Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Not-So-Black Friday

It's a bit tough to participate in an orgy of consumerism when the unemployment rate is over 10%, so this year's Black Friday will probably be more sparsely populated than the ones in years past. There will be, however, a small but dedicated contingent of hardcore "flippers" looking to seize one of the ten $300 HDTVs on sale at the local Best Buy in order to make profit on resale. The economy has made these people desperate, so I think I'll sit this one out - no need to get trampled underfoot over discounted electronics.

Have a safe and happy Black Friday.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

T-Minus 20 Hours to Turkey Day

Shangrila Towers' Thanksgiving Menu:

Mashed Potatoes
Baked Brussel Sprouts
Green Beans & Bacon
Corn Bread
Turkey, Cranberry & Blood Orange Sauce, Andouille & Pecan Stuffing
Pumpkin Pie

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

Links: YouTube Knife Reviewers

It's easier than ever to be an informed consumer thanks to the Web, but you do have to do your research. Before I purchased my first serious knife, for example, the only experience I had with blades was cheapo Swiss Army knife ripoffs and discount kitchen cutlery. The multitude of knife shapes, materials, and mechanisms were pretty bewildering to a beginner like me. Luckily, almost every knife you can think of has two or three detailed reviews on YouTube. With these, it was easy to get up to speed.

These videos are especially important if you don't have a decent knife store around that'll let you try knives in person (knife stores are getting harder to find, unfortunately). Here are some of the best collections of knife review videos:

Cutlerylover - Proof positive that the best reviewers don't need flashy special effects, Cutlerlover is a mild-mannered postal worker by day and a knife-reviewing, balisong-flipping machine in his spare time. His reviews span the gamut - from the tiny $5 Spyderco Bug all the way up to expensive folders like the Sebenza.

Bob at KnivesTown - You might look askance at reviews coming from a place that sells knives, but the line of KnivesTown reviews by Bob is a solid look at a number of interesting designs. Bob's taste runs toward the tactical (lots of Emerson stuff, as well as oddballs like the behemoth-size Cold Steel Rajah series), but there's zero attitude or bragadoccio in the videos, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Nutnfancy - I've already featured Nutnfancy's near-endless series of review videos, but it's safe to say this guy does the longest, most free-form reviews out of anyone on the Web. That can be a good thing or a bad thing (not too many people have the time to watch a thirty minute knife review), but, given that you can watch them for free, it does represent a lot of honest effort.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Food: Adventures in Baked Goods

Because of all the holiday festivities, autumn always sends our oven into overdrive. Over the past few weeks, we've churned out brownies, cookies, pies, and even the odd banana bread in order to fete visitors properly.

For instance, here's Shangrila Towers' Super-Easy Sweet Potato Pie:

2 medium size sweet potatoes
2 eggs
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 pre-baked pie crust (tastes kinda bland, but it saves a lot of work)

Cut the sweet potatoes into rough 2.5" cubes and steam until tender. Mash them in a bowl or pot until they're fairly smooth.

In another bowl, mix the eggs, brown sugar, and spices until smooth (you can sub in other stuff - for instance, you can add clove, honey, or maple syrup to taste). Add the mashed sweet potatoes and and the heavy cream. Pour the mixture into the pie crust.

Bake in a 375 degree oven until the pie is cooked through. The exact time varies, but it'll probably take at least 45 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for at least a half hour before consuming.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Guns: Using Your Off Hand

The modern doctrine of handgun shooting stresses using two hands on a pistol or revolver. This two-hand grip (no matter which stance you adopt) helps you to control recoil and improves accuracy. There are situations, though, where you might have to carry something else in your off hand in order to defend yourself successfully.

First and foremost is when you are using a handheld flashlight in the off hand. Since few people carry their CCW weapon with a flashlight mounted, you will be reduced to holding two items at the same time, the gun and the light. There are techniques that hold the hands together and techniques that have them apart; whichever you use, be sure to practice regularly. Most techniques assume you at least have your flashlight out beforehand - trying to draw two things at once off your belt leaves you with with no arm to ward off a strike.

The off hand, though, does not have to be limited to pure defense. Drawing upon the ancient notion of the companion weapon, there are a number of ways to use an off hand item to counterattack. A folding knife or telescoping baton functions in much the same way as the dagger or buckler of old. Even if you only have a simpler object like an umbrella or book, you can buy yourself enough time and/or distance to draw and fire. Just look at Caleb's case - a cup of Starbucks' finest provides enough of a distraction to regain the initiative in a fight.

