Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

Well, the big show is finally upon us. Hopefully everyone's looking forward to a night of spooks and sweets.

Here's a trailer of zombie action game "Left 4 Dead 2" to get the proper mood:

Friday, October 30, 2009

Miscellany: Gator Hollow

Conventional haunted attractions like Universal's "Halloween Horror Nights" or Busch Gardens' "Howl-O-Scream" aren't really aimed at families. For one thing, admission is pretty expensive - even discount tickets will run around $30 each, with regular admission easily topping $50 per person. That's some serious money for the average nuclear family (plus you have to pay for parking). And even if you have the bones, you might not like your nine year old daughter getting freaked out by all the simulated bloodletting in the scare zones and haunted houses.

That's where "Gator Hollow," a haunted attraction staged every October by Orlando's Gatorland, comes in:



Okay, so "Fear You Can Afford!" may not be the world's most subtle tagline, but it's accurate - admission to "Gator Hollow" is only $10 per person. Because Gatorland is such a small place compared to the big theme parks, don't expect multiple haunted houses or scare zones. Instead, the entire experience plays out like one long show, with characters constantly shepherding groups of about two dozen people from one skit to another.

The park does a pretty good job with their incredibly limited budget. First, they use a fairly coherent theme and backstory - this year, for instance, radioactive meteors have fallen into the swamp, attracting the attention of aliens and awakening the dead. Second, they have a lot of decent character actors that really play their roles effectively (the guys who played cursed ghosts Jack and Pip deserve a big raise). Most importantly, though, the experience is scary enough to be pleasant but not graphic or intense enough to scar the kiddies for life.

It's not a long experience (maybe 45 minutes tops), but it's perfect for a family who wants to go through a good attraction but doesn't need the problems of fighting traffic, finding parking, and waiting in line at one of the big draws in Orlando. See a horror movie afterwards and you have a perfect one-two Halloween punch that won't break the bank.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Music: A Halloween Soundtrack

Every time December rolls around, there's enough Christmas carols and holiday pop songs to fill up days and days worth of airtime. Not surprisingly, there are a lot fewer Halloween songs out there. The ones that do exist, though, are pretty good. Here are a few of the tracks I'll be playing to set the mood for those who make their way to my doorstep:

Thriller, Michael Jackson

Unless you were living on Pluto, you probably heard that the King of Pop passed away over the summer. "Thriller" is not only Jackson's most famous music video, but also a perfect Halloween song - the thumping groove makes it perfect for dancing, while the Vincent Price narration adds an appropriate touch of creepiness. This is actually one of the few megahits that Jackson did not write himself - "Thriller" was written by Rod Temperton.

Monster Mash, Bobby (Boris) Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers

This song has become a Halloween favorite, and I've blogged about it before. It's been covered by a lot of musical acts, with the most famous one coming from punk band "The Misfits":



Night on Bald Mountain, Modest Mussorgsky



Along with Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, this classical composition is associated with the occult because of its use in popular culture. Anyone who's ever seen "Fantasia" associates the screeching, whirlwind orchestral cues with the resurrection of ghosts by an enormous demon, Chernabog. Mussorgsky himself attributed to the composition various fun images, including a witches' sabbath and St. John's Eve.

Purple People Eater, Sheb Wooley

Another silly song that briefly rocketed to the top of the Billboard charts. While it wasn't actually released in October, "Purple People Eater" has gone on to become a staple Halloween song (When else would you play it? Easter?), especially for schoolchildren. The fun refrain ("one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eater") is catchy and easy to dance to, while simultaneously evoking some '50s B-movie monster.

Theme from Halloween, John Carpenter

Horror movies, even good ones, generally don't have very strong scores. "Night of the Living Dead," for instance, didn't have an original soundtrack, and even more modern movies like "Scream" or "Final Destination" sport forgettable music. A happy exception is the main theme from "Halloween," performed and written (mostly) by the director John Carpenter. It's chilling and memorable because of its simplicity, which matches the singular homicidal drive of silent boogieman Michael Myers:

TV: The Best Halloween Specials

From now until the end of the month, there'll be a series of Halloween-themed posts on Shangrila Towers. Today we'll look at some of the best Halloween-themed TV show episodes.

Halloween is one of the few American holidays where everybody, even people who aren't religious or patriotic, can celebrate wholeheartedly. While the holiday has its origins in various Celtic autumnal festivals, it's safe to say that centuries of differing practices have stripped Halloween of whatever spiritual significance it might have had.

Despite this lack of a preplanned message or observance, I think there is such a thing as Halloween spirit - the ability to have fun, to scare and be scared, and to be kind to trick-or-treaters. Here are a few TV shows that really get that spirit:

The Adventures of Pete & Pete, "Halloweenie"

I'm sure I'll get around to doing a full blog post about "The Adventures of Pete & Pete," Nickelodeon's delightfully off-kilter comedy about two brothers with the same name. While nearly every episode was memorable, the holiday outings of "Pete & Pete" were some of the strongest; the show had surreal takes on July 4th, April Fool's Day, and yes, Halloween.

"Halloweenie" follows the Petes as they try to break the all-time Wellsville trick-or-treating record. High school age Big Pete has lost his Halloween spirit, and is embarrassed to even be out there, but he needs to support Little Pete in the quest to break the record. Unfortunately, a group of evil teenage mischief makers known as the Pumpkin Eaters threaten to shut down Halloween forever by terrorizing the people who celebrate the holiday. It's a surprisingly thrilling story that delves into the theme of brotherly loyalty that so often anchored the show.

Roseanne, "Boo!"

I never watched much of "Roseanne," Roseanne Barr's long-running ABC sitcom. But the few episodes I do recall are (unsurprisingly) Halloween shows. Unlike other family sitcoms that used Halloween specials as opportunities to cram in a bunch of lazy throwaway jokes, the writers, cast, and crew of "Roseanne" often thrived on the energy that the holiday created.

Along with "Halloween IV" (which sported a "Christmas Carol"-like story of Roseanne losing her Halloween spirit), "Boo!" is one of the best Halloween episodes ever made. In the episode, Roseanne and her husband Dan engage in an epic game of one-upmanship to see who can scare the other. Despite this competition, the family bands together and creates an awesome haunted house out of the living room and kitchen. It's warm and funny without crossing the line into treacle.

