Thursday, June 30, 2011

Shangrila Towers summer doldrums...

The weather is alternately sweltering and stormy down here in South Florida, and the real world is intruding into the operation of the free ice cream machine. Sorry y'all...

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Guns: Lighter, Stronger, Better? - Daniel Defense M4 V3 carbine review


Introduction

When it comes to buying an AR-pattern carbine, today's market allows you to spend as much or as little as you like. For a shooter on a budget who's just looking for a fun plinker, you can buy or build a bargain-basement gun from Model 1 Sales or Del-Ton for around $600. For a few hundred bucks more, consumer-grade ARs from folks like Bushmaster and S&W are readily available in gun stores. Finally, at the very top of production ARs in both quality and price, there are makers like Noveske and Knights Armament who actually go beyond the U.S. military's requirements (the Knights enhanced bolt isn't just funny-looking for the sake of being different, it actually corrects some of the design flaws in the original M16 bolt).

Daniel Defense's line of AR-15s fits into what I call the "prosumer" level. The garden-variety gunshop AR might be cheaper, but Daniel Defense purportedly "dots all the i's and crosses all the t's"; aside from the happy switch, a DD M4 carbine seemingly has just about all the features and quality controls found on the military M4 carbine. To drive the point home, Daniel Defense put out a torture test video showing one of their guns being subjected to fairly extreme abuse, including getting hit with birdshot and being run over by a Jeep:



Outlandish torture testing is fine and all, but it doesn't have much relevance to the average user, who merely wants a gun that will run a wide variety of ammunition reliably, comfortably, and accurately. So, after donning my Skeptical Gunblogger hat, I tested out the DDM4 at the local range...

Fit and Finish

The DD M4 makes a good first impression, and the gun was blemish-free inside and out. A number of in-demand features were visible right from the get-go, including a 1 in 7 twist cold hammer forged chrome-lined 4150 barrel (medium-weight profile - it tapers from the chamber to the gas block), a chrome-lined chamber with proper M4 feed ramps, and a shot-peened bolt with M16 carrier.

There are also less obvious quality-assurance features present in the rifle. One can be seen from Daniel Defense's own website - interspersed with all the regular glamour shots of the rifles is a picture of the carrier key screws on the bolt carrier:


To the uninitiated, it's a strange choice for a gallery picture. If you're familiar with ARs, though, you know that one of the most common problems with factory guns is the carrier key staking. As promised, the staking on the test gun was executed properly.

The DD M4 also has some minor niceties that aren't very expensive. The carbine has a beveled magazine well, a Magpul enlarged trigger guard, a DD vertical foregrip, and a DD rear QD swivel plate. Daniel Defense also ships the rifle with a plastic hardcase and a 30-round Magpul PMAG magazine. These are all solid bells and whistles, but aren't enough, in and of themselves, to justify the expense of the rifle.

Daniel Defense Omega X 9.0 Rail review

The main reason why the DD M4 V3 costs considerably more than other ARs is the included, preinstalled Omega X 9.0 free float Picatinny rail system. The Omega X is one of Daniel Defense's newer rail systems, and, when bought as an aftermarket part, costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $300:


Unlike the popular drop-in Omega Rail, the Omega X uses a proprietary barrel nut and thus requires some minor gunsmithing to install. In return, it's reportedly more solid than the Omega rail, and the rail halves can be detached from the gun for easy cleaning and maintenance.

In testing, I found the rail to be quite solid, and noticed no point-of-impact shifts when attaching foregrips, rail covers, lights, or slings (via the rail's limited-rotation side swivel points). The rail adds almost no weight to the gun when compared to conventional plastic handguards, and is fairly thin, to boot. There are other rail systems out there (the Centurion Arms systems are getting a lot of good press), but the DD rails are proven performers, and I can't imagine any reason for a user to swap them out.

