Saturday, January 01, 2022

Books: New Year's Resolution Double Feature

2021 really flew by, didn't it? It was the year most of us emerged from the pandemic, hopefully with some healthier routines. Here are two books that might inspire you to take care of yourself in the "new normal":


The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg


This book looks into the mechanisms underlying everything from relatively simple routines (brushing your teeth) to tragic addictions (gambling and drugs). Journalist Charles Duhigg posits that what we do is not really driven by notions like motivation, drive, and willpower, but by habits - behavioral loops consisting of cues, routines, and rewards.  The book's claim is that if you can change parts of the habit loop, you can change your habits, and changing your habits becomes tantamount to changing yourself. I'm not sure how much of that is right, but it couldn't hurt to try it for a New Year's resolution.


Exercised, by Daniel E. Lieberman


I took up running in a big way in 2021, and Exercised, a book by Harvard biology professor Daniel Lieberman, explains both why humans evolved to benefit from everyday physical exercise...and why so many of us in the modern world hate to do it. Lieberman punctures various myths (you need 8 hours of sleep every night, it's normal to be less active as we age) from the perspective of evolutionary biology and anthropology, including studies of the few remaining hunter-gather cultures. The upshot? To paraphrase The Shawshank Redemption, get busy moving or get busy dying.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Tech: Amazon Echo Dot (4th Gen) review

A client of mine was kind enough to send me a small Christmas gift - a fourth-generation Amazon Echo Dot home "smart speaker":


The Echo Dot is one of those products that nobody needs but everybody can find a use for. You can rig it to control your lights, you can ask it what the weather is going to be like, you can set up a home intercom. I grant that Jeff Bezos might be using the voice-recognition data for something vaguely sinister, but if you're hooking one of these suckers up to your home wi-fi, privacy probably isn't your chief concern.

In my case, we used the Echo Dot to play background Christmas music for our family get-togethers. The sound quality isn't anything to write home about, but it was really easy to do (as simple as saying, "Alexa, play Christmas music"). We also set up kitchen timers for holiday baking and got showtimes for local movies - plenty of functionality for a $30 device. 

The one (major) drawback to the Echo Dot is the total lack of a display.  You can't use this device to monitor a video doorbell or play YouTube videos like you can with Google Nest or even Amazon's own Echo Show, and it makes getting driving directions or setting multiple timers problematic. Sure, you can use your phone or tablet to compensate, but at that point, why have a smart home device at all?

Books: The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois


I joined a book club this year, and that means reading a lot of stuff that I never would otherwise. Case in point - The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. It's a novel about several generations of an African-American family from a fictional small town in Georgia. Part Bildungsroman and part historical fiction, the book is miles away from the sci-fi and fantasy I usually read.

As a book club title, Love Songs is perhaps not ideal. It's 800 pages long, with fairly heavy subject matter. I expected the brutal ugliness of slavery and Jim Crow (the book follows a black family in Georgia, after all) but there is also a heaping helping of rape, substance abuse, and pedophilia, with all their associated family trauma. Jeffers's tale strikes a more hopeful tone at the end, but light beach reading, this ain't.

Love Songs is Jeffers's debut novel, but she's an English professor and a longtime poet with several published collections, so the writing is overall pretty good. The book could've used some editing, however. The narrative strikes me as disjointed; the book's best chapter - a 100-page descent into addiction that feels like watching a deep South Requiem for a Dream - could've been cut out entirely without any effect on the larger story.

Saturday, December 04, 2021

Guns: S&W 642 Performance Center review - The Best Pocket Revolver in the World?

Introduction

I've been carrying Smith & Wesson J-frames for decades - mostly the double-action-only 642s, but also a 638 Bodyguard and a steel-frame Model 60.  They were all flawed, in one way or another: the 642s had atrocious trigger pulls, the 638's humpback hammer channel trapped pocket lint and dust, and the Model 60 was both too little (to handle .357 Magnum) and too big (to pocket carry). They also all had S&W's infamous internal key lock, which didn't impact reliability in any practical sense but certainly looked ugly.

