Friday, October 31, 2008

Tech: Dead Space

Making a truly scary video game is a rare accomplishment, so EA's Redwood Shores development team should be proud of "Dead Space":




In the game, Isaac is an engineer who's part of a team sent to repair the USG Ishimura, a mining craft located in an isolated planetary system. Unfortunately, the place is devoid of human life when Isaac's crew arrives. As you might expect, things go haywire, Isaac is trapped inside the derelict ship, and it's going to take a miracle for him to survive.


Playing the game is a fantastically creepy experience, thanks to top-tier production values and some slick gameplay design. The sound in particular is spot-on; whether it's the groaning of the ship's machinery or the howls of some unseen menace, you're rarely going to feel at ease in the corridors of the Ishimura.

The graphics are polished, with a solid framerate and good textures and models. It's perhaps a small step below something like the upcoming "Gears of War 2," but the game looks great in any case. There's no heads-up display in the game, either; all the interface elements (like your health bar and ammo counter) are slickly integrated into the gameworld. Your inventory and map appear as 3D holograms in-game, not as a separate screen. This means there's no break in the action - and that you're still vulnerable to attack when you're browsing through your inventory.


Admittedly, "Dead Space" cribs from a lot of other games. "System Shock 2" is the most obvious inspiration, but surely "Resident Evil 4" and the "Doom" series are influences. "Dead Space" also takes from a whole bunch of sci-fi horror movies. The hideous tentacled monsters Isaac fights are obviously inspired from "The Thing," while the monsters' tactic of moving through the ship's ventilation system is a nod to "Alien" and "Aliens".


The default "normal" difficulty is probably suitable for most people, but I found it to be a little on the easy side (my third-person shooter reflexes have been honed by "Gears of War," after all). If you pick hard mode, you're in for a long, thrilling ride.

Rating: 90/100

Halloween


Friday and Saturday Halloweens are the best ones, since for kids there's no school the next day and the holiday can be truly savored. Parents are also a lot more likely to take their kids out trick-or-treating. Anything that encourages the time-honored practice of going door to door for candyis good in my book; in our neck of the woods there is very little trick-or-treating.

I've talked about the mechanics of trick-or-treating in past Halloween posts, but now let's turn to the other side of the door - the people giving out the candy. Our family lived in a pretty average American suburb - the guy living down the street might be a police officer, or a retiree, or an electrician - so there was a huge variety of strategies for dispensing the sweet stuff.

For instance, there was a family that had its own popcorn machine that they parked in their driveway - dispensing stapled bags of fresh, buttered popcorn to kids and parents. A lot of homeowners preferred to spend the evening on lawn chairs in front of their garages, passing out candy right from there and having a chat with people as they went by. Other houses went all out in trying to spook kids - fake cobwebs, stuffed animatronic scarecrows, etc.

My family is pretty conventional - just run up to the door and pass out candy to trick-or-treaters as they ring the bell. Obviously it's best to do this in costume, but kids don't seem to care either way as long as the candy is decent. Finally, I think it's prudent to have some exterior indication that you're celebrating Halloween - a jack-o-lantern, a "Happy Halloween" door hanger, something - otherwise kids will avoid you. And no one wants that.

Politics: Well, at least something good's coming out of this blasted election cycle

Palin and Obama are working together...in "Mercenaries 2":



It'd be fun to shoot with Sarah in real life.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Movies: Poltergeist

In the spirit of Halloween, I've been reviewing horror movies this past month. Today's entry is "Poltergeist," a movie I've seen several times before:



In the movie, a typical American family in the suburbs experiences strange phenomena in their house. These occurrences eventually culminate in the mysterious disappearance of the youngest daughter, Carol Anne. The family's efforts to get her back occupy the rest of the film, along with some nifty-for-their-time special effects.

"Poltergeist" is a film steeped in controversy. First, there was some question as to who was the actual director of the film - rumor has it that Steven Spielberg, credited as producer and co-writer, was the de facto director instead of Tobe Hooper. More infamous, however, is the "curse" associated with the movie due to its misuse of prop skeletons that were, in fact, skeletons of actual people (talk about life imitating art).

Rating: 7/10 ("This house...is clean.")

Books: Dinotopia


Children are visual creatures, so it comes as no surprise that many books intended for younger audiences contain some striking illustrations. “Dinotopia,” a book by James Gurney, was one of the most conspicuous of these works when I was growing up. Gurney wrote and illustrated the book, and although the pseudo-travelogue prose is quaint enough, the amazing paintings of dinosaurs are what takes center stage.

There isn’t much (if any) conflict here – the place is supposed to be a utopia, after all. The narrator and his son are shipwrecked, eventually landing on the titular island where dinosaurs still roam and where people live side-by-side with them in harmony. There are some anatomical missteps (the T. Rex in particular is shockingly incorrect), and the many sequels and spinoffs have diluted the brand soemwhat, but I still have fond memories of "Dinotopia."

Tech: A tale of two sandbox sequels - "Mercenaries 2" vs. "Saints Row 2"

The "open world" or "sandbox" style of action game has been popular ever since the blockbuster success of "Grand Theft Auto III." Game developers have fallen over themselves trying to imitate or surpass the GTA series' freeform gameplay (GTA IV, the latest installment, has grossed something like 600 million dollars worldwide, so it's understandable). I've played a couple of the latest clones and found them to be as fun, if not more fun, than the games they are trying to ape.



Mercenaries 2: World in Flames



Like the title implies, Mercs 2 is mostly concerned with wanton destruction. There's only the barest attempt at a story, with most of the production resources going into the creation of a fully-destructible gameworld. You star as a mercenary who's been doublecrossed by the dictator of Venezuela, and now you have to lay waste to Caracas and its environs in order to get justice...and to make a few bucks on the side.



Mercs 2 ups the ante on GTA by including tons of military hardware right from the get-go. You'll be driving tanks, piloting attack choppers, and calling in artillery strikes and tactical nukes that can level entire city blocks. The actual on-foot gunplay isn't as precise as it should be, but you're given so many ways to blow up enemies that it rarely matters.

Almost everything you see can be destroyed, but there's a trade-off - the detail in pretty much all the models is a bit lackluster, and the game has a limited draw distance and sometimes ineffective level of detail scaling. Throw in some repetitive missions, and you have a very good game, but not a great one.

Rating: 85/100


Saints Row 2



If there was an award for crass gangsta stereotyping, SR2 would win it. Everything about it feels like an over-the-top parody of hood life, from the outrageous customizable vehicles (rims - they keep spinning) to the "cribs" that you can buy around the city. Heck, in the first twenty minutes of the game, we found ourselves beating the crap out of an army of garishly attired pimps.

The missions are much more varied than those of GTA IV. You can spray houses with raw sewage, repossess cars from deadbeats, and shoot down airplanes from a helicopter. The insurance fraud minigame in particular is hilarious fun - you throw yourself in front of traffic in hopes of causing as much damage to yourself as humanly possible.