Daniel Defense A1.5 Detachable Fixed Sight review


I've always been leery of flip-up back-up iron sights. You're already sticking a separate sight on the gun in order to aim it; do you have to make the darn thing move and lock under spring pressure, too? Apparently, someone at Daniel Defense shares my concerns, as the DD M4 comes with their "A1.5" rear fixed back-up iron sight.

It's a tough, sturdy unit. As the name suggests, the DD A1.5 sight combines an A1-style windage adjustment (a special tool is needed to adjust the windage drum, but it's also impossible to accidentally spin the drum out of position) with A2-style apertures (a large 0-200m ghost ring and a smaller aperture for long ranges).

The A1.5 has some obvious drawbacks; the rear sight can obscure your view when using optics, and can't fold down underneath a scope. These are small prices to pay for simplicity and durability, however, and, if you don't like 'em, you can always take the sight off.

At the Range...

Since breaking in a rifle is more involved than breaking in a handgun, I've separated my typical range report up into sections, to better illustrate what happened when I tested an out-of-the-box, stock DD M4:

Range Report #1

My first magazine through the DD M4 is twenty-odd rounds of my light .223 target handloads - a 55 grain Hornady boat-tail FMJ over 23 grains of H310. Despite being noticeably milder than even commerically-loaded varmint-hunting .223, the handloads fire, feed, and eject flawlessly. It's good sign that the DD M4's gas system is squared away right out of the box.

I wish I could say the same thing about the extractor. Twenty rounds of Serbian Prvi Partizan M193 produce two fail-to-extracts; in each instance, the rim of the case has been broken off, and I have to send a cleaning rod down the barrel in order to pop out the case. 70 rounds of Federal American Eagle XM193 run well through the gun, with no broken case rims.

Range Report #2

100 rounds of Federal AE223 without any incident. As far as firing goes, the gun feels like any other AR-15. One niggle: Daniel Defense uses a stock, military trigger, so the pull weight is around 7 or 8 pounds, with plenty of creep. I don't mind, though - a milspec trigger isn't designed to win Camp Perry, it's designed to be safe and reliable under adverse conditions.

Range Report #3

I fire a mix of ammo, including Remington UMC, Federal XM193, and Sellier & Bellot .223. The American-made cartridges run fine, but the gun rips the case rims off of two S&B cartridges (S&B is Czech ammo, but it's generally good stuff, and shouldn't be causing these problems). Not wishing to troubleshoot a brand new rifle, I send the DDM4 back in to Daniel Defense.

I receive the repaired gun back in about two weeks' time. Daniel Defense says they've polished the chamber, which is generally gun manufacturer speak for "We have no idea what the problem is." Still, after the polish job, they report that they fired 10 rounds without incident. I fire three rounds in my gun shop's clearing barrel to make sure the gun is safe to use, and then head to the range for more testing.

Range Report #4,#5,#6

At these range sessions, I put a mix of about 400 rounds through the gun - several magazines' worth of 55-gr. S&B .223, PMC Bronze, AE223, XM193, and Fiocchi .223 (the gun was not cleaned or maintained in any way whatsoever between range trips). Everything fed, fired, and extracted fine, including the S&B rounds that previously caused trouble. Woohoo!

Accuracy and Shooting Impressions

Since I've only shot the DDM4 on a 25 yard indoor range with no machine rest and no seating, I haven't really had the chance to fairly evaluate the rifle's accuracy. I can say that the average ten shot group at this distance was about 3" with PMC Bronze, fired standing and unsupported (Why a ten shot group? Read this). This type of accuracy is on par with what I've shot out of 16" barreled ARs in the past, so no real complaints there.

