Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Books: The Words Lincoln Lived By

The Words Lincoln Lived By is a collection of 52 principles taken from the life of Abraham Lincoln, illustrated by quotes and anecdotes from Honest Abe himself.  Written by the late Gene Griessman, a famed Lincoln scholar, the book goes way beyond the famous addresses and speeches and delves into little-known letters and lectures that provide a window into another time.

These stories were particularly fun for me since Abraham Lincoln was a successful lawyer, despite never having a formal education. How did Lincoln feel about representing "guilty" clients as a defense lawyer? What did he do to prepare for a trial? If you're at all interested in Lincoln's life, this is a great little book to pick up.

Music: Juneteenth Playlist

To celebrate Juneteenth, I put together a playlist of music from films about the American Civil War. Far and away the best of them is James Horner's epic soundtrack to Glory, based on the real-life exploits of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.  There's also music from Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and Gary Ross's Free State of Jones (neither soundtrack is particularly memorable, regrettably).

I had to cheat a little by including songs from Ken Burns's The Civil War documentary; perhaps because the subject matter is so tragic, there actually aren't all that many movies about the Civil War itself. Most films are content to use the conflict as a backdrop, which seems to do a disservice to the lives lost and the millions of enslaved persons over whom the war was fought (yes, it was mostly about slavery).

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Miscellany: Mercedes-Benz 2013 C300 4Matic review - The Black Mirror

I've had my BMW 328i (F30) for years now and it's proven to be a fine car, except for the stupidly high repair costs (I'm sure I've put my mechanics' kids through college by now). It was one of those multi-day repairs that made me rent the subject of today's review, a 2013 Mercedes C300 4Matic.

It was the same model year as my 328i, but while this example had about 50,000 fewer miles on it than my car, it had not been maintained half as well.  The decals on the interior switches were eroded down to nothing, the aftermarket steering wheel cover made it feel like a baseball bat, and the worn-out suspension bounced the car around like a carnival ride. Let's move away from this particular example, though, and speak more generally about the C-Class, the traditional rival of the BMW 3-series.

The 2013 C300 was the last year of the third generation (W204 model code).  Unlike the 3-series, the boys from Stuttgart that year opted for a naturally aspirated, direct-injected 3.5-liter V6 (Mercedes would switch to a turbo four in the next generation). I found that the old V6 was less noisy and a little smoother than my F30's engine, but it got noticeably worse gas mileage and was slightly slower off the line.  The C300's sluggish 7-speed transmission didn't help matters, nor did the all-wheel drive system, which added a couple hundred pounds to the curb weight.

The interior of the 2013 C-Class was fairly well laid out, but there were some antiquated controls, like a numeric keypad and air conditioning dials that looked like they came from Grandpa's basement. The infotainment system had wireless Bluetooth, but the interface was pretty stark and ugly, even compared to my car.

The seats were comparable to the 3-series of the time - comfy, but not terribly supportive during hard cornering.  Both Mercedes and BMW use seats with a lot more bolstering nowadays, since today's luxury sedan buyer is looking for more sportiness than an SUV.  And everything felt a little cramped by modern standards.  Comparing like for like, the W204 was a smaller car overall than the F30, and it shows. Even the trunk was a bit smaller:

The C300 was an interesting ride, a different sort of take on the compact luxury segment from 10 years ago. If I had bought it back then, I don't think I'd necessarily be unhappy.  In the end, though, I was glad to get my car back.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Movies: A Salute to Roger Corman, King of the B-Movie

Last week, we lost a true giant of independent film, Roger Corman:

While Corman directed and produced hundreds of flicks, he is probably best know for giving some of Hollywood's biggest names, including legends like Martin Scorsese and James Cameron, their starts in the movie business. The guerrilla filmmaking techniques you saw in Taxi Driver and The Terminator were products of the "Roger Corman film school," delivering memorable scenes on a shoestring budget (Corman famously shot all of Boris Karloff's scenes in The Terror in two days, using leftover sets and crew from another movie).

As a lifelong MST3K fan, I probably have a different perspective on Roger Corman than most, in that I have actually seen and suffered through many of Corman's B-movies.  The giant cucumber from It Conquered the World, the lovely Beverly Garland from The Gunslinger - they're not great movies, but memorable nonetheless (apparently Corman was not a fan of the show, which isn't surprising).

Sunday, May 05, 2024

Miscellany: Luna Sandals Venado 2.0 review

Like many runners, I enjoyed reading Born to Run, Christopher McDougall's book about the amazing Rarámuri tribe of the Copper Canyons of Mexico.  The Rarámuri are famous for covering huge distances of unforgiving wilderness, and for doing so in traditional huarache sandals rather than modern athletic shoes.  They're not just plodding along, either; the fastest of the Rarámuri can go toe-to-toe with world class trail runners.

