Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve Retrospective...My Favorite Posts of 2009

I noticed recently that Blogger's search function only goes back in time so far - type in "guns" in the search bar above, for instance, and you only get posts from the last six months or so. In the dashboard interface that I use to maintain the blog, a search turns up every post right from the beginning with the query term in it (that's how I prevent myself from blogging about the same thing twice).

So, I give you the top ten posts of Shangrila Towers from the first half of the past year. These are my personal favorites, either because I liked the subject matter or because I was able to bring some decent writing to bear:

Fun Depot - Simultaneously one of the best and worst "family fun centers" I've ever been to. Good because it made for an interesting topic to blog about; bad because, well, it was a pretty sketchy experience. To be fair, though, it's a lot cheaper than other places around here.

Trial By Fire - The TYLA National Trial Competition dominated two months of my life and annihilated my GPA for the last semester of law school. "Classes? What classes? We have practice tonight!"

Chris' Taverna - Still an incredibly popular spot for casual Greek food in Lake Worth. Well worth a visit, if only to marvel at how the place has completely co-opted the strip mall it occupies (there are even tables in front of the pharmacy entrance next door).

A Different Kind of Campaign Trail, Part 8 - The "Campaign Trail" posts are a record of my 4E D&D campaign, "Sparks of Fate," one of the few D&D campaigns I've ever run that had a concrete ending. The name comes from the fact that the campaign started in the midst of the 2008 presidential campaign. I have a campaign notebook from "Sparks of Fate" that I'll probably keep for the rest of my life.

Rethinking the "If Only I Had a Gun" Experiment - Ah, who doesn't remember the incredibly slanted take on campus CCW from the folks at ABC? Every gunblogger fisked this claptrap, and I was just doing my part.

The Right to Bear Tasers? - A meditation on the less-lethal electrical stun gun, embodied in the Taser. I've softened a bit on my stance on less-lethal weapons, but it doesn't change the fact that a handgun is still the best tool, overall, for self-defense.

The Life and Death of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - The show is now on DVD, but it was the drama surrounding the network wrangling that really made "Sarah Connor Chronicles" memorable. Unfortunately, Fox ended up picking the awful "Dollhouse" for another season. Darn you, Whedon!

Top 5 Impractical But Cool Firearms - One of my best attempts at starting an Internet meme. I still like the idea, but it's pretty hard to find impractical firearms (if you think hard enough, you can find a use for almost ANY gun).

Skill vs. Power - Roger Federer lost out to Tiger Woods for athlete of the decade, but I still think the Swiss Maestro deserved it. Fed's record on the tennis court is so crazy that it's hard to make meaningful comparisons with other sports. How would you describe a college basketball team that made the national championship game 17 out of the past 18 years? Or a golfer who didn't miss a top 4 finish in a major for 6 years? Dominant? Superb?

Schlitterbahn Galveston - One hot day in the Texas summer, burned into my memory.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Miscellany: CRKT Ringer 3 knife review



Like all hand tools, knives can be dropped or misplaced, especially in wet or harsh conditions. Unlike other hand tools, it's relatively easy for a knife to be damaged by a fall onto a hard surface (not to mention the danger of an errant blade). That's why there are a significant number of knife designs that aim to increase user retention.

The Ringer series, by A.G. Russell, is one of those designs. As the name implies, all the knives in the Ringer line use metal loops that slip around the fingers like rings - you can grasp other objects while keeping the knife completely under control. The Ringer knives were manufactured by CRKT; they've been discontinued, but they're still readily available online.

The Ringer 1 has a guthook for emergency cutting, and the Ringer 2 features a hawkbill for easier slashing cuts. I opted for the Ringer 3, a traditional clip point that I think offers the most day-to-day utility. The Ringer 3 features an upswept 1-3/4" hollow ground blade with a lot of belly, almost too much - the blade has a tendency to come away from whatever is being cut. Thankfully, the tip is sharp and strong, always a plus in a working knife:



All the Ringer knives use 3Cr13 steel. It's relatively soft compared to midrange cutlery steels, but it's easy to sharpen and holds an edge well enough for the sporadic use scenarios that the knife was designed for. Since the knife is imported and inexpensive (under $20), the fit and finish isn't anything to write home about, but it does the job.

Ergonomically, the knife is a mixed bag. The finger loops should be large enough for all but the most enormous hands. The thin stock, however, means that the knife can be a little unpleasant to hold during hard cutting; similarly, I wish there was jimping on the swedge side of the handle to help keep the knife under control.

On the plus side, the Ringer 3 has a neat little extension on the back end that functions as sort of a lever for your third finger. It's little more than a nub, but it does make the small knife much more usable than it would otherwise be. After awhile, the extension's sharp, unbeveled edges dig into your finger, so the Ringer 3 is a prime candidate for the paracord wrap treatment:



The sheath is fitted Kydex, and it does a good job of retaining the knife without rattling or movement. As with many Kydex sheaths, it's a little stiff out of the box, so you'll need to work the knife in and out a few dozen times (with the blade/Kydex interface thoroughly lubricated) in order to loosen it up.

The ball chain that comes with the sheath is a bit on the heavy side, especially if you wear it around your neck as the manufacturer intended. I replaced the chain with some 550 cord and the weight of the entire package (knife, sheath, and cord) came in at about 1.5 ounces. My personal limit for neck knife carry is 2 ounces (more on that in a future post), and, while the Ringer 3 isn't a knife that you forget you're wearing, it is light enough that it doesn't bug me.



All in all, the Ringer 3 is an interestingly little neck knife that posits one answer to an age-old problem - "if I'm not holding on to my knife, where is it?" It conceals well under a typical shirt and makes for an excellent backup knife, especially considering the price.