Sadly, the game suffers from a lot of bugs. You'll see parked cars flipping end over end, bodies that clip and distort when you strike them, and even some nasty crashes and freezes. It's sad that a riotously fun game can be brought down by technical glitches - science trumps art sometimes.

Rating: 86/100

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Movies: In the Mouth of Madness


Sam Neill has appeared in quite a few interesting-but-flawed horror films (Omen 3, Event Horizon), though 1995's “In the Mouth of Madness” is probably the best effort he's been involved in.

It’s a horror movie directed by none other than John Carpenter. Trent is an insurance claims investigator who goes looking for Sutter Cane, a popular horror novelist that’s gone missing. Trent finds a small town in New Hampshire that’s seemingly straight out of one of Sutter Cane’s books. Did Cane base his latest book on this town? Is this some sort of publicity stunt by the publisher? Have Cane’s books literally driven the town mad?

The first third of the movie is all set-up, with some terrifically creepy reveals (a camera pan that reveals what's behind an old hotel desk is my favorite of the bunch). From there the whole thing loses a lot of steam; Carpenter tends to use the psychological terror inflicted on Trent as an excuse for lazy plotting. When monsters finally do make an appearance, they all look like rejects from "The Thing."

Still, thanks to good performances from Neill and Jürgen Prochnow and a pretty fun ending, it's a decent film for the Halloween season and a nice break from all the slasher movies out there.

Rating: 7/10

Miscellany: Slide Rule


Last week's post on obsolescence got me thinking, and the slide rule popped into my head. Why? Because even though the slide rule is obsolete, I think it remains the quintessential engineer's tool, a lot more so than the modern pocket calculator. That may sound a bit strange coming from a computer engineer, so here's my reasoning:

Typical calculators contain arithmetic logic units that spit out results nearly instantaneously; you punch in numbers, you get a number back in a vanishingly small amount of time (propagation delay for the simplest ALUs is on the order of nanoseconds). The calculator thus gives no explanation of what the intermediate results are when you do, say, a problem involving the ideal gas law. Even complex graphing calculators that include support for computer algebra work in the same fashion.

Slide rules aren't like that. You have to constantly conduct sanity checks on the results you're getting, because there's no indication of the order of magnitude of your answer on the slide rule itself - heck, you don't even get "exact" figures at the end to play around with. Every slide rule calculation ends in an estimation.

Most engineers don't mind these back-of-the-envelope figures, since a fast estimate often works just as well as a slow "exact" answer. In calculations filled with implicit assumptions and idealizations of the way the physical world works, a slide rule neatly reflects human uncertainty - and how we soldier on anyway. After all, the airplane was built with pencil and paper, not with fancy electronics.

Links: Raillery

Video podcasts (and especially comedy videos) are hit and miss. You have a lot of boxes to check off if you want to put something up that won't be embarrassing - decent camera work, decent actors, and a decent script. Raillery is a an example of a comedy video series that does teh Intertubez proud. The creator, Ross Payton, also does Role Playing Public Radio.

Here's a commercial for "Extreme Oregon Trail 13: Trail Harder" -



And my favorite bit - a session of character creation for a horror-themed RPG ("He fights evil monsters...also crime"):

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Food: Bacon Dogs

There's a bacon meme going around, and it reminded me of this rather poignant reason.tv spot about the "bacon dog" and how it's banned in California unless you have a big expensive hot dog cart:



Ms. Palacios was jailed for 45 days for selling bacon dogs. 45 days.

Just another reason not to move to California. ;-P

Miscellany: The D&D Basic set


I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons since I was a kid, but the first D&D product I ever actually bought with my own money was the "Classic Dungeons and Dragons Game" way back in 1994 (the seventeenth reprinting of the Basic Set). Until then I had mostly survived by borrowing other people's AD&D Player's Handbooks and Dungeon Master's Guides, so I wanted to start out proper.

Unfortunately, I didn't know at the time that the D&D rules were a split entity. You see, AD&D had its own rulebooks, while the boxed set was meant as a primer to the D&D "Rules Cyclopedia," hearkening back to the original basic versions of the game before many of the changes of AD&D. "Elf" was a class, for instance, and low-level magic users were incredibly vulnerable (I hope you use your level 1 magic missile when it counts, cause that's all you're casting for the combat). Characters even advanced in level at different rates in order to balance them, which seems crazy nowadays.

The set was fairly complete, though - you received dice, a DM screen, a map, miniatures for the PCs, cardboard cutouts for the monsters, and a fairly comprehensive 128 page rule booklet. The starting adventure was great, too. You were a prisoner in Zanzer Tem's dungeon, and the opening encounters had a "choose your own adventure" format that had a big influence on how I think about DMing. All in all, it was a great package.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Books: The Incredible Shrinking Man


Richard Matheson is a master at capturing the loneliness of a protagonist. While many are familiar with "I Am Legend" because of the recent film adaptation, Matheson also explored the "last man in the world" theme early on in his writing career with "The Incredible Shrinking Man."

It's a novel concerning an Everyman named Scott Carey, who, by freak chemical accident, begins to shrink. The tone is deadly serious - the shrinking isn't played for laughs, but portrayed as a disease that gradually consumes the main character, both mentally and physically. Eventually, our hero becomes so small that even a black widow spider is a deadly threat, and trekking across the basement turns into a prolonged journey.

The isolation Carey feels is palpable, but it starts even before the basement sequence. In the weeks where he shrinks down to mouse-size, Carey becomes sexually frustrated, powerless, and dominated. He is bullied by teenage boys and toyed with by his own 5-year old daughter. It's an angle that probably wasn't expressed as sullenly in the 1957 film version as it is in the novel.

There's a certain mysticism in "The Incredible Shrinking Man" that's not present in "I Am Legend." The ending in particular is one of Matheson's best; it might not be scientifically accurate, but it conveys a lot of optimism and wonder. If you were put off by the final message of "I Am Legend," you might like this one more.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Movies: Schlocky Horror Double Feature - "Bug" and "High Tension"

It's October, and that means a veritable onslaught of horror movies are coming down the pike. Unfortunately, I've seen a good chunk of the noteworthy horror movies out there, so finding something new and interesting occasionally turns into a scavenger hunt. Today, I'll be talking about two flicks that I saw back-to-back over the weekend that exhibit some interesting similarities - "Bug" and "High Tension":

BUG


Mention William Friedkin to a random passerby and you'll either get a blank stare or a "Hey, is that 'The Exorcist' guy?" for a response. Friedkin's been directing films for a long time, but his greatest hits came way back in the '70s, with both "The Exorcist" and "The French Connection" continuing to entertain nearly forty years after they first debuted. I'll venture to say that"Bug," Friedkin's latest movie, probably won't go down in cinema history, but it's decent:



"Bug" is a meditation on paranoia and loneliness, with a pitch-perfect performance from Michael Shannon, who also plays this part in the play that the film is adapted from. It's about a drifter who starts shacking up with a bar waitress in a cheap motel room, but then encounters mysterious insects that threaten both his body - and his mind.