Conclusion

On the whole, if you're looking for a complete prebuilt AR-15, I'd recommend the DDM4, despite my gun's early teething problems with broken case rims (let's face it - it's common for ARs to require a little tweaking: neither my old Bushie Superlight or my Stag Arms build worked 100% without minor adjustments). The Omega X rail system is excellent, overall build quality is high, and Daniel Defense has your back in case you do run into an issue. To be sure, there are plenty of competitors at or under Daniel Defense's price point (I recommend taking a look at Bravo Company Manufacturing), but the DDM4 is a solid choice.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Books: The Last Unicorn - comic book adaptation


Peter S. Beagle's classic fantasy novel "The Last Unicorn" has been adapted into many different forms over the years. The Rankin/Bass animated film version of the story has long been a cult classic, and Beagle also penned a stage adaptation for the Pacific Northwest Ballet. IDW Publishing has delivered the latest incarnation of "The Last Unicorn," in the form of a six-issue comic series.

Adapted by Peter B. Gillis and illustrated by Reane De Liz and Ray Dillon, the visuals of the comic book version of "Unicorn" are obviously influenced by the animated film, though the series includes several parts of the novel that the movie left out. The plot of the comic follows the novel's, beat for beat: a unicorn sets out from her isolated forest, hoping to discover what happened to the rest of her kind, and, during the journey, she is tested by an evil king, a powerful demon, and her own longing.

Gillis's adaptation is skillfully executed for the most part. He excerpts or incorporates most of the important lines from the novel, and his characterization of the inept magician Schmendrick is spot-on. As for the art, De Liz and Dillon do a serviceable job of translating the epic encounters from the novel into splashy tableaux:


The biggest problem with the comic (and one which its authors likely had little control over) is its abbreviated length: at only six issues, the story scarcely has time to breathe. The dialogue-heavy episodes in the evil king's castle are rushed, so the ending doesn't have nearly the emotional payoff as the novel did. Even with the compressed third act, it's nice to see "The Last Unicorn" revived, once again, for a new audience.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Movies: Father's Day

"Father's Day," starring Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, was not a very good movie. It probably should have been, given that it was directed by Ivan Reitman and features two iconic comedians, but the scattershot plot and uneven tone turned off both audiences and critics.

In the film, Crystal and Williams play two guys who are both told by a former lover that either of them could be the father of her runaway teenage boy. A predictable cross-country trek ensues, and Crystal plays the straight man to Williams' free-spirited hippie character. They're both trying hard, but there's only so much you can do with an unfunny script.

Despite being almost completely forgettable, "Father's Day" did feature one of the best uses of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones' song "The Impression That I Get" ever put to film. It plays during the part where Williams and Crystal fight their way through a rock concert. The scene (it's in the video below at 1:44) almost salvages the whole movie for me. Almost:



Rating for Robin Williams & Billy Crystal headbutting random people: 10/10
Rating for overall movie: 4/10

Friday, June 17, 2011

Guns: Carbine Musings, Part 3 - Light Makes Might

When I first started shooting, having a light mounted on your long gun was viewed as an extravagance or an affectation, something that was more suited for SWAT teams than the average Joe.

Times have changed. Thanks to LED technology, lights have gotten smaller, brighter, and more durable. More importantly, people have realized that even during daylight hours, there are plenty of places that are dark enough to make having a weaponlight a necessity.

Of course, where you mount a weaponlight is almost as important as whether you have it mounted at all. Clamping a pistol-style light (like a Streamlight TLR-1) to the foreend of your rifle is certainly expedient. With this setup, however, the light is usually so far back from the muzzle that a lot of the beam will be blocked by your barrel, reducing the light reaching the target.

Mounting a conventional tube-shaped flashlight as far forward as possible alleviates this problem. Here's the solution I've settled on...

Viking Tactics Offset Light Mount review


Mounting a light to your AR can be expensive. Duty-grade equipment (say, a SureFire host, Malkoff lamp, and LaRue mount) can easily cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars. If you're unsure whether you'll ever fire a shot in anger from your rifle, it doesn't make sense to spend that kind of cash on a weaponlight setup, especially if you're on a budget.