King of the Hill, "Hilloween"

Most people are familiar with the "Treehouse of Horror" Halloween specials run by "The Simpsons," but those vignette-based episodes usually do a poor job of commenting on the holiday itself. Fox's other long-running animated show, "King of the Hill," played with the idea of Halloween in the classic episode "Hilloween."

There are a lot of reasons the episode is so good. Sally Field guest stars as conservative church member Junie Harper, who leads a campaign against Halloween because it's a "Satanic" holiday. Harper manages to get a curfew passed, effectively canceling Halloween (the "Hallelujah House" in the episode is a spot-on parody). The final scene, where Hank protests the curfew by walking into the street yelling trick-or-treat, has a genuinely stirring, "I am Spartacus"-type feel - not something you usually get from a half-hour cartoon.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sports: Scoring the Unscorable


UFC 104, which featured light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida's first title defense, was interesting to me because it illustrated the difficulties in judging a UFC fight, and in judging combat sports in general. While most of the controversy came from the result of the title fight (Shogun Rua lost to Machida in a unanimous decision that was widely criticized), I'd like to focus on one of the undercards - a 157 pound catchweight fight between Gleison Tibau vs. Josh Neer.

First, a little about the combatants. Both men are experienced middle-of-the-pack lightweights; decent fighters, but there's essentially zero chance either will ever rise to the top. Gleison Tibau is a wrestler and BJJ submission specialist, while Josh Neer is more of a striker/brawler. Because of these predilections, each man has weaknesses: Tibau has suspect striking power (despite his heavy fighting weight of 180+ pounds), and Neer has trouble defending takedowns (a takedown is when your opponent manages to move you off of your feet and to the mat, where the vast majority of submissions are attempted).

The contrast of styles is the first problem when it comes to judging. Each person is looking to do different things during the fight, and what might look to be a neutral exchange to a casual observer can actually be considered a sort of victory for one of the fighters. For example, if Neer and Tibau exchanged a flurry of punches in a standing position, Neer's inherent knockout strength makes it more likely he'll land a telling blow that'll end the fight. Even if all of the punches Neer throws are near-misses, do we give him points for aggression?

In fact, the opposite occurred. Tibau, by far the better and bigger wrestler, managed to land almost all of his takedown attempts on Neer. The first takedown was the most dramatic; Neer almost cartwheeled on his head when he was taken to the canvas. Subsequent takedowns were much better defended, and Neer usually managed to avoid taking any damage whatsoever. In other words, Tibau could advance the fight to the ground with some effort, but never managed to finish the fight there (Tibau was even able to gain mount at one point but failed to do anything with it).

Does all of that mean that Tibau was more "successful" in executing his strategy? Should he win a fight because of that success? And what if Neer had managed to trap Tibau in a stand-up fight, but Tibau had consistently attacked (but with little effect)? Would Tibau have "won" the bout in any real sense? Or is it crude to determine the winner of a fight by measuring how much damage each fighter has sustained?

It's a pretty messy business, and judging an MMA bout takes a whole bunch of training and experience (and sometimes they still get it wrong). In a real fight, the yardstick is much simpler - victory is whether you and your loved ones get out alive. Whatever you do to make that happen - whether it's something as simple as running away or something as complex as drawing a firearm - is the right strategy, I think.

Links: Cinemassacre's Monster Madness

From now until the end of the month, there'll be a series of Halloween-themed posts on Shangrila Towers. Today we'll look at a fine compilation of horror movie history.

James Rolfe is best known for being "The Angry Video Game Nerd," dishing out profanity-laced reviews of the worst games of all time. Almost as popular, though, are the "Monster Madness" segments that he has done for the past three Halloweens:



The first MM featured horror cinema's most important movies, from the classic silent films like "Nosferatu" all the way up to today's blood-soaked slasher movies. The second MM focused on Godzilla, chronicling the nuclear lizard's most epic confrontations. 2009's MM is all about lesser-known horror movies like the Coffin Joe Trilogy:



Great series of videos, and well worth a look to catch up on horror flicks that you may be unfamiliar with.

Miscellany: Zombie Adventure review

From now until the end of the month, there'll be a series of Halloween-themed posts on Shangrila Towers. Today, we'll talk about an attraction in central Florida that puts you inside a zombie movie.


People jonesing for a live-action zombie fix that's more involved than the traditional haunted house would do well to check out "Zombie Adventure," an attraction run by the folks behind Xtreme Paintball Experience in Kissimmee. Running from 8:00 to 11:00 p.m., the show pits a squad of 20 people against the living dead. You'll star as a "biohazard technician" sent in to clean up an accident when everything goes Horribly Wrong. Making it out alive will involve gunning down zombies, destroying a research lab, and plenty of running and screaming.

The atmosphere starts before you pull into the parking lot. "Zombie Adventure" is held in the middle of the woods (in the day it's a paintball field), and the whole place is dark. Pitch dark - so much so that it's impossible to see anything outside of arm's length. With that kind of environment, it doesn't take much to startle people, and it's definitely something you don't see very often in mainstream haunted attractions.

After you check in, you'll become acquainted with your gear and gun through a military instructor (who cracks wise about how he better get the body bags out now). From there, you're led to the facility by a nervous scientist with a creaky old flashlight. My paintball goggles and glasses kept fogging up in the Florida heat, sometimes making it impossible to even see my hand in front of my face. If you do need to wear glasses, be sure to bring some anti-fogging gear with you.

To be honest, there are a lot of aspects of "Zombie Adventure" that aren't quite there yet. There weren't as many zombies as I had hoped for, and the various locations on the tour are all decidedly low-budget (the "research lab" is just a collection of outdoor paintball field structures, not any kind of separate building). With admission running $50 a person, it's also not the cheapest Halloween experience, either.

