Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Guns: The Denim Dilemma

When you think about it, bullets are a very primitive way to stop an attacker. That's both a good thing and a bad thing; good because they're simpler and more reliable than other weapons, bad because relatively simple measures will also impede a bullet, especially a low velocity handgun bullet.

Take hollowpoint handgun bullets, for instance. Most people (even non-shooters) know that hollowpoints are designed to expand inside an attacker's body in order to damage more tissue. But early hollowpoints were plugged up by clothing (say, thick denim jeans or winter jackets), preventing them from expanding and reducing their effectiveness.

The bullet manufacturers, thankfully, have not been asleep at the wheel. In fact, the resurgence of the Second Amendment right to defense and state-level concealed carry laws have made it profitable to market hollowpoints especially designed to expand even when plugged up by clothing. The Hornady "Critical Defense" line is one of those newer designs:



Okay, so the commercial is faintly ridiculous, and the idea is not exactly novel (Corbon's popular "Pow'R Ball" line of hollowpoints uses a similar plugged-up cavity), but performance trumps originality when it comes to self-defense ammo. The Hornady line seems to expand adequately, so look for it (and other reputable self-defense ammo) on store shelves to help solve the denim dilemma.

Books: Dover Thrift Editions


This is sort of a unique entry in the "Books" category of Shangrila Towers, since I'm not referring to any particular title here. Instead, I'm featuring Dover Publications' "Thrift Editions" - a line of inexpensive paperbacks intended for people who might want a copy of an important literary work, but can't afford a fancier edition.

It's a good concept (especially for ensuring that every student in a classroom has a particular book), helped along by striking cover designs and interesting physical dimensions. Unlike the majority of mass-market paperbacks, the Thrift Editions are typically published in a thin 5-3/16" x 8-1/4" format. The prices are gradually creeping up, though - you used to be able to buy most of the books for one dollar or less, but nowadays the prices for the Thrift Editions are comparable to the book lines published by the brick-and-mortar stores.

I like the whole idea of a low cost paperback; it's the communication of information from one generation to the next, unfettered by pixels or processors, in a very small physical space. The Dover Thrift Editions are books for your bomb shelter, printed material that can be consumed even in the worst of times. If you're an avid reader, it's a comforting thought.

TV: The Maxx

MTV used to show a lot of animation before it lapsed into the doldrums of reality television. Instead of "True Life: I'm in Therapy" or "MTV Cribs," the network aired classics like "Beavis and Butthead" and "Aeon Flux."

One of the more obscure MTV cartoons was "The Maxx," part of the one-two punch provided under the "MTV Oddities" moniker (typically, segments of "The Maxx" were paired with an episode of "The Head"):



I've never read the comic, but apparently the show was a faithful adaptation. The Maxx, the purple-suited protagonist, feels a connection with Julie, a social worker who looks after him. They both exist in The Outback, an alternate world seemingly drawn from Julie's subconscious. How the two are linked, and the struggles they face against the mysterious Mr. Gone, make for interesting television. You can thankfully watch full episodes of "The Maxx" on MTV's website.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Movies: Drag Me To Hell


Sam Raimi hasn't directed a horror movie since "The Gift" (and calling that title a "horror movie" is a stretch), and I suppose a lot of "Evil Dead" fans were wondering whether the "Spider-Man" movies had diluted the director's trademark blend of horror and dark humor. "Drag Me to Hell" confirms that Raimi still knows his way around the genre:



It's a timely story, to be sure: loan officer Christine Brown (played by a spunky Alison Lohman) selfishly denies an old lady an extension on her mortgage. Unfortunately, that old lady (Lorna Raver in a pitch-perfect performance) curses Christine, who will be literally dragged to hell in three days to suffer for eternity unless she can find a way to undo the curse. Even more unfortunately, the evil spirit summoned by the curse will do its best to torture Christine before the three days are up.

It's straightforward horror juiced up by Raimi's signature stylishness. Most directors are content to unleash jump scares on the viewers at every opportunity, but Raimi uses skewed camera angles and offbeat pacing to ratchet up the tension. That there is still tension, even after the audience knows exactly how the story will play out, is a minor miracle. Raimi's cinema craft is backed up by some great special effects, including some excellent SFX makeup from genre veteran Greg Nicotero.

To the extent Raimi's yarn is ineffective, it's because the man is a victim of his own success. "Drag Me To Hell" was shot for 30 million dollars, many times what the budget for "Evil Dead II" was (that film's budget was 3.5 million, which, even after adjusting for inflation, is not a huge sum by any stretch). The symptoms of the money are apparent: "Drag Me To Hell" is a slick, glossy PG-13 movie that takes few risks, especially considering the recent popularity of other curse movies like "The Ring." It's still an enjoyable ride, but I'm not sure it'll stand the test of time.

Rating: 7/10

Food: Breakfast at Wimbledon

Wimbledon is the third major tennis tournament of the year, and it's in full swing right now. If you are unable to make your way to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (like me), than you can at least eat like you're there:



Ah, strawberries and cream - the traditional Wimbledon spectator food. I like to prepare mine with the heaviest cream I can find (the thick, liquid double cream that people like in England is difficult to find here in the States). If cream isn't appealing to you, or if you need something with a little kick, than strawberries steeped in sugar and cognac oughta do the trick.