A lot of the plot points are pretty obvious, but there's a funny intensity to the story that really makes the last half-hour or so an enjoyably manic romp. I really wish the beginning third of the movie was paced better, and the fact that this is an adaptation of a theatrical production means that the claustrophobia Friedkin brings to the screen feels somewhat trite and artificial.

Rating: 6/10


HIGH TENSION


After watching "Bug," we popped in "High Tension," a French slasher flick directed by Alexandre Aja (who would later go on to direct the remake of "The Hills Have Eyes"). It's a fairly typical genre film - a farmhouse in the country, a couple of young women, and a demented serial killer on the loose:



First off, there are some interesting moments of gore and violence here. If seeing someone's chest get cut apart with a circular saw sounds appealing to you in any way, than you might like some of the stuff that goes on in the movie. Without giving too much away, the killer has a distinct personality that really projects a malevolent glee.

The twists and turns of the plot though (especially the "Fight Club"-style ending) turn out to be unsatisfying in the extreme; the director eventually cheats the audience wholesale without much in the way of explanation. It's lazy filmmaking, and it does detract from the whole experience.

Rating: 4/10

Tech: Peggle

In the world of casual games, PopCap is king, mostly due to the success of "Bejeweled." Matching gems might be nice for awhile, but I think the visceral action of "Peggle" tops it:




It's a perfect game to play on a new netbook, mostly because of the modest system requirements and simple, lighthearted gameplay. Think of "Peggle" as a cross between pachinko and "Breakout." You shoot balls from a launcher at the top of the screen, and the ball lights up whatever pegs it touches. Clear all the target orange pegs to clear the level - but you only have ten balls to do it with. Thankfully, new balls can be earned in various ways.

One of my friends remarked that the art style looks like it was designed for 7 year-old girls, and I'd have to agree - everything is cute, with a rainbow of colors and flashing lights to please the senses. "Peggle" actually looks its best in 800x600, so it's really a perfect time-waster for an ultraportable computer. When Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" starts blaring when you complete a level, you can't help but smile.

Rating: 79/100

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Miscellany: A Long-Expected Auction


I'm taking Art Law with Professor Price (the Associate Dean of the Library) this semester, and one of the assignments listed in the syllabus that we received on the first day of class was to attend a local auction - the Turkey Creek Antique Auction in Citra, Florida. It was an interesting experience, so I think it's worth a blog post.

Citra is fairly out of the way - half an hour from Gainesville, in the middle of a rural area of north Florida. The auction house itself is like a giant barn, and the auction is being held at night - with great pitch black swathes of countryside surrounding the activity inside. For a moment, the universe consists of this out-of-the-way barn and the people inside.

The auctioneer is funny and personable, with the frenzied voice you might expect from someone who literally calls out bids for hours at a time. The buyers are mostly older folks, including a lot of area antique dealers. All sorts of things are being sold - jewelry, furniture, old knickknacks, a vintage Marilyn Monroe calendar (featuring the image that would eventually be used for her memorable Playboy centerfold photo).

Heck, they're even selling some old shotguns. These are ratty guns from some attic, not serviceable by any stretch of the imagination. One sells for $45, another pair of broken "as is" shotguns sells for $25.

If there is any decent art for sale, I sure as heck don't see it. Some tacky Tiffany-style lamps, some cut glass bowls, some dark oil paintings of the Stations of the Cross; it's like all the farmhouses and estates of northern Florida vomited out their contents into the back room of the auction house. It's no surprise when I leave empty-handed.

Guns: Handloading for the AR-15


In my experience, constructing .223 Remington ammunition for the AR-15 poses some unique problems.

Many are related to the AR's idiosyncratic direct impingement gas system. Load up a cartridge with too little powder, and it won't have enough juice to operate the action fully; typically this means the bolt won't lock back on the last round fired in a magazine. Depending on what type of powder is being used, a reduced load may not even feed the next round at all. Some powders are dirtier than others, which may make cleaning the AR's many small parts quite a chore.

Some are common to autoloading firearms in general. If you use heavier (and thus longer) bullets in your loads, you have to be careful that feeding isn't compromised. My typical .223 load uses a fairly vanilla 55 grain boat tail FMJ, but some of the heavy 75+ gr. match bullets are really stretching the limits of the caliber. In any case, the feeding cycle of an autoloader is pretty rough on a loaded bullet, so I crimp all my rifle cartridges.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Miscellany: Millionaire's Club


Kay's Coffee closed this summer and became Momoyaki, a Japanese-Asian fusion restaurant. Losing my favorite coffee house was a bitter blow; I had written entire term papers in Kay's, after all. My search for alternate coffee houses yielded Coffee Culture, which is a good joint. Unfortunately, it's also relatively far away and inconvenient.

Strangely enough, though, the local Books-A-Million bookstore has a "Joe Muggs" coffee-serving area inside their store. With a "Millionaire's Club" card, you can get free wireless Internet there, and you can order up some fairly strong coffee at a 10% discount. Their store is also open fairly late - until 11PM on most nights.

Doing schoolwork is okay there, I guess, but where Books-A-Million really shines is late night D&D prep. If you need to reference something, all the 4th Edition D&D books are a stroll away, and in my local store, at least, they don't mind if you bring them right to your table to flip through. It's massively convenient to be able to access stuff like "The Adevnturer's Vault" without having to pay for the books.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sports: The Vow

After a humbling loss at home to Ole Miss, UF quarterback Tim Tebow was teary-eyed and shell-shocked:

"To the fans and everybody of Gator Nation, I'm sorry. Extremely sorry. We wanted an undefeated season. That was my goal, something Florida has never done here. I promise you one thing, a lot of good will come out of this. You will never see any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season. You will never see another player push his team as hard as I will push everybody the rest of the season. You will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season. God bless."

From a lot of other players, such words would ring hollow, or worse, would sound like bravado. But as Saturday's 51-21 rout of LSU proved, Tim Tebow is not like a lot of other players:



The Gators indeed played harder than they have all season, dominating the LSU offense early and scoring with regularity through most of the game. You simply cannot win a football game without controlling the line of scrimmage; the Gator defensive line finally looked like a cohesive unit, featuring the same sort of bend-don't-break mentality that carried UF to a national championship in 2006.

Whether the momentum remains through the grind of the SEC schedule is anyone's guess, but for now, the Vow appears poised to live on in the memories of Gator fans.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

School: How (Not) to Do Legal Research

Compared to most in my school, I'm not a legal research whiz, but I do know a little about it.

The old saying, "Quantity has a quality all its own" applies a lot in legal arguments - the more court opinions you can find that back up what your position is on a specific legal issue, the more likely it is that a judge'll buy it. Whether it's the "right" choice or not is a whole 'nother story. There's some legal theories out there that posit that even if cases were decided by a coin flip, given enough time, the wiser choice on an issue will win out since more aggrieved parties will come forward under a bad rule (tell that to Mr. Dred Scott).

