Saturday, April 23, 2016

Music: All-Star Orchestra

I am one of those cats that loves and appreciates music, but possesses zero talent. Sheet music looks like Greek to me, flats and sharps are indistinguishable to my ears, and I can barely hold a beat long enough to pass a song in Rock Band. Understand that when I see the professional musicians involved in All-Star Orchestra, I don't see people playing instruments, I see superhumans:


All-Star Orchestra is the brainchild of Gerard Schwarz, former music director and conductor laureate of Seattle Symphony. Schwarz gathers together some of the best orchestral musicians from all over the country to record a series of pieces over a few days, with no audience but a host of HD cameras. These performances are broadcast on public television, and excerpted to form the basis for the Khan Academy's online classical music courses. Even if you're not planning on learning how to play an instrument, it's a great way to get a deeper appreciation of classical music.

Movies: A Mad Max retrospective

For no reason in particular, I recently watched all four Mad Max movies, starting with the original "Mad Max" from 1979 and ending with 2015's multiple-Academy Award-winning "Fury Road." Which vehicular vision reigns supreme? Read on...

Mad Max


In the first movie, Max is a hotshot police officer working in a dystopian (but not post-apocalyptic) future. He's got buddies in the department, a chief who rides him hard, and he's a loving husband and father. When events put him into conflict with a vicious highway gang, he'll have to take justice into his own hands.

There are numerous cult film series where the original movie is arguably the best one, even though it lacks the pyrotechnics or plotting of later entries ("Night of the Living Dead," "The Evil Dead," etc.). Unfortunately, this is not the case with "Mad Max." While the film introduces some of the elements that would make the rest of the series memorable (high-speed chase scenes, struggles with wackily-dressed gangs, a sly sense of Australian humor), the pacing is so uneven and slow that I think most people would struggle to finish it, especially those hoping for the madcap action of later installments.

Rating: 5/10

Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior)

The second film picks up years after the original, after a global oil shortage and nuclear war decimate humanity and reduce the Outback to the familiar wasteland that we associate with the Mad Max movies. Max is a drifter who happens upon a group of survivors living in an oil refinery and set upon by the villainous Lord Humungus.

This is the movie that cemented Mad Max's legacy, and the one that everyone remembers. Countless other post-apocalyptic films have parodied or referenced it, but few match its mix of hypnotic intensity and endearing characters. The final highway chase pitting the survivors' tanker truck against Humungus' gang remains one of the best action scenes ever filmed:



Rating: 9/10

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome

In this one, Max's wanderings take him to Bartertown, home of a struggle between two semi-corrupt rulers, the conniving Aunty and the cruel Master Blaster. He'll serve as a pawn in their power game, as well as a leader of a small band of plucky survivors left behind from a plane crash.

"Thunderdome" is an okay movie, with three main highlights: (1) the titular arena, in which two men enter but one man leaves; (2) the final chase scene, which is a still-good-but-watered-down version of the chase from the second movie, and (3) the Tina Turner song "We Don't Need Another Hero"...



Rating: 7/10

Mad Max: Fury Road

I actually saw "Fury Road" for the first time in doing this retrospective, and, overall, I think it slots in comfortably with the rest of the series. It at times plays a little too much like a remix of the second and third movies, and Tom Hardy's Max feels like a secondary character in his own movie, but it's hard for me to knock anything that has a flamethrowing guitar:


Rating: 8/10

Friday, April 15, 2016

Tech: Hyper Light Drifter review

I love a good top-down action-adventure, and "Hyper Light Drifter" is a stylish take on the genre that scratches the itch felt by old-school Zelda fans:


Developed by Heart Machine and directed by Alex Preston, the game is about a mute swordsman fighting through a ruined post-apocalyptic world. The swordsman is never named; in fact, there's no text in the game at all, except for tutorial tooltips. Instead, the story is conveyed entirely through some of the best pixel art I've ever seen : pictographic word balloons used in interactions with townsfolk, cryptic cinematics, and subtle graphical details (your swordsman coughs up tiny pools of blood from a mysterious illness). The visuals are nicely complemented by a great semi-ambient score from Disasterpeace ("It Follows"), which lends the proceedings a desolate Ico-like flavor.