TV: Full House (the Korean one)

Some Korean soap operas veer off into high melodrama; sadness laces every romantic scene, usually because the main characters are caught in some sort of tortuous love triangle. "Full House," a soap based on the comic book of the same name, eschews the melancholy (mostly) and chooses comedy instead:



In the soap, an aspiring screenwriter named Han Ji-Eun (Song Hye-Kyo) takes a trip to Shanghai, courtesy of her best friends. Unfortunately, while she's abroad, those same friends sell her house behind her back to a movie star, Lee Young-Jae (played by pop star Rain). When Ji-Eun finally gets back, she is forced to live with Young-Jae as a maid in her own home.

"Full House" is one of the most popular Korean soap operas, and it's a good introduction to the genre. The show doesn't have the largest budget (most of the series is shot inside the titular "Full House," a home built by Ji-Eun's father), but there's a surprising chemistry between the two leads that makes up for it. That doesn't mean the series doesn't have its fair share of emotional montages where the characters stare wistfully into space - get your fast-forward button ready!

In particular, Song Hye-Kyo is adorable as Ji-Eun and brings a ton of charm to the role. She's equal parts naivete and mawkish anger, and her exasperated love affair with Young-Jae evolves as she gradually realizes her feelings. Rain's performance isn't nearly as polished; given that he's basically playing himself, and that he's tasked with falling in love with a beautiful woman, it's not very difficult material anyway.

Here's the cutest moment of the entire series, when Ji-Eun serenades her in-laws with a song about three bears:

Monday, December 28, 2009

Tech: Shadow Complex review

More than almost any other Xbox Live Arcade game I've played, "Shadow Complex" merits a full review. It has the look, feel, and length of a retail release - just look at the E3 trailer:



You play as Jason, an Everyman out for a hike with his girlfriend Claire. While exploring a cave in the mountains, you stumble upon an enormous secret military complex bristling with weapons and soldiers. In the tradition of '90s classics like "Super Metroid" and "Castlevania: Symphony of the Night," "Shadow Complex" throws you into a huge labyrinth that can only be fully explored by powering up your character.

Despite the 2D perspective, all of the action takes place in 3D. Enemies and obstacles will come from the foreground and background, and you can auto-aim along the z-axis. This depth actually frees up the level designers quite a bit, since enemies don't have to be placed in your 2D plane in order to threaten you. It also means level architecture and background scenery can be made more visually elaborate without confusing the player's movements.

Speaking of visuals, anyone familiar with Chair Entertainment's previous XBLA title, "Undertow," won't be surprised by the excellent graphics "Shadow Complex" sports. Using the expertise of Epic Games and the horsepower of Unreal Engine 3, the production values of this game are so far ahead of almost every other XBLA title that it becomes absurd to compare them. For instance, the simplistic XBLA remake of "Lode Runner" is the same price ($15) as "Shadow Complex," and the awful "Turtles In Time" remake is only $5 cheaper.

And it's not like you're only paying for the bells and whistles, either; a full playthrough of the game will take about 4-7 hours, depending on how many hidden goodies you uncover. Two achievements, "Completionist" and "Minimalist," help replayability by tasking you with finding every item and with surviving with almost none of the items, respectively.

In the end, the biggest compliment (and the biggest complaint) I can give "Shadow Complex" is that it's a perfect "Super Metroid" clone. It never veers far from that formula, but for what it is, it's a well-executed game that sets a new standard for XBLA titles.

Rating: 87/100

Movies: Holiday Alter Ego Movie Review Double Feature

This Christmas break, I finally had enough free time to get out and see some movies in the theaters. By chance, both the films I saw had main characters who underwent radical transformations.

The Princess and the Frog

"The Princess and the Frog" is the first traditionally animated Disney movie since 2004's forgettable "Home on the Range." Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (who helmed several Disney hits including "Aladdin" and "Hercules"), the film is about a young woman named Tiana who encounters a talking frog. The frog claims to be a prince, Tiana kisses the frog (with the old Grimm fairy tale in mind), and they live happily ever after...right?



It's a very American fairy tale. Not just in its setting - an idealized, sterilized version of 1920s New Orleans - but in its sensibilities. Tiana is the most grown-up Disney princess to date, working two jobs in order to save enough money to open her own restaurant. Her determination to make it on her own through hard work is refreshing in an era of corporate bailouts and government stimulus.

As appealing as Tiana is, the rest of the movie is uneven. Most of the songs are disposable, the animation is hit and miss, and even some of the other characters seem borrowed from other movies (Prince Naveen in particular is dangerously close to the character of Jean-Bob in Richard Rich's "The Swan Princess").

Still, as family entertainment goes, "The Princess and the Frog" easily ranks as one of the better second-tier Disney animated features (think "Pocahontas" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"). Hopefully, with this out of the way, the House of Mouse can crank out something to rival "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast."

Rating: 7/10

Avatar

"Avatar," the first feature film by James Cameron in more than a decade, is one of those movies that is best experienced on a big screen, preferably IMAX, with a good surround sound setup, and with 3D glasses:



Every frame of "Avatar" has been so heavily worked that it's hard not to feel a little awe, at least intellectually. No film has ever blended live action and CGI as skillfully; "Avatar" makes the composite shots in "Lord of the Rings" and the "Star Wars" prequels look dated and primitive. All the specular highlighting and skeletal animation pops off the screen, especially with 3D glasses on.

The multimillion dollar technological wizardry does its best to hide the fact that this is essentially "Dances with Wolves" in space. It's well-paced, there are decent performances from everyone (save Michelle Rodriguez, who is playing the same macho-chick character she always plays), but in the end, it's a very simple story.

By and large, the thinly disguised social commentary is over-the-top and absolute - it's Peaceful Noble Savages vs. Genocidal Capitalist Mining Corporation. Going native is a pretty timeworn trope by now, and Cameron's strict adherence to the formula, with no shades of grey, makes the movie less science fiction and more romatic fantasy.

