Sunday, January 29, 2023

Books: Less

Our book club's selection for this quarter was Less, a novel by Andrew Sean Greer. The book is about a struggling writer, Arthur Less, who finds out that his old boyfriend is getting married. In response, Less plans an around-the-world voyage of author events, teaching engagements, and literary award ceremonies to avoid the awkwardness of attending the wedding without losing face. 

Less is the most lighthearted and comic title we've read so far in the book club. The big "problem" in the story is emotional rather than physical or financial (Less is never in any danger and seems to have plenty of money for a minor author), and the breezy premise is over and done with in a few hundred pages. It's not Tolstoy, but if you're looking for a lightweight comedy about an American abroad, where lessons are learned and hearts are mended, you could do worse than settling for Less.

Miscellany: Battle of the Trauma Shears - XShear vs. Leatherman Raptor

A good pair of trauma shears is a must-have item for your kit, since you'll sometimes need to cut away clothing to get to wounds. For the layperson, there are three main options: a cheapo set from Amazon (Madison Supply in my case), the XShear shears, and the Leatherman Raptor shears. 

Which is best?  Well, I grabbed some old t-shirts and pitted all three against each other in a no-holds-barred cutting test to find out...

Amazon's Choice (Madison Supply) - $12

Honestly, even the cheap set did fine. While the hard squared-off plastic handles aren't terribly comfortable, and the blades are made of thin flimsy steel, none of that matters if you intend to use the shears for a one-time emergency. The Madison Supply set I bought didn't have any problem going through clothing, which is probably all that a non-first-responder needs. This is what I would take on an airplane, since I wouldn't be out much if an overzealous TSA agent confiscated them.

XShear - $40

XShear comes from Wes Brubaker, a paramedic and flight nurse who wanted something better than disposable shears but cheaper than the Raptors. The XShear slots in right between them pricewise, but it still has heavy duty blades, comfy rubbery handles, and a massive center bolt.  As far as performance, I found that the XShear cut well, though not quite as effortlessly as the Raptor (my pair had some friction when opening and closing the blades). Still, this bombproof set of shears is the clear choice for a medical professional.

Leatherman Raptor - $80 (Response model) or $100 (Rescue model)

The Raptor comes in two configurations - a "Rescue" model with a seat belt cutter and carbide glass breaker, and a cheaper "Response" model that omits those tools. Both models fold down into a relatively compact (though heavy) package that can be carried easily, so if portability is important to you, the Raptor is hands-down the best choice; on the other hand, the folding mechanism is notoriously hard to clean. Cutting performance is on par with the XShear, though I found the Raptor easier to manipulate. Overall, this is the "Gucci" option for people who plan to carry their shears a lot but use them only a little.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Movies: Skinamarink

Going to a movie theatre in 2023 is a lot like visiting a shopping mall in 2023. With the sheer variety of entertainment options out there, midbudget movies (like mid-end mall stores) are disappearing. All that's left are some audience-friendly blockbusters (big department stores) along with indie stuff that's cheap to produce (eyebrow threading salons, dollar stores, and cellphone repair shops).

Skinamarink, an experimental low-budget horror movie, is one such film; it never would seen the inside of a multiplex back in the '90s:

When I say "low-budget," I really mean "no-budget" - the whole movie was shot for $15,000. Unsurprisingly, Skinamarink's runtime is filled with lingering, near-silent shots of hallways, floors, and ceilings lit by a nightlight or the flickering Poltergeist-y glow of a television playing old cartoons. The premise is good - two kids wake up alone in their house at night, but their parents are missing and the doors and windows have disappeared - but there's almost no plot to speak of, so your imagination is going to have to do some work on this one.

The resulting experience is mostly frustrating and dull, and sure to be divisive.  However, there are clever moments of genuine fright and tension that you'd never get from a more conventional horror movie. How well you like Skinamarink depends on how well you like those moments.