So, if you're like me and you're "lighting the cheap seats," a cheapo flashlight and mount combo is the only way to go. I've long been a fan of the 4Sevens Quark Tactical flashlights, so I searched for an inexpensive weapon mount that would fit the Quark's unusual 0.86" diameter tube. The Viking Tactics Offset Light Mount seemed like it might work:


The VTAC unit is all plastic, and includes four screws and a wrench for attaching to a rail. It takes a little jimmying, but you can squeeze open the mounting rings just enough to fit the Quark's endcap diameter. The end result can accommodate almost any user. Mounted on the bottom of the handguard, you can use a tennis-racket style VFG grip. Mounted on the top, it's easy to access the light with the thumb-alongside-bore method:


This setup has proven to be rugged enough for my purposes; after many hundreds of rounds and travel back and forth from the range, the VTAC mount and Quark flashlight still work fine. All in all, I think the mount was well worth the $25 asking price.

Miscellany: Cheers and Jeers in Roswell, Georgia

During our trip to Atlanta, we spent some time in Roswell, Georgia. Roswell is a fairly well-to-do suburb of northern Atlanta; the median income is so high, their City Hall makes Lake Worth's look like a shack. I thought it was a fun place to visit on a sleepy Memorial Day weekend, though the journey had its ups and downs...


Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area
HERE...you'll find one of the only places to canoe within half an hour's driving distance of Atlanta.
CHEER...the wide, lazy Chattahoochee. It's colder than you'd think, enough so that we passed huge groups of teenagers hanging out in inner tubes, lounging the day away. Even the places with rocks and shoals, like Island Ford, were easy to navigate.
JEER...the highway overpass bridges. Nothing takes you out of a wilderness reverie like the hum of rubber on asphalt.

Oak Street Cafe
HERE...is a bistro that got decent reviews on Google Maps.
CHEER...the brunch menu. We were able to order eggs, French toast, fries, and tomato-basil bisque - just what the doctor ordered for a late Sunday morning.
JEER...the high prices and small portions. I understand that you pay a premium because it's in Roswell, but couldn't they at least give you bread with your bisque?


John Ripley Forbes Big Trees Forest Preserve
HERE...trees, trees, and more trees.
CHEER...the fact that it's a forested area in the middle of an otherwise developed suburb - this would be an ideal place to walk a dog or jog through the woods.
JEER...nothing. There's no entrance fee, after all.

Archibald Smith Plantation Home

HERE...is a 19th century plantation home, restored to much of its former glory.
CHEER...the neat little historical bits of trivia you can learn. Ever heard of a spring house? It's a little building that is constructed above a spring, usually into the side of a hill, in order to keep food cool. The Smith Plantation had one.
JEER...the fact that it's closed on major holidays. We didn't actually tour the house, only the grounds. On the upside, we didn't pay any money.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Music: My Chemical Romance "World Contamination Tour" concert review



Like many artists, Gerard Way, frontman for My Chemical Romance, had a cloistered childhood. His grandmother Elena was his mentor and close friend, and, as a kid, Way reportedly figured that everyone dies alone. The backstory makes attending an MCR concert a touching experience; if the cheering fans are any measure, Gerard now has all the company he could ever want.

With my friends SpookySquid and ZiggyZeitgeist, I attended MCR's "World Contamination Tour" stop at Revolution Live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I thought it'd be fun to recount some of the sights and sounds of that fateful night...


My Chemical Romance has sold millions of albums worldwide and usually tours with the likes of MUSE and Blink-182, so it was a little jarring to see them play a mid-size club like Revolution Live. On the other hand, it offered fans a golden opportunity to get closer to MCR than if they were playing, say, the BankAtlantic Center.

The downsides of a small venue like Revolution were apparent as soon as we entered the parking lot, where a disorganized, spiralling queue turned into chaos as soon as people started jumping and cutting the line. Security for the place wasn't much better; they made us leave SpookySquid's plastic Killjoys-themed blasters (pictured below) in the car, but performed only cursory frisks of the entrants. Hopefully they'll realize that someone could sneak in any gun they wanted with a small-of-back holster.