Modern research is easier than it used to be, of course. You can literally get through law school in the 21st century without ever cracking open a federal reporter; online legal databases to do most of the heavy lifting. All that's needed is a discriminating eye to find what's helpful and what's not.

With that in mind, here are some tips for the junior researchers working under me:

1) All cases need cites. Giving me the party names isn't quite worthless, but it's a time-waster.

2) Not everything a court says is helpful, or even relevant (not entirely your fault, since modern casebooks spoonfeed you the issues).

3) When a case cites another case or statute, open the cited authority in a new browser tab and check it out. You'll be glad you did.

4) Paraphrasing an opinion is dangerous unless you are precise. It took me a whole summer's worth of antitrust research to figure that one out.

5) Know the question you are researching. Off-topic research is very tedious to work through.

Movies: The Signal

"The Signal" is a horror film directed by David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry. It's about a signal that is broadcast one day that causes people to behave irrationally...sometimes murderously so:



"The Signal" is split into three parts. The premise, characters, and plot of each part are continuous, but the tone is not, since each part has a different director. The first is more or less straight horror, the second is an earnest attempt at black comedy, and the third has an adventure movie/romance type of feel. It's an interesting concept, though the actual idea of a malevolent signal crashing society has been seen before ("Pulse" comes immediately to mind, as does "Cell" and even "The Crazies").

I suppose I wanted to like the movie (the premise is suitably post-apocalyptic, which is right up my alley), but the tonal changes are so abrupt that it's hard not to be reminded of superior films. George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead," for instance, mixed black comedy, social commentary, and horror, without the clumsy breaks that "The Signal" relies upon. I like paranoia and gore as much as the next fellow, but not enough to excuse a flimsy plot.

Rating: 4/10

Monday, October 13, 2008

Miscellany: A Different Kind of Campaign Trail, Part 4


If I recall correctly, there was a pretty significant backlash some time ago against D&D Dungeon Master screens, the folding pieces of cardboard that DMs traditionally used to separate themselves from the players.

The thinking on DMing at the time was to remove barriers between yourself and the players. The screen hampered your ability to communicate the action effectively, and the physical divide supposedly served as a constant reminder that a game was being played.

DM screens have been rehabilitated a bit in the post 4E-era, especially considering the sheer number of dice rolls that have to be made without the players knowing the result. I also tend to prep my adventures on paper instead of on a laptop, so having the screen helps to keep a lot of the dungeon layouts and adventure hooks hidden from prying eyes.

The official 4th Edition DM screen, at least to my knowledge, is the nicest screen Wizards of the Coast has ever produced. The screen material is heavy cardstock that's similar in weight to the covers of the core rulebooks. In other words, this screen ain't tipping over any time soon.

The outside of the screen is adorned with artwork depicting mostly Underdark monsters. I still wish they had a three-panel screen (the full four-panel, landscape orientation screen takes up a lot of real estate on the gaming table), and there's some errata that's changed the content of some of the rules listed on the screen itself, but all in all, it's a good product.

(Rant) In the year 1492, Columbus...

...shut down the U.S. Postal Service for one day in October.

I rolled up to the post office this morning so I could mail an electric toothbrush to Mom, when I noticed the parking lot was empty. Yeah, the place was closed because of Columbus Day.

Why is this a federal holiday? Columbus wasn't American. He didn't "discover" America, nor was he the first European to reach the Americas. I'm sure he was a great explorer and all, but it just seems like there's so many fine Americans that are more deserving of the honor.

Oh well...if Columbus Day pisses off Hugo Chavez, I guess I can get behind it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Links: The Guild

The Web is a big place, so big that it's easy to miss independently-produced content no matter how famous or well-promoted it is. Case in point: I watched "The Guild" for the first time this weekend:



"The Guild" is a comedy web series created by Felicia Day and directed by Jane Selle Morgan and Greg Benson. The show focuses on a guild of MMO players and their awkward interactions with real life. The show's won a boatload of awards, so it's really astonishing that I had never heard of it.

A lot of the actors are improv theater alums, which explains why the series draws comparisons to "The Office." There are moments of cringe-inducing hilarity (especially from Clara, a character who's so addicted to playing that she forgets to feed her children), but it's all very tongue-in-cheek; don't expect some "Mazes and Monsters" excoriation of MMO gaming.

In fact, Felicia Day, who also stars in the series, is a lifelong gamer herself. And not "hardcore" in the "Yeah, I play Halo once in awhile" sense - I'm talking Amiga-Zork-King's Quest-WoW kind of experience. "The Guild" reflects this knowledge, so it's essential viewing for anyone familiar with the vocabulary; if you know terms like "pulling" or "dps," you'll fit right in here.

Tech: Acer Aspire One Review


Like most things, a netbook is a compromise. They're small and inexpensive, but you give up usability and performance. The Acer Aspire One doesn't really break out of this mold; it still has a cramp-inducing keyboard, a tiny 8.9" screen, and a processor that sometimes struggles with YouTube videos. Throw in the 2-1/2 pound, trade paperback-sized form factor and a $350 asking price, however, and you might have yourself a deal.


CASE DESIGN & FORM FACTOR


The term "fingerprint magnet" gets tossed about a lot these days, but the Aspire One deserves the appellation. The outside of mine is a beautiful glossy blue - or it was, rather. Because after using it for about a day, the grease from your hands makes interesting streaks all over the outside cover. Ditto for the inside, too: the screen, the screen bezel, and even the palmrests show smudges like no one's business.

Aside from that, though, this is a pretty solid-looking netbook. I liked the orange flourishes on the screen hinge (orange and blue - go Gators!), and I thought the overall contours of the Aspire One were attractive. The One certainly doesn't look like a toy, which certainly distinguishes it from the previous generation of ASUS Eee netbooks.


KEYBOARD & DISPLAY


I'm getting used to the keyboard a bit more. Aside from the size, the keyboard has fairly run-of-the-mill tactile response to your keystrokes. It actually reminds me of an old Sager desktop replacement I had - a little mushy, a little uncertain. At least all the keys are in or near the standard positions, unlike some other netbooks.

The 8.9" screen is passable, with decent vertical viewing angles and mediocre horizontal angles. One thing you have to realize is that a netbook screen is the smallest thing you've ever tried to compose a document on - you'll get severe eyestrain in a short time if you aren't careful to take breaks every now and again. Also, you wouldn't want to write your term paper on this sucker without hooking up an external monitor.


PERFORMANCE & BATTERY LIFE


These two categories are actually intimately linked when you're talking about netbooks. You see, when the Aspire One is plugged into a wall outlet, the Intel Atom processor inside can work at full throttle. I've heard that when it's working at full tilt, an Atom is like a old 1.2 GHz Pentium M. You can stream movies from the Web, and you can even play basic 3D games (the original Half-Life ran okay).