Rating: 5/10 (subtract 4 if you hate plodding art films, add 2 if you don't mind them)

Miscellany: Family Friendly Game Night Double Feature

Over the holidays, I had some quality family time playing board and card games.  Here are a couple of my favorites from the winter break:

High Society, designed by Reiner Knizia

My family really enjoys Reiner Knizia's work (I played Lost Cities with my sister umpteen times as a kid), and High Society is no exception. It's a push-your-luck auction game that's great fun with 3 or 4 players. You bid on luxury items to flaunt your wealth, but if you're the biggest spender, you automatically lose. This edition of High Society is from Cool Osprey Games, with beautiful art nouveau illustrations from Medusa Dollmaker. 

Castle Panic, designed by Justin De Witt

Castle Panic is a cooperative tower defense boardgame suitable for everyone from smart elementary schoolers to grandparents. The players defend their castle from a rampaging horde of goblins, orcs, and trolls, who have some nasty surprises in store. The game is both more visceral and comprehensible than titles like Pandemic, and the second edition of Castle Panic has new, appealing artwork that looks like a children's cartoon.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Tech: Grounded

Obsidian is best known for developing RPGs like Fallout: New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity, and they brought those sensibilities to one of their latest titles, Grounded. It's an open-world survival crafting game about four teens mysteriously shrunken down to ant size and abandoned in a treacherous backyard.  They'll need to scavenge for food and water, fight bus-sized insects, and figure out a way home:

Don't be fooled by the Pixar aesthetic and whimsical, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-esque premise - in the early going, Grounded is just as unforgiving as any other survival title. You start with no equipment and no chance against the terrifying wolf spiders and stinkbugs roaming the garden, so you are naturally forced to explore to get stronger. It all leads to a satisfying role reversal when you've finally crafted enough weapons, armor, and items to go toe-to-toe with the badder insects in the yard.

I went through Grounded co-op with a friend, and the game works astonishingly well in that mode, probably better than any survival game I've ever played. Ironically (and refreshingly for an Obsidian game), there weren't too many bugs to deal with.  Hosting and joining games is seamless, and character upgrades and collectibles are shared and saved for each character (so no one "loses out" if a quest is completed when they miss a session).  More fundamentally, the game's environments and enemies naturally encourage players to specialize their builds, so each player can meaningfully contribute.  Co-op adventures/RPGs are hard to find these days, and Grounded is one of the best ones out there.

Rating: 90/100

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Movies: Emily the Criminal

It was cold and rainy over the holiday break...the perfect excuse for my sister and me to catch up with some movies we had missed over the past few months.  One of them was Emily the Criminal, a crime drama written and directed by John Patton Ford:

The film follows Emily, a down-and-out art school dropout wrestling with student loan debt. When she gets the chance to make some easy money doing something illegal, Emily sinks deeper and deeper into an underworld of crooks, thieves, and lowlifes. There's a lot of on-the-nose social commentary (Emily's legal ways out of her debt - a delivery job and an unpaid internship - are cartoonishly predatory) that reminded me of other economics-oriented crime thrillers like Hell or High Water.

As far as I can tell, this is Aubrey Plaza's first non-comedic role, and she does a great job with the material. Her portrayal of the titular character is all pressure and frayed nerves, and when things finally reach a boiling point, Plaza makes Emily's angry eruptions believable and relatable, if not altogether sympathetic. Playing the yin to Plaza's yang is Theo Rossi, who demonstrates impressive emotional range (his character goes from cocksure to cowering). Their performances are enough to overcome simple plotting and a one-note story.

Rating: 8/10

Tech: Post-Christmas Roundup

We had a quiet Christmas at home with the family this year, but there were some very neat tech-oriented gifts under our tree. If you received some gift cards for the holidays, you might consider splurging on them yourself:

The Ideal "TV Tablet" - Samsung Galaxy Tab A7 Lite

Dad uses what I call a "TV tablet," a small device to surf the Web during commercials or other boring stretches of live TV. The Galaxy Tab A7 Lite fits the bill perfectly.  The screen isn't the fancy high-res OLED you see on the flagship Galaxy tablets, and the performance is only so-so, but it's light, small, and cheap (a little over a hundred bucks), so it's perfect for his needs.