Mental note: if the venue that a chart-topping, world-famous band is playing at has the following sign, be sure to know where the fire exits are:



Fans were stacked like cordwood, even in the second-story balcony of the club:


The concert itself was great, if a little more lo-fi than people have come to expect from such a visually-oriented band: the only stage adornments were the "World Contamination" flag and a Killjoys helmet. The onstage lighting was surprisingly effective, though, and even with the sparse production, there wasn't a bad seat in the house.

As for music, MCR played songs from both their new album and their back catalog (including hits like "Welcome to the Black Parade" and "Helena"). Gerard's voice was drowned out by the instruments at times, and the overall mix was incredibly loud. My friends and I were wearing earplugs, and were still able to hear the performance without a problem - the decibel level actually exceeded that of the shooting range we had visited earlier in the day.

If you've never heard MCR, the band claims Queen, David Bowie, and other rockers as influences, and the fingerprints of the '80s are all over their work. "House of Wolves" for instance, borrows a progression from KISS's "Detroit Rock City," and my favorite performance of the night, "Summertime," had more than a little bit of The Cure in it:

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Flag Day


Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation.



Friday, June 10, 2011

Guns: Observations from Beginning Shooters

The shooting community has plenty to teach beginners, but it's also important for us to listen to what new shooters have to say about their experiences. On my last range visit, I took a few of my friends (one of whom had never held or fired a gun before) and tried to note their observations...

Target Selection - As you might expect, it's hard to line up big black sights with a big black target. Even on my paper targets with multicolor bullseyes, my friends said they were having trouble seeing where they were hitting. Ideally, I think new shooters should be started off with reactive targets, like steel plates.

Gun weight - I started my friends off with a CZ Kadet (still one of the best .22 LR conversions ever), and, for the most part, I think it was a good choice - zero recoil and little blast. At some 35-ish ounces, though, the Kadet is a heavy pistol, and one of my friends was having trouble holding the sights up on target. Many people simply don't extend a two pound weight at arms length for hours at a time; a lighter gun would have actually made the experience more pleasant, despite the marginally increased recoil. A quality .22 pistol that weighs in at about 20 ounces would be a wonderful beginner's gun.

Trigger Weight - People who like to shoot usually develop good trigger technique. Unfortunately, what seems like a reasonable pull weight to a seasoned shooter can be daunting for a beginner. My revolvers (a Ruger SP-101 and a S&W 638) were almost impossible for my friends to shoot in double-action with any degree of accuracy. They fared much better with single-action triggers, whether on the Kadet, M&P9C, or by pulling the hammer back on the revolvers.

Loading Magazines - Another thing that experienced shooters underestimate is the difficulty of loading magazines. Hours of muscle memory make snicking in rounds seem easy, until you see someone who doesn't handle guns everyday try to do it. In my case, the Kadet magazine was hard for my friends to load, since it had no exterior tab or button to depress the follower, like a typical .22 pistol mag. The M&P9C mag was even worse.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Micellany: Xootr Roma kick scooter review


Introduction

I spend a lot of time inside a city office nowadays, surrounded by an ocean of concrete and asphalt. Even walking downtown to eat out can take a good chunk of the lunch hour. At the same time, driving or biking there is impractical - a bike takes up too much space in my office, and parking is expensive and hard to find.

Enter the Xootr line of luxury kick scooters. Weighing in at about ten pounds, a Xootr is far smaller than even the smallest folding bike, and can be tucked away on a bookshelf or underneath a desk without bothering anyone. At the same time, it offers a much faster way of traversing urban terrain. I bought a Xootr Roma and put it through its paces. Is this my new urban transport?

Ride Impressions

With 7" wheels and a 2 foot long deck, the Xootr Roma dwarfs a typical kid's scooter. For commuting, this extra size is a huge advantage: it's much, much easier to get the Xootr going (and to keep it going), and an adult can ride comfortably with both feet on the deck. Like with anything else, there's a bit of a learning curve here (especially when it comes to switching your kicking foot), but a few days' worth of practice is all it should take to start feeling comfortable on a Xootr.