When off the wall, the Aspire One slows down noticeably. Sometimes, I literally can't open searches in Westlaw because the thing gets so pokey. About all it's good for then is web surfing, e-mail, mp3s, and basic office productivity apps. On top of that, the battery only lasts for 2 to 2-1/2 hours before giving up the ghost. Then again, if you're using the Aspire One continuously for more than that, you're probably going to need a new pair of prescription glasses.


CONCLUSION


So is the Aspire One for you? I suppose that depends on what your expectations are. I could actually see students using this thing as their only computer (hooking up an external keyboard/monitor when it comes time to work on that big project). When people asked me how much the Aspire One ran, they seemed amazed that you could buy such a small computer for $350. The One is smaller than most of my law school textbooks, for crying out loud. In any case, the market has spoken - the One has become a smash hit.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Books: Thunderspire Labyrinth


I've never read a 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure module before, so it was with high hopes that I picked up "Thunderspire Labyrinth," an adventure taking player-characters through 4th to 6th level. Typically, I like to come up with most of the content in my D&D campaign myself, but with the demands of law school and trial competitions pressing in, it's nice to have some help now and again. Supposedly, these published adventures speed up prep time by offering pre-statted encounters, preconstructed dungeons, and even a simple premade plotline.

From time immemorial, most D&D modules have been focused on two things - combat and dungeon exploration. These two activities are common in most D&D games, and published modules obviously have to appeal to a wide audience. For this reason, my approach to these adventure supplements is to steal anything that I find interesting, not to use them wholesale. I feel that dropping in an official adventure can lead to flavorless game sessions unless you're an extraordinary DM (a truly great DM can add pizzazz to even a straightforward dungeon crawl).

"Thunderspire Labyrinth" contains two adventure booklets, a fold-out battle map, and a folder to keep it all in. There are some 30 encounters, ranging from simple kick-in-the-door battles against goblins and orcs to more complicated shootouts involving evil wizards. It's all spread amongst four minidungeons - two of which are fairly vanilla, and two that are fantastical in the extreme (read: demonic pools of blood).

It looks fun, and I got some interesting ideas for encounters and dungeons, but I'm not sure it's worth the MSRP. For one thing, Wizards of the Coast took some shortcuts in its publishing - there's no back cover to the second adventure booklet, for some reason, and the lone battlemap doesn't display enough of any one dungeon to be useful. On the other hand, they do include some new monster stats (yay for duergar!) and the overall environments are handled well. I guess I just expected more from "Red Hand of Doom" alum Richard Baker.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Guns: Public Range Musings (alternate post title: What is Free has no Value)

There are a couple of free public rifle ranges near Gainesville. Both are fairly far away, though - there's a rifle range in Lake City, and another in the Ocala National Forest. I've only been to the Lake City one, but what I saw there was instructive.

The first thing you notice when you walk towards the range are holes. Bullet holes. In everything. The concrete range walls, the bathroom stalls - hell, even the sign out in the front of the facility has - or has had - holes in it. It's a dirty thing, human nature; apparently, when no one's around, people think they have license to act like idiots.

The range has only a few rules about what you can fire - no tracers, no shotguns. Machine guns are permitted, as well as exploding Tannerite targets. You'd think that'd be fun enough for people, right? Until some jackass shooting tracers lights half the woods behind the berm on fire, and my friends have to haul water to put out the flames.

And it's not even a large number of people causing the trouble. The range has a lot of good folks caring for it, and most shooters do follow the rules. But if there was ever a case of a few bad apples spoiling the barrel, this is it.

Shooting at a private range might be a bit more solitary and dull to some folks, but it's sure as heck safer.

Music: My Favorite Things

There's a lot of doom and gloom being bandied about these days, but, as the tagline at the top of this blog indicates, I fancy myself an optimist. One of the best anthems for this point of view is found in the musical "The Sound of Music" - the anthemic, the immortal "My Favorite Things."

Now, some people have confused this for a Christmas song (it's not), but it does have some holiday imagery (the snowflakes, silver white winters, brown paper packages, etc.). The most well-known version is of course Julie Andrews' performance in the film adaptation, but the song's really at home on the stage. Here's Connie Fisher singing it:



John Coltrane also recorded a jazzy sax-based version of this song, which is a little less cheery but quite a bit more relaxing:

Politics: Hoping for a change?

Watch this 1-minute montage from the second presidential debate, and pour yourself a strong one:



I guess the moral of the story is to never expect change from two sitting U.S. senators. Heck, even Bob Barr, the Libertarian candidate, was a supporter of the "War on (Some) Drugs," the USA PATRIOT Act, and even the Defense of Marriage Act. Although he's since recounted each and every one of those positions, it still doesn't inspire confidence. Is anyone even going after the small-government vote anymore?

Links: Hulu.com


There's been a conscious attempt from most of the major TV networks and movie studios to curtail illegal downloading by providing free streaming content over the Web. One of the largest of these endeavors is Hulu.com, a site owned by NBC Universal and News Corporation.

I've blogged about this type of distribution method before, but Hulu is easier to access and doesn't require a separate application. The site even has a fairly diverse selection of content, including full TV episodes and movies with quality that's a step higher than the usual YouTube fare. Of course, you're going to need a fairly beefy broadband connection to watch stuff at 480p quality, but if you've got the pipe, you can spend a lot of time there.

Strangely enough, Hulu has become a favorite site to test out a new netbook's capabilities, so I fired up my Acer Aspire One and wasted no time in queueing up an episode of "The Simpsons." Playback was fairly smooth, as long as I was plugged in - more about that later...

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Tech: Acer Aspire One first impressions

I’m composing this post on the Acer Aspire One, a netbook released this past July:



I had originally planned to get the Dell Inspiron Mini 9, but after my order got delayed, twice, I decided to just grab an Aspire One off of Newegg.com. I've been using it for the past couple of days, so it's time for some first impressions...

The Aspire One is one of the first examples of the second generation of netbooks – powered by Intel’s Atom processor. The Atom was designed from the ground up to maximize performance per watt, and it generally does a good job (although Via's upcoming Nano chip is supposed to be considerably more powerful). It's currently mated, however, to the power-hungry 945SE chipset, so it doesn't run quite as efficiently as it could. The Aspire One, for instance, can get fairly warm, even with the fan running full blast.

The keyboard on the Aspire One is good by netbook standards – which means “barely tolerable” in absolute terms. I mean, there's some people who find normal notebook keyboards too great a compromise – just think what’ll happen when they encounter the Aspire One, with a shrunken keyboard that makes comfortable touch-typing nearly impossible. I've always employed a semi hunt-and-peck typing style, so it's not a dealbreaker for me, but most people should try before they buy.

The Synaptics touchpad is small, but usable, with left and right mouse buttons that run vertically instead of horizontally. I don't mind this configuration as much as some reviewers, simply because putting the buttons on the side of the touchpad gives your other hand a perch on the tiny palmrests. The sheer number of built-in touchpad gesture functions is bewildering, but I disabled most of them.

As I spend more time with this thing, I'll post a full review.