After all, in "Avatar," it's the humans that are exploring the galaxy and visiting other worlds, not the in-tune-with-nature Na'vi. The latter are the heroes of the movie, but the former are the ones who won't be screwed when a rogue asteroid wipes out all life on their home planet. There's certainly a place for hippie, Gaia-worshipping spiritualism, but it isn't out among the stars.

Rating: 6/10

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

In about ten minutes, we're going to have prime rib roast with a horseradish and garlic paste, asparagus with fingerling potatoes, green beans with bacon, and 100% made-from-scratch sweet potato pie.

I hope your Christmas Eve, dear Reader, is going as well as mine. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Miscellany: Victorinox Vagabond SAK review



I've always been a fan of Victorinox (who, along with Wenger, make the official Swiss Army knives). They do have, however, a nasty habit of discontinuing good designs. In fact, the only reason I know about the out-of-production Victorinox Vagabond is through the handy SAKWiki site.

The Vagabond is a keychain SAK that weighs 1.2 ounces (35 grams). That's almost a full 1.5 ounces less than my previous keychain multitool, the Gerber Clutch. That might not sound like much, but every ounce you can take off of your keychain is less bulk in your pocket and less stress on your car ignition (assuming you keep the rest of your keychain dangling from your car key when you drive).

Compared with other keychain SAKs, the Vagabond is noticeably bigger than the popular Classic-size but still slimmer and lighter than the MiniChamp II. It omits the MiniChamp's cuticle pusher and ruler, two tools that I can safely live without:



On one side, the Vagabond has a set of scissors and a screwdriver/wire-stripper/bottle-opener combo tool. Newer MT designs like the Leatherman Micra/Squirt series integrate larger, heavy-duty scissors into their handles, but the small Victorinox form factor is still useful for clipping nose hairs and snipping coupons.

The combo tool is extremely well-designed; the bottle opener works well for its size and the small magnetic-tipped Phillips head can turn a decent number of screws. I do wish the driver bit was smaller so it could deal with eyeglass screws, and the combo tool's wire stripper is mostly ornamental:



The other side of the knife houses both blades, a nail file with a flathead screwdriver tip, and the "orange peeler" tool. The main pen blade and the Wharncliffe emergency blade are easy to sharpen and great for small cutting chores. The hook-like orange peeler can slice a deep gash into most citrus fruits, making it easy to lift and peel off sections of the skin; you could also use it for scraping and poking. As for the nail file, I've never filed my nails with a SAK, but at least there's a flathead driver on the tip:.



Like almost all Victorinox SAKs, the Vagabond has slots for a toothpick and a set of tweezers. The toothpick is a handy way to clean lint out of the tool (I'd never actually use it on my teeth). The tweezers are okay, but I'd want something a bit stronger and finer for pulling out splinters:



Overall, the Vagabond is a handy little package, offering significantly more capabilities than the average keychain SAK without going overboard on the tool selection. It's a shame Victorinox no longer makes them, but at least they're easy to find on the secondary market.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Politics: A Spoonful of Pork Helps the Medicine Go Down

So what's the price of health care reform? Apparently, it's whatever a U.S. senator willing to hold out on voting for cloture wants it to be:



To be honest, I hope this 60-40 party line split in the Senate continues for as long as possible. With any luck, the wholesale abandonment of any kind of principles will get at least some of these people thrown out of office. I can't imagine any average citizen, of any political persuasion, liking all the pork and blatant cronyism packed in this bill. It's not even being concealed any more. The AMA got its cosmetic surgery tax thrown out, for instance. Nebraska got its Medicaid propped up on the Federal dime. And so it goes...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Shangrila Towers, Busy Edition

Sorry for the slight lull in posting - been pretty occupied with real life. Sorta contradicts the tagline of the blog, right?

So, a quick post then. I've always felt that animation, no matter how good, needs spirited voice actors. The silkiest, most technically proficient Disney-quality cel work would be lifeless without a good actor bringing it to life. There were few who brought as much to a character as Brittany Murphy did to Luanne Platter on "King of the Hill":



Murphy passed away, but a little bit of her voice still remains with that goodhearted ditz from Arlen.

Friday, December 18, 2009

TV: The Big Bang Theory

It might not seem like it, but the geek (in the sci-fi-loving, RPG-playing, cheerfully alienated modern sense) is a fairly new concept. That's why there have been only a few true geeks in primetime comedy, with Steve Urkel being the most well-known example. The CBS sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" ups the ante with four main characters who are dyed-in-the-wool, stereotypical nerds:



They're research physicists (well, except for Wolowitz, who only has an MS in engineering), so between the Halo games, the Chinese takeout, and the anime conventions, there is some science being bandied about. The show hired a real UCLA prof to make sure all the technobabble makes sense, though just about anyone with a love of current scientific progress will get most of the references.

I wish I could say I was a big fan of the show, but BBT really just rehashes decades-old sitcom conventions once you take out all the nerdy trappings. Still, the constant references to everything from IPv6 to the Incredible Hulk are endearing. Strangely enough, I like watching specific clips of the show more than watching entire episodes, because that way you can get the piece of geekdom and the character's off-the-wall behavior without muddling through the sitcom plot.

Here's a clip that's rather festive - girl-next-door Penny gives an unusual Christmas gift to the ultra-anti-social Sheldon:

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Miscellany: Lesser-Known Christmas Traditions

All this month, Shangrila Towers will be serving up various Christmas-themed posts. Today we'll toss around some ideas for unusual Christmas celebrations. Don't get me wrong, I like holiday tradition as much as the next guy, but it can be a good idea to step out of your Yuletide comfort zone.