I've never had Pimm's and lemonade, the traditional Wimbledon beverage, but I understand you can get a similar effect from mixing gin, fruit, and 7 Up - an interesting interpretation of a country club staple. Tennis has undergone a similar democratization in the past half century, so perhaps the substitution is fitting.

Friday, June 26, 2009

News: Awkward Comparisons

By all accounts, Farrah Fawcett's battle against cancer was a valiant one. On any other day, the tragic-but-expected death of the former "Charlie's Angels" star would have garnered pretty much all the attention in the celebrity news cycle. Unfortunately, Farrah Fawcett died on the same day as Michael Jackson.

Some people are trying to compare the two, but it's an awkward exercise at best. Not that there aren't some similarities. They were both has-beens - Fawcett was at her sex-symbol zenith back in the '70s and '80s; Michael Jackson's latest attempted comeback album was a flop. They were both beset by odd public problems - Farrah's strange appearance on Letterman, Michael's infamous legal troubles.

But in terms of fame, Jackson was really in a class of his own. This is the most-watched "Farrah Fawcett" video on YouTube:



Here is Michael Jackson's most popular video.

At least for my generation, Fawcett just doesn't have any relevance. I've never even seen an episode of "Charlie's Angels," let alone any of the television movies that kept Farrah in the public eye after her failed movie career.

In contrast, it's hard to find someone who hasn't heard "Billie Jean" or seen the "Thriller" music video. Jackson's career arc straddled several decades. Even when he was in the Jackson 5, he could entertain better than many:



For my part, I have a well-worn copy of "Thriller," easily one of the best pop albums ever made. You can probably find the same CD spinning in players from Sydney to Stockholm today. In a world with over six billion people in it, it's incredible to think that one person's work could be so popular with so many people.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Links: The VICE Guide to North Korea

The Iran election protests are still drawing a lot of coverage, even though it's highly unlikely anything would change even if Moussavi was the victor.

Strangely enough, though, there are places that are much less free than Iran. Take North Korea, one of the world's most repressive regimes. China trades with them (partly out of a desire to be able to say "Look, this guy's a lot worse than us!"), but otherwise the place is locked up pretty tight:



(Watch the whole thing here - it's an hour long)

The VICE guide is an interesting look at how thoroughly a government can dominate a people, and how badly a command economy (with complete control over wages, prices, trade, and property) can fail. This is a place that truly deserves the adjective "Orwellian." In fact, I found myself wondering what kind of person I'd be if I grew up in a place like that. Would I value personal freedom? Would I even have any real notion of what personal freedom was? Anyway, the documentary is easily worth your time.

Movies: Waco - The Rules of Engagement



I actually didn't mind it when "Bowling For Columbine" received an Oscar. That's because, when viewed as an exercise in manipulating images and sound to further a political position, the movie was really quite an accomplishment. As for any relation to the facts...well, you can judge for yourself.

William Gazecki's "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," doesn't quite have the same zing as Moore's stuff, although it shares a similar philosophy of remorselessly presenting the case for a particular side. Here, Gazecki is out to destroy the government version of events, presenting the entire timeline of the siege of the Branch Davidian church and punctuating it with 911 calls, FBI negotiations, and dramatic video of the siege and its fiery conclusion. I think it's pretty much agreed nowadays that Waco was a foul-up of the highest order, so Gazecki doesn't have to work very hard.

What I find most fascinating about the whole thing is that after the tragedy, politicians started pointing fingers, using the situation to score points. Gazecki successfully captures a lot of grandstanding from faces that are still in the halls of power (including Vice President Biden, Senator Chuck Schumer, and Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum). It's a good illustration of what we pay these politicians to do.

Rating: 6/10

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

News: The Terrorist Watch List, Mexico's Drug Cartels, and the American Gun Owner

Must be a yearning deep in human heart to stop other people from doing as they please. Rules, laws— always for other fellow. A murky part of us, something we had before we came down out of trees, and failed to shuck when we stood up.

- Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

There's a pretty fundamental problem with selling the public on gun control here in America - there's a whole lot of folks who own guns.

The most logical way to get around that barrier is by convincing people that a gun control measure won't affect them, but some nefarious group that warrants action on behalf of "the common good."

You can see this trend everywhere, from the endless media coverage of what percentage of guns used by the Mexican cartels are bought in the U.S. (hint - it's not 90%) to the latest GAO report showing that some 963 background checks matched individuals on the terrorist watch list over the past five years.

It's only at the very end of the CNN article that the GAO sheepishly admits that "being on a terrorist watch list does not mean that someone is involved in any terrorist activity." Predictably, Senator Lautenberg, one of the most die-hard gun controllers in Washington, wants to stop these sales, even with all the well-publicized problems with blacklists like this.

I'm not sure of a way to combat this kind of misinformation and misdirection. The thoroughly debunked "90% come from the U.S." trope was repeated Sunday during "60 Minutes," even when ten seconds worth of searching on the Internet would show that the "fact" was false. And people on "terrorist watch lists" must be bad, right?

At the moment, it looks like any gun control measure would be unlikely to pass, of course. But political winds are fickle, and it's clear that Attorney General Eric Holder thinks the federal government has the authority:



Three gun control myths in one sentence - "the gun show loophole," "cop-killer bullets," and "assault weapons." Is it any wonder gun owners are stocking up now, while they still can?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Books: Strokes of Genius - Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played


Wimbledon starts tomorrow, but the tennis tournament has lost a little bit of its luster because defending champion Rafael Nadal pulled out this year due to tendinitis in the knees. So, it's as good a time as any to look at "Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played," a book by L. Jon Wertheim that tells the story of last year's epic, rain-delayed, five hour long Wimbledon final.