As a whole, though, it was a very fun way to spend a couple of hours. The staff was friendly and helpful, and the various actors did a good job of getting into character and keeping the show lighthearted but not schlocky. So, if you're tired of going to HHN for the same old scares, "Zombie Adventure" is a very immersive alternative.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Guns: Caleb forced to re-enact a scene from "Ronin"



Thank goodness everything came out okay. Seriously cool thinking under stress.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Guns (& TV): Lock 'N Load (the Showtime one)

Is there anything that can't make it onto the glass teat nowadays? Do reality TV producers need ideas so badly that they'd film this?



It's a classic case of cultural misunderstanding. I guess on paper, to a person who's never been inside a gun store or a gun show (perhaps a Showtime exec?), it must seem like a mysterious world. After all, the media and movies make it seem like anyone can buy a gun.


Remember Arnold the killer cyborg buying a freaking Uzi from a California gun shop? Or how about when Arnold the commando pushed a secret button in a military surplus store and pulled out a rocket launcher? The show must have been greenlit with the tacit expectation that all manner of drug dealers, n'er-do-wells, and miscreants would populate the aisles of Ye Olde Gun Shoppe. It'd sort of be like "Cops" or "Dog the Bounty Hunter," except the criminals would come to you!

The actual show looks pretty boring, even for dedicated shooters. In entertainment terms, you'd probably do better with the many gunbloggers on the Web sharing their tales of gun counter wonder.

Books: Short Stories for the Halloween Season

There are plenty of Halloween-themed movies and TV shows, but I'm taking a more cerebral approach to enjoying this year's autumnal festivities: brushing up on my horror and fantasy reading list. If you grow tired of watching "Beetlejuice" and "Dracula" for the Nth time, why not curl up with one of these thrilling short story collections?

Richard Matheson - Button, Button


The jacket cover proudly proclaims that "Button, Button" will soon be made into a major motion picture starring Cameron Diaz, but don't hold that against it. "Button, Button" (and the other stories in this recent collection) are classic Matheson; the writing is spare, with a dry observational tone that doesn't intrude. Invariably, though, this hands-off approach neatly ratchets up the suspense until you're turning pages in a headlong rush.

The style naturally lends itself to film and television adaptations, which demand a smooth narrative run to the climax unencumbered by rhetorical flourishes. The other stories in this collection, including "Dying Room Only" and "No Such Thing as a Vampire," have probably been collected elsewhere, but they're still great thrillers that are perfect for Halloween.

Rudyard Kipling's Tales of Horror and Fantasy


The legendary British author didn't just write "The Jungle Book," and this ginormous collection of Kipling's best supernatural tales displays an oft-overlooked part of his work. Running the gamut from poetry to short fiction, many are set in Kipling's most renowned stomping ground, India. That setting was exotic and mystical back in the 19th century, so you can see how effective these stories would have been to a staid European audience.

The best thing about the collection is that since the stories are in the public domain, you can preview them for free online. "The Mark of the Beast," the most famous story from the collection, almost feels like a Cronenberg bio-horror movie. Clearly, even a century later, Kipling's influence is still felt.

The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard


H.P. Lovecraft had a well-documented friendship with the Conan the Barbarian creator, and some of Lovecraft's stylistic weirdness must have rubbed off on Robert E. Howard. Yes, there are certainly some stories here involving the Cthulhu Mythos, but there are even more dealing with Celtic mythology or other supernatural oddities.

Del Rey (which has published the excellent Conan collections) plunges into REH's horror tales in this anthology. There are some omissions based on what Del Rey has anthologized before ("Worms of the Earth" is a good one, but is understandably covered in the Bran Mak Morn collection), but the volume feels pretty complete nonetheless.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Miscellany: Battle of the EDC Pens - Fisher Bullet Space Pen vs. Zebra F-301 Compact



I've written about my adventures in minimalist blogging before, but since then I've found out that an ordinary drug-store-issue pocket notepad and ballpoint pen can only go so far in portable blogging duty. They're light and cheap enough, sure, but neither article ranks high in terms of durability.

So, finding myself in the market for a new "every day carry" pen, I immediately gravitated toward the geekiest option - the Fisher Bullet Space Pen:



Yeah, the Space Pen. You've probably heard about it - carried by NASA astronauts into orbit, stocked at places like science museums and planetariums, and even featured on an episode of "Seinfeld."

I managed to unearth one, but when review time came, I stopped. Sometimes the best way to review a famous item like the Space Pen is by comparing it to other items on the market, with less fame but perhaps more practical value. Enter the Zebra F-301 Compact, a small ballpoint that has a similar design and intended function. In this review the two pens will go head-to-head in a no-holds-barred cage match to determine which is best for "every day carry" (EDC).

Out of the Box



Fisher Bullet

The Fisher Bullet typically comes packed in a plastic, heat-sealed pack with a gift case (I suppose only a few people would actually go out and buy themselves a Space Pen - someone gave me mine). When you finally get it in hand, it's surprisingly heavy; there's no plastic anywhere. Below, you can get a look at the special pressurized ink cartridge and the various pieces of the pen.



The F-301

The F-301 Compact is available at many stores (including big office supply chains); it typically comes in a two-pack that shows the pen both capped and uncapped. While the writing end of the pen and the cap are made of steel, the actual barrel is plastic. Here's all the component parts:



Form Factor

Both pens are approximately the same length. The pen caps of both pens can be attached to the back of the barrel to simulate writing with a normal size pen. I find that the Fisher Bullet feels more solid when extended like this - the fit of the barrel and pen cap is precise and tight, whereas the F-301 Compact's cap sits loosely on the barrel. Both pens have ridges along their circumference in order to provide traction for your fingers.

This is purely subjective, but the smooth lines of the Bullet look better and feel better than the F-301. In terms of absolute size, the ends of the Bullet are more rounded and thus slightly smaller around than the F-301. Both pens are small enough to be carried in the pocket easily. The F-301 Compact comes with both a deep pocket clip and an eye loop for a lanyard or keychain; the Bullet is less convenient since there are separate versions with pocket clips and D-rings that you'll have to acquire - the base model has no means of attachment.

Writing Performance

The Fisher Space Pen cartridge is pretty unique. Check out this documentary featurette:



Impressive, no? Now, there are other pressurized cartridges available nowadays, but Fisher's been doing it longer and better than most of the others. In a side-by-side writing comparison, the Fisher's toothpaste-like ink actually writes more smoothly than the F-301's ink, at least for me. Neither, of course, compares with a good fountain pen, but they're both serviceable writers.