A WWI-style Christmas Truce



What the heck are we doing to each other? That thought must have crossed the minds of British and German soldiers during the famous "Christmas truce" of 1914. For several days, many near the front lines walked into no man's land, exchanging gifts, sharing stories, and singing Christmas songs. It's hard to imagine celebrating the holiday season with someone who was shooting at you a week before, but sometimes people get reminded of how mercilessly short our time on this earth is.

You can celebrate your own "Trench Christmas" by making peace with an enemy or rival, at least for the holiday season (perhaps a friendly game of soccer, like the soldiers played in 1914?). More literally, you can send small gifts, like a knit scarf or balaclava, to the troops serving overseas.

Christmas Crackers

I have no idea why this charming tradition never really caught on here in the States - the other former British colonies, the UK, and even Russia have a strong Christmas craacker market:



You fill a tube with small pieces and candy and perhaps little gifts or writings, than roll it up in bright wrapping paper. Hold one end, have someone else hold the other, and BANG! Instant merriment.

Galette des Rois, the "Twelfth Night Cake"

Technically this isn't a Christmas tradition (since the traditional "king cake" is served during Epiphany), but it's close enough. It's also another custom practiced around the world that is largely absent here in the U.S. (except for some Spanish and French-influenced parts of the country).



You bake a cake, hiding a trinket or toy inside. Whoever gets the trinket is made "king," and so must offer the next cake. I prefer the French versions, with their heady almond fillings. French bakeries even have special lines of collectible figurines for these cakes.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Guns: My Permit, My Privacy, Your Safety

Perhaps you saw Gun Nuts' Caleb duel with a gun controller over the Herald Times database of concealed carry permitholders:



Ah, there's nothing like watching the Brady Bunch have to distort and twist facts just to make their argument presentable (read the comments to see just how weaselly the use of the "500 people with criminal backgrounds" statistic can be). And no matter how you look at the stats, there's zero evidence that CCWs commit violent crimes "often."

I've blogged about how CCW databases, often printed by anti-gun newspaper editors, are a bad idea. But for a more graphic reason why it's bad to tell the bad guys who is and who isn't armed, watch (and listen to) the following video:



It's not that CCW permit holders will be targeted more (though doubtless some will be), but that the non-permit holders will be. That's because any idiot, with a 30-second web search, can know which households are and which aren't armed. Guess which one Mr. Thug will pick to rob/rape/murder?

Miscellany: A Paracord Primer, Part 1 - Introduction

The daily news cycle got you down? Tired of Tiger? Haggard over health care? Why not take up a new hobby? Here at Shangrila Towers, we're always doing something useful, so kick back, turn off the tabloids, and learn about paracord weaving...

This is 550 parachute cord, also called "550 cord" or "paracord" for short. The "550" stands for its minimum breaking strength. It's a smooth, lightweight, slightly elastic nylon cord that you can buy at most any military surplus or outdoor store. Online prices run about $7 or $8 per 100 foot hank.



Before you start attempting projects with paracord, you should probably know a little about knots and braids. Whether you get your ideas from the encyclopedic "The Ashley Book of Knots" (the most authoritative reference work on knots ever written) or a cheap bargain bin knot book, the important thing is to spend the time and do the research. There are few more dangerous things in this world than a knot that looks good but is tied incorrectly. The Ashley book is a classic, but it'll be a little daunting for the beginner - it might be better to start with something that has nice, pretty pictures.



Paracord is composed of two parts, the core and the sheath. The inner core is made up of seven 2-ply strands, colloquially known as the "guts" of the cord. The guts have a ton of uses - as fishing line, sewing thread...whenever a lighter-weight rope or string is needed. With some effort, you can braid some of the guts together to create small lashings of various strengths and sizes.



The sheath is a braided, seamless tube of nylon that makes for excellent wrapping material, since it has the tendency to lay flat against surfaces. Unfortunately, without the innner strands, the flat sheath can be difficult to tie knots with effectively, limiting its utility. Also, note that much of the load-bearing capacity of the cord lies with the core; don't use the empty sheath to tie or bind anything important.



Paracord's biggest drawback is its tendency to fray after being cut. Most of the time, you will have to burn the ends of the cord with a lighter (any common butane lighter will work, but a "jet" type makes things a little easier). There are also applications where paracord's characteristics (smoothness, light weight) aren't desirable.

I'd be remiss if I didn't show at least one practical knot in this introduction. Making an adjustable paracord necklace (for a neck knife, whistle, or other tool) is easy - just take an appropriate length of cord and join the ends with an angler's knot (a simple bend made of two overhand knots, one tied at each end). Pull the knots to shorten the necklace, pull the lines to lengthen it:



Next time, we'll feature tips for doing a simple paracord wrap of a knife handle for better traction and comfort.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Music: Best Pop Christmas Albums

All this month, Shangrila Towers will be serving up various Christmas-themed posts. This entry will focus on the Christmas album, an almost inevitable release for any pop music singer once they get famous. Most of them are hit-or-miss, and only a select few are worth actually listening to:

Nat King Cole - "The Christmas Song"



He's most famous today because of his voice, but Nat King Cole actually started off as a jazz pianist; he learned both traditionl European classical music and jazz as a child. The jazz community wasn't too happy when he veered into popular music, but it's given us some of the best vocal performances ever recorded.

"The Christmas Song" is full of traditional Christmas carols, like "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" and "Silent Night." Its title track, though, is a modern classic written by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells. Nat King Cole recorded four versions, each one more lush and orchestral than the last; a baritone that rich needs a full orchestra just to stand up to it, I guess.

Mariah Carey - "Merry Christmas"



Superstar Mariah Carey is still going fairly strong, but back in the '90s she was damn near unstoppable. "Merry Christmas" is then, in some ways, a snapshot of simpler times for Carey, before the familiar show-biz narrative of fall-from-grace/professional resurrection took over.