So what would my ideal S&W 642 look like? Enter the 642 Performance Center:


Features

S&W's website provides a laundry list of features for the 642 Performance Center:

• Performance Center Tuned Action
• High Bright, Polished Cylinder Flutes
• High Bright, Polished Thumbpiece and Side Plate Screws
• Custom, Synthetic Grip with Wood Inserts
• Chrome-Plated, Polished Trigger
• Cylinder Cut for Full Moon Clips

Left out of S&W's list is the fact that the gun is based off the 642-1 frame, so it has no internal lock.

Of course, most of these features aren't terribly important. The polished cylinder, screws, and trigger add some bling but are useless apart from aesthetics. Having a cylinder cut for moon clips is nice, in that you can keep your initial cylinder of defense ammo clipped, theoretically making for easier ejection, but I don't believe in using moonclips for reloads in self-defense revolvers. Finally, the included rubber/wood grip is okay, but I slapped on a much lighter set of Hogue Bantams:


Sights and Trigger

There aren't any upgrades to the sights in the S&W 642 PC; it's the same dismal gray-on-gray you find in most of these guns.  I applied my usual treatment of Testors orange enamel model paint to the front ramp, which is almost essential for seeing it through the tiny notch rear sight.

The trigger, on the other hand, has been worked over nicely along with the rest of the action. In this 642, Smith has smoothed and lightened the J-frame trigger into something manageable, while not compromising on ignition reliability. Why can't all their guns come this way from the factory?

Range Report

For all the Performance Center refinement, this is still a snubnose revolver meant for daily carry, something to strap on for a quick trip to the grocery store. That means the 642 PC is tougher to shoot than a larger gun, due to its small grip, short sight radius and barrel, and heavier recoil. Here are some offhand groups from the gun over several years of testing:

Aguila 130 gr. FMJ - 10 rounds @ 10 yards



Remington UMC 158 gr. LRN - 10 rounds @ 10 yards



Remington HTP 158 gr. LSWCHP (the fabled "FBI Load") - 10 rounds @ 10 yards


Perfecta 158 gr. FMJ - 10 rounds @ 10 yards


Defensive Ammo POI comparison - Winchester 125 gr. SJHP vs. Hornady Critical Defense 110 gr. JHP @ 10 yards


...and compared to Winchester 125 gr. SJHP +P 


Magtech 158 gr. FMJ - 10 rounds @ 10 yards


My current "go-to" load for the gun is Federal's HST Micro +P, sort of a cross between a flat-nosed wadcutter and a hollowpoint round. It's one of the most consistent performers in terms of terminal ballistics, although the bullet profile makes it less accurate at range and unwieldy to load under stress (i.e., don't use this in your speedloaders):


Conclusion

The small revolver market is more competitive than it's ever been. There are very good options from Ruger, Kimber, and Colt that simply didn't exist 20 years ago. But to me, the 642 is still the best overall option, and the 642 Performance Center is the best 642.

Books: The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances

It's taken almost a year, but I'm finally ready for the Palm Beaches Half Marathon next weekend. Before I started training regularly, my longest run was a shade over three miles; now my Sunday long runs top 11 miles. That means I have just enough stamina to tackle the 13.1 mile circuit, which runs on Flagler Drive from Manatee Lagoon down to Washington Road.

My minor infatuation with running is nothing compared to cartoonist Matthew Inman, who explains his running obsession in the book The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances:



Most of the material comes from the multi-part webcomic of the same name. In both, Inman describes how he does not run for health or vanity, but to quiet the terrible noise of life on Earth (I find that my long runs do the same thing for me, to a point). Inman is a fairly serious runner (he's completed ultra marathons), but the book still comes at running from a funny, grape soda-filled perspective. It's a great gift idea for someone taking up running as part of a New Year's resolution.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Miscellany: 2019 Lexus ES350 review - Granny Car 2.0

When it comes to car-buying, Mom is of the old-school, brand loyal, "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mentality. So, when her old Lexus ES350 got rear-ended by an inattentive driver, she went back to the well and bought a more recent version of the same thing:



How does the 2019 model year car compare with the old? Mostly favorably. The engine is the same smooth V6 Toyota's been using since the Bush administration, but it develops more horsepower in this iteration and feels a little peppier overall. In "Sport" mode with the pedal to the metal, the new ES can keep pace with my BMW F30 328i.



