Saturday, June 27, 2020

Tech: Fallout 76 review (Wastelanders update)

After a heated legal battle, Bethesda brought multiplayer to the Fallout series with "Fallout 76." Unfortunately, when the game was released in late 2018, it was an unfinished mess with little content and plenty of bugs.

Bethesda has worked to improve "Fallout 76" steadily in the year and a half since that rocky launch. The latest free update, "Fallout 76: Wastelanders," grafts in a new main story quest, two factions of human NPCs, and a wide variety of enemies and allies:

The update doesn't change how "Fallout 76" starts. Like most games in the series, you emerge from Vault 76 into a post-apocalyptic version of West Virginia, complete with an opening tutorial and cinematic that could have been lifted straight out of "Fallout 3." From there, you have total freedom. You can follow the main quest, group with your buddies to hunt dangerous monsters, or operate your own dive bar (or hotel, or restaurant, or convenience store) with the basebuilding system first seen in "Fallout 4."

I never played FO76 before the Wastelanders update, but I don't think I would have wanted to. Roughly half the content I've seen was either added in or substantially modified by this update - FO76 must have felt pretty barren on release day. It's also disappointing that there are still so many broken quests and crashes-to-desktop, even 18 months after launch. However, this is finally a functional multiplayer Fallout game, so if that sounds appealing to you, I think it's worth a try.

Rating: 76/100

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Guns: Quarantine reloading tools

I usually don't have the time to handload ammunition, but there isn't much else to do right now, what with businesses shuttered due to COVID-19 and the unrest following the George Floyd tragedy. So, I decided to dig up some Unique and get to work. Here are a couple tools I've picked up since my law school days that make the job a lot easier:

RCBS 10-10 Scale (formerly made by Ohaus, now discontinued)

Ohaus used to make a nifty mechanical powder scale that could measure up to 1010 grains, more than enough for any handload. The scale had magnetic dampening and stored in a sturdy, self-contained package. For awhile RCBS put them out under its name, though they were still stamped as manufactured by Ohaus on the bottom. Alas, this scale is no longer made...I guess most people prefer electronic scales.

Lee Precision Perfect Powder Measure

I've used almost exclusively Lee Precision products to reload ammunition, because they emphasize compactness and simplicity. For example, when mounted on a small piece of wood, the Lee "Perfect Powder Measure" becomes a nice portable setup which throws reasonably consistent powder weights. It speeds up reloading immensely when you don't have to weigh every single charge.

Miscellany: Colter Co. bandanas

Nowadays, people are wearing facemasks, neck gaiters, and bandanas like extras in a Mad Max movie, so I thought it'd be a good time to plug a cool bandana designer, Colter Co. 

It's a small outfit in Oregon selling U.S.-made cotton bandanas with a wilderness survival focus. The "Stargazer," for instance, contains a neat glow-in-the-dark star chart of the night sky, complete with simple orienteering directions:

But not all Colter Co.'s bandanas are practical-minded - some are just fun, like the "Sasquatch Face Mask" bandana:

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Books: Rocket Men

Tomorrow NASA plans to launch people into space from U.S. soil for the first time since 2011 to demo SpaceX's Crew Dragon 2. Without taking anything away from the ingenuity of the Crew Dragon's engineers, the mission seems just a little humdrum since human beings left Earth orbit 50 years ago on Apollo 8, in an era with no CAD and no Internet. That daring feat is recounted in Robert Kurson's book, "Rocket Men."

Apollo 11 gets all the glory, but it's difficult to understate how risky Apollo 8 was at the time.  The Saturn V had only been flown twice before, and never with anyone onboard, so the next logical step would have been to test the rocket with crew in low Earth orbit. To beat the Soviets to the Moon, though, NASA decided to use the untested vehicle to send William Anders, Frank Borman, and James Lovell farther from Earth than any human being had ever been. To put it in perspective - Crew Dragon will be about 250 miles away from the Earth, while Apollo 8 went 250,000 miles away.

The book does a great job of portraying both the technical and human sides of spaceflight, including the anxiety suffered by the astronauts' families and the strain of preparing for almost a week in space (ironically, the Hong Kong flu pandemic was roiling the nation at the time). I hope tomorrow's flight goes just as well as Apollo 8 did, so long ago.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Miscellany: South Florida National Cemetery

COVID-19 stopped my usual Memorial Day trip to the South Florida National Cemetery, but at least someone was there to pay respects to the fallen:

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Guns: SIG P229 Legion review - rem ad Triarios redisse


In the legions of the early Roman Republic, the Triarii were the richest and most experienced soldiers. They were usually called upon to do battle only when the initial lines of poorer, younger troops failed. This led to the Roman saying "rem ad Triarios redisse" - "it has come to the Triarii" - for a desperate situation calling for a last resort.