The book doesn't just recap the 2008 Wimbledon tournament, though; it also gives fairly complete biographies of the two participants. Between descriptions of the action in each set, Wertheim writes all about how tennis stars Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal grew up, as well as how the game of tennis itself has changed. A reader can almost feel the inertia of history bearing down on the match - represented best by Nadal's modern topspin-heavy lefty forehand to Federer's old-fashioned one-handed backhand.

Wertheim is one of the most accomplished tennis writers, and his attempt to get inside the two minds on court sometimes slips into the spiritual. Through his prose, Federer v. Nadal becomes less of a slugfest and more of a clash of wills. Nadal's struggle against the ethereal genius of the Swiss superstar must have taken a superhuman effort, and its these kinds of efforts that are at least partially to blame for his knee problems.

Ironically, I think "Strokes of Genius" is best for non-tennis fans, since any avid follower of the sport will already know much of the information Wertheim presents, and will have watched and rewatched the final. In any case, it's a breezy read, the perfect companion to a Wimbledon rain delay.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Guns: Rossi 20 Gauge/.22 LR Matched Pair Review

Firearms are becoming increasingly specialized; even a cursory glance at the market will tell you that the modern gun buyer's options are spinning wildly out of control.

Want a 1911? Okay. Will it be a tricked-out racegun with optics and a cavernous magazine well? A retro GI gun with WWII-styled accoutrements? Or perhaps a Commander-length CCW piece? Heck, even shopping for revolvers nowadays presents you with a bunch of single-purpose choices: snubbies for concealment, big bores for hunting, seven and eight shot scandium-laced .357s for "tactical" use.

Now, while this kind of specialization is great for shooters, it's daunting to a beginner. That's why it's nice to write about a truly versatile gun like the Rossi Matched Pair:



I tried out one of these Matched Pairs, chambered in 20 gauge and .22 LR. The combo consists of a single stock and action, a shotgun barrel, and a rifle barrel. Switching between the barrels takes about 30 seconds:



The combination would make a fine beginner's gun. You could teach people basic shooting form with the .22 LR barrel, and the single-shot break-action will help to inculcate safe gun-handling habits (like clearing the action after you're done shooting at your target). The youth model in particular is small and light enough for practically anyone to handle:



The Matched Pair would also be an ideal wilderness gun, suited for hunting many different types of small and medium game (with appropriate ammunition). In a pinch, I could also see using the 20 gauge as a defensive weapon on the trail against small predators. Finally, the whole package comes in a very backpacker-friendy compact softcase that would fit in almost any camping kit.

In testing, the Matched Pair performed well, firing and ejecting both shotgun shells and .22 LR cartridges effortlessly. The rimfire barrel has some decent fully-adjustable sights, and groups hovered around the 1.5" mark at 25 yards with standard ammo (not the bulk pack stuff, but not target ammo, either). On the trap range, it was tough getting a smooth swing with such a light barrel, but it still performed well enough to be a lot of fun.

Best of all, you don't have to shell out much for the Matched Pair. I've seen it on sale for $130 - about the price of two video games, and less than a lot of budget rimfire rifles. I suppose a true combination gun (with both a shotgun and a rifle barrel mounted on one action) would be more handy, but the ease of switching barrels and the low price makes the Rossi worthy of consideration.

TV: Fight Quest

"Marcusson! Marcusson, you were right! People are alike.... people are alike everywhere!"
- from The Twilight Zone first season episode "People Are Alike All Over"

Good television programming can break down cultural barriers, whether it's fiction (like Rod Serling's sci-fi series) or nonfiction. The latter works in a particularly simple fashion; you can nullify a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions by merely showing how other people live in another part of the world.

In the case of "Fight Quest," you watch how other people fight:



Hosts Doug Anderson and Jimmy Smith travel around the world, learning from some of the most notable practitioners of a particular martial art (in Brazil they learn jiu-jitsu from Gracie-trained black belts, for instance). In the process, they often get to see where and how a particular martial art developed. It turns out that streetfighting in the rough parts of Marseille is similar to streetfighting in the rough parts of Hong Kong - people are alike all over.

"Fight Quest" owes a lot to "Human Weapon," a show that used to air on the History Channel. What distinguishes "Fight Quest" is that the hosts seem to train harder and, as a result, they get banged up a lot more (Smith in particular seems to have perpetual leg problems). Watching the Krav Maga episode was downright painful; there's nothing like seeing someone essentially get the stuffing kicked out of them in a 5 on 1 fight. There aren't too many ways to even the odds in that situation, short of using a firearm.

Books: Play Winning Chess


Almost every chess player has a story about how they first started playing the game. My first real memories of competitive chess are the skirmishes I used to fight with my cousin, who is ten years my senior. Needless to say, these were tough battles; I was no chess prodigy, and my cousin had much more experience and guile. In fact, I can't even remember checkmating him once.

"Play Winning Chess," by FIDE grandmaster Yasser Seirawan and international master Jeremy Silman, was my attempt to get an upper hand in our constant battles. It's a fairly thorough overview of the game, complete with historical information about the development of chess. Seirawan even gives some profiles of famous masters, like Tigran Petrosian and Dawid Janowski.

