("Waves" mode in particular feels like an answer in need of a question), and there's no online play. On the plus side, the old blasting gameplay is as good as ever, and the game loads remarkably fast. All in all, this is the new king of XBLA shoot-'em-ups.

Bionic Commando Rearmed



If you're an oldschool gamer, you might have fond memories of "Bionic Commando" for the NES. That action-platformer stuck out because there was no way to jump - you had to swing and grapple using your character's bionic arm. With skill, you could string together effortless swings while bombarding enemies with firepower, and the whole thing was great fun. As a bonus, the end boss was a thinly-veiled Hitler clone whose head exploded upon defeat.

Capcom has really gone all out for this next-gen remake, adding in great HD graphics, a remixed soundtrack, and even extra content in the form of a new hacking minigame that is actually pretty fun. Well worth the 800 points, especially when you consider how awful most remakes of classic NES games are.

Galaga Legions



"Galaga Legions" isn't as good as the other games in this post, but it's still way more polished than most of the generic shovelware XBLA shooters. Brought to you by the team responsible for the excellent "Pac-Man Championship Edition," it's a reimagining of the classic arcade game with a lot of new wrinkles thrown into the standard dodge enemies/return fire gameplay.

The biggest addition are two deployable, indestructible satellites that augment your main ship's firepower. This injects some positioning strategy into the proceedings - a design tactic that has worked well for shooters like "R-Type" and "Gradius V." The paths of enemy waves are predefined and even displayed onscreen, so you'll always have a chance to plan ahead. Unfortunately, there isn't nearly as much content here as there should be, and the base gameplay isn't as fun as Pac-Man CE.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Miscellany: Dazed and Confused


My sister says that all hospitals, big or small, have the same smell. Literally, it's probably floor sanitizer, but figuratively, it's the scent of illness.

The hospital where I last saw my Grandma resembled a nursing home more than anything else. At certain time in the day, they trot out the mostly elderly patients into the hallways and common areas. The majority are wheelchair-bound, and many of them are content to simply wheel themselves to positions right outside the doors to their rooms.

A few, though, manage to get to the entrances to the hospital. There are big double doors, with sidelights that let in the crisp California sun. I see an old woman staring out the sidelight windowpane, motionless. She's looking at the outside, where it's breezy. When people walk through the entrance, she gives them a wave.

Movies: Eagle vs. Shark

I saw a pretty funny comedy before I learned the news of my grandmother's illness, and it wouldn't be fair to discard it just because of unfortunate circumstances. Here's the trailer for "Eagle vs. Shark," a film directed by Taika Waiti:



"Eagle vs. Shark" is about a shy girl named Lily who is smitten by a strange man named Jarrod. Both work in the same kind of dead-end retail job that seems to inspire comedies nowadays, and eventually Lily learns that Jarrod needs a trip back home to complete a mission of revenge. The movie gleefully follows the unlikely duo to Jarrod's hometown, and a good part of the running time is concerned with the misadventures that occur there.

I dislike simplifying a movie's premise to a tagline, but in this case, it's very apt - "Eagle vs. Shark" is essentially "Napoleon Dynamite" set in New Zealand. You have the same oddball characters, the same meandering plot, and even similar styles of semi-slapstick physical comedy. There are scenes that are riotously funny (look for a dead-on parody of "Mortal Kombat" early in the film) and scenes that are partly dramatic. Like "Napoleon Dynamite," though, the movie doesn't have the same punch of classic dramedies like "Little Miss Sunshine," muting the film's emotional appeal. Still, it's a tasty confection, and worth viewing.

Rating: 8/10

Miscellany: Going to California on a big jet plane...


Flying to California to see Grandma reminded me of when I was a little kid.

You see, back then, flying was an adventure. I always wanted to take the window seat, so I could marvel at what was happening outside. I watched other planes taxiing in front of us, the horizon tilting giddily away upon takeoff, frosty ice crystals forming on the window as we soared above the clouds.

I've lost a lot of that sense of whimsy. Now, I usually grab the aisle seat so I can get out of my seat easier. Flying has become commonplace; I sleep through most trips, my eyes closed to the mesmerizing spectacle happening right outside the window.

It's funny - even as recently as a hundred years ago, the experience of being so high above the Earth that the clouds look like an ocean of cotton, with blue sky all around...it would have been the thrill of a lifetime.

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