The most interesting technique I've seen involves carrying an extra magazine between the pinkie and ring finger of the off hand, while still using it in a two-hand firing grip (think Rogers/SureFire technique but with a 1911 mag in there instead of a flashlight, the idea being that it makes for faster reloads). I'm not sure I'd ever employ it; the mental image of my spare mag dangling off my left hand instead of safely stowed in a belt carrier irks me. Plus, if someone ever did attack you point blank, it'd be hard to get the extra mag in your off hand in time for it to make a difference. Still, I guess this strategy might make sense if you were closing to engage a spree shooter of some sort and wanted a quick reload handy.

Miscellany: Kershaw Groove review

The knife industry is a pretty tight-knit group. The big knife producers have a long-standing tradition of collaborating with custom knifemakers, and this cross-pollination of ideas invariably leads to interesting knives. One such knife is the Kershaw Groove, a full-size folder designed with the help of RJ Martin.

The biggest compliment I can pay the Groove is that it's like a poor man's version of a real RJ Martin custom. You can see the design similarities between the Groove and the Devastator, the custom blade that won Blade Magazine's "Best Tactical Folder Award" for 2009. There are a ton of little differences, to be sure (RJ Martin uses high-end S30V steel, a custom heat treatment, titanium handles, and precision bearings), but the overall shape of the blade and the handle is basically the same.

The Groove's most immediately noticeable feature is the 3.5" grooved blade made of 13C26 Sandvik stainless steel. The machined grooves probably aren't for everyone, but I think they look pretty cool, and the functionality of the knife isn't harmed in any way. The drop point blade slopes downward from the handle and has a slight recurve. Because of the big belly created by this shape, the Groove is excellent at slashing and precise draw cuts.

The knife is a true flipper-only design (no thumbstuds at all). It has a beefy liner/frame-lock that engages smoothly. While it doesn't ride on the custom roller bearings Martin uses on his $500 knives, I suspect most people can live with standard phosphor bronze bushings on a $50 knife. As has been the case with all the Kershaws I've handled, the blade locks up solidly and has zero play in any direction.

There is a nominal thumbramp on the blade, but the stair-step style jimping and the acute ramp angle aren't good enough to stop your thumb from riding forward entirely. The flipper forms a prominent fingerguard, though, as it does in most of Kershaw's designs. The finger grooves on the handle are deep and well-placed for most medium-to-large size hands, further increasing your margin of safety should you ever have to put the knife to hard use.

Aside from the two thick steel liners, the knife handle is made of interestingly shaped G10 overlays that are aggressively textured. The wavy shape of the overlays is actually pretty functional, giving your fingertips a decent place to perch on when you grip the knife.

The back of the knife repeats the groove motif, and again, it's not just for looks. When held in a forward grip, the grooves press into your hand and fingers for extra traction. When you use a reverse grip with the Groove, you can plant your thumb on the ridges to anchor the knife in place. It's really a well thought-out design.

The pocket clip can be moved for tip-up or tip-down carry, but in typical Kershaw fashion, it doesn't support left side carry. Additionally, it's extremely stiff out of the box and will have to be bent out with pliers if you want to actually clip it to your pants. On the plus side, it rides at about the right level in the pocket and is absurdly over-built (with three (!) screws holding it down).

Overall, the Kershaw Groove is an excellent knife with just one problem - weight. The Groove tips the scales at about 5 ounces thanks to its non-skeletonized steel liners, so it'll probably overwhelm most pockets. It looks especially chunky compared to great EDC knives like the previously-reviewed Kershaw Skyline, which are so light that they can literally clip on to gym shorts. But, if you need a heavy-duty folding knife that won't let you down, the Kershaw Groove has a lot to recommend it.

Music: Science For Girls

I'm a sucker for downtempo electronica, but it's not something that plays on mass market radio stations. Luckily, podcasts like Dave's Lounge provide a good way to discover new artists. Without music podcasting, you might never find stuff like "Science For Girls." It's a compilation of tracks by NYC composer Darren Solomon:

Most of the songs follow the "14 Days" formula - indie vocals, lush arrangements with a slightly jazzy feel. There are some exceptions, though, like this delightfully wistful paean to Australia:

All in all, the album's well worth a look if you like this kind of stuff. But you won't find it on sale in Best Buy...