On average roads or sidewalks, the ride itself is fairly comfy. Keep in mind, however, that Xootrs have no suspension at all. The hard small wheels can make for a jarring ride on poor road surfaces, and people with sensitive ankle or knee joints may not be able to handle it. Paths that you wouldn't think twice about traversing with a bike can become vibration-filled hellholes on a Xootr. Even if you're in good shape, cobblestone, small tiles, and broken sidewalk can sap the fun out of a ride quick. And don't get me started on anti-skateboard pavement.

Performance

The cruising speed of a Xootr depends on a lot of things, including your kicking power, wind, grade/elevation, and road surface. I’ve clocked myself several times on relatively level terrain, and I can hit an average of 8-9 miles per hour in real-world conditions (including traffic lights, occasional portaging, and pedestrians).

This video by wheetgeneration does a good job showing how fast a Xootr is compared to a bike. As it turns out, a Dad on a Xootr is no match for a hyped-up kid:


In practical terms, the Xootr is roughly twice as fast as walking and half as fast as a bike. More important than raw speed, though, is the ease of getting to that steady 8 mph cruising velocity. My 5k time is a laughable 29 minutes; in comparison, only the most dedicated runners can keep up with me on a Xootr, even after I've been riding for over an hour.

Best of all, the Xootr can be folded in seconds and brought onto a subway, bus, or train with little fanfare. If you're careful, you can even shop for groceries or walk through a crowded area with it - not something that could be said for any bike. For the mixed-mode commuter, or for the office worker on lunch hour who wants to get to that bookstore a few blocks away, the Xootr's portability is a big deal.

Limitations

Riding at night - The Xootr's sensitivity to road conditions makes riding dangerous at night, and downright suicidal in places with no streetlights. A 2" lip of broken pavement can stop your Xootr cold, while you go careening past the handlebars at breakneck speed. Add in the possibility of collisions with pedestrians, bikers, and cars, and it'd probably be more prudent to pack the Xootr away when the sun goes down.

Riding in wet conditions - Xootrs use polyurethane wheels that do a good job of gliding over asphalt, but that same low friction makes it hazardous to ride when the road surface is slippery (you'll also get pretty soaking wet from the wheels and deck). And for Pete's sake, don't go down any kind of incline when it's wet.

Riding off-road - The Xootr is basically a pavement-only device. After all, your entire body weight is being put on the bearing surfaces of two hard, 7" wheels. Scooting on sand, dirt, grass, or gravel is usually a no-go.

Accessories

Helmet - A no-brainer. Any decent biking or skateboard helmet will do the job.


Carrying Strap - A very handy piece of kit that Xootr sells. When the Xootr is collapsed, there's enough slack in the loop to hang off a shoulder. The strap also ensures that your handlebars are at the same height when you extend them.

Fender with Integral Brake - Almost mandatory, not so much because the integral brake is more effective, but because you'll wear out shoes quickly if you ride the back wheel constantly. As for the fender, it helps keep the rear wheel from splashing water on you (good for small puddles and such). As I warned above, do not ride the Xootr in the rain unless you want a live-action interpretation of "Short Ride in a Fast Machine."

Compared with other Xootr Models

All Xootrs share the same handlebars, wheels, and front tube; the differences come in their decks. I’m pretty familiar with wheeled commuting (biking, skateboarding), so I went with the Roma deck - the thinnest, lightest, and most portable of the bunch. The only downside is that the Roma’s slim deck can make switching feet tricky.

Each deck type has something going for it. The Ultra Cruz's birch deck is cheapest, has that classic California surfboard look, and is slightly more comfy to ride (the wood helps dampen vibration). The Xootr Mg is a nice balance: cheaper than the Roma, almost as light, and the magnesium deck is still wide enough to put both feet on. The Xootr Street and Xootr Venus are bigger versions of the Roma, and might be the ticket if you value both a wide deck and the load-carrying capacity of machined aluminum (say, if you plan on taking your 5 year-old along for a ride).