Sega Genesis Mini 2

The original Sega Genesis Mini contained a lot of the usual suspects when you think of Genesis retro games, so the Mini 2 is really for a hardcore gamer like my brother-in-law.  This one even includes a healthy dose of Sega CD titles, like the historically-important-but-pretty-awful Night Trap, and the extremely-difficult-but-still-awesome Ecco the Dolphin games.

Apple Watch (Series 8)

I received probably the coolest and most frivolous gift of them all, an Apple Watch. It's frivolous because my iPhone does everything that the Apple Watch does except for the biometrics, and in much better fashion.  It's cool because the onboard cellular lets you Dick Tracy your way through life with calling and texting, even without the iPhone nearby.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Miscellany: Active Response Training - Knife Skills for CCW / Tactical First Aid and System Collapse Medicine class notes

I've been following Greg Ellifritz's insightful Active Response Training blog for years now, so when I heard that he was coming down to Florida for a weekend to teach some classes, I jumped at the chance to check it out. I was not disappointed.  Here are my rough notes from each class, unedited:

Day 1 - Knife Skills for CCW

Introduction and Knife Selection

West Side Story-style knife vs. knife combat is rare.

More common scenarios for using a knife in self-defense: (1) knife vs. unarmed but physically superior attacker, (2) knife vs. multiple unarmed attackers, (3) knife used for gun retention, (4) knife for rape defense, (5) knife for fighting in awkward close-range positions.

There's a wide range of students in class - including some total beginners.

Greg lectures a bit on knife selection - goes through fixed, folding, and automatic, along with demo of various locking mechanisms.

Greg's recommendation - carry a fixed-blade, non-serrated knife, that isn't too crazy big.

Targeting in this course is designed for blades around 3"-4" or smaller.

Greg hits on considerations of various carry methods and knife types, including discussions of common self-defense knives (Clinch Pick, TDI, Delica, etc.).

[I am using a Clinch Pick, a Kershaw/Emerson waved folding knife trainer in right pocket, a Blue Gun GLOCK 19, and a fixed blade trainer (left side)]

Grips, Openings, and Retention 

We practice getting a grip on the knife - practice forward, reverse. Need to be able to use all grips since you never know how you might draw the knife.

We practice openings - thumb, inertia, 2-hand

Knife retention position - in forward grip, brace on hip; in reverse, can use other side or center chest area.

If knife arm tied up: (1) switch hands, (2) cut attacker hand, (3) bring hip to knife then thrust

Knife Targeting

Blood stoppage targets - carotid, behind collarbone, armpit, past hip muscle/top of femoral, femoral, brachial

Biomechanical targets - muscles/tendons at lower arm/wrist, bicep/tricep, back of knee, Achilles, quadriceps/hamstring, fingers/eyes

Wound enhancement techniques - pressure cut, "filet cut," coring (twist the knife), "comma cut" (stab, twist, cut out), running (pump blade up and down)

Krav Maga-style chokes/grapples defended with knife

Special Topics

Concealed knife positions (reverse grip palming, crossed arms, knife in pocket, bag over knife)

Using a knife with a gun (Harries-style)

Knife to retain gun (grab enemy wrist or tie up with elbow trap, then cut with free hand)

Ways to sneak knife into NPE (hide it where they won't wand, ceramic/G10 knife, hide in cellphone case, use belt buckle, walk through as fast as possible)

Day 2 - Tactical First Aid and System Collapse Medicine

"Tactical" First Aid?

Focuses on gun/knife wounds, hostile conditions, limited training/equipment

Unpreventable deaths - severe head or torso trauma

Preventable deaths - extremity bleed, tension pneumothorax, airway

MARCH algorithm (we're skipping head injury/hypothermia)

Direct pressure is first - can clamp with hands, use CPR position, use knee on wound

Problems with direct pressure - self-application, strength/endurance needed, takes up hands, limits mobility

Most GSWs do not involve spinal injury, so usually safe to move patient


Pressure Bandages
Wound Packing
Hemostatic agent (note that you need multiple yards to pack even a moderate wound - 2" wound requires 3-4 feet of gauze)

Emergency TQ removal - after 2 hours, if no help coming, can try to remove slowly if wound is bandaged up. If it bleeds, reapply TQ and leave it. After 6 hours with TQ on, do not remove - dead cells in limb produce toxins that can kill.