Born to Run kicked off the minimalist running craze, which is based on the hypothesis that modern running shoes actually cause more injuries than they prevent (by blocking the feet from feeling the ground and permitting an unnatural gait). The book also featured the founder of Luna Sandals, "Barefoot Ted" McDonald and the brand's namesake, Manuel Luna:

I tried out a pair of Luna Sandals, the "Venado 2.0." The sandals have the nickname given to champion ultrarunner Scott Jurek (Spanish for "deer"), and are the thinnest and lightest in the Luna lineup. With a flexible 9mm Vibram sole and a total weigh of 4.4 ounces per sandal, wearing the Venado 2.0 is about as close as you can get to being barefoot:

It probably takes some getting used to for most people. You really feel the ground, especially when you are walking on rough surfaces like gravel. There is also minimal protection for the bottom of your foot, so you have to be careful about urban hazards like broken glass or nails. 

If you can live with those limitations, the Venado 2.0 makes for a good everyday sandal and a great travel sandal; the flat form factor and light weight are ideal for packing. While I'm not sure about running a marathon in these things, they'd be great to use as casual backup vacation footwear, or to save your primary shoes from streams and muddy areas.

Music: Mariachi Entertainment System

Mariachi Entertainment System is a San Antonio-based band that produces unique mariachi covers of classic video game music. It's a wild fusion that could've been a gimmicky mess in lesser hands, but band music director David Ortiz and his merry crew have always made sure the focus is on musicianship...with a little tequila, of course.

The band regularly plays gaming conventions and has created several albums, but my favorite is their compilation of Zelda covers, "Hecho En Hyrule." Original composer Koji Kondo famously wanted to use Ravel's Spanish-influenced Boléro as the theme music for The Legend of Zelda, so a mariachi arrangement really comes full circle:

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Guns: My First GLOCK Sport Shooting Foundation Match

The GSSF is GLOCK's inhouse shooting sports organization, and if you own a GLOCK or are thinking of buying one, it's well worth joining.  Members get one coupon a year that allows purchase of almost any GLOCK pistol at discounted pricing (often saving a hundred bucks or so), and members can shoot at GSSF matches nationwide.  These matches are a fun way to test your skills with the "Drastic Plastic," with the chance to win some cool prizes (up to and including free GLOCK pistols).

I attended my first GSSF match recently, and all in all, it was a good experience, though there are some problems and issues which I'll discuss below.

Match Format

GSSF matches have the same three stages every time - "Five to GLOCK," "GLOCK 'M," and "Plate Rack." You get three runs through each stage, and the total of your times, along with penalties for misses, are added up for your score.  Competitors are separated into divisions based on whether they are amateur or professional, what kind of gun they have, etc.

The stages themselves involve zero movement, zero reloads, and zero tactics, so they are quite accessible for beginners, people with physical challenges, etc. Each stage is a pure test of accuracy and speed:

  • Five to GLOCK - Two shots each on five paper targets, which are placed at increasing distances.
  • GLOCK 'M - Two shots each on four paper targets, and a single shot on a steel target in the middle.
  • Plate Rack - Shoot six steel plates; the plates must fall in order to clear the stage.

There will be an RO to keep things safe, time your runs, and score your targets. There's a big emphasis on range safety and safe gunhandling at these matches, which I appreciated.

The paper targets themselves are actually really good for defensive training - just cardboard sheets with thin, almost invisible scoring zones. Like in a real gunfight, you sometimes won't be able to see where you are hitting, and so must rely on your sights to tell you where the shots are going.

My (Lack of) Equipment

I shot two guns - my brand new G44 and my old G26 Gen 4 carry gun (reviews for both forthcoming - eventually). Aside from a set of Trijicon night sights on the G26, both guns were bone stock. Plenty of people were running pistols with red dots, compensators, and other stuff, but be careful - depending on the division, the rules can limit what mods are permissible on your gun.

One upside of the limited nature of the GSSF stages is that you don't have to bring much stuff to shoot - there's no need for holsters, mag pouches, or other paraphernalia. Heck, I only brought one magazine for each gun, which is okay if you can load mags fast.

Issues and Final Thoughts

Because of the low cost and low barrier to entry, most GSSF matches are crowded. Theoretically, you could shoot the three stages in 20 minutes; realistically, though, you will be at the range for many hours waiting to shoot. Bring a good book, a folding chair and umbrella, and be prepared to sit awhile.

While I had a good experience (and managed to win a couple guns), the stages themselves weren't terribly exciting, and I could see getting tired of them after awhile. That said, the GSSF must be doing its job, since other gunmakers like SIG have copied the format.