Friday, November 20, 2009

TV: The Relic Hunter

Have you ever wondered where the items in a curio store come from? Were they dug out of some spinster's attic? Were they traded for in a faraway auction house? Even in the age of eBay, there's still a certain ineffable fascination with exotic objects.

"The Relic Hunter" (not to be confused with the kitschy Tia Carerre vehicle) is a new series on Travel Channel that does a good job of evoking this fascination. It follows a curio store owner in his search for unique items to sell in his shop:

There could have easily been the whiff of 19th century imperialism about the proceedings, but Ian Grant is such a guileless, ecologically and socially sensitive host that the series avoids the perception that the show is looting native peoples (check out his website if you don't believe me). Instead, it's a celebration of unique cultures and items from around the world. Everything from an Amazon River boat paddle to a Kazakhstan ceremonial implement is treated like a valuable souvenir - a welcome antidote for anyone jaded by too much assembly line plastic.

"The Relic Hunter" is one of the few Travel Channel shows that doesn't involve food (Travel Channel's primetime hits: "No Reservations," "Bizarre Foods," "Man v. Food"), so I suppose that may limit its audience. For anyone with even a hint of the collecting bug, however, the opportunity to see cool stuff from different countries should be enough a draw.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Miscellany: 5.11 HRT Desert Boots review

If you tried hard enough, you could probably make everything tactical - coffee cups, underwear, bacon. And there are plenty of people who do try. That's why it's difficult to review a pair of 5.11 HRT Desert Boots without looking like a total spaz.

The HRT purportedly stands for *gulp* "Hostage Rescue Team," an appellation that's enough to conjure up images of mall-ninja-ized Cold Steel catalogs.

In truth, though, these are good, comfortable soft-soled boots that required zero break-in. They give a lot of ankle support without being unnecessarily stiff, they hold up well to extended use, and they even look fairly fashionable (or at least, so I'm told).

I do have some complaints. Despite their advertised resistance to oil and blood, the boots seem to stain easily; a few weeks out bumming around town were enough to get a lot of dirt and grime on the uppers. The collars are pretty loose, so it would behoove you to use Gators if you need to move through heavy snow or sand. Finally, if you don't find them on sale like I did, you might have to shell out $100 a pair.

All in all, these are solid boots that are worth the cash. Even if you do risk looking like a poseur.

Guns: The Limiting Reagent

A chemical reaction is a dance between molecules, and you need enough dance partners if you want to keep the dance going. As the below video illustrates, increasing the amount of men in the dance hall only works up to a certain point...

Reloading components need a similar balance, a balance easily disrupted by market forces. In the spring and summer, it was nearly impossible for me to find pistol primers for my reloading bench. In the fall, after a trip to Gander Mountain yielded 6 boxes of the precious little explosives, I find myself lacking the right bullets.

In a way, the bullet shortage is even worse. Primers, powder, and cases are mostly interchangeable, but each bullet has its own specific uses. In the case of the Gold Dots, the 135 grain bullets are specially engineered to expand at typical 2" .38 snub velocities. It's a bit frustrating to have the right primers, the right powder, the right cases, but the wrong bullets. I may have to start loading bulk lead wadcutters if this keeps up.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Books: Genesis

Somewhere between the short story and the novel is the novella, a piece of prose long enough to require sectional divisions in the text but still short enough to read in one long sitting. Because the form gives enough space to describe a different world but doesn't require a writer to come up with a complex plot, there are a lot of post-apocalyptic novellas; individual flavors range from politics (Ayn Rand's "Anthem") to horror ("The Mist" by Stephen King).

"Genesis," by Bernard Beckett, is almost a prototypical sci-fi novella. In the book, human civilization as we know it has been devestated by a plague, and a handful of survivors have formed a society on an isolated island. Rather than thrusting the reader into the middle of this decaying world, though, Beckett opts for a far-future Republic centuries removed from the original plague. Here, a youth named Anax tries to enter an elite Academy by taking a grueling Socratic entrance exam that tests her knowledge of historical hero Adam Forde. It's a good premise, and a tidy way of dumping a lot of exposition on the reader without the narrative collapsing.