TV: Planet Earth

Nature documentaries have long been popular, but the advent of HDTV has afforded the home viewer with some truly jaw-dropping views of the natural world. The flagbearer for this new wave of high-fidelity documentary is "Planet Earth," a series originally developed by the BBC:



Each episode focuses not on a specific animal, but a portrait of a particular type of habitat on Earth. Like most nature shows, "Planet Earth" is educational in nature, with the explicit message that humanity's actions could wreck the environment and everything that you see on-screen. It's one thing to hear about the melting polar ice, and it's quite another to see a polar bear struggling across an endless tract of ocean because there's no solid ice to hunt seals.

Still, the focus is on the pretty pictures, with some truly astounding camera work (including views from orbit). The laconic narration (in the U.S. version of "Planet Earth," Sigourney Weaver takes over narrating duties for David Attenborough) isn't obtrusive, so the show never gets too preachy. If you need a way to show off your shiny new HDTV, "Planet Earth" is a good bet.

Books: Forgotten Realms Player's Guide


Supplements for pen-and-paper role-playing games are colloquially known as "splatbooks." These splatbooks provide new rules, new options, and new flavor for both the DM and the players, although most supplements are targeted at one or the other. There haven't been many official splatbooks for 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, so I picked up the new Forgotten Realms Player's Guide and thumbed through.

The book starts off with a couple of new player races, the Drow and the Genasi. The Drow might as well have a "hey, you can finally play as Drizzt in 4E" tag, since that's clearly where all the Drow flavor is directed towards. The Genasi are neat elemental humanoids (water, fire, earth, etc.) that have several abilities that you can pick and choose from - customization galore.

The part of the FRPG that'll hold the most interest for most people, though, is the new Swordmage class, a defender that uses magic to augment his or her skill at swordplay. There are two main builds - either an assault-type that can use an instant teleport power to take the fight to a monster, or a shielding-type that prevents damage from marked creatures from reaching your allies. The Swordmage is intelligence-based, and most of the powers can hit multiple enemies (giving it some of the ability of a controller). The Fighter is still best at delivering straightforward damage, so there doesn't seem to be too much power creep here.

There are also quite a few new paragon paths. While most are ostensibly tied to the Realms, they can easily be deflavored and added to any game. The final interesting bit is the new Spellscarred character mechanic - essentially a multiclass path with a voluminous powers list to choose from - again, easily reflavored to most campaigns.

The FRPG also includes a brief gazetteer of Toril, the fictional planet where the Forgotten Realms is set. I appreciate that they don't give you too much information - it helps DMs keep a sense of mystery for their games - but it's a pretty flavorless read, especially if you aren't interested in the Realms. Rounding out the book are some new feats and rituals.

So is this worth a purchase? For the steep MSRP of $30, I'd have to say no, but if you can find it on sale, it's probably worth it for the new character options.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Tech: Obsolescence

I was cleaning out my desk today when I noticed a box of these:


When was the last time you actually used a floppy drive? Between USB, rewritable CDs, and the Internet, there just aren't a lot of circumstances where the end user would need one.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Movies: The Frighteners



Peter Jackson's best known for directing the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but a lot of horror fans enjoyed "Braindead" (AKA "Dead Alive") more than anything Jackson's done with Frodo or Aragorn. It made sense, then, that Jackson's first truly mainstream film before hitting it big was "The Frighteners," starring Michael J. Fox.

The movie is two parts horror and one part comedy, a sort of inversion of the "Ghostbusters" formula. Frank Bannister (played by Fox) is a psychic detective who cons people; the twist here is that Bannister actually can communicate with the other side, and he uses his ghostly companions to help with his frauds. Everything seems fine until he becomes involved in a series of mysterious deaths. Michael J. Fox does a good job here in his last major film role, as a lonely widower with a dark outlook.

For some reason, "The Frighteners" was saddled with an R rating instead of the teen-friendly PG-13, which killed most of the movie's potential audience. Following the MPAA ruling, Jackson decided to amp up the gore in a few places (might as well, right?), which makes the film feel uneven. At times it's lighthearted, but the final sequence (featuring a seriously deranged character played by Dee Wallace-Stone) is pretty much straight action-horror. The movie also overstays its welcome (the Director's Cut is even longer), so much of the later third of the film feels gratuitous.

Rating: 7/10

Saturday, October 04, 2008

News: O.J., Then and Now

A moment from one of the most famous trials in the 20th century:



A portion of Cochran's closing: "If the gloves don't fit, you must acquit":



And now:

Tech: 12" Apple Powerbook G4 impressions (A Prelude to the Mini 9)


I'm hopefully going to receive my new Inspiron Mini 9 netbook from Dell this week, so I thought it might be instructive to look at a precursor to the current subnotebook fad - the 12" Powerbook G4 laptop. Apple doesn't sell this model anymore, although it's readily available on eBay (the last hardware revision was in 2005, and it was discontinued in 2006). I managed to use one for a few hours, so it'll give me a good point of reference when the Mini 9 finally gets here.

It's a shame that Apple doesn't sell this type of notebook anymore, since this is a very usable size (actually, Steve Jobs might announce something like this at an Apple event about a week from now). The 12" XGA display looks great, and the screen real estate is large enough to get some real work done. The keyboard is basically full-size, with a standard layout and decent feedback from keystrokes. The trackpad works well; I do wish there were two mouse buttons (hey, I'm a PC user at heart). My particular example was kitted with OS X, and loading applications was fairly speedy for the most part.

The 12" Powerbook G4 laptop is also a sterling example of one thing Apple has had for many, many years now: best-in-class product design. The aluminum case, the distinctly modern curved corners, the nifty internal slot-loading disc drive - there's a level of care here that makes lesser laptops seem like toys or knockoffs. The aluminum case can get dented, however, and Apple had to recall some of these for battery problems.

The largest problem the G4 has, in my view, is the weight - the G4 tips the scales at nearly 5 pounds. This is certainly lower than most mainstream laptops but 1 or 2 pounds heavier than most ultraportables, as most 12" laptops omit the disc drive. The Inspiron 9, by contrast, weighs half as much as the G4 and occupies about 30 percent less volume. It's going to be interesting to see whether the weight and size advantages of the Dell outweigh the keyboard and display tradeoffs.

Guns: Wringing Out the RAMI

Here's another post from THR archives - an old review of the CZ RAMI pistol, back when I first got my CCW permit:

Wringing out the RAMI - Review & Range Report
My concealed weapons permit came in the mail yesterday and I picked up my 9mm RAMI from my FFL today. I took it out shooting (after my circuits exam, though ;p) at a local indoor range. I only had half an hour, so I could only run about 200 rounds through it before I had to clean up my brass and leave.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

I bought the gun NIB for $490 after shipping and transfer fee. It came with a case, manual, 2 10-round mags, lock, snap caps, cleaning tools, and a mag loader. It's the first time I've ever bought a new handgun, so I was impressed with all the junk they give you.