The 2019 ES also handles a bit better. While it's not as nimble as a true sport sedan, the turn-in is sharper and the car feels less like a boat.  Brakes are solid and stopping on a highway off-ramp is a lot less nerve-wracking. 

That's not to say the car is any smaller. Actually, this year's frame grew by several inches, and the sucker just barely fits in Mom's garage. That means rear seat space is pretty good, though:


Perhaps the only remaining complaint I have about the car is the infotainment system - it was outdated in 2019, and it's even more behind-the-times now. I really don't like the trackpad Lexus foists on us, and the system as a whole lacks responsiveness, to the point of being distracting. If you can deal with that foible, the 2019 ES is a fine car for the granny in all of us.


Tuesday, November 23, 2021

TV: Streaming Adaptation Triple Feature

It's always tough adapting a story into a TV show, and doubly hard when the original source material has a devoted fandom. How can you possibly match the expectations of millions of people who each have their own vision of what the adaptation should be like? These three new streaming shows try their best, with varying results:

Arcane: League of Legends (Netflix)


Of the shows in today's post, the animated series Arcane had the blankest slate to work with, as it's based on Riot Games' MOBA League of Legends.  Though that game is super-popular, it doesn't place much emphasis on narrative, and I'd wager the backstories of the "champions" featured in Arcane were only known to the most diehard League fans.

An empty canvas can be both a blessing and a curse, but creators Christian Linke and Alex Yee have done a great job making you care about what were formerly tiny figures stalking around the lanes. The emotional focal points of the series are the strained sibling-ish relationships between Vi and Powder from the poor undercity of Zaun, and between Jayce and Viktor from the gleaming utopia of Piltover. Couple that with some stylish action sequences and top-notch animation from French studio Fortiche, and you have one heckuva show.


Cowboy Bebop (Netflix)

I remember watching the first American broadcast of Shinichirō Watanabe's anime masterwork, Cowboy Bebop, on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim in my college dorm room.  Everything about it was impressive - the noir-infused animation, the offbeat characters, and especially Yoko Kanno's eclectic jazz-heavy soundtrack.  Netflix's live-action adaptation brought on Watanabe to consult and Kanno to compose, but the enterprise often feels like a hollow imitation of its predecessor:


Which is not to say cast and crew didn't try their damnedest to make the show work. John Cho's Spike Spiegel and Mustafa Shakir's Jet Black have pretty good buddy-cop chemistry, and the series inserts some twists on classic Bebop episodes (most notably in the season finale).  But for all the reverence shown to the source, Cowboy Bebop lacks the imagination and soul of the original.  That might be something that gets better in future seasons, but it's a tough show to recommend as it is now.


The Wheel of Time (Amazon)

I read the first entry in Robert Jordan's fantasy epic The Wheel of Time in middle school, and the last entry several years after becoming a lawyer, so I can say without exaggeration that the series has been with me my whole life. Now, a few of the books aren't particularly good, but the story as a whole is a classic.

I breathed a sigh of relief when the The Wheel of Time was finally completed by Brandon Sanderson, years after Jordan's untimely death. My relief ebbed when I learned they were adapting the books - all 12,000 pages of them - into a TV show on Amazon Video meant to be Jeff Bezos's answer to Game of Thrones:


So is this version of The Wheel of Time any good? Yes and no. Some aspects of the story and some characters are well done - Rosamund Pike's Moiraine is a standout, and Eamon Valda and Liandrin are as suitably slimy.  However, some portions are radically changed from what a reader of the books might expect (Perrin has a wife named Laila? The Dragon can be reborn as a woman?!). The sets and effects generally look good, but other times resemble Renaissance fair rejects. 

The three episodes out now are worth a watch, but I'm reserving judgment.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Music: All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor's Version) (From the Vault)

"Red (Taylor's Version)" is the second outing in Taylor Swift's bid to re-record her first six records, and it's a sprawling, made-for-the-streaming-era two-hour-plus odyssey into the fragmented mind of a young woman. 