But here's the bigger question - could the F-301 keep up with the vaunted Space Pen in a series of hard-use performance tests? After all, an EDC pen might be called upon in places far from home, where pens are scarce. It could be that you won't have a perfect, flat, dry, 72 degree Fahrenheit surface to write on.

As a control, here's the Bullet and the F-301 on normal paper in just such an idealized environment:



Not too bad. The F-301 by default has a finer width ball, which means a thinner line but a little more "scratchiness." Now, here's how they fare on wet paper (say, if your restaurant check gets wet from the condensation rings of your drink and you have to sign it):



Not too bad. Both write okay on the thoroughly soaked paper, with the Fisher coming in first by a nose. Either would work in damp conditions. What about a paper with grease or oil on it? Here's both pens writing on a WD-40 soaked paper:



No contest. The Fisher is a bit hard to read, but the F-301 can't even form words on a surface this unforgiving. Does the Fisher Space Pen have any weakness? Maybe you're stuck in a car in the dead of winter in northern Minnesota...



That's right, in my cold weather simulation (an hour in the freezer), the Bullet actually writes worse than the F-301, at least at first. Part of this is because the Bullet has all-metal construction that loses heat rapidly in a cold environment - the ink got colder in the Bullet faster. I wonder what the results would be if both pens were frozen solid for a few hours, but I don't have that kind of time.

Finally, the infamous upside-down writing test:



Again, easy pickings for the Bullet. It was designed to write upside-down, after all. The F-301 manages a few words, like most ballpoints, but eventually runs out of steam.

Price & Value

Here's where the Fisher Bullet stumbles. The F-301 Compact is about $2.50 per pen, while the Bullet is about $20 per pen. Now, it's not like the $20 isn't buying you more pen (the Bullet is made in the U.S., the F-301 is made in Indonesia), but it's still a pretty stark difference. Kick in the fact that refills are harder to find for the Bullet (and are more expensive when you do find them) and you have a clear win for the F-301.

Conclusions

For those on a budget, I'd go with the F-301 Compact. It offers 95% of the performance of the Fisher Bullet at a fraction of the cost.

If you're feeling spendy, though, the Bullet offers great looks and outstanding performance. As an aside, Paul Fisher, the founder of the company and the inventor of the Bullet, was a fascinating man. The description of his life sounds like something from an Ayn Rand novel: plucky libertarian inventor battles the government. How can you not buy a pen from this guy's company?

Monday, October 19, 2009

News: Cold Snap

Fall is my favorite season in south Florida for a number of reasons. For two-odd months out of the year, the weather cools just enough to make being outside pleasant but not so much that you can't wear shorts and flip-flops. Usually there's a nice breeze, and you can leave the A/C off and sleep with your bedroom windows open. In other words, it becomes like California without the odious gun laws.

Anyway, as much as I enjoy writing Shangrila Towers, today is not a day to be stuck behind a computer. Time to break out the Trek 4900 and go have an adventure.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Guns: Top 5 (Fictional) Rifles

It's meme time here at Shangrila Towers, and I thought I'd have a bit of fun with the "Top 5 Rifles" thing that is going around. Caleb and Breda discussed their top 5 choices on the Gun Nuts Radio podcast, and then Tam did the five most historically important rifles. My contribution? The top 5 fictional rifles, in no particular order.

Ground rules: No lasers, blasters, or plasma guns - just good-old fashioned gunpowder and lead. No guns that are or have been made in real life. No shotguns or handguns (no Samaritan, for instance).

1) The ZF-1 from "The Fifth Element"

Firearms technology has kind of stagnated; the Mosin-Nagant design, for instance, is well over a hundred years old, yet it remains a viable rifle. That hasn't stopped Hollywood from crafting some nifty guns, though. Here's Zorg demonstrating the ZF-1, an assault rifle with a number of unique features. The ZF-1 mostly makes it onto the list because of Gary Oldman's incredible, scenery-chewing performance:



2) The M41A Pulse Rifle from "Aliens"



The "space marine" concept is a familiar one by now, and they usually wield some form of generic polymer assault rifle (e.g. "Starship Troopers"). While it's hard to tell for sure, I think most of these rifles trace their roots back to the M41A, a "close personal friend" of Corporal Hicks in the movie "Aliens." The M41A is featured in a couple of memorable scenes - when Hicks tutors Ripley in its use (pictured above) and when Ripley straps two of the suckers together along with a flamethrower at the end of the movie to form a badass supergun.

3) The Assassination Rifle from "The Day of the Jackal"



If you've never seen the original "Day of the Jackal" (directed by Fred Zinnemann), it would be a major spoiler to tell you what makes the assassination weapon so special. In terms of specifications, it's merely a scoped, single shot rifle that fires .22s. Seeing how the Jackal gets this gun past a military blockade to make an attempt on French President Charles de Gaulle's life is half the fun.

4) Cobra Assault Cannon from "Robocop"

In a shootout with a warehouse full of drug dealers, it is made painfully clear that normal small arms - Uzis, AKs, what have you - are completely useless against Robocop; the bullets just bounce off and create harmless '80s action movie sparks. In this scene, Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith in his most villainous role) reveals a new toy that just might even the odds between his gang and Officer Murphy:



5) Lancer Assault Rifle



Most video game guns are generic blasters or laser rifles, but the team at Epic Games has always made fun weaponry a priority (the arsenal of Unreal Tournament was particularly inspired - who wouldn't like gibbing someone with a basketball-sized piece of exploding green goo?). Their latest addition to the gaming armory is the Lancer, and it's arguably so important to the "Gears of War" series that many of the gameplay mechanics and tactics revolve around its use (and abuse). A chainsaw bayonet too fanciful to make this list, you say? The Internet has defeated you once again:

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Food: Tree's Wings & Ribs


You know the economy's bad when it hits an establishment like Tree's Wings & Ribs, a family-friendly sports bar and grill nestled in a shopping center between Wellington and Royal Palm Beach.