Carey manages to bring two things to the table - a great figure (don't laugh, kneeling in a shapely Santa suit probably sold two or three hundred thousand more copies) and an incredible multi-octave range. Most of the tracks on "Merry Christmas" are straight versions of traditional pieces, but the original song "All I Want For Christmas Is You" has become a radio staple.

The Carpenters - "Carpenters Christmas Collection"



What do you get when you mix the mellow voice of Karen Carpenter with the mellow holiday of Christmas? A couple of incredibly mellow Christmastime albums, "Christmas Portrait" and "An Old-Fashioned Christmas," that's what. Why not just wave the white flag and grab the two-disc collection, the appropriately-named "Carpenters Christmas Collection"?

Oh, you'll find some duds (basically, any of the instrumentals and anything where Richard Carpenter sings solo), but the majority of the songs inside are Christmas standards like "Sleigh Ride" rendered into a dreamy otherworld by Karen's mellifluous voice. The mellowness works best on the happy songs (sad ballads like "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" really need a husky, pained voice), but as a whole, it's a great way to chill out during your holiday downtime.

Lynyrd Skynyrd - "Christmas Time Again"



Most rock artists release a few Christmas singles in their careers, but there are actually only a few bands that'll put together a full Christmas album. Lynyrd Skynyrd, arguably the most famous Southern rock band, released their Christmas collection back in 2000.

Inside is perhaps not what a casual Skynyrd fan would expect. There's a surprisingly gentle piano rendition of "Greensleeves," for instance, along with some original songs. My favorite track is Skynyrd's incredible rocking version of "Run Run Rudolph."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Movies: A Salute to Ernie Hudson

If there was ever an award for "paying your dues" in Hollywood, Ernie Hudson would win it. He went out and got the education, including an MFA from Yale University. He struggled and scrapped through live theatre and numerous bit parts on TV. Even his first big break, "Ghostbusters," was bittersweet, as he saw his character's screentime cut in half (Winston Zeddemore was originally going to be played by Eddie Murphy, a much bigger box office draw). The original Ghostbusters trailer didn't even include Hudson when it listed the cast members at the end:



(Here's a fan video rectifying this slight by scrapping together every line of dialogue Hudson has in the movie):



Even after the blockbuster success of "Ghostbusters," Hudson still found himself playing character roles in B-movies (like "Leviathan," a 1989 corker starring Peter Weller). I mean, I guess it'd be easy to be bitter if you were reduced to parodying yourself on the "Super Mario Brothers Super Show":



Through it all, though, Hudson has remained cheerful and works as an actor to this day, with successful roles in big TV hits like "Oz" and "Desperate Housewives." He's gained a fairly big following in the geek crowd, both because of his pleasant interactions with fans at conventions and his penchant for picking memorable roles in cult movies, like his scenery-chewing turn in "Congo":



Thanks, Ernie Hudson. And I hope Winston makes it into "Ghostbusters III."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Books: The Gathering Storm

When "Wheel of Time" author Robert Jordan died in 2007, most fans of the series were pretty disappointed. After all, Jordan had penned an epic fantasy sequence spanning nearly 3.5 million words over 11 books, forming a detailed world with minutiae to spare:



That kind of overwhelming detail, though, increased the wait between books, and presaged what would happen - before Jordan could complete the final novel, he fell ill with cardiac amyloidosis and passed away. WoT fans were understandably skeptical when it was announced little-known fantasy author Brandon Sanderson would finish the final book, and that the final book would be split into three volumes.

I've always had a soft spot for the WoT series, even though I know intellectually that the books are, in many cases, poorly written and overly long. That's why I liked "The Gathering Storm," I guess; in a lot of ways, it reads like the ultimate WoT fanfic. It's impossible to be sure which words were written by Jordan and which were not, of course, but my guess is that the more tangential parts of the story were filled in by Sanderson.

Mat's travels, for instance, are pretty far removed from the main plot. In Mat's sections, Sanderson sneaks in some thinly-veiled references to a D&D gaming session and even pens the WoT's first zombie horde attack. These sidetrips are pretty entertaining (exasperated Mat-as-DM is darn near hilarious), but they're comic relief that doesn't really fit in with the dark tone of the rest of the book.

On the plus side, the change of authors brings a welcome change of pace. Where Jordan may have once plodded through several minor characters and endless descriptions of people's clothing, Sanderson keeps the focus on Rand, the shepherder-turned-messiah, and Egwene, the innkeeper's daughter-turned-ubermage.

Needless to say, unless you've at least read the first seven or eight books of the series, "The Gathering Storm" will be pretty much incomprehensible. I actually found it enjoyable even though I skipped books 9, 10, and 11 (not much happened in those, anyway). For lapsed WoT fans like me who started reading the series in elementary and middle school, it might be time to return for one final battle.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Miscellany: Boker Magnum Escape Knife Review

When some people hear the words "fighting knife," they think of something like this:



But not every "fighting knife" has to be a huge Bowie or even a West Side Story-esque switchblade. In fact, there are a considerable number of small fixed blade defense knives, like the Emerson LaGriffe, designed by French martial artist Fred Perrin:



The Boker Escape is sort of a poor man's LaGriffe, and it's part of Boker's Magnum line, a series of inexpensive knives made overseas (the Escape, for instance, was made in China). This means that you can buy the Escape for less than $20, about 1/3 of what you'd pay for a LaGriffe.



While the Escape is marketed as a back-up outdoors survival knife in the Boker catalog, it's hard to see this tiny 1.75" blade doing any kind of serious bushcraft, except for maybe snare building or light food prep. That's why I think the Escape is actually supposed to serve as a small self-defense knife. As its name implies, you could use this knife to escape an attacker who has already closed to bad breath distance. The index finger hole makes it much easier to retain the blade, and the included leather sheath can clip onto a belt, boot, or pocket.