The climax of the album is an expanded version of "All Too Well," Taylor's lament for her short-lived relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal.  The long-rumored, much-anticipated track has a truly bonkers, borderline-incomprehensible title ("All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor's Version) (From the Vault)") and all the songcraft Swift can pack in its 10:13 runtime:

All in all, I prefer the more concise original, but the expanded version has plenty of interesting melodic turns and lyrics, all in service of burning the ever-living hell out of Mr. Gyllenhaal: 

They say all's well that ends well, but I'm in a new hell

Every time you double-cross my mind

You said if we had been closer in age, maybe it would've been fine

And that made me want to die

Is that a little petty and obsessive? Maybe - but it's obvious that Swift is playing with the audience, and she (and us) are having a lot of fun toying with the memories.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Mulliga's Monstrous Halloween: New Music for 2021

Not even the pandemic can stop spooky spirits and ghastly ghouls forever! Halloween is back, and I'm celebrating with a set of monstrous posts. Tonight is the big night, so I thought I'd feature some of the new tracks haunting my continuously-updated Halloween music playlist, "Mulliga's Halloween Horrorfest" - perfect for welcoming trick-or-treaters or jamming at your local block party.


"Halloweenie IV: Innards," Ashnikko

The fourth track from Asnikko's annual "Halloweenie" series, "Innards" takes Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" (itself sometimes used as a Halloween song) and gives it the 21st-century pop/hip-hop treatment. While it's not the scariest track around, the song is stuffed full of horror movie references, making for a fun listen.


"Devil's in Town," Silas J. Dirge


If you like your country dark and Gothic, you'll like the latest album by Dutch musician Silas J. Dirge, The Poor Devil. This song talks about post-apocalyptic, demon-riddled streets and a Faustian bargain - perfect for a night of tricks and treats.

"Happy Happy Halloween," Surfbort


Brooklyn punk bank Surfbort just released this festive tune - it's catchy, it's straightforward, and the video has the band rocking out while festooned in lo-fi costumes.


"Spooky Scary Skeletons," LVCRFT


Andrew Gold's "Spooky Scary Skeletons" is a modern Halloween classic, so it makes sense the song would be covered by the high-profile horror pop songwriter collective LVCRFT. Their version doesn't mess too much with the original's bouncy melody, but the production is a fair bit glossier and slicker.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Guns: Ruger Mark IV Target review - The easiest button to button

Introduction

Ruger's "Standard" series of Nambu-inspired .22 caliber pistols have been around since 1949.  Bill Ruger famously started with 100 orders for the pistol, and it's since become one of the most popular .22 handguns in the world.  

I liked the gun, but the Mark III and all prior models required an elaborate process to disassemble the frame.  The procedure was easy to screw up and made cleaning and maintenance a tedious chore. Well, it took over 60 years and some 21st-century engineering, but the latest model, the Mark IV, has been redesigned so that the gun comes apart with the push of a literal button:



Fit and Features

Apart from the simplified takedown and the new modular nature of the upper half of the MKIV (which, don't get me wrong, are huge selling points), the Mark IV doesn't fix what ain't broke. The pistol still has the same pleasing Luger-esque grip angle and styling, holds 10 rounds in a single-column magazine, and works reasonably well (but not perfectly) with most bulk pack .22 ammo. 

I tested the all-stainless steel "Target" model. The 5-1/2" bull barrel made the gun relatively heavy but also fairly accurate.  The trigger and sights were fine enough for everyday range use, but a serious target shooter is probably going to want to upgrade with something like a Volquartsen. This is one of the most popular, if not the most popular .22 handgun on the market, so there's a ton of aftermarket support.


Range Report

I haven't had much access to .22 target ammo during the pandemic, but the Mark IV was reasonably precise even with standard range fodder.


20 rounds of Remington Golden Bullet at 25 yards:



A tight 10 round group of CCI Stingers at 15 yards:



10 CCI Stingers at 25 yards:



Winchester bulk pack at 15 yards:



Conclusion

The Ruger MKIV is an almost totally successful redesign of an all-time classic. This would be a great gun for a novice shooter, except for the price - well over $500 in today's market. That's a big chunk of change for a beginner, so if you're just starting out in shooting or know someone who is, you might want to look at one of the less-expensive polymer-framed options out there. If you have the coin though, this is a pretty easy recommendation.