The Sig P229 Legion takes after the Triarii in ways that Sig might not have intended. At an MSRP of about $1200, the Legion version of the P229 is several hundred dollars more expensive than a regular P229, and over five hundred dollars more expensive than the average polymer frame double-stack 9mm (including those from Sig). This is indeed a pistol for the wealthy - but would it serve in a last-ditch battle?

First Impressions

Sig's marketing department certainly would have you think the Legion line is worth the extra coin. The guns comes with some bells and whistles, such as a Legion-branded pistol case (too bulky to be functional) and a Legion challenge coin (downright silly). I could do without all the cool-guy fluff, but I will say I liked the Cerakote gray finish better than the run-of-the-mill P229s.

The P229 Legion does have meaningful upgrades, though. The frame has a subtle undercut and a contoured beavertail, allowing a slightly higher grip to help corral the notoriously top-heavy P-series slide. There is also useful checkering on the front strap, good G10 grips, and low-profile controls.

Sights and Trigger

Most of the extra cost of the P229 Legion comes from the two most important parts of the gun, the sights and trigger. Sig outfits the Legion guns with its X-Ray sights, which are worth about a hundred bucks all on their own. These are excellent day/night sights featuring a subdued serrated rear sight and bright front during daylight, and three-dot tritium lamps in low light.

The P229 Legion also sports a Grayguns-designed trigger. It's not as good as a custom trigger job by any stretch, and it's only slightly better than the standard P229 trigger, but it is better. I found that I could shoot faster DA/SA controlled pairs with the Legion than with any other gun, save a Beretta PX4 Compact Carry (which itself has a factory-lightened trigger).

Range Report

Sig's P-series guns are positively porky by 2020 standards - big thick backstraps, tall grips, heavy alloy frames. I can conceal the P229 Legion (in a Blackpoint Legion-branded Mini Wing IWB, natch), but it is definitely at the outer edge of what I feel comfortable carrying.

The upside is that the gun has negligible recoil with range ammo and shoots like a laser beam. The P229 was easily one of the best 9mm pistols I've ever shot in terms of practical, offhand accuracy.

Sellier and Bellot 124 gr FMJ, 15 rounds at 25 yards:

Federal HST 124 gr, 15 rounds at 25 yards

Speer Gold Dot 124 gr, 15 rounds at 25 yards

Perfecta 9mm, 15 rounds at 25 yards:

Remington UMC 115 gr. JHP, 15 rounds at 25 yards


Are all the Legion upgrades necessary if you just want a carry gun? No, but if you're going to buy what is already an old, expensive design, you might as well go all the way. In the same way I'd recommend a pricier 1911 over an entry-level model, I think the Sig P229 Legion actually represents a better long-term value. And if the marketing hype turns you off, you can safely ignore it and focus on what's left - a better-shooting, cool-looking P229.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Miscellany: Bike Friday New World Tourist review

The lockdown's got everyone running and biking more, as they're some of the only physical activities you can do when gyms, parks, and beaches are closed. Almost tailor-made for this occasion is my New World Tourist bicycle, built by small Oregon folding-bike manufacturer Bike Friday.

The NWT is Bike Friday's entry-level touring bike, although "entry-level" for a handmade, "Cream Soda Blue" custom-built-in-the-USA bike is about $1,350. After ordering online and getting some unexpectedly personal service (a sales rep called and refreshingly talked me out of buying a more expensive model, given my likely use for the bike), you get the bike in the mail semi-assembled. It didn't take long for me to get on the road:

The main trick that the NWT has over a normal bike is a hinge on the seatpost which allows it to be folded down and the rear wheel to fold forward. If you also fold down or detach the front handlebars, you have a compact (though somewhat unwieldy) package that easily fits inside a car trunk, without having to fold down the seats. The folding process takes about a minute for me, and I usually have to get my hands dirty adjusting the chain - a belt drive is cleaner.