Many reviewers have dinged the game for being too difficult, but I found "Hyper Light Drifter" no harder than most 2D games in the NES/SNES era. There are frequent checkpoints, so you rarely lose progress, and the bosses are all pattern-based and telegraph their attacks appropriately. It is quite possible to beat the game without ever taking a hit, as evidenced by the ultrahard New Game+ mode that gives you only two points' worth of health.

I personally thought "Hyper Light Drifter" was too shallow, and over too quickly (there aren't many weapons and items in the game, or major puzzles to solve), but while it lasted, it was excellent.

Rating: 83/100

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Guns: Ruger LC9s Pro review - Addition by Subtraction

Introduction


Ruger's original LC9 handgun was festooned with lawsuit-wary "safety" features, like a magazine disconnect, an absurdly heavy double-action trigger,, and a giant loaded chamber indicator. Frankly, it felt like an artifact from an older, grouchier gun company - one that didn't sell standard capacity magazines, or handguns smaller than canned hams. That's why I (and a lot of other shooters) never felt the need to pick an LC9 up.

Ruger listened to the complaints, and delivered the LC9s Pro. It's a striker-fired version of the LC9 that nixes the mag disconnect and the manual safety, and substitutes in a very light trigger. But are these upgrades enough, given the intense competition from other guns in the single-stack 9mm market?

First Impressions and Size Comparison

In most respects, the LC9s Pro feels like a blown-up, upsized LCP. Like the LCP, the LC9s has a carry-melted slide, a lightweight polymer frame, and non-snag low-profile sights and controls. Granted, there's nothing particularly artful about the package, but it's quite functional as a purpose-built concealed carry handgun.

The big question for most buyers is how the LC9s stacks up against other guns in its class. Pictured below are the Walther PPS (the classic version), the Kahr CM9, the LC9s, and the S&W Shield. The LC9s is significantly smaller and lighter than everything on the table except for the CM9, and unlike the CM9, the Ruger holds 7 rounds in a flush fitting mag::




So we've established the gun is concealable. How does it shoot?

Range Report

I found the LC9s to be a snappy little bugger, even with standard pressure loads. This is to be expected - after all, it was not so long ago that Smith's alloy-framed single-stack autos were considered "small." The LC9s is several ounces lighter than those guns, with a commensurate penalty on the shooter's hands.

The trigger of the LC9s was light...almost too light. Yeah, yeah, I know "equipment is no substitute for training," and that "the only safety is between your ears," and the other gun forum saws. But once the trigger safety is depressed, there is just not a whole lot of pressure required to set the thing off, especially for a carry gun.

10 rounds of Remington's UMC 115 grainers at 10 yards:


10 rounds at 10 yards, Blazer Brass 115 gr.


10 rounds at 10 yards, Winchester 115 gr. white box value pack.



15 shots, 10 yards, Speer Lawman 115 gr.



16 rounds, 10 yards, Winchester Super-X 147 gr TMJ.



16 rounds, 10 yards, UMC value pack 115 gr JHPs:


Obviously, the gun is mechanically more accurate than the above groups indicate. But the LC9s Pro was simply not as easy to shoot as other single-stack 9mms. If I took my time, focused up, and bore down on it, I could print mostly acceptable targets...mostly.


Conclusion

The LC9s Pro is the quintessential "mixed-bag." Pluses include its relatively small size, low cost, reliability, and name-brand recognition. The big negative (for me) was practical accuracy. I'm not sure I'd ever carry it again, but it would be an option, which is a lot more than could be said for the original LC9.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Politics: Donald Trump for President

I usually don't support any political candidates, but this year, I am announcing my endorsement of Donald J. Trump for President of the United States.

Living in Palm Beach County, I have a unique perspective on Trump. Who could forget his scuffles with the Town of Palm Beach over his yuge American flag? Or his case against the county for diverting air traffic over his club? This is a guy who doesn't take things lying down; when someone wrongs him, he responds in the most American way possible - a lawsuit.

In fact, there is no candidate with greater respect for the rule of law. When Trump was asked whether he would be open to waterboarding and torturing suspected terrorists, he said that if those things are now illegal, they should make them legal. When pressed on whether there should be punishment for violating a hypothetical abortion ban, he said yes, because if you break the law, you should be punished...unless you're a woman.

And all of this pales in comparison to Trump's main policy centerpieces - the ban on Muslims entering the country, and the Wall:


This April 1st, I want you to join me in supporting Trump - let's make America great again.

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