Airway - chin lift/jaw thrust + recovery position + NPA if necessary

Chest seals - note even a "vented" seal only works 10% of the time on a sucking chest wound

Opiate OD - use Narcan, open airway

Longterm, Austere, and Wilderness

Wound care - need tons of H20 to irrigate wound

North American snakes - clean up wound, do not TQ, elevate, keep heart rate down, take a picture of the snake, get to antivenom ASAP

Antiseptic plants like yarrow and dandelion

Close wound or not? - closing speeds up healing and minimizes scar, not closing is better for deep punctures and really dirty wounds

Superglue, sutures, staples

"End of the world drug list" - animal antibiotics, etc.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Miscellany: 2019 Hyundai Kona SE review - Holiday Roads

Regrettably, this year's Thanksgiving was spent shuttling Mom to and from the hospital where my Grandpa was staying. The occasion and the weather were as dreary as our method of transport - a 2019 Hyundai Kona SE:

The Kona's exterior styling isn't bad, but it promises a more upscale experience than you'll get. Every ride reminds you that you're in a 4-banger crossover built to a price point ($20k MSRP back in 2019). At highway speeds, you can hardly hear yourself over the din of the clattering tires, and - no exaggeration - the plasticky climate control switches feel like they belong on a kid's toy.

The 147 hp engine is gutsy enough, with surprisingly good acceleration from the six-speed auto (reportedly 0-60 in 6.6 seconds, which feels right) and decent fuel economy (I got about 30 mpg in mixed driving, which is in line with the EPA estimate). Handling is just okay; I found the steering to be darty, but that may have been the overeager lanekeeping assist rather than any electromechanical fault.

The infotainment was hit and miss. I was able to get wired Apple CarPlay working well enough, but sometimes the connection would drop for no reason, and it totally crashed on one occasion (mind you, I drove the car only for a few days total).

Cargo and passenger space is tight. The folding rear seats work fine, but even with them fully down, it was a chore to stash Grandpa's wheelchair, or to lug home a 55" Samsung TV back to his house. Everything fit, but just barely.

I'm probably being too harsh on the Hyundai Kona, which in the end did serve its purpose. If I ever drive it again, I hope it'll be under happier circumstances. 

Miscellany: I Think I'm Learning Vietnamese, Part 3 - V-Pop for beginners

It's been almost eight months since I started learning Vietnamese, and I've been trying to keep myself motivated by injecting some fun into the process. Case in point: listening to some Vietnamese pop artists and trying to decipher the lyrics. Here are my favorites so far:

MIN - Cà Phê ("Coffee")

This song was a top 10 hit in Vietnam this year, and it's not hard to see why - catchy chorus, simple idea, and very modern production.

Sample lyric: Ngồi uống cà phê đến tối ("Sit and drink coffee all night").

Suboi - N-Sao? ("How?")

Suboi is Vietnam's "queen of hip hop."  While many of her songs contain English, she also exploits Vietnamese's monosyllabic nature to full effect in her verses.

Sample lyric: Tui là Vinja cờ xanh năm lá ("I’m a Vi(etnamese) (Ni)nja green five-leaf flag" [note that "cờ xanh" sounds like the Vietnamese word for cannabis, "cần sa"]).

Sơn Tùng M-TP - Chúng Ta Của Hiện Tại ("We at the present")

In turn, we have Vietnam's "king of V-pop." There's a little controversy on this track, as Tùng was accused of plagiarism, but everyone was paid off eventually.

Sample lyric: là áng mây bên trời vội vàng ngang qua ("The clouds in the sky hurried past").