Thursday, April 04, 2024

Miscellany: Mulliga Runs a Marathon, Part 4 - The Inspiration

While there are plenty of books written about how to run long distances, this post features memoirs about why people run long distances. The value of these personal stories wasn't immediately obvious to me when I first started training, but when the miles on the road get tedious, or when life or injury interrupts a training plan, the experiences of others can push you over the hump:

Looks Like We're Running: An Amateur's Companion to Becoming a Marathoner

Dustin Riedesel is a fellow who has been through a lot - leukemia, alcohol addiction, and marriage and kids.  One day he decides to take up running, and commits to entering the Disney Marathon with his wife.  Looks Like We're Running is the humorous, conversational, and sometimes heartfelt story of Riedesel's marathon training.

This book is one of the most relatable accounts of marathon training I've ever read. While Riedesel was a former minor college basketball player, he is otherwise a total amateur in pursuit of an amateur's goal - run a sub 4-hour marathon.  He takes it seriously, though, giving the story some real stakes and a nailbiting finish - you feel like you are with him through every grueling mile.

How to Lose a Marathon: A Starter's Guide to Finishing in 26.2 Chapters

Joel Cohen's marathon memoir, How to Lose a Marathon, is a lot more flippant than most.  Cohen is a longtime writer for The Simpsons, and he brings the irreverent tone of that series (and rudimentary line drawings reminiscent of the Tracey Ullman years of the show) to the book.

It's not all jokes though.  There are some real training tips and motivational nuggets here, and Cohen certainly respects the thousands of runners who put themselves through the marathon grind. The book ends in suitably climactic fashion: Cohen races the New York City Marathon, and yes, he does lose - but he did finish.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir

Haruki Murakami is a Japanese author known for two things: surreal literary fiction and runningWhat I Talk About When I Talk About Running compares the two pursuits, both solitary endeavors where sometimes there is no end in sight, and how one feeds into the other.  The title (a reference to Raymond Carver's story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) hints at the philosophical, introspective nature of the book.

Murakami is by far the most accomplished runner in this blog post (his marathon PR is 3:27, a great time for an amateur, and he's run ultramarathons), but the book is pretty silent about the nuts and bolts of his training and nutrition, and there's definitely no braggadocio here. It's more about what running long distances feels like to him, delivered in an engrossing monologue.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Movies: Devil Horror Double Feature

I like a little bit of counterprogramming for my Eastertide, so today we are featuring two movies about demonic power - one new, and one old.

Late Night with the Devil

Late Night with the Devil has a killer premise. Most of the movie is presented as a long-lost tape of a '70s late night show with one very unusual guest - a girl possessed by a demon. Is it all an elaborate hoax? Self-hypnosis? Or is all hell about to break loose?

David Dastmalchian plays the smarmy host to perfection, and the period touches are all pitch-perfect (aside from a few controversial AI-generated interstitial graphics). Late Night only falters when it cheats the found footage conceit, leading to a somewhat disappointing finale.  There isn't a ton of good indie horror out there, though, so it's still worth checking out.

Rating: 7/10

Prince of Darkness

Barring the occasional (incredibly profitable) megahit like Halloween, John Carpenter movies flop on initial release. Prince of Darkness follows the pattern - it bombed in the theaters, but has since gained a cult following as the second entry in Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy" - three movies that depict world-ending horrors.

Prince of Darkness has the flavor of a Quatermass story - a harried priest (Donald Pleasance) asks a group of scientists to study a canister of mysterious green liquid. The liquid is locked in the basement of an abandoned church and seems to be not of this world...or this dimension. As you can imagine, things go south quickly, and soon the survivors are fighting for their lives against Lovecraftian cosmic evil. It's not quite as well-made or well-acted as an all-time classic like The Thing, but there's a nice build-up and a chilling, famous recurring dream sequence:

Rating: 8/10

Miscellany: Pop-A-Shot Pop-Up game review

I was looking to entertain people at a "March Madness"-themed convention, and the Pop-A-Shot Pop-Up game fit the bill perfectly. It's a portable, folding version of the arcade-style basketball game you see in man caves and rec rooms across the country, so you can take it to some remote location and set it up in about a minute. It doesn't require power and works outdoors, but it's not built to withstand the elements.

Some other downsides: for about $180 off of Amazon, the Pop-Up is not exactly cheap, yet there is quite a bit of assembly required (took me a couple hours with hand tools and an occasional extra pair of hands):

The Pop-A-Shot was a hit at the convention. Generally, the game was durable, although it was somewhat less stable than anticipated, with the rim moving slightly after each shot. The electronic scoring functioned properly, but the small speaker was difficult to hear against the din of the convention. All in all, it was well worth the money for all the smiles it generated.