Opened in the mid-'90s, Tree's has been serving up good, dependable food for well over a decade now, but things have been slowing down. Or at least, that's how things seemed to me when I stopped over for dinner one Saturday night. You know, Saturday, college football day, when people watch the pomp and pageantry of what has become the NFL's premier farm league. Yet the place was almost empty except for me.

It's puzzling in more ways than one, because the food at Tree's has always been a great value. No, the wings aren't the best I've ever had, but they're big and well-cooked and Tree's gives you a dozen of them for $9, along with ample amounts of celery and their special garlic ranch dressing for dipping. Heck, even the dolphin-topped garden salad was serviceable. You'd think a sports-friendly place like Tree's would fare better, even in a recession (there are a dozen big flatscreen HDTVs in the place, and Tree's has channels like ESPNHD, too). Anyway, if you're ever in the area, check them out.

2/4 stars

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

TV: Man vs. Food

Now entering its second season, The Travel Channel's "Man v. Food" has the kind of premise that's so obvious you wonder why no one ever thought of it before. In the show, host Adam Richman tours America and confronts those monstrous food challenges that you sometimes see on a restaurant menu but would never actually try - everything from nuclear buffalo wings to eating a 12-egg omelette:



It would be a visual spectacle no matter who was attempting the challenge, but Adam brings a lot to the table, so to speak. He's well-educated (undergrad in International Studies from Emory, masters in drama from Yale) and thus lends a lot of quick wit to the proceedings. Additionally, his live theatre experience really shines through when he's on camera (guess there's nothing like eating a 72 ounce steak in front of a crowd to get the old performance juices flowing). Adam's skill at emoting makes the challenges fun rather than gross.

In terms of success against the challenges, Adam seems to have fewer problems with challenges that involve super-spicy food. The challenges based on sheer quantity are sometimes relatively easy (15 dozen oysters) or impossible (a 12 pound burger). The suspense can be pretty gripping sometimes, especially if you find yourself wondering how much punishment Adam's colon can take.

Miscellany: Quark AA Tactical Flashlight Review

4Sevens.com is one of the most successful flashlight e-tailers, and they have a longstanding relationship with CandlePower Forums, which does for flashlights what TFL does for firearms. 4Sevens has probably made a boatload of cash selling the popular Chinese-made Fenix, Nitecore, and Olight brands, so it's not too surprising they decided to jump into the flashlight market with the "Quark" line. Partnering up with some Chinese makers, they drew up some specs and designed a flashlight that combines many of the features of its competitors. Is it a home run? Read on to find out...

First Impressions



I ordered a Quark AA Tactical direct from 4Sevens, and it arrived in a nice, slick-looking black box (the fold-out flap even has little magnets to hold it in place - cute). Pulling out the clamshell containing the flashlight and its accessories was easy. The light came with a Duracell battery, a lanyard, a holster, a rubber finger loop, and extra rubber o-rings - it was a pretty impressive package.

Physical Design

The flashlight, like almost every one of the newer LED torches, is made of anodized aluminum. The knurling is aggressive, but not enough to really tear up your clothing. The head and tailcap are interchangeable, so the pocket clip is "reversible" in the sense that you can reverse the head/tailcap orientation for bezel-up or down carry; the clip itself, however, only has one position on the body where it fits.

It's a small light, but not as small as the Nitecore D10 (the AA Quarks share the same body diameter as the CR123A versions, and are longer to boot because of the conventional tail switching). At just over 2 ounces, it rides easily in the included holster, but I usually find myself clipping it bezel-down in my back pocket. The D10 is better if having a flat pocket is important to you, but the Quark can work in the pocket carry role.

Durability-wise, this is a pretty tough light. Brief jaunts in the fridge and the shower didn't seem to harm it, nor did a day of being locked up in a car. I didn't test resistance to impact, but I couldn't see how it'd be any worse than other digitally regulated LED lights.

User Interface



The Tactical Quarks allow you to program two settings - one with the head tightened, and one with the head loosened. Programming is a little involved (see the above video), but it's easy enough after a little trial and error. Once you've got your selected settings dialed in, the tailcap's forward click switch allows both momentary-on (depress the switch slightly) and constant-on (depress switch until it clicks).

It's much simpler than the multimode UIs that are becoming common in LED flashlights, and I appreciate that simplicity. You still have full access to a boatload of modes should you need them. The tailcap loosens and tightens easily, and the forward click has good travel so it won't come on accidentally in your pocket.

The Beam

(For more detailed beamshot comparisons, check out UnknownVT's excellent review of the Quark series)

Quark AA vs. Fenix LD10



Quark AA vs. Nitecore D10



As you can see, the Quark AA Tactical isn't quite as bright as its main competitors, the Fenix LD10 and the Nitecore D10. I find that the beam on my Tactical is free of distracting halos or rings, and mostly free of artifacts. The hotspot is reasonably well-centered, with a large halo of useful light extending around the object being illuminated.

If you need more brightness, the Quark AA can actually take the expensive 3.6V 14500 cells (max rated voltage for the light is 4.2V). With these batteries, the Quark is brighter than the LD10 and the D10. Unfortunately, these specialty batteries are difficult to find in stores and are typically not rechargeable. I usually just stick to common AAs in day-to-day use.

While the Quark is outperformed by the LD10 and D10 in terms of sheer brightness, it offers the best low or minimum mode of the bunch; The LD10's lowest mode is still fairly bright, and even the Nitecore's lowest settings are brighter than the Quark's. The "Moonlight Mode" of the Quark is ideal for reading a program in a darkened theatre or navigating a bedroom without disturbing someone who's asleep. You can also (mostly) preserve your dark-adapted vision if you need to read a trail map or something while you're hiking at night.

I say "mostly" because the Quarks, like many other multimode LED flashlights, has "preflash" - a brief flash of a brighter mode before settling in to the lower mode. If you use the light on max, for instance, the Quark'll probably flash to the max mode momentarily before going to say, Moonlight mode. It's a little annoying, but again, this problem is not limited to just the Quark line.

Final Thoughts

Picking a flashlight involves a series of compromises. Do I want to use common and inexpensive AAs or less common CR123As? Do I want a dozen modes for different applications or the simplicity of a single brightness setting? Do I want a double cell battery (which will probably require a holster) or a single cell (which may not provide enough light for my usage)?