Compared with other Kick Scooters

There are a number of kick scooters aimed at adults. Those on a budget might want to try the Razor A5 Lux, an upsized version of the Razor scooters that you see in Toys "R" Us. The A5 Lux is pretty chintzy (made in China, max rider weight 220 lbs), but it also retails for about a third of what a Xootr does.

For those who want something tougher, the tank of the kick scooter world is clearly the KnowPed, a 13 pound beast of a scooter made by Go-Ped, with a max rider weight of 400 pounds. There are various other brands you can try; few are as commuter-oriented as Xootr.

Conclusion

I'm quite happy with my Roma. Admittedly, at about $240, the cost of admission was quite high. Once you unpack it, though, it's obvious why the Xootr Roma costs more than a cheapo Razor. Bottom line: if you have the cabbage to spend, you can grab one of the world's lightest, fastest commuter scooters.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Music: Taylor Swift "Speak Now World Tour" concert review


In Taylor Swift's lavish Nashville penthouse, there is a giant, human-sized birdcage, like something out of a "Sylvester & Tweety" cartoon. It's big enough to put a sofa in, big enough to play piano in, big enough to live in. The whole affair is a fitting visual metaphor, especially for someone as steeped in the tradition of country songwriting simile as Swift: she's a songbird inside a cage of her own design.

Taylor's "Speak Now World Tour" concert series is the logical extension of that cage. She had a hand in everything - the songs, the stage design, even the selection of the opening acts. In a very real sense, this is a look inside Swift's imagination (or at least what she wants you to think her imagination looks like).

My friend is a huge Taylor Swift fan, and, through some jockeying, we managed to get tickets to one of her sold-out concerts at the BankAtlantic Center in Fort Lauderdale. Here's what we saw and heard...


You know the screams that emanate from a roller coaster? Those high-pitched squeals of exhilaration? Multiply those by a hundredfold, put them on repeat, confine them within an arena, and you have an idea of what the crowd sounds like inside a Taylor Swift concert.

It's not just cheering or yelling, either. The mostly-female crowd belts out every word of Taylor's songs, making for an amazing spectacle. If you don't have a pair of earplugs handy during the choruses of Swift's hit singles, be prepared for some permanent hearing damage:



For the Speak Now Tour, Swift turned the BankAtlantic Center into her personal theatre, and it was easily one of the most ambitious concert setups I've ever seen. The center stage's giant red curtain and proscenium arch (emblazoned with Swift's initials) are just the tip of the iceberg - the show featured pyrotechnics, ballerinas, a harpist, a tap dancing street sweeper, Cirque du Soleil-style aerialists hanging from giant Gothic church bells (really), and more. While Taylor mostly stuck to this main stage, she also performed several songs in the rear of the arena on a giant, glowing, rotating fake tree, temporarily giving the fans in the cheap seats the best view in the house:



The setlist consisted mainly of cuts from Swift's newest album, "Speak Now." Like her idol, Shania Twain, Taylor regularly strays from the boundaries of country-pop (to the point of including a couple of rock-and-roll guitar solos in "Better Than Revenge"), so devotees of her older work might be a little adrift. Another disappointment was the sound mix; it was difficult to hear Swift singing over her band's instruments, not to mention all the screaming teenage girls.

Even with those caveats in mind, the Speak Now tour is an easy recommendation for anybody who loves elaborate productions. Regardless of whether you like her music, "T-Swizzle" serves up one heckuva show, and it'll be an interesting to see if she can top something like this....given her meteoric rise, I wouldn't bet against her.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Miscellany: Cheers and Jeers in Atlanta, Georgia

My family and I visited Atlanta recently. Instead of throwing up my customary flurry of posts after a big trip, I thought I'd issue some quick capsule reviews of the places that got our attention...