Of course, that stuff is all preamble to the real meat here: a solid introduction to chess strategy. Seirawan separates chess into four basic principles - force, time, space, and pawn structure. By having a sense of the condition of all these principles during a game, you're more likely to focus on a winning strategy. Of course, there's a lot more to chess than that (and Seirawan does partially address the nitty-gritty parts like endgame positioning), but it's nice to see a beginner's book that's approachable.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Miscellany: Simplify, Simplify (sorta)

The Internet outage gave me a chance to clean my room, once and for all. I took a deep breath, trawled through my desk drawers, and rummaged through my closet. This would be the definitive cleaning, the one to prepare my belongings for when I move later this summer. During the process, I was surprised by how much stuff I could donate, recycle, or throw away comfortably.

When you realize that you are probably never going to reread a particular book or rewatch a particular DVD (and that, if indeed you ever did want to revisit them, you could use the library or Netflix), it becomes easy to part with it. Instead of valuing the possession, you value the ability to relocate easily, and that generates boxes and boxes of stuff destined for donation to the local library.

Still, you don't want to get rid of everything. I kept my complete "Calvin and Hobbes" collection, for instance, because you never know when you might want to follow the adventures of Spaceman Spiff:

Movies: Whimsical Adventure Double Feature

Whew! That weekend Internet outage is finally resolved, so it's time for our regularly scheduled posts to resume. Today's films are family-friendly adventure movies that have enough meat on them to keep adults thoroughly entertained:

Up

Pixar's streak of top movies shows no signs of abating, although after so many entries, it's now possible to see the "seams" in their storytelling technique. Just look at "Up," their latest:



"Up" follows Carl Fredricksen, a cantankerous old man (played by - who else? - Ed Asner) who decides, in a very Shangrila Towers-esque sequence, to escape his weary world and fly his house to South America. His reluctant companion is Russell, a lovable kid whose motivations and backstory are probably the film's best bit of characterization. The movie is, without a doubt, visually stunning, expertly-paced, and fairly funny.

If you've watched a lot of Pixar, though, you've seen it all before. There's a syrupy-sad montage (right from "Toy Story 2"), an endearing goofball character (think Dory from "Finding Nemo"), and a nigh insane villain somehow connected to the main character's past (basically Syndrome from "The Incredibles"). These tropes are all lovingly crafted, of course, but it does feel awkward to start seeing the strings after a bunch of wonderful puppet shows.

Rating: 8/10

Coraline

Neil Gaiman, like a lot of writers, leans on some time-tested story ideas. He loves the whole "hero tempted by a mystical otherworld" plotline ("Stardust," "MirrorMask," etc.).

This is an ancient story, with roots reaching as far back as "Alice in Wonderland" and even "The Odyssey." It also happens to be the theme of "Coraline," a stop-motion animation feature directed by Henry Selick. Selick directed "James and the Giant Peach," "Monkeybone," and "The Nightmare Before Christmas":



Coraline's family has just moved to a strange new house. While Coraline goes through the difficult adjustment period, she starts having vivid dreams about an "other family" that seemingly treats her better. But as the dreamworld becomes more and more enticing, will she decide to stay there forever?

Just because the story is predictable doesn't mean it isn't fun, and "Coraline" is a well-executed movie. The stop-motion sculpturing is detailed and expressive, giving the proceedings a lively atmosphere (the movie was shown in 3D in some theaters). The voice-acting talent is excellent, too, with preternaturally gifted child star Dakota Fanning putting in a good turn as Coraline. Overall, it's another feather in Selick's cap, and well worth a look.

Rating: 8/10

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Experiencing Technical Difficulties...Please Stand By

*Insert picture of Indian head here*

Sorry guys, my Internet connection has been slow as molasses for the past few days. It's getting to the point where I can't even check my e-mail without timing out. I may have to call up Cox and harangue somebody.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Food: Where to Eat in Pensacola

It's fun to discover things on your own when you travel, but I also enjoy enlisting the help of a local, especially when it comes to food. After all, eating at a bad restaurant can really ruin your day, so having the guidance of someone who lives in the place you're visiting can help you avoid a lot of headaches (and stomachaches).

Here are a bunch of places to eat in Pensacola, many of which would be almost impossible to run across by chance; they wouldn't be posted here if it wasn't for the help of some good friends:

Aegean Breeze



Family owned and operated, Aegean Breeze has been serving Greek cuisine to customers in Pensacola for over ten years. The Varvouris family's array of seafood and meat dishes is quite good, but what really puts the place over the top in my mind is the convivial atmosphere. Friendly patriarch Stavros regularly walks the dining area to greet people, and the service in general is sharp and attentive. Aegean Breeze is a pleasant reminder that a restaurant's worth isn't solely measured by its food, but by the kind of welcome it can provide its patrons.

3/4 stars

Jerry's Drive-In



If you were to picture in your head the archetypical neighborhood dive, you'd probably see something like Jerry's Drive-In: a small place in an old building nestled off in a side road from Cervantes St., with walls laden with local color and old photos. There's a (mostly functional) pinball machine in front, booths at the walls and a counter where you can sit if you really want to go old-school. The food is fairly retro (workmanlike chocolate malts, bad-for-you-but-good-tasting burgers), but you'd have to be pretty stodgy to turn down onion rings or chili cheese fries, right?