Making a flashlight is just as tough a balancing act. 4Sevens made some smart design choices in the Quark AA Tactical, neatly solving the problems of having a good reversible clip, of managing a half-dozen disparate lighting modes, and of providing good runtime and good brightness. It's also priced at or below its competitors, and comes ready to go right out of the box (in the past, Fenix and Nitecore have not included pocket clips on their AA lights; this may be changing, however).

Despite the name, I'm not so sure this would be a good "tactical" light. I think if you want something that would hold up reliably in a gunfight, you'd better get a CR123A-based torch. Still, some light is better than no light, and I have no problems carrying the Quark AA Tactical as a complement to my standard CCW gear.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Movies: Non-thrilling Thriller Double Feature

Suspense is one of the hardest things to create and maintain in a piece of fiction. Yeah, you can slap buckets of gore on there, you can have big explosions or loud noises, but without suspense, almost any movie falls flat on its face. Here are a couple of thrillers that needed a shot of suspense badly but didn't get it:

Vantage Point

Couldn't be easier, right? Political assassination action-thriller is almost its own genre now, starting with standouts like "The Day of the Jackal" and "The Manchurian Candidate" (never mind the awful remakes) and even including today's mass-market Clancy and "Bourne" movies. That's why it's hard to forgive "Vantage Point," a 2008 flick directed by Pete Travis:



POTUS is attending a major counter-terrorism conference in Spain, and it looks like someone is out to assassinate him. Appearances are deceiving, though, and as the action is played and replayed through a Rashomon-lite series of flashbacks, the true (boring) nature of the conspiracy is revealed. The constant winding and rewinding of the relatively simple plot (whose twists and surprise villains are apparent about half an hour in) is a tedious move that destroys any suspense the film could have generated. Add in some lazy coincidences and you have a completely forgettable movie.

Production values are still good, though, and the best part of "Vantage Point" is when Secret Service Agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) engages in a high-speed car chase through crowded Spanish streets. It feels like a warmed-over rehash of the "Bourne" series and "Ronin," but I guess sometimes it's better to imitate good movies and fail than to try something original.

4/10

The X Files: I Want to Believe

The first "X-Files" movie was heavily steeped in the series mythology, which limited its audience right off the bat. With a big $60 million budget and at least a nominally exciting script, though, it was fairly successful. Now, many years after the end of both the fictional and the real "X-Files," Mulder and Scully team up once again in "The X-Files: I Want to Believe":



Amanda Peet and Xzibit co-star as FBI agents assigned to the case, but they really just serve as annoying nannies for Mulder and Scully. As a whole, it's a noticeably smaller production, and by necessity "I Want to Believe" features the striking, snowy Vancouver landscapes that have come to define the series instead of more exotic locales. Even that difficulty could be overcome if it were not for a mostly low-wattage plot involving the strange disappearances of several women.

Longtime fans of the series know that many of the TV plots didn't involve aliens or vampires, but merely ordinary crimes with marginally paranormal elements. Casual folks walking into "I Want to Belive" expecting CSM or the black oil or Samantha are going to be disappointed. It's a "monster-of-the-week" storyline without the monster. Philosophically, I can understand the statement Chris Carter is trying to make about faith and belief, but it just doesn't make for gripping cinema.

As a result, the whole thing feels like it could have been edited down into an hour-long episode of the series; the 104 minute runtime is completely unnnecessary. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson have proven to be fine performers (Duchovny's had some recent success with "Californication," and Anderson is still doing feature films and theatre work); they deserve another shot at this, preferably with a bigger budget.

4/10

Books: Snow Crash


In some ways, Neal Stephenson's novel "Snow Crash" seems quaint and outdated. First published in 1992, just as the World Wide Web was starting to take off, its depictions of 3D virtual reality avatars interacting in a "Metaverse" are about as exciting as your little brother's WoW character. Heck, a year after the book came out, "Doom" was released, and the whole world was introduced to first-person clipping problems.

Still, if you're not looking for the latest in hard sci-fi speculation, it's hard not to get sucked in by the tale of Hiro Protagonist, an out-of-work Mafia pizza delivery driver and master hacker. There's an apocalypse coming in "Snow Crash," or rather an infocalypse, that threatens to render everyone in the real world into helpless zombies, and Hiro and company are doing everything possible (in their madcap way) to stop it.

The writing is breezy and the plot is frantic. A lot of the standard cyberpunk boxes are checked - anarchic future capitalism, Asian influences in everything, freewheeling mores - but it's still a slick piece of writing. It's not surprising "Snow Crash" went to the top of the bestseller lists. At its best, some of the details just leap off the page (like Y.T.'s auto-adjusting smart skateboard).

"Snow Crash" does bog down in a few areas. There are several exposition-heavy sections relating to Sumerian myth; unlike other exposition in the book, there's little or no action going on in the background, so it ends up feeling a bit like a dry mythology textbook. Hiro's nominal love interest Juanita is woefully underdeveloped, as are most of the characters besides Hiro and Y.T. I also feel like the last quarter of the book leans a little too hard on rock'em, sock'em action instead of the well-paced, occasionally humorous antics of the beginning of the book. Still, it's worth a read, and it makes for a great beach book.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Politics: Death of a Million Cuts

For the most part, gun rights advocates across the nation have won victory after victory. The expiration of the AWB, the spread of shall-issue CCW, Heller. But as things have gotten progressively better for gunowners at the federal level, things have gotten progressively worse for embattled gunowners of a few Democratically-controlled states, like the beleaguered residents of California. Case in point - AB 962 was signed yesterday by Governor Arnold Scwarzenegger.

It's not a ban on ammo. Heck, it's not even full-on ammo registration. But it does require that all ammo in California be sold face-to-face, with the buyer having to leave a thumbprint and personal information every time the ammo is sold (the bill covers any ammo that can be used in a handgun - which is potentially all ammo, and at the very least includes things like .22LR). As a result, internet sales direct to people in California will be a thing of the past in 2011.