Of course, you usually get what you pay for when it comes to knives, and the Escape's blade is a little dull out of the box. It's also made of 420 stainless steel, a low-end cutlery steel that's a few notches below the LaGriffe's 154CM in terms of toughness and edge-holding. On the plus side, it's fully-flat ground and sharpens readily.



The knife and sheath weigh about 2 ounces, which is light enough to facilitate boot or ankle carry if you wanted to rig it up. The sheath itself is leather and does a serviceable job of retaining the knife, though the metal clip definitely feels chintzy and cheap (you can't expect much from a sub-$20 package).



The knife's tiny handle is finished off with micarta scales that actually look pretty good. They're slick, though, and they are riveted in, which is a disappointment - I would have preferred a mini Torx screw setup so that you could customize the scales.



In hand, the Escape works all right, though I suspect the index finger hole will be on the small side for most people (I have small hands, and even my index finger was snug inside there). The problem for me is that the handle just isn't large enough to be comfortable - I'll probably need to attach a paracord lanyard to facilitate a better grip. Additionally, when worn on the hip, the sharp edges of the tang and the handle dig into your side, so a paracord wrap is in order if you plan to actually carry it that way.

Overall, the Boker Escape is an interesting little hideaway knife that works well enough considering the price. To be sure, the LaGriffe remains the gold standard in small defense knives; its hawkbill blade and better handle design make it an incredible slasher. The Escape's conventional blade shape makes it much more useful in everyday life, though, and if that's a trade-off you're willing to make, the Boker Escape is worth a look.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Miscellany: Best Pop Culture Hannukah Appearances

All this month, Shangrila Towers will be serving up various Christmas-themed posts. Today, we'll look at one of the other December holidays - Hanukkah, the festival of lights.

Growing up in south Florida, I got the distinct impression from a number of my Jewish friends that Hanukkah was a slight embarrassment. In terms of religious significance, the Festival of Lights pales in comparison to lesser-known but more important holidays like Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur, Passover, or even Purim. It's a pretty transparent way to make sure Jewish kids don't feel left out when parents (including secular ones) celebrate Christmas by handing out the loot on the 25th.

Still, it seems like a harmless enough celebration, and there are plenty of Jewish people who have proudly integrated a "strong Hanukkah" into the winter holidays. Here are some of the most memorable entries in the pop-culture Hanukkah lexicon:

Rugrats, "A Rugrats Chanukah"



The Nickelodeon cartoon "Rugrats" ran a phenomenally successful Passover special (one of the best half-hour explorations of the holiday ever made), so it made sense that they'd follow it up with a Hanukkah special. As in the Passover episode, Tommy Pickles and his baby friends imagine themselves as the characters in the story, juxtaposing the Maccabees' epic victory with cute diaper humor. Meanwhile, Tommy's Grandpa Boris tangles with his old rival from Russia, Schlomo.

Curiously enough, the Anti-Defamation league objected to the portrayal of Tommy's grandparents in this episode, claiming that they resembled stereotypical anti-Semitic drawings. Given that many of the people who produced the episode were Jewish (including one of the writers and the president of Nickelodeon), the criticism was a little strange.

Adam Sandler, "The Hanukkah Song"



This is probably the only Hanukkah song most people will hear on mainstream radio, though it's more of a listing of famous Jews than a song. Even though it isn't much musically, there's a certain brash confidence in the piece that should perk up the spirits of any Jewish kid who feels left out in the Christmas hullaballoo. At least this worked better than Sandler's other major foray into holiday entertainment, the first and only(!) Hannukah-based feature film. I forgive you for "Eight Crazy Nights," Mr. Sandler. Barely.

South Park, "Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo"

Deftly mixing disgusting toilet humor with a message about religious tolerance (in some cases, quite literally mixing the two), this seminal "South Park" story lampoons the sometimes overly-PC response to Christmas celebrations. In terms of Hanukkah, the entire Jewish kid community is represented in Kyle's titanic ballad, "A Lonely Jew on Christmas":

TV: Lovers in Prague

The Korean drama has become wildly popular all around the world, and I watched my first one recently. If you've never seen one, think of the K-drama as a soap opera crossed with a miniseries. Most are over before twenty episodes, and K-dramas usually don't go on for decades and decades like American soaps. Despite their relative brevity, the combination of intricate love triangles, photogenic Korean performers, and melodramatic pop music just strikes a chord with people. I watched "Lovers in Prague," an archetypical K-drama from the people who brought you "Lovers in Paris":



"Lovers in Prague" follows Yoon Jae-hee, a round-faced diplomat who happens to be the daughter of the president of Korea. While working in Prague, Jae-hee runs into Choi Sang-hyun, a police detective who's visiting the city to look for his estranged girlfriend. Predictably, sparks fly between Jae-hee and Sang-hyun, though matters are complicated greatly when both of their ex-lovers show up in Prague, too. From there, it's a romantic battle for the heart of Jae-hee.

The premise is decent, at least at first. The initial episodes are shot in Prague, which is easily one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The background scenery does a lot to liven up the proceedings. This is also well before the principal characters, Jae-hee and Sang-hyun, acquire too much emotional inertia.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the series takes place in Seoul, ditching the wondrous bridges and castles of Prague for the boring monotony of Seoul office buildings. From there it starts to become tedious. Every single encounter between any of the main characters turns into an event where the involved characters freeze, stare at each other, and dramatic music plays. Even worse, there's some strange attraction field that ensures all the love triangle participants meet each other daily, even in a city of 25 million people.