2/4 stars

King's BBQ





King's Bar-B-Q is one of those places with a heartwarming story behind it. King Rivers, who had worked for a railroad company, wanted to go into business for himself and opened this tiny take-out barbecue joint, building nearly everything up from scratch. Of course, all that feel-good stuff would be worthless if the food wasn't good, but thankfully, King's delivers the goods. The barbecue pulled pork sandwich I had there was a sloppy, meaty concoction - a big pile of meat in between two large buns that really soaked up the sauce. I hear Mr. Rivers is retiring, but I'm not sad - the man's earned it.

2/4 stars

Hall's Seafood



A good way to evaluate a restaurant is on how it does the little things - the side dishes, the cheaper menu items, the smaller bits that can get lost in the shuffle. For instance, the thing I most remember from Hall's Seafood are the hush puppies. They were zesty and cooked well, and served with a creamy cheese sauce. Of course, you could focus on the fried catfish, the fried oysters, or any of the other Gulf Coast seafood specialties on the menu (there's even an all-you-can-eat option if you're feeling heroic), but it's more fun to look at the details.

2/4 stars

Taste of India



Some of my favorite Indian restaurants have been in or around hotels (it makes sense - the hotel owners are often Indian, so why not run a restaurant, too?), and Taste of India almost relishes its location next to a hotel lobby. You can see the concierge from the dining area, but don't let that distract you from the food. I enjoyed the Bengan Bhartha and the orzo, but if you're feeling carnivorous, try out the various chicken and lamb dishes.

2/4 stars

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tech: An Artillery Game Retrospective

Turn-based artillery games have a long and storied history, dating back to some of the earliest computer programs. It's a simple concept - two or more tanks are on a landscape of some sort, and they take turns blasting away at each other by calling in the angle and power of each shot. Real-world physics (gravity and wind) often complicate things considerably. Here are some of the noteworthy artillery games I've played:

Gorillas

Imagine if King Kong had access to explosive bananas - that's the wacky premise of "Gorillas," one of the games Microsoft included with the MS-DOS 5 version of QBasic in order to demonstrate the IDE. Two players toss bananas at each other across a city skyline, with predictable results:



It's a simple game by even the standards of the early 1990s. Since there's no real way to gauge how powerful your shots are (the cityscape has no scale, and the "Velocity" input is thus meaningless), it's mostly trial and error. There's a certain nostalgic satisfaction to the whole affair, though, so try it out here.

Scorched Earth

"Scorched Earth" was one of the early successes of the shareware era, notable for its wealth of customization options (you could buy different items to equip your tank, like missiles and parachutes). It was a favorite in our 6th grade homeroom class, blending cheeky humor (one of the most ) and mass destruction in a heady cocktail (one of the most popular weapons was the "Funky Bomb"):



I still remember being surprised when I found out that MIRVs were actually real weapons, capable of devestating multiple cities. Sometimes truth is stranger (and scarier) than fiction.

Worms

This is undoubtedly the most popular artillery game ever made, with the latest iterations appearing on the Wii and Xbox 360. "Worms" pits cuddly anthropomorphic earthworms against each other in a fight to the death:



As the series went on, it got more cutesy, but the first entries of the series were pretty dark and, I think, funnier as a result. In any case, the "Worms" series is unique because it allows skilled players to reposition themselves around the map using devices like the Jetpack or the Ninja Rope. The ensuing wars were often won and lost by effective tactics rather than brute force, since even a basic grenade can knock off a worm's health by almost 50%.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Guns: Home Defense Shotguns for the Non-Shooter (long)

Introduction

Shooting is one of my favorite hobbies; whether it's busting clays on the trap field, cutting out that perfect ragged group at the pistol range, or wondering which match bullet to try in my AR-15 handloads, I like pretty much every aspect of the shooting sports.

It isn't like that for a lot of people.

For many, including most of my friends, owning a firearm is about as exciting as owning a fire extinguisher or a lawn mower. This post is mostly directed towards this group of people - the non-shooters who might only go out to shoot once a month or less, but still want a firearm for home defense. Whether it's the lone criminal or a loss of the rule of law (think New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), there are surely some situations where it's better to have a gun than not.

Some initial thoughts: after you've installed doors and windows with decent locking mechanisms, motion-sensing outdoor lights, and after you've acquired a conventional phone (cellphones have a tendency to get lost or lose their charge - not a good thing when you need to call 911 in a hurry), then you can start worrying about picking out a gun. If minors could gain access to your firearm, you also need to worry about securing it, too.

Why A Shotgun?



The title of this post implies that a non-shooter should choose a shotgun as a home defense firearm. Note that shotguns have plenty of disadvantages - their effectiveness is extremely ammo-sensitive, they're not very effective at long range, and they tend to be larger and heavier than other guns, while at the same time holding fewer rounds. Even with these caveats, I think a non-shooter or novice should choose a shotgun anyway. Here's why:

1. Inexpensive - Shotguns tend to be cheaper than other firearms of equivalent quality. Sure, there are super-expensive over-unders for people who want to get fancy, but it's not hard to find suitable defense shotguns that don't break the bank (there are still new, name brand pump shotguns that come in at about $300, for instance).

2. Easy to Buy - Shotguns, especially pump and break-action varieties, are usually the last firearms that are affected by gun control laws. My house gun is an AR-15, but I'd be foolish to recommend that to the non-shooter, especially for the 30-odd million people living in California.