Newspapers in almost every city in California pronounced this measure a "reasonable" move to control gang violence, with only minor effects on lawful gunowners. But say someone had proposed a similar measure for the sale of, oh, I don't know, alcohol? Suppose that before you bought a beer, you had to leave a thumbprint (in ink if the place doesn't have a fancy electronic scanner) and fill out a registration sheet. It would curb underage drinking, and drinking by unauthorized people! We have to do it...for the children! (the cynic in me thinks that the alcohol registration act would actually be partially effective, too, if only because people so drunk they can't fill out the form wouldn't be able to, you know, drink).

Such a bill would never pass, since too many people drink and too many people like convenience when they drink. The number of gunowners in California has fallen below that critical mass, and that means they're vulnerable.

The forces of gun control never stop. Every time they make owning a gun a hassle, every time they make buying ammo harder, every time a gun range closes or a gun shop is zoned out into the boonies, they win a small victory. Add up enough small victories, and soon there'll be more people collecting Austrian stamps than there are gunowners (Tam made this point not very long ago). Opposing these laws helps, but it's also important to make sure that there's a next generation of shooters, too. Any time you can get a new shooter involved (and it's not hard, considering how useful and flat-out fun firearms are), we are one person further away from losing that critical mass...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Music: The Best of Bond...James Bond

What do Duran Duran, Tom Jones, Louis Armstrong, and Sheryl Crow all have in common? They've made opening themes for the James Bond movie series. You know, the songs that play while you see scantily-clad women dancing in silhouette around the main titles?



It's this madcap mix of musical styles that inform the "Best of Bond...James Bond" anthology collection. I have one of the older CDs (which omits everything from "The World is Not Enough" onward), but to be honest, I don't really mind that clunkers like Madonna's "Die Another Day" or Chris Cornell's "You Know My Name" aren't included.

Some of the songs have gone on to be hits in their own right, like "Live and Let Die" or "For Your Eyes Only." Almost all of them contain little flourishes from the brassy Monty Norman Bond theme that has stayed with the series for over forty years. It's kind of neat, and it means you can listen to them back-to-back without finding yourself too disoriented.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Food: Starbucks Via

Okay, I'll admit it. I'm a Starbucks snob. Or rather, I prefer drinking Starbucks' brewed coffee over other big chains, like Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's. Their coffee tends to be fresher, and most of their shops are actually pretty relaxing to blog in (many Shangrila Towers posts are written in coffeehouses).

Then I heard they were releasing a line of instant coffee called "Via." A concession to the travails of the Great Recession?



I tried some of it this week. On one hand, it's easily the best instant coffee I've ever tasted. Each Via packet contains microground coffee in addition to the normal soluble coffee crystals; that means there's some brewing going on when you pour hot water on the stuff, helping to restore a little of the aroma and flavor back to the coffee. Via also has less of a metallic taste compared to other popular and well-liked instant brands like Taster's Choice.

On the other hand, it costs $10 for a pack of 12 servings. Taster's Choice can be had from the grocery store for about $1 for 6 servings. I liked Via, but not enough to pay five times the price of regular instant coffee. It just seems crazy to me - if you wanted to save money, you wouldn't buy such expensive instant coffee. If you wanted Starbucks-quality, you wouldn't get instant when you could have the fresh stuff for 50 cents more. Yeah, Via is more portable, but isn't there a Starbucks location on every street corner anyway?

Miscellany: The Artisan & The (Gerber) Artifact



This is an Atwood Prybaby XL, keychain edition. It is a pocket prybar/bottlecap opener/screwdriver made by knife and toolmaker Peter Atwood. A quick look at Atwood's website and blog shows the huge variety of small knives and widgets he's created over the years, as well as the cult following that tools like the Prybaby, Atwrench, and Keyton have garnered.

This is the Gerber Artifact:


I find the contrasts between the two tools fascinating. The Prybaby is made by a single master toolsmith, the Artifact comes off an assembly line across the Pacific. The Prybaby uses good quality CPM 154 cutlery steel (like a midrange folding knife), the Artifact is made of some mystery steel. The Prybaby is a model of simplicity, while the Artifact seems like a product of "design-by-committee" that tacks on a removable hobby knife blade and an ugly pivot screw.

Which isn't to say I'd never buy the Artifact. Actually, the Gerber tool is probably the only one I could buy - it's available and in stock at my local Target (a five-minute drive), while the Prybaby and its brethren are sold in limited runs from Atwood himself (if you'd like one, look for the ephemeral posts on his blog - the tools usually sell out quickly). The Artifact costs $10, while Atwood's tools sell at around $50 and command twice that on the secondary market.

All of it just goes to show how hard it is to make a high-quality manufactured item in bulk. Like my Dad always says, "There's good, cheap, and fast, but you can only have two."

Guns: Poor Man's Firearm Accessories

There's no getting around it - gun stuff is expensive. But there are ways that you can trick out your carry gun or your home defense gun without breaking the bank. Here are some low cost accessories for those who are on a budget:

Lanyard

Many handguns have a hole for a retention lanyard, but very few people ever use them. Even purpose-built pistol lanyards are inexpensive, and you could probably sub in a phone or headphone cord with a little kludging. There are probably downsides to using one that I'm not aware of since I don't open carry (snagging on things, I'd wager), but it's still a cheap accessory.

Cellphone Holster

Here's a neat tip - go to the electronics clearance section of your local Wally World and check to see if they're selling cellphone holsters. The flat ones (designed for Motorola RZRs and the like) are excellent for carrying one or two Speed Strips, and the larger ones can carry magazines and/or speedloaders, depending on your gun.

Nail Polish/Model Paint



Most subcompact handguns have awful sights. Perk up that P3AT or J-Frame with some sight paint...or, if you're like me, grab some cheap nail polish and model paint and have at it. You can find a number of different methods to paint a sight online, and most are nonpermanent.