That doesn't mean it's great literature, though. As Anax describes the life and times of Adam Forde, it's hard not to raise a few eyebrows at the massive plot details being glossed over in her dialogue with the Examiners. The final revelatory twists are clumsy, more M. Night Shymalan than Rod Serling. Still, as a way to jump-start an epistemological discussion in a ToK class, it's a decent first-day read.

Movies: Saint Ralph

My Mom is an inveterate movie sleeper. She works so hard at her day job that she understandably has difficulty staying awake through an entire feature film. The movies that can overcome her weariness are special indeed, like "Saint Ralph":

It's a dramedy about the rigors of Canadian Catholic school and marathoning. Director Michael McGowan won't win any awards for originality here - the plot is identical to about a dozen sports movies (including several whose plots directly involve running, like "Chariots of Fire"). In "Saint Ralph," plucky underdog Ralph Walker enters the Boston Marathon looking for a miracle to save his mother. Along the way, of course, he faces opposition from a stodgy school headmaster and the rest of the incredulous student body.

The movie is stuffed to the gills with treacle. Most of the characters are paper-thin cutouts just there to lend Ralph a helping hand; Jennifer Tilly, for instance, doesn't do anything with her performance aside from looking good in her nurse costume. Still, there's an understated period charm in "Saint Ralph," a faithful optimism that's almost critic-proof. You have to give the film credit where it's due, too - the climactic marathon scenes are about as well-executed as any sports movie could hope for. Plus, if Mom didn't fall asleep, the movie must be doing something right.

Rating: 7/10

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Miscellany: SOG Flash II knife review

The knife is the oldest tool. The ancestors of modern humans flaked off the edges of rocks to form stone blades that could butcher carcasses more effectively than fingernails and teeth. This was the first step, a refusal to acquiesce to the physical limitations of the human body:

Since then, of course, knives have been used by all cultures and all peoples around the globe, from Mongolian steppe to African desert. I'm not sure when humans will make it to the surface of Mars, but you can bet they'll be carrying blades of some sort with them when they touch down.

I've always had a fascination with technology, and the knife represents technology in its purest form. So, since my Kershaw Skyline review went over well, I'd like to look at more knives, starting with today's SOG Flash II.

The Flash I and II are the entry-level choices in SOG's line of assisted-opening folding knives. They're not as fancy as the Aegis (with its aggressive spearpoint blade) or the Trident (which has a built-in notch for cutting paracord - how's that for tactical?). Still, the Flash series manages to present everything that sets SOG knives apart from their competitors - a fast spring-assisted opening system, low-profile pocket clips, and useful blade profiles.

I tested out the Flash II, the larger of the two models. The Flash II has a 3.5" blade made of AUS-8 steel, a decent middle-of-the-road steel that holds a serviceable edge. The blade's full flat grind and its conventional profile provide excellent slicing ability, with plenty of belly for various tasks (cutting up a chicken, slicing newspaper coupons, etc.).

Although the Flash II's blade is good, SOG's patented assisted opening technology quickly takes center stage (it's U.S. patent 6,941,661, BTW). Check out how it works:

The spring-assist makes for very fast deployment - all you need to do is flick the blade about 3/4" with the thumbstuds and the spring will pop it out the rest of the way. To close the knife, you push back on a low-profile sliding lock near the pivot. SOG even throws in a manual safety latch to prevent the blade from opening. I'm not a huge fan of the added complexity this setup brings, but it has proven to be reliable and durable in my use.

Unfortunately, all the added springs and widgets SOG uses to flip out the blade need to be housed in a thick, ungainly Zytel handle. While the sides of the handle are nicely textured, the overall thickness is blocky for a pocket knife. To use a firearms analogy, if my Kershaw Skyline was a Kahr, the SOG Flash II would be a GLOCK. The Flash II would also benefit from better jimping on the top of the handle and a more pronounced choil/fingerguard to prevent slipping forward on the edge.

Even though it's thick, the Flash II is still practical to carry around because of its light 3 ounce weight and SOG's bayonet pocket clip. The clip, reversible for right or left side carry, buries the knife deep into the pocket. In fact, the knife carries so deeply that only the clip can be seen from the outside. This is important for people who carry knives in offices or workplaces where, although legal, folding knives might not be politically correct.