Honey Pig


HERE...is some fairly authentic Korean food, cooked at your table on a cast-iron lid.
CHEER...the pork dishes and the fatty beef dishes. Honey Pig's specialties are the fat-laden sam-gyup-sal (sort of a thick Korean bacon) and the boneless prime short ribs; when eaten with the gobs of kimchi and bean sprouts they offer with it, you're in for a great (and not too expensive) Korean BBQ experience.
JEER...anything without substantial amounts of fat on it. The octopus and bulgogi were needlessly tough and tasteless after being grilled.

Atlanta Botanical Gardens
HERE...people from Atlanta come to escape the concrete jungle.
CHEER...the absurdly beautiful Dorothy Chapman Fuqua Conservatory. This greenhouse complex containes several varieties of rainforest, including a high-altitude Andes mist forest and a Madagascar-type rainforest that hosts a flock of live quail. You can tell they spared no expense with this part of the garden:

JEER...the expensive cost of admission. At about $20 per adult (and extra for parking), it might not be worth a visit if you hate plants, flowers, and other living things.

Cafe Intermezzo
HERE...is a small chain of upscale, "European-style" coffeehouses.

CHEER...the dozens of delectable desserts, and the hundreds of liquors and liqueurs you can order to accompany them. Want some absinthe with your hazelnut-toffee mousse? You got it.
JEER...the insanely high prices. If you're not prepared to throw down $8 for a slice of cheesecake or $4 for a smallish latte, you're in the wrong place.

Paris on Ponce
HERE...is 40,000 square feet of antiques & the unique. You'll find everything from vintage dressers to forty year old issues of "Popular Science."
CHEER...the incredible Le Maison Rouge lounge, which can be rented out for weddings, birthdays, and the like. The whole place is decked out in gaudy red and black, with a full bar, stage, dance floor, and some cozy seating areas for those seeking intimacy. It also makes for a dandy photoshoot location:

JEER...the generally high prices of the antiques. Hope you don't mind haggling.

Cowtippers Steaks & Spirits
HERE...is a steakhouse.
CHEER...gay people. Atlanta is known as the "San Francisco of the East," and on our visit to Cowtippers, we saw all manner of drag queens, some outrageously dressed. They also show summer movies like "Weird Science" and "Fried Green Tomatoes" on a projector screen.
JEER...the poor-to-mediocre food. If you're not into the spectacle, there's really no reason to come.

Virginia Highland shopping district
HERE...are a number of shops and restaurants, centered around the intersection of Virginia and North Highland.
CHEER...the enormous culinary variety. On our visit, there was a neighborhood lemonade stand being manned by a couple of kids, a number of food trucks serving everything from gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches to custom popsicles, and a whole gaggle of good restaurants to eat in.
JEER...the self-consciously hip shops. Antiques? Bella Cucina? Don't expect to find anyone peddling anything useful, like guns or water purifiers.

Bakeshop

HERE...is a bakery/coffeehouse.
CHEER...the laid-back decor and food. You'll find big wood tables with buckets of silverware in the middle, the menus printed on plain brown paper and clipped up, and the pastries sitting underneath simple glass domes.
JEER...the morning crowds. Since the prices are comparable to Starbucks and the food and coffee are better, it can get quite packed.

Guns: RIP Stephen A. Camp

Stephen A. Camp passed away recently.

There are a lot of gunwriters and gunbloggers on the Web, but few wrote with the erudition, temperance, and gentility that Mr. Camp wrote with. Mr. Camp was a lifelong peace officer and a mild-mannered Texan who helped pass concealed carry in Texas and generously shared his wisdom with the rest of the world. His website, Hi Powers and Handguns, is the most authoritative resource on the Browning Hi Power in the world; if you haven't checked it out, you should, because you'll be hard-pressed to find a more unbiased, professional collection of gun articles and reviews.

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