Duct Tape/Electrical Tape

Duct tape has a million and one uses, of course. You could make a nifty shell holder for skeet shooting or a jury-rigged brass catcher - just use your imagination. Electrical tape is particularly good for covering up sticky rubber buttpads on rifles and shotguns - much easier to shoulder the gun when it doesn't catch on your shirt.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Movies: Dubious Horror Remakes

Okay, imagine it's 1967. It's been 25 years since the original release of "Casablanca," and the performances of Bogart and Bergman have already started to seep into legend. A bigshot Hollywood producer decides it's time for a remake, since the original was in black-and-white and technology has advanced; the famous Marseillaise scene can be shot in color now. The original director and cast are all ignored in favor of new faces.

Sound preposterous? That's exactly what's happening with "A Nightmare on Elm Street":



ANoES might not be "Casablanca," but it's certainly one of the best horror movies ever made. It's the last of the slasher trinity to fall victim to the remake bug - like hapless coeds in a horror movie, "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" have already been tackled with middling results.

Wes Craven was against this remake since he wasn't brought on as a consultant, and I'm not surprised. From the above trailer, the remake seems to hew far too closely to the mythology Craven established. Heck, many of the actual shots are identical (Freddy's claws in the bathtub, the zero-gravity kill of one of Nancy's friends). Does New Line Cinema, "the house that Freddy built," not respect Craven's input any more? Do they think they can just lift his ideas wholesale and not be called out on it?

Whew. Rant off. I hate to sound too curmudgeonly, but it's just plain...wrong to mess with classic horror flicks near Halloween, don't you think?

Friday, October 02, 2009

Miscellany: A Shangrila Towers Virtual Yard Sale

It's a down economy, and most of us are tightening our belts and finding extra cash where we can. For me, that means selling off the myriad gun-related knick-knacks and tools I've collected over the years. I was using eBay to move a lot of items, but the Final Value Fee they take out is astronomical and they're anti-gun to boot.

So, here are some items that you guys might be interested in (all prices include USPS shipping). If you'd like to buy, leave a comment claiming the item(s) and send me an e-mail with your snail-mail address (mulliga at ufl dot edu, include item and "Shangrila Towers yard sale" in subject line). I'll reply with payment instructions.

I'd like to think most of these items are priced at fair market value or lower, so if you think a friend might be interested in something, tell them - word of mouth is great advertising. Anyway, thanks for shopping at Shangrila Towers...

Streamlight TLR-1 - $35 - SOLD PENDING FUNDS



This is a pretty good weaponlight, and it got a favorable review back when I got it last year. My tastes in handguns and lighting systems has changed somewhat, and the TLR-1 is now sort of outdated (this is the older version - the newer ones use better LEDs). There's also some wear on the upper part of the light (from repeated firings/cleanings) and on the attaching screw. Still, if you need a tactical light on a budget, here's a tough one to beat.

Primary Arms Ultimate Weaponlight - $65 - SOLD PENDING FUNDS



This item is essentially brand new. It's from Primary Arms, though I'm pretty sure it's just a rebranded Chinese weaponlight. Still, the "Ultimate Weaponlight" worked pretty well in my limited testing. I'm selling it because it's a big light (3 CR123A cells long) and it doesn't belong on a lightweight tactical carbine. If you need the lumens, though, it's a good choice. The package comes with a tape switch setup and a push button tailcap, which is a pretty good combo considering the price.

BlackHawk! Left Thigh Holster - $35 - SOLD PENDING FUNDS



I'm not sure what specific model of holster this is, mainly because I bought it to participate in the Students for Concealed Carry on Campus open holster protest. It fits Beretta 92/CZ-75 size autoloaders (adjustable for most fullsize pistols, in other words), and has a mag pounch in front. Works pretty well, but you'll probably look like Lara Croft if you wear this with shorts (though some people might want that effect, I suppose).

Seven Black Magpul PMAG Magazines - $70 - SOLD PENDING FUNDS



Here are seven black Magpul PMAGs without the windows. They're in great shape and they all have the dustcovers, too. Incredible AR mags, but as I no longer use an AR, they're kinda superfluous.

Vickers Combat Applications Two-Point Sling - $25 - SOLD PENDING FUNDS



I tried the Vickers sling on my AR, but I just didn't like it as much as the old "rat tail," my Wilderness single-point. Different strokes for different folks, though, and this is a well-designed and sturdy adjustable two-point.

Victorinox SwissTool - $40 - SOLD PENDING FUNDS



The SwissTool is a heavy, polished multitool that competes favorably with the Leathermans of the world. Comes with a sweet molded nylon belt holster that doubles as a mag pouch.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Tech: The Beatles - Rock Band

Just a couple of years ago, the unprecedented success of "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero III" made it seem like the music game would dominate store shelves forever. Since then, though, waves of me-too titles, including Konami's ill-fated "Rock Revolution," one "Rock Band" sequel and several "Guitar Hero" sequels, have killed whatever momentum the genre once had. New music games are being met with yawns instead of cheers, because there's only so many plastic instruments you can cram into a living room.

Reversing this trend would take something big. Bigger than Jesus:



Yes, the Beatles have finally gotten their own music title. Now you can play as John, Paul, George, and Ringo in the ultimate Beatles simulator. "The Beatles: Rock Band" features 45 master Beatles tracks covering their entire career, from the moptop days of playing in London clubs to the trippier fare of the later albums.

The core gameplay of the "Rock Band" series is unchanged, save for the ability to sing in three-part harmony. You'll still be staring at those endless multicolored note gems, except this time everything is "fab" and "groovy." There's really no reason why the songs in this game couldn't be DLC for the main "Rock Band" games, but I suspect getting the licensing issues sorted out would have been a nightmare.

To Harmonix's credit, the game takes its Beatles license seriously and does everything possible to immerse you in Beatlemania. I'm not a hardcore Beatles fanatic, but even I got a kick out of hearing clips from that legendary Ed Sullivan performance or looking at old photos from the Beatles' studio vault. While you're banging away on your plastic drums, you're treated to psychedelic renditions of the later studio songs, like "Octopus's Garden" or "Here Comes the Sun."

Still, when all is said and done, 45 songs aren't that many, especially considering that Harmonix is going to release much of the rest of the Beatles' catalog (including the rest of "Abbey Road" and "Sgt. Pepper's") as DLC that you'll have to pay extra for. Like the Beatles' career, it's good while it lasts, but it all ends pretty abruptly.

Rating: 83/100

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