Maybe I'm being too hard on "Lovers in Prague." I'm sure most K-dramas are like this, throwing out logic and plot for the sake of face-time with the actors looking weepy. It does make for some very maudlin montages:

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Guns: The Truck Gun - Peace Be The Journey

A small number of gun owners keep a firearm in their car or truck but can't/won't carry one with them in their daily lives. There are a lot of reasons why I think this practice is unwise. For one, unless Mr. Criminal allows you to access your glove compartment, trunk, or center console before a fight, you probably won't have your gun when you need it. More importantly, I can think of only a handful of situations where you would be justified in fighting with a firearm near a vehicle rather than just driving the hell away. Clint Smith explains it best:



Still, I suppose there are isolated cases when having an extra gun in the car is worthwhile. Maybe your car breaks down in the middle of bear country and a tow truck is not forthcoming. Perhaps some large scale disaster strands you somewhere, along with a few hundred unruly rioters. Most people have a first aid kit and tools in their vehicle for those kinds of emergencies, so a vehicle firearm, unloaded and locked in a case, isn't too big of a stretch.

So what gun should it be? Preferably something inexpensive, rugged, and capable. That could be an old pump action 12 gauge, or a military surplus bolt-action rifle. Both would give you capabilities above and beyond your carry handgun, and both would make effective hunting weapons should the need arise. An additional consideration is that these types of common long guns are more likely to be legally carried in a vehicle than other guns (this is not legal advice - check your state and local laws!).

One last thing: the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 included a federal "safe passage" or "peaceable journey" law that is intended to pre-empt state firearms controls when you pass through these states on an interstate journey. Note, though, that there are a ton of restrictions and pitfalls that apply and you definitely risk being arrested anyway by a suspicious or ill-informed police officer, so please read up before you take that cross-country road trip with your Mosin-Nagant.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Food: A Tribute to the Vietnamese Coffee Maker

One of the most enduring memories of my childhood is sitting in a restaurant, staring at my Grandpa's cà phê phin, watching black coffee teardrops rain down onto a sea of creamy white condensed milk:



The Vietnamese-style coffee maker is about as far removed from a fancy-schmancy $200 espresso machine as you can get. It's a stainless steel strainer that costs maybe $5 (if that) at any Asian grocery store. You pour in coffee (I like coffees that contain chicory, like French Market or Cafe Du Monde), screw in the strainer lid snug over said coffee, and than add hot water to the top. Place the filter over a clear glass with a little condensed milk and you get a sweet coffee treat that requires no barista.

There's a certain simplicity and elegance to the whole affair, symbolized neatly by the black and white contents of your cup once the brewing's finished. It's an incredibly practical method of having coffee - no filter paper, no single use plastic cups, no mechanical devices to break down. Even the sweetened condensed milk is pragmatic, since it requires no refrigeration. Get a cà phê phin, and you can have the taste of a Saigon afternoon in your home whenever you like.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Miscellany: Stocking Stuffers for the Tacticool Set

All this month, Shangrila Towers will be serving up various Christmas-themed posts. Today, we'll look at some great gifts for the mall ninja in your life. All of the suggestions come in at or under $20, so there should be something for everyone:

Novelty Paracord

550 parachute cord is incredibly useful (I'll be showcasing some braiding and lanyarding projects later on here at Shangrila Towers). Its utilitarian nature, though, means it doesn't usually make for a very distinctive gift. That is, until you glam it up with pastel or neon colors (check out Supply Captain). There's just nothing quite like giving someone a couple 50 foot hanks of pink camo para cord.

Snap Caps/Dummy Rounds

An ideal gift. For one, it's cheaper and easier to ship than actual ammunition (I'm pretty sure you can send snap caps through the mail, for instance). For another, unlike ammo, snap caps are universal - you don't have to worry about the shooter's particular bullet or charge preferences. If you really want to be cheeky, you can include a note ribbing the recipient for not dry-firing enough.

RKBA-related Clothing

Almost all Second Amendment apparel is casual (T-shirts, sweatshirts, and baseball caps), so it's almost uniformly affordable. There are a whole lot of choices out there, but I like stuff from Life, Liberty, Etc. The NRA, GOA, and other 2A groups have lots of merch out there, too.

Reading Material

Military history is a safe bet for most - the problem is finding a book that someone hasn't read yet. Instead of giving "Blackhawk Down" or "We Were Soldiers Once...And Young," go for lesser known books like "A Frozen Hell," an excellent account of the Winter War. Don't forget works of fiction which are particularly famous around the gunblogger community - like "Monster Hunter International" or "Enemies Foreign and Domestic."

Reloading Dies

Buying someone a set of reloading dies is almost entirely safe; if they already reload the caliber they can use the set as a backup, and if they don't reload the caliber right now, they'll be ready to start cranking out ammo should they ever decide to. Works even better as a gift if you offer to introduce a complete newbie to reloading.

Inexpensive Folding Knives

I'm not sure how the old superstition against giving someone a knife as a gift got started (supposedly such a gift means the friendship is destined to be severed), but the guy that thought it up obviously wasn't a knife lover. For about $20 or less, there are a number of great folding knife choices. Check out the CRKT Drifter, the Ka-Bar Dozier, the Buck Vantage Select, and the Kershaw Oso Sweet, among others.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Music: Top 5 Secular Holiday Songs

All this month, Shangrila Towers will be serving up various Christmas-themed posts. Today, we'll be looking at some good choices for festive (but secular) holiday music.

The commercialization of Christmas has become infamous, so it's understandable that there is a pretty severe counter-movement to put the "Christ" back in "Christmas." I'm sympathetic (the "Happy Holidays" greeting has always sounded dull compared to the traditional "Merry Christmas," for example) but, to be honest, there are plenty of occasions when you don't want to hit people over the head with religion. Here are a few great holiday songs that have absolutely zero religious content:

Sleigh Ride



A song that started as an orchestral piece by Leroy Anderson with holiday lyrics grafted on afterward. It's a jaunty little tune, with an incredibly catchy chorus (if you don't catch yourself humming the "Giddy-up! Giddy-up! Let's go!" part, you're probably an android or something).