3. Easy to Learn - One of the hardest parts of shooting is getting and maintaining an appropriate sight picture. Focusing on the front sight when you are being attacked by a criminal is unnatural to say the least, but if that front post isn't in line with the rear, you could end up missing by a lot. Shotguns are pointed rather than aimed; once the shotgun is shouldered and the barrel is in its familiar position in your field of view, the shotgun shooter can focus on the target and still have a good chance of hitting.

Which Shotgun?

There are a ton of shotguns out there, for all different gauges. For a non-shooter, I think a 20 gauge is probably best, mostly because the actual shotgun will be easier to handle for a smaller individual. 20 gauge shotguns tend to have less recoil, too, but lower recoil loads do exist for the 12 gauge, so I don't think the recoil is the main issue. The big problem with the 20 gauge is that suitable defense shotguns and ammo will be a bit harder to find, but they're still fairly common.



Here are some choices, separated by action type:

1. Pump Action - The traditional choice for shotgunning in America, pump actions are generally inexpensive and easy to find. Unfortunately, it's fairly easy to short-stroke a pump action if you're not careful, so I actually think the pump is slightly less-than-optimal for someone who will only occasionally train with their shotgun.

The main choices in the pump action arena are the Remington 870 and the Mossberg 500, either will work for defense. In terms of specific models, try out the Remington 870 Express and 870 Express Compact, and the various 20 gauge Bantam and Persuader models offered by Mossberg. Length of pull and gun fit is critical here, since you will need to forcefully shuck the action if you want reliable feeding. Still, a pump action works well, especially if you're as good as this guy:



2. Break Action - These shotguns have a number of virtues. They are simple to operate and will never fail to feed, and they are easy to load and unload. A single shot break-action is probably only suitable for bedroom defense (where you've barricaded yourself and are merely waiting for the cavalry to arrive), but a double-barrelled shotgun at least offers an instant follow-up shot in case you need it.

With the rise of "Cowboy Action Shooting," you can find inexpensive coach guns that would do fine in a home defense role (and would also be a lot of fun in CAS, too). Something like the Stoeger Coach Gun would be just the thing for facing off against an attacker; they worked then, and they work now.



3. Semiautomatic (AKA autoloading or self-loading)

These shotguns use some of the energy of the shell in order to cycle the action. I think semiautomatic shotguns are decent choices for beginners - they're easier to operate than pump-actions (just squeeze the trigger) and they carry more shells than a double-barrelled shotgun (even a standard magazine tube will hold four). The self-loading mechanism also tends to mitigate recoil by spreading the impulse out over a longer period, which can encourage a recoil-sensitive shooter to practice more.

Autoloaders are more sensitive to ammo than other shotguns (since the cartridge must provide enough oomph to cycle the action), and the presence of a spring-loaded bolt means that there's one more mechanism that could malfunction. They're also a bit more expensive than other varieties, with most retailing for well over $500. At the low end of the market are the Remington 1100/11-87 models; the higher end is mostly occupied by Benelli's autoloaders.

If you are skilled enough, you can do some pretty crazy things with an autoloader - like shoot ten thrown clays out of the air before any hit the ground:



What else is needed?

There's an old THR saying when it comes to equipping a shotgun - "BA/UU/R." That means "buy ammo, use up, repeat." In other words, it's way more important to shoot a gun than to gussy it up if you want to be proficient. The more experience you can get shooting clays and fixed targets on the ground, the better.

For practice, birdshot will work, but for defense, you need buckshot. 20 gauge buckshot may be a bit hard to find, and is probably best ordered online through a website like MidwayUSA. A simple cleaning kit (less than $10 at Wally World) is a sound investment, too, especially if you live in a humid area.

Conclusion



As Captain Kirk shows us, man is a tool-using animal. Almost any modern firearm is a huge advantage in a fight, especially if you're the defender. If you don't particularly enjoy shooting, or if you don't shoot that often, a shotgun can still be viable, as long as you obtain and maintain a basic level of skill. Anyway, thanks for reading.

For additional background info, try out these posts:

The Pistol Grip Shotgun Stock
Shotgun Lights
Accessories for the Home Defense Shotgun

Also check out other gunblogs and webpages, particularly those written with a self-defense emphasis like Hell in a Handbasket and Cornered Cat. You can get a lot of information (mostly good, with some Errornet thrown in) from gun forums like The Firing Line.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Books: Rainbows End



Is evaluating a science fiction novel any different than evaluating a standard piece of fiction? Does a reader care more about how the speculative elements are presented than the actual narrative? Vernor Vinge's latest novel, "Rainbows End," is an interesting exercise in futurism, but I'd be lying if I said it was a very compelling narrative.

In "Rainbows End," a poet struck with Alzheimer's "comes back from the dead" with the help of future medical technology. He awakes to find a world where everyone uses wearable computers (in the form of contact lens that show HUD-like overlays to the wearer), where the Internet pervades almost every nook and cranny of our world, and where small-time crooks have access to weapons of mass destruction. Eventually, he gets caught up in a big plot to (what else?) control the world.

Vinge's vision of the future is pretty complete, as far as I'm concerned, and the man character is a hoto since he's so cantankerous. The depiction of the ubiquity of digital computing power is interesting (particularly in one sequence that takes place in a high school classroom where projects and lessons are beamed stright to other people's eyes), but the story doesn't have much drive. Why else would you read a novel?