The ride itself is only a bit more skittish than a normal bike, and just a little slower thanks to the smaller wheels (about 80% to 90% as fast as a normal mountain bike). That being said, this is the only folding bike I'd feel comfortable with taking on a long voyage - as the company's slogan says, they wanted to make a great bike that happens to fold, not just a folding bike.

Miscellany: ESEE Knives ESEE-4

Prepping is getting popular during this pandemic, and it got me nostalgic for my survival class with Byron Kerns. The tool I used most in that class was a fixed blade knife - specifically, an ESEE-4. It's one of ESEE's most popular models, because it strikes a good balance between size and portability. While you're not going to chop down a redwood with it (it's only 9" long, with a 4" blade), you can use the ESEE-4 to baton and process most firewood, and also around camp for more relaxed chores like whittling.

The handle is pretty ergonomic; I didn't notice any hot spots on my hand after working with the knife for three days in the field, but some may opt for the "3D Handle" versions with more contoured G10/Micarta scales. The ESEE-4's handle has a good size finger guard for safety and merges into a choil large enough to choke up on the blade.

Out of the box, the ESEE-4 comes with a decent sheath with multiple methods of attaching it to your gear. I opted to simply lash it to my belt with some paracord:

The ESEE-4 is optimized for toughness and durability, not pure cutting performance. The 1095 steel doesn't hold the sharpest edge, but at least it won't break on you. The thick stock means that the knife has a hard time cleanly slicing through material, but again, it also makes the blade tough to destroy.

I've taken to keeping an ESEE-4 in my car and get-home-bags. I know what it can do, and perhaps more importantly, I know what I can do with it. For about a hundred bucks, it's cheap insurance in an uncertain world.

Food: 4 Rivers Smokehouse

Except for this coronavirus pandemic, my job takes me to all parts of Florida for hearings, depositions, and the like. One of my favorite pit stops while travelling is 4 Rivers Smokehouse. It's a little more expensive than Sonny's, the 800 pound gorilla of the Florida 'Q industry, but the counter service works a lot better for grabbing a quick lunch before hitting the road after a morning at the courthouse.

I usually get the burnt ends, pulled pork, collard greens, and green beans, all served up on a no frills tray and polystyrene containers. Some locations are better than others (Mom swears by the original one in Winter Park, and a friend of ours was underwhelmed by the new Coral Springs location), but by and large, 4 Rivers serves up tasty barbecue, served fast.

Rating: 2/4 or 3/4 stars, depending on location

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Miscellany: 2019 Nissan Versa review - Uber Alles

When acrid white smoke started billowing out of my BMW 328i's hood and A/C vents, it didn't take much searching to figure out exactly what was happening - a valve cover gasket leak. Thankfully, I still had 800 miles left on my CarMax extended warranty, so I took that sucker into the shop and got a rental car to ferry me around for 3 days.

CarMax and Enterprise set me up with what was once the cheapest new car in America - the 2019 Nissan Versa. The Versa's low cost (under $13,000 for a very lightly used example) and high fuel economy (31 city/39 highway) have made it a darling of Uber drivers across the country. But is it anything more than a nondescript econobox?

Well, not really, at least performance-wise. While the zero-to-sixty time is okay for this class (I measured it at about 9.8 seconds), the 1.6L 4-pot barely breaks 100 in both horsepower and pound-feet of torque, meaning that the car struggles in the 60-to-80 mph range. Overall handling isn't much better; the Versa wallows in corners and gets unstable in highways crosswinds or uneven pavement.

No, the virtues of this car are all practical. The interior may be limned in cheesy hard plastic, but the gauges and controls are all sensibly placed and easy to use. Visibility is good because the vehicle is taller than average and the seating position is high, almost like a mini-crossover. The infotainment system read my iPhone easily and controlled well via a touchscreen, which was necessary to drown out the chainsaw buzz of the engine at high speed.

Practicality continues into the rear, with a surprisingly capacious back seat. The upholstery isn't the most comfortable material, but who cares? You're going to be using a seat cover anyway if you're ferrying passengers for hire, lest you want to be cleaning vomit and mud out of seat crevices every week. The same goes for the trunk: while it makes the car's rear overhang aesthetically bulbous, 15 cubic feet of space means you can carry a full load of luggage, even with a spare tire underneath.

At the end of my time with the Nissan Versa, I found myself respecting what the car stood for - inexpensive, reliable (the Bimmer was in the shop, after all), and usable transportation. If you're a rideshare driver, you could do a whole lot worse.

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