Overall, the Flash II is a good knife with a big, useful blade and an interesting opening mechanism. There aren't too many folders of this size that carry discreetly, and almost none that retail for under $50. The SOG Aegis knife actually fixes many of the issues I have with the Flash II, but that's a review for another day...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day Reflections - A Most Unusual Military

Most of the Veteran's Day stories today predictably weave in the recent tragedy at Fort Hood. For my part, I'm glad the murderer's plan backfired - although he killed 13 people, the shootings inadvertently showed just how special the armed forces of the United States are.

We now know the shooter was an Army Major, but more importantly, he was a devout Muslim of Palestinian descent. His very presence in the U.S. military gives the lie to the charges of imperialism or racism that are levelled against it (usually by thugs or terrorists who are blind to their own racism). Can you imagine the shooter rising to such a high rank in the North Korean army? In the Iranian army?

There are other, happier stories emphasizing this disconnect. Hung Ba Le left Vietnam when he was five years old, one of the countless "boat people" fleeing the Communists. He came back to Vietnam in another boat - this time a U.S. Navy destroyer with a crew of 300. In the 34 years since he left, he had become a Commander in the U.S. Navy.

For all the men and women serving America in this most unusual military, thank you for keeping us safe.

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother

Monday, November 09, 2009

Oof...Shangrila Towers, Nauseated Edition

Sorry for the lack of posts...I had a nasty stomach virus that pretty much knocked me out all yesterday. Shangrila Towers will be back soon, but if you lack for reading material, how about trying the health insurance bill the House passed? Gonna be (not-so) fun times for Senate staffers...

Friday, November 06, 2009

News: History Repeating

As of this moment, the motives and specifics behind the horrific spree shooting at Fort Hood yesterday are unclear (terrorism? religious fanaticism? mental breakdown?), but the facts are pretty cold. There are at least 12 innocent people dead and many more wounded. But it all feels gratingly familiar.

Two years ago, a mentally unhinged student murdered people at Virgina Tech. On that dark day, two handguns were used, and more than thirty people were killed. Eighteen years ago, at a Luby's Cafeteria not far from Fort Hood, there was another infamous spree shooting, another mentally deranged person willing to hurt people. This shooting was also perpetrated with two handguns, and, like at Fort Hood and Virginia Tech, more than forty people would be shot before the smoke cleared.

There are differences, too. The victims at Fort Hood were quite unlike the elderly diners at Luby's and the college students at VA Tech. Here was a group of some of the bravest, most capable people in America. The victims were mostly soldiers, set to be deployed. In terms of situational awareness and fighting ability, they were probably far above the average civilian. Yet it appears that an Army psychiatrist - not a Delta Force guy, not a Navy SEAL - with two handguns murdered them in cold blood until he was finally shot by police.

This test population of soldiers was similar to the diners in that Luby's and the students at Virginia Tech in at least one way, though. All three groups were disarmed, by law - when not in combat, soldiers cannot carry handguns, concealed or otherwise. In fact, they face stiff penalties for bringing personal firearms on a military base, and are usually alerted to that fact with the "No weapons allowed beyond this point" signs posted at all entrances.

We have seen these signs before.

They don't work.

It's sobering to think that right now, on my hip, is a 9mm handgun with 15 stupid little lead pellets, completely ordinary objects that can be picked up at the local Wally World. Nothing special about them at all. But those pellets, and the gun that fires them, could have made all the difference at the Soldier Readiness Processing Center yesterday. Right now, I am better armed then a sworn member of the U.S. armed forces, at least those who are on military bases here in the States. And that is a damn shame.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Miscellany: "It's A Dead Place"

Inside the JCPenney at the Palm Beach Mall, the Christmas displays are already up. Big, enticing red sales signs, holiday music, the whole smash. There is a part of this JCPenney that's out of the ordinary, though - the store's mall entrance is closed. Through the clear windows of the closed sliding doors, you see this:

JCPenney, along with Sears, is one of the last anchor stores in the nearly-deserted Palm Beach Mall. In its heyday in the 1980s, the mall was a fairly popular spot for those living in the northern parts of the county. Fierce competition from the Palm Beach Gardens Mall chipped away at its customer base in the '90s, but it wasn't until the brutal, well-publicized murder of a Chick-Fil-A manager in 1999 that the mall really started to tank.

From there the end was inevitable. Even a renovation in 2000 couldn't wash away the stain of violence from the mall, which drove out the upper-middle class shoppers most malls rely on to survive. I visited the Palm Beach Mall recently to see just how bad things have become (if you must go, be sure to bring protection - I suggest a Trojan).