Though the dimensions of the RAMI are close to a Glock 26 or XD subcompact, there's no denying this is a chunky gun. The slide is about the same width as my CZ-75, but the frame is noticeably thicker (CZ-75 on left):


The RAMI has an abbreviated barrel and grip when compared to the CZ-75. The shorter barrel makes sitting more comfortable, and the shrunken grip drastically reduces "bend-over" type printing when carrying IWB (at least for me).

Many parts of the gun strike me as overly wide - the hammer, the trigger guard, the beavertail, and the mag release. It handles much like a CZ-75, however, and the back and front of the frame have striations for added control. The CZ factory rubber grips that come with the RAMI are fairly thin and give you a good grip on the pistol. All in all, I was impressed with how well the gun pointed and came on target - basically as good as my full-size CZ-75.

DISASSEMBLY, INTANGIBLES, & DRY-FIRING

Disassembly is basically identical to the full-size CZ-75. The slide release is more difficult to knock out, though, but that may change with time. Fit and finish are typical CZ - the black polycoat makes the outside of the pistol uniform and businesslike, and the internals are somewhat rough.

The safety and slide release are very thin. It takes a little practice to consistently knock the safety off and on, but it's very positive and clicks into place audibly (one thing I've always liked about CZs). I recommend not using the slide release at all - better to slingshot the slide back, IMHO.

I was able to get a 2-1/2 finger grip on the gun:


The trigger was the one weakness of the RAMI from other reviews I have read. Either I got really lucky, or CZ is making the newer RAMIs differently, because my trigger is pretty good right out of the box. Single action has a lot of takeup on the first shot and a slight amount of creep inherent with the CZ action (the hammer goes back slightly when the trigger is pressed), but the break is about as light as my CZ-75 - no 9 pound trigger here. Double action is even better, since you don't notice the creep - just one smooth pull, but heavy enough to be completely safe, even at half cock. Both trigger pulls are more than good enough for a concealed carry piece.

AT THE RANGE - MAN, I HATE LOADING SUBCOMPACT MAGS

The 9mm RAMI mags hold 10 rounds, but the 9th and 10th rounds took some incredible cajoling to fit inside - my hand was actually hurting after the range session from loading the mags. Thankfully, the RAMI itself is a pussycat to shoot- it should be, since it's about the same weight as a Glock 17.

I ran a mix of Remington UMC 100-round bulk pack JHPs, Wolf FMJs, and Blazer Aluminum FMJs through the RAMI. Unfortunately, it failed to feed from the 10-round mags multiple times in the range session, and ejection was anemic. Hopefully this is just a "break-in" period, but I'm not taking any chances - in two weeks, I'll be able to take it to an outdoor range and shoot many, many more rounds through it.

A COUPLE WEEKS LATER...

I took the RAMI out yesterday along with my brand spanking new 642. I ran a total of 200 Wolf FMJs, 200 Blazer Aluminum FMJs, and 100 Magtech JHPs through it (not the best diet of rounds, but hey, this is supposed to be a challenge ). It became quite apparent, as Caliburn suggested, that one mag was feeding correctly and one was jamming a lot (not to mention I could only force 9 rounds in there).

It was educational shooting the snub next to the CZ. With the RAMI, recognizable 25 yard groups are doable, and even 50 yard shots land where you want them to. Rapid follow-up shots are simple, and reloads are fast. I really appreciate single-action autoloaders now. After the 200 Wolf FMJs, I stopped using the bad mag and started concentrating on the good one.

Unfortunately, the 175 rounds I fired through the snubby had taken their toll (not to mention loading 500 9mm rounds into those stiff and small RAMI mags). My hands were in bad shape. After 200 Blazers and 50 Magtechs with the good mag, I had a single fail-to-feed near the end of the day, but keep in mind that by this point the feedramp was very dirty and I was limpwristing/flinching badly, since I had blisters on my both my trigger finger and thumb and my hands were literally shaking from all the soreness.

The jury's still partially out, but I think I can trust my RAMI for now, as it passed the "200 round test" advocated by Preacherman and others even in the worst conditions (not so great ammo, shooter in bad shape, dirty). If you decide to buy one, make sure to test it thoroughly before you carry it, of course. As an aside, the grip screw worked itself out from the recoil (that's how bad I was limpwristing) and I lost it at the range, so I called Mike at CZ up this morning and he's sending a new one. He recommended using a thread-locker to keep them in.

AND STILL LATER... : K&D Holster Review

Today I picked up the K&D IWB Belt Defender I ordered for the RAMI (took about a month, which is not too bad).

It's a nice holster - on par with my HBE IWB I ordered last year.


The finish is shiny and new, and the holster has the typical stiffness of new leather. Retention is okay but not spectacular, but this is not critical for this type of holster, and I suspect the RAMI's shallow ejection port is much of the cause, as well. I sort of wish that the holster had a higher back like my HBE rig to protect the safety, but I'm sure you can get this as an option, and the safety on the RAMI is so slim that it's no big deal anyway.

The clips (My preference is for the over the belt style, but the J clips are less bulky) are quite adjustable so you can set your ride height at whatever you like. I'm going to try it as is for now - it rides slightly higher than I'd like but it still feels fine. The holster snaps onto my Wilderness Instructor's Belt with no problems.

The holster is of the smooth-side out, rough side in design. The HBE holster is the opposite. Frankly, the HBE holster looks worse, but works better. The rough material grabs on clothing (specifically your pants/shorts and your briefs/boxers) and helps the holster stay put when you draw. The K&D rig moves around a bit more, and is flatter and somewhat wider at the belt, making it less contoured to fit at the 4 o clock position, at least for my body. It's still a fine holster, but keep this stuff in mind when you order.

News: Bailout Musings

All of my professors (especially my Inome Tax and Bankruptcy teachers) talked about it, and now it's here - the bailout designed to save the finance sector of the economy. I suspect the true pros and cons of this plan are beyond the understanding of most people (and lawyers generally make terrible economists), since even all those experts on Wall Street and Capitol Hill were caught with their pants down when the crisis hit.

One thing is certain: the global economy runs on credit. That's an interesting thought in and of itself - thousands of years ago, there was no such thing as credit (or, by extension, debt). Things were simple back then; you give me this pot, I give you X pounds of wheat, or whatever. People didn't live very long in that era, which must have really played havoc with the time value of money.

Even with the bailout passing, there's still a lot of doom and gloom about the world economy. But a second Great Depression wouldn't be all bad - sure, there's grinding poverty and despair, but all those unemployed workers will have the time to create some classic board games. The Great Depression was the genesis of games like Monopoly and Scrabble - who knows what'll be cooked up when all those out-of-work computer programmers start hitting the soup lines?

Music: You Oughta Know

Sometimes a song is accompanied by a colorful background story. Alanis Morissette's breakout hit single "You Oughta Know" got massive radio airplay, and its popularity isn't entirely due to the butt-kicking bassline or catchy chorus.