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Movies: Plan 9 From Outer Space

It's not easy to make a memorable film. I'd wager that 95% of all the movies ever made, studio or otherwise, will eventually be relegated to the trashcan of cinema history.

"Plan 9 From Outer Space," written, directed, and edited by Edward Wood, Jr., is one of the few movies from the '50s that's still well-known today. Unfortunately, it's well-known because it's awful. Take a look:




The movie isn't bad as in "cult classic" bad; this is just plain old poor filmmaking. Plotwise, it's highly derivative of "The Day The Earth Stood Still" and old-school zombie/undead movies like "I Walked With a Zombie." In "Plan 9," suspiciously human-like aliens are raising the dead in order to...well...that's where things start going off the rails.

You see, the reason "Plan 9" lives in infamy is because of its nonsensical plot, wooden acting (many scenes were shot in one take), and lazy editing; if it were only the bad special effects, it wouldn't be as easy to ridicule. I can forgive low production values, but story flaws are something that a hard-working director might have been able to fix. Ed Wood just didn't seem to bother.

Here's some choice quotes from IMDb:

Criswell, opening narration: Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.

===

Colonel Tom Edwards: ...Why, a particle of sunlight can't even be seen or measured.
Eros: Can you see or measure an atom? Yet you can *explode* one. A ray of sunlight is made up of *many* atoms!
Jeff Trent: So what if we *do* develop this Solanite bomb? We'd be even a stronger nation than now.
Eros: [with disgust] Stronger. You see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!
Jeff Trent: That's all I'm taking from you!
[pistol-whips Eros upside the head]


The dialogue is this bad through the entire film, which is sort of an achievement when you really think about it. I'm not sure I could write dialogue this bad on purpose; assuming the film was intended to be a straight sci-fi flick and not a comedy, it's actually rather remarkable that every scene is a stinker. The odds of that happening must be remote, sort of like a monkey producing the complete works of Shakespeare.

Ed Wood went on to direct awful exploitation flicks like "The Violent Years" after the loss of his biggest star, Béla Lugosi. After the exploitation business started petering out, he went to low-budget pornography. Try as he might, though, I don't think any of those later films quite matches the memorable awfulness of "Plan 9 From Outer Space."

Rating: 2/10 (you're going to want to give this one the MST3K treatment)

Sports: Skill vs. Power



Roger Federer won the French Open today, defeating Robin Soderling in straight sets: 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4. Federer's status as a living tennis legend will understandably get a lot of press today, but I think the more interesting story is Federer's playing style and the subtle changes he has made to his game over the years.

First, some background: Tennis is one of the few televised sports where it's mano-a-mano, you versus one other person - no teammates to lean on when times get tough. There's no timeouts, no running to your cornerman between rounds, no coaching allowed at all. There's also no time limit, no clock to save you when your level starts to drop.

This is the kind of pressure Roger Federer has lived with for the past five years, along with the burden of being the overwhelming favorite in almost every match. Father Time has also been catching up to him, and nowadays he faces off against men five or six years his junior. Predictably, the 2009 French Open was Federer's most difficult tourney yet - he played a couple of tight matches versus Jose Acasuso and Paul-Henri Mathieu, and two five set thrillers versus Tommy Haas and Juan Martin del Potro. There were plenty of times here when it seemed like Federer was outgunnned, muscled around by younger guys with huge forehands or big serves.

In my opinion, what saved Federer these past two weeks is that tennis is a game of skill, not just power. When he was younger, Federer could stay in rallies and reliably hit clean-looking inside-out forehands, or down-the-line backhands, even against the likes of Marat Safin:



But with illness and injury compromising his once immaculate hand-eye coordination, Federer has changed his game subtly. He now regularly hits drop shots out of both his forehand and backhand, forcing today's power baseliners forward into the net:



Tennis strategy is predicated on making someone hit balls under pressure (read: on the move). Federer has found the one weakness in today's pros - an unfamiliarity with approaching the net. Clay court grinders used to moving left to right in long baseline wars seem flummoxed by drop shots and touch volleys. As long as Federer has these kinds of shots, he'll always have the upper hand in rallies, no matter how powerful the guy on the other side is.

A lot of sports writers have been talking about how Roger seemed "fated" to win this year's French Open, but it's not luck - it's skill.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Music: Tribute to the Music Video Parody

The music video (in the form we know it today) is only about thirty years old, but even since the beginning, they have been ripe for parody. Editorially-challenged directors, pompous productions, ego-stroking close-ups - a bad music video can inadvertently celebrate the worst excesses of popular music.

Thankfully, the music video parody has been around for almost as long, bringing things back down to Earth with humor. It's nice to see that in the YouTube age, the tradition started off by "Weird Al" Yankovic is alive and well:

"On a Boat"

There are two kinds of rap music video - the kind that shows how hardcore a rapper is (bragging about how they're going to kill you and your friends, along with shots of urban squalor), and the kind that shows you how rich a rapper is (throwing wads of cash at the camera, rolling around in fancy cars).

"On a Boat," a single from The Lonely Island's "Incredibad" album, makes fun of the latter:



The addition of T-Pain makes a decent parody into a classic - his echoing on the chorus lends authenticity to the soundtrack, which is what every parody music video strives for. On a casual listen, most people would not realize the song was making fun of rap cliches until they focused in on the lyrics.

"Total Eclipse of the Heart"

Many music videos are fairly staid affairs. They might show the band playing in a warehouse, or some simple story involving the band members or the lyrics. For some reason, though, a few people take the music video as a chance to get ultra-surreal or artsy.