Walking the Palm Beach Mall was a surreal experience - almost like being in a post-apocalyptic zombie movie. Since the building is in foreclosure, every single cost-saving measure has been rolled out. The air conditioning has been turned down in the building, so it's actually fairly warm inside, at least for a mall. The central water fountain's been bone-dry for ages. Many of the ceiling lights have been turned off, giving the place a dungeon-like atmosphere. The restrooms are, predictably, out of order.

Oddly enough, there are a few brave souls still trying to operate stores in this place - there's a GNC, a Foot Locker, and a smattering of independent booths and stalls. If you ever visit, I hope you like Subway, because it's the only place that's still open in the food court. Like you might expect, most of the salespeople are just hanging on, riding it out until the end of their leases.

I did buy something from Sears - two pairs of clearance shorts for $10 (cheaper than Goodwill). The friendly old saleslady's voice was dour, with a distinct Welsh brogue. She said that Sears was closing in January, and that the building might be demolished soon after that. I didn't say it, but I thought it while I was walking out: "I hope they tear this place down sooner rather than later."

[The post title comes from the opening scenes of "Day of the Dead"]

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Food: Yogourmet Yogurt Maker

If you're reading this blog, you're probably a do-it-yourselfer on some level. Whether you do your tinkering at the reloading bench, on the kitchen counter, or on a printed circuit board, you refuse to just consume things as they are from the factory. The latest weapon in your war against the mundane? The Yogourmet electric yogurt maker:

That's right, why mess with store-bought yogurt when you can make your own by the quartful? Yogourmet takes the guesswork out of culturing a good yogurt by holding the temperature of your yogurt mix at the right level for hours and hours at a time. Sure, you could accomplish it manually, but Yogourmet eliminates the tedium. Just scald your milk mixture, add a starter, and dump in the Yogourmet.

The yogurt produced varies in taste and consistency depending on the milk and starter used, but the Stonyfield Farm-cultured stuff that I had was delicious. It was pleasantly tart, with a creamy, custard-like texture that went well with granola and fruit. It was as good as any grocery store yogurt I've ever had, but it cost about ten times less (instead of $1 for 6 ounces, it was more like $1 for two quarts).

You probably won't find Yogourmet on store shelves (when some guy is picking inventory, "electric yogourt maker" doesn't jump out as a hot seller), but it's worth a look if you want control over your yogurt.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Movies: Saw VI

Nearly every horror movie franchise slips into satire or self-parody. It's almost impossible to avoid - as the kills get more gruesome, as the monster or villain is resurrected innumerable times to do battle, logic and reason are eventually tossed out the window. It happens in some franchises quicker than others (look at Tobe Hooper's tongue-in-cheek take on his own work in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2"), and I'm pretty sure the "Saw" series is there with "Saw VI":

In case you haven't seen the first five movies, the "Saw" series follows serial killer Jigsaw and his compatriots as they place their victims into deadly situations where the victims must mutilate themselves to survive. Jigsaw and co. are ostensibly out to give the victims an appreciation for the value of their own lives. The first movie was blissfully simple (two guys in a room forced to saw their own feet off), but later iterations have dialed up the complexity by a couple orders of magnitude.

This latest "Saw" almost seems to make fun of the whole thing. When Evil Predatory Lender Girl is seen in the hospital after cutting off her own arm to escape a trap, the killer asks the woman if she's learned her lesson. She responds by waving the stump in the air and yelling "What am I supposed to learn from this?" The victim selection gets even more tenuous, with a janitor being hauled in for the sin of smoking cigarettes (he's understandably confused).

But then, that may be the point - to move away from the semi-realistic moralizing and to just make Jigsaw a nigh-supernatural killer who uses sadistic games to do the deed. The traps, for instance, are becoming more elaborate and more crowded. In "Saw VI," it would probably take a team of skilled artisans weeks to construct all the traps you see on-screen, and perhaps a hundred people to execute the simultaneous kidnappings of the two dozen victims that Jigsaw populates his traps with.

So, as a straight horror movie, "Saw VI" isn't very scary (or even very gruesome). But, if you're looking for a horror movie sequel, like the ones where Freddy Krueger wisecracks and Jason Voorhees impales a pregant woman through the stomach, "Saw VI" will probably give you a few macabre laughs.

Rating: 4/10 (as horror), 7/10 (as comedy)