You see, legend has it that Dave Coulier (Uncle Joey from the TV show "Full House") is the subject of Morissette's angry lyrics. Apparently, Morissette dated Coulier, and the breakup was ugly. Then again, it could all just be a big rumor, but it still makes for an interesting backdrop to a memorable song:

'cause the joke that you laid on the bed that was me
And I'm not gonna fade
As soon as you close your eyes and you know it
And every time I scratch my nails down someone else's back
I hope you feel it...well can you feel it


Thursday, October 02, 2008

Food: The $5 Sandwich War

For all its warts, the sheer power of the free market is often undeniable. Case in point - Subway ran a limited-time $5 footlong promotion that has since become indefinite. It's an incredibly effective marketing campaign, bolstered by commercials like these:



Capitalism being what it is, Subway's competitors took notice and cut their own prices considerably. Check out a Quizno's ad featuring their counter-promotion:



The interesting thing is that many of the $5 Subway subs were nearly $5 before the promotion started - consumers were saving maybe 70 cents. The Quizno's sandwiches, on the other hand, got their prices slashed by a full two dollars in most cases - I have to assume Quizno's is taking a significant hit on their bottom line in order to compete. But hey, selling snadwiches ain't for the faint of heart.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Guns: Perils of the Used 1911: A Norinco Report

Another post in my series of archived reviews from The High Road. This one has a sad ending, though:

===

This post is sort of a primer/first-person account of the experience of buying a used 1911 for the first time. First, some acknowledgments: Xavier's guide to buying used 1911s, as well as the numerous posts on THR about the Norks (from Tuner and others) were very helpful. Thanks all!

Introduction

I missed out on getting something for "Buy a Gun" day, so when my local range had a huge used gun sale, I couldn't leave without picking something up. That something was a Norinco 1911, serial no. 302XXX. I had previously owned a Springer Loaded that I liked, but not enough to keep it for any length of time. The price was $325, which is higher than I would have accepted normally (you'll see why below), but since my range was acting as the FFL, they let me shoot 100 rounds before purchasing, which is a very considerate thing to do. After 100 rounds of 230 gr. S&B went downrange without a hitch, I took out my wallet...



Wait a second! That trigger and safety aren't stock! There's not one but two idiot marks! And what's with the front strap - did someone drag it through an auto parts store? The gun had a lowered ejection port, some definite wear on the finish...

In retrospect, I should have field-stripped the gun right then and there to check for wear in all the key places. Obviously the gun had been "worked on" - not a bad thing in and of itself, but as many have noted, something about the 1911 brings out the amateur gunsmith in all of us, and it is quite easy to screw up an otherwise good gun.

During the initial shooting session, the trigger felt pretty good (not excessively light, but not too heavy or gritty). The gun seemed reliable, and nothing seemed too racy or hyper (no extreme recoil spring setup, erratic ejection, or heavily modified hammer/mainspring to speak of). The slide to frame fit was loose, but it did not look like the gun was overly abused by its previous owner (many of these used guns came from police confiscations). Some of the other examples of gunsmithing, however, were questionable...

Stippling on the front strap. When I first bought the gun, there was some rust and/or gunk in many of the holes - some Breakfree and elbow grease cleaned it up a bit, but any rust is a bad sign. The MSH has been similarly stippled.




The magwell has been beveled - looks a bit amateurish in person, mostly because the person who did it slipped and took some of the bluing off on the frame itself (thankfully the frame is still okay). The stock mag that came with the gun was an abomination; you know it's bad when it's hard to load a mag because the follower bangs against the front of the mag unless you push it back. Yeah, it may say "Colt" on the baseplate, but who knows where it came from?

Shakedown

I was able to get in a much longer range session today, consisting of 100 rounds Blazer 230 gr. FMJ, 100 rounds of UMC 230 gr. JHPs, and 50 rounds of WWB. I'd love to be able to say this pistol shot as well as my CZ, but I'd be lying; honestly, most groups were 3"-4" at 15 yards offhand - good enough for defense, certainly, but it's not going to win any bullseye competitions. More importantly, the pistol was 100% through all 350 rounds across this and the previous shooting session. I did everything I could to make it bobble - left hand only, right hand only, limpwristing (thumb and forefinger hold), sideways shots, etc., but the pistol was good to go.

Bugger. The crappy mag's feedlip got damaged after about 100 rounds. I quickly bought a Mecgar 7-rounder from my range, which worked flawlessly. Even with the crappy mag, the pistol never bobbled. The bad mag now serves as a field-stripping tool .

Ouch. Caked blood is actually kinda difficult to get off of a hammer and grip safety. I hate spur hammers on autos - they make no sense, especially for a single-action piece. They might look better, but I'm going to switch to a ring hammer and beavertail ASAP if I keep the gun. Also note the fairly good fitting of the rear of the slide - much better than my old Springer Loaded.

So if the gun is reliable (even with a bad mag, which is saying something), accurate enough, and has been lightly customized, why did the previous owner get rid of it (assuming it wasn't a police confiscation)?






Here's 1911Tuner with the answer:

Howdy Mulliga,

Hate to be the bearer of bad tidings...but your barrel and slide are trashed. That "wear pattern" is indicitave of bad barrel linkdown and drop timing normally seen when the frame's vertical impact surface is too far forward, or the rear of the lower barrel lug is located too far rearward. My experience with Norincos is that they're just the opposite...and usually the barrel lug location being the issue, with the barrel being stopped by the link in extension instead of by the impact surface in the frame.

This can also be caused by somebody installing a long link to improve vertical lockup and lug engagement...or the link being stretched so badly that it behaves like it's too long, delaying barrel linkdown until the locking lugs can't drop below the slide's lugs.

A perfect example of why one should insist on field-stripping a used 1911, especially one that's been obviously tinkered with. The non-standard trigger was the red flag.

If you bought it from an honest dealer, you may have some recourse. Otherwise, you've got a useable frame and a paperweight that will serve as a painful reminder.

Wish I had good news...

Movies: American Gangster



"American Gangster" is a schizophrenic movie, featuring two of the most celebrated actors in Hollywood - Oscar winners Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington. One half of the film is about the rise and fall of heroin kingpin Frank Lucas, who achieved incredible wealth and power by importing drugs direct from southeast Asia. The other half is a story about a womanizing police detective named Richie Roberts, who is honest in his policework but has enough personal demons to make up for it.

The movie is based on the real-life events surrounding Lucas, although it's been heavily fictionalized according to all parties involved. One part "Godfather," one part "Serpico," the constant intercutting between Lucas and Roberts' stories serves as more of a distraction than anything else - like most Ridley Scott movies, this one's in need of some competent editing to trim away the fat from its 157 minute runtime.

On the positive side, Scott perfectly captures the feel of '70s New York, with some pitch-perfect costume and set work. Both Denzel and Russell don't have to work too hard in this one (Washington in particular is playing the same character he's played for the last ten years), but they do bring some decent character moments in-between all the dope-slinging and cops-and-criminals intrigue.

Rating: 8/10

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