Winter Wonderland



A holiday classic from the 1930s, "Winter Wonderland" is one of those songs that sounds great no matter what tempo it's performed in. You can go slow (see versions by Johnny Mercer or A Fine Frenzy) or fast (pretty much everyone else).

Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!



Sometimes heavyweight composers step up to the plate and deliver great holiday songs. "Let It Snow!" was a product of the legendary Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn collaboration, which produced some of the most memorable movie songs of all time. It has since been covered by everyone and their brother (the above clip is from the short-lived "Megan Mullally Show," which was viewed by about 14 people during its heyday).

Home For the Holidays



This is a thoroughly modern American holiday song, since people usually didn't travel long distances at Christmastime before the advent of nationwide train and plane service. The sentiment expressed (unabashed nostalgia for hearth and home) is a bit saccharine, but hey - what the heck? It's still being sung by the incomparable Perry Como.

Jingle Bell Rock



Holiday songs are usually pretty derivative, but "Jingle Bell Rock" takes it to a whole 'nother level - it uses elements from "Jingle Bells" AND "Rock Around The Clock." Like most pop standards, the song isn't very complicated musically, so dozens of artists have covered it over the years.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Sports: The Paladin

Football is, in many respects, a live-action RPG. Every player has a particular position (read: character class), the game is often mired in arcane rules that are refereed in real time, and dozens of statistics track the progress of every player and team. Penny Arcade probably expressed it best:


Last Saturday, UF quarterback Tim Tebow played his final home game in the Swamp. I wasn't there personally, but from what I saw on TV and the Web, the atmosphere was positively cinematic, almost as if a Cheesy Sports Movie was playing out in real-time. Here is Tim's final touchdown, accompanied by the flashbulbs of thousands of grateful Gator fans:



I only bring it up because Tebow is, for all intents and purposes, a paladin (of the old-school lawful good AD&D variety). His primary attributes are strength and charisma, and in battle, he leads by example. I've never met him, but from all accounts he seems to lead an impossibly chaste and pure life. Of course, that doesn't mean he can't throw out a fiery motivational speech:



Like an RPG paladin, Tebow uses his prowess on the field to convert people to his cause off the field. He's made no secret of his intention to use his football fame as a platform for his charitable and evangelical goals (the latter is often unceremoniously edited out by the sports media):



Tim Tebow's college campaign is almost at an end, with only two sessions left (Saturday's apocalyptic SEC confrontation with #2 Alabama, and possibly the BCS National Championship game). There will be many more adventures in the NFL, to be sure, but it's still unknown whether Tebow's unorthodox playing style or strong Christian faith will work in the ranks of the jaded pros. Like many of the great D&D campaigns, the magic of the first saga will probably never equalled.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Movies: Top Christmas Movies That Aren't Remembered as Christmas Movies

All this month, Shangrila Towers will be serving up various Christmas-themed posts. Today, we'll be looking at films that feature the Yuletide season prominently, but aren't generally known as holiday movies. When you're sick of seeing "A Christmas Story" for the 34th time, try out one of these stealth Christmas classics:

Batman Returns

Tim Burton has mixed his brand of dark, off-kilter quirkiness with Christmas on more than a few occasions. From the witty fun of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" to the fable-like surrealism of "Edward Scissorhands," Burton has proven to be a dab hand at mixing snow and shadow:



In addition to being a full part of the Batman cinema canon, "Batman Returns" also delivered theatre-goers a very Burton Christmas experience. Like all of the movies in the list, the holiday season is a big part of the plot; nefarious business mogul Max Shreck runs a chain of department stores and hands out presents to win over the people of Gotham, and the Penguin kidnaps an Ice Princess to frame Batman.

Brazil

Terry Gilliam packed a whole lot of stuff into "Brazil," but perhaps the most ingenious addition was the full commingling of a traditional Christmas into Sam Lowry's paranoid bureaucratic dystopia:



Critics have picked up the anti-consumerism strains in "Brazil," but the holiday elements do more than that - they help to humanize the "antagonists" in the movie, thus making the film's milieu all the more tragic and believable. Orwell's "1984" portrayed a world where the only religion was worshipping the state; in "Brazil," the stromtroopers sing carols and the guy in charge of the government torture program is a kindly old man dressed up in a Santa suit. Somehow it becomes more horrible when real people commit horror rather than mindless abstractions - didn't Hitler celebrate Christmas, too?



Die Hard

People have attempted to clone "Die Hard" numerous times, but very few ever picked up on director John McTiernan's remarkable cocktail of balls-to-the-wall action and holiday cheer:



From "Now I Have a Machinegun - Ho Ho Ho" to the use of Christmas music in the film's soundtrack, "Die Hard" actually has more holiday elements in it than many full-blown Christmas movies, making this one summer blockbuster that's perfectly at home in December. Unfortunately, the more recent sequels ("Die Hard with a Vengeance" and "Live Free or Die Hard") abandoned the Christmas connection to their detriment.

Gremlins

Christmas-themed horror is a niche genre, filled with so-so offerings like "Black Christmas" and "Silent Night, Deadly Night." It's worth a bunch of forgettable slashers, though, if the reward is "Gremlins," a great holiday movie directed by Joe Dante:



It's one of the ultimate schizoid movies - equal parts comedy and horror, Christmas cheer and icky gore. There are also standout performances from Howie Mandell (as Gizmo) and Phoebe Cates, who delivers the most awkward Christmas story ever:

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