The "literal video version" meme on YouTube really skewers this trend:



The above parody of "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by dascottjr is one of the best I've seen, since it hews closely to the phrasing and melody of the original song, and since Bonnie Tyler's original music video is so easy to make fun of.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Movies: Idiotic Horror Double Feature

People watch horror movies expecting the characters to do something stupid - "Don't pick up the phone! Don't run upstairs!" But there are some horror flicks where the characters are so boneheaded that you want to hit them with a clue bat. Let's take a look at a couple examples:

The Strangers



The slasher flick has a long and storied tradition, but the home invasion aspect of the whole thing - that some weirdo has entered our residence to mess with us - still strikes a deeply American nerve. "The Strangers," directed by Bryan Bertino and starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, is a stylish low-budget horror thriller with some good design choices and some awful writing.

I like the film's moody lighting, and the creepy (though eventually trite) use of old musical recordings in the soundtrack. Even the run-up to the actual horror is better than most - Tyler and Speedman are an estranged couple who find themselves seemingly beset by mysterious strangers. Who are they? What do they want?

Unfortunately, as soon as the actual horror starts, all semblance of intelligence goes out the window - characters start wandering around for seemingly no reason, and no one ever thinks to call the cops when things start falling apart. Mild spoiler: there's a particular sequence with a shotgun that seems ripped from gun control rhetoric. I guess it's hard to justify story-wise how some home invaders can stand up against a 12 gauge, but it doesn't give the screenwriter a license to chain improbabilities together.

Rating: 4/10

The Ruins

In "The Ruins," some twenty-something tourists decide to trek deep into the Mexican jungle to visit an ancient Mayan ruin:



Of course, any sane person would want to notify someone where they were going before a trip like that, and would ideally take supplies for hiking - water, food, first aid kit, etc. The scatterbrained tourists bring a couple bottles of water and a bottle of liquor. It only gets worse.

"The Ruins" is one of those on-the-cheap studio horror flicks that has a lot of good ideas but no place to put them. The main antagonist is a mystery until a good part of the film goes by, but let's just say that it's an interesting concept, executed well. I hope I'm not giving too much away by saying that there's a certain biohorror element going on here, almost like a poor man's Cronenberg.

So the effects are good, the gore is good, and the cinematography is good, especially considering the limited budget (heck, even the actors do a decent job with the material). If the script was better, if the characters weren't quite so stupid or quite so foolhardy, this could have been a fine horror flick, but as it stands I give it a--

Rating: 6/10

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Food: McGuire's Irish Pub


McGuire's Irish Pub, a restaurant in Pensacola, Florida, is one of those rare local institutions that survives national prominence and incessant commercialization.

What do I mean by "incessant commercialization"? Well, there's a McGuire's gift shop, a second McGuire's restaurant (in the vacation haven of Destin, Florida, no less), and McGuire's brochures in the tourist racks of area hotel lobbies. McGuire's has been featured on the "Today" show, and has even been visited by celebs and politicans like John McCain.

With all that mainstreaming, most places feel free to dumb down the quality of the food. That is not the case with McGuire's, which still delivers a whole ton of great food at a reasonable price. The place gets so crowded in the evenings, someone opened up an "Outback Steakhouse" across the street to catch the people who don't want to wait.

That's because the focus at McGuire's is on the steaks, which are all around the $30 mark. It sounds like a lot of money, until you consider that the steak comes with your choice of side, a stuffed tomato, a salad, McGuire's hearty "Senate bean soup" (for an added 18 cents, the same price it was back in the old days), and some delicious black bread. When you add in the fact that the steaks are well-marbled and succulent, then you have a meal to remember.

Lamb and seafood dishes round out the assortment of juicy steaks, and most of it is quite tasty. There's a brewery, here, too, serving a full-bodied "better than Guinness" stout that matches well with pretty much anything on the menu (I found it had a sweeter, cleaner finish than typical draft Guinness, but YMMV). I finished my meal with a scrumptious root beer float, made from McGuire's own root beer.

The atmosphere and service was still more like a hometown favorite than a well-heeled conglomerate - dollar bills still line the walls and ceilings, signed by thousands of first-time patrons. If you're in Pensacola and you want to see how to hit the bigtime without losing your soul, stop by McGuire's and sink your teeth in the ribeye.

3/4 stars

Monday, June 01, 2009

Guns: Styx River Shooting Center


There are some scenic drives in this country, but I'd venture to say that the boring highway expanse of I-10 in eastern Alabama isn't one of them. Most of the time, the only things you come across are undeveloped forest and kitschy tourist stops. If you look carefully, though, you might see a diamond in all the rough: Styx River Shooting Center.

Located off of Exit 53, Styx River Shooting Center is based on a simple concept - offer the general public a place to shoot rifles, shotguns, and handguns without signing up for a cumbersome membership or jumping through too many hoops. The location is much more convenient than most ranges, too; Styx River isn't located out in the boonies, but right next to I-10.


There are a couple trap fields, a couple skeet fields, five-stand, and a pistol and rifle range, all located outdoors. There's a full retail store on the premises, stocking all different sorts of firearms. They also sell reloading supplies and accessories, and the selection isn't bad for a store attached to a shooting range.

Overall, it's a good shooting range and well worth a stop if you ever feel the need to burn some powder near the Alabama-Florida border.

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