Thursday, January 28, 2010

Guns: A Shooting In Old City

Gerald Ung, a part-time law student at Temple University, allegedly shot a man named Ed DiDonato in Old City, Philadelphia at 2:30 a.m. on January 17, 2010.

The shooting happened to take place outside a news studio, and was caught on surveillance tape.

The facts are still very hazy - Ung supposedly bumped into DiDonato while DiDonato was doing chinups on a piece of scaffolding, there was apparently an argument where DiDonato and his group followed Ung and his date, which eventually led to a confrontation of some sort. All that is certain, really, is that DiDonato found himself lying on the sidewalk with multiple bullets inside him (DiDonato was immediately taken to the hospital; after several surgeries, his condition is still up in the air).

What makes this case relevant to Shangrila Towers is that Gerald Ung had a Virginia carry permit; after he shot DiDonato, he waited at the scene (someone called 911, not clear if it was Ung) and was arrested without incident. Further muddying the waters: DiDonato is a Villanova grad and part of a wealthy Republican family; there's even a PR firm (!) handling their response to the shooting. Final interesting tidbit - Ung is out on 10% of $200,000 bail, despite felony charges that include attempted murder and aggravated assault.

As you might imagine, the shooting has provoked long discussions about when a CCW holder should draw his or her firearm (Maryland Shooters and PAFOA have big threads on the subject, but be prepared to filter out the usual forum noise).


Drawing a firearm is a last resort; we all know that. In every jurisdiction I know of, you can't draw a gun to win an argument, or to look tough. On the other hand, it's not like every bad guy comes at you mano-a-mano, with a loaded gun, so that you have a clear case of self-defense (though sometimes it happens that way):

The real world is a very different place. Imagine you are being followed on a city sidewalk, along with your girlfriend, for a block and a half, by several individuals. What caused them to follow you is indistinct - perhaps some heated words were exchanged, maybe there was some shoving, whatever. But the point is, you're walking away. But they're still following.

These guys aren't armed - no guns, no knives, not even a beer bottle. But they're starting to circle you, and things are obviously going to come to blows pretty soon. Maybe punches have already been thrown...

It's entirely possible that Gerald Ung blew his top and pulled his gun out unreasonably; just because someone is insulting or even threatening to beat you up doesn't necessarily mean you can point a gun at them. And once someone does draw a gun on you, you might be justified in tackling and punching the shooter, like DiDonato might have done, even if you were the one who started the argument. Depending on how the facts pan out, this shooting could be anything from fully justified to sorta justified to not justified at all.

In my view (disclaimer - this is not legal advice), a gang of unarmed people could cause serious bodily injury or death to me just as easily as one guy with a knife or gun. Even a single, unarmed man could rise to that level of threat if he cornered me, I couldn't defend myself with my bare hands, and he engaged in a continous and ongoing assault. Not to mention the fact that if I had a female companion with me, she could easily suffer rape or worse at the hands of a handful of men (it happens all the time).

I'm not saying that's what happened in this case, since no one knows what really happened. Unfortunately, I think the reality is that a CCW is going to have to retreat if possible and take a severe beating (which is inherently dangerous, of course) before a jury would acquit him or her of shooting an unarmed person.

The video is blurry and doesn't give the entire chronology of what happened. I'd imagine that the testimony from the companions of both men would be critical in reconstructing just what happened that night. Whatever the final result, it's clear that the lives of both Ung and DiDonato have been changed forever.

So when is an unarmed threat sufficient to justify deadly force? It's an open question, something to ask yourself if you're ever on the streets at 2 a.m. in Philly.

Food: Krusteaz Brand Mixes

When it comes to breakfast food, I think most people take shortcuts. Say it's 6:30 in the morning - measuring out flour, sugar, and baking powder for a waffle mix is the farthest thing from most people's minds.

Krusteaz is a line of baking mixes designed for the lazy. Like most of these kinds of products, you dump out the premeasured, powdery mix into a bowl, add eggs, water, and oil, and you're in business.

Their Belgian waffle mix is the actually the best store-bought brand we've tried - even in an inexpensive waffle iron, it cooks up relatively crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. The muffin and cookie mixes, while not earth-shatteringly tasty, are great products for people who need to whip up a bunch of baked goods without much fuss.

Really, the only dud from the Krusteaz line I've experienced is the pancake mix - the pancakes come out tough and tasteless, like flour-flavored jerky. And to be honest, even their non-waffle products taste vaguely like waffles. But hey, who doesn't like waffles?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Guns: DeSantis Super Fly Pocket Holster review

Pocket carrying a handgun is convenient, and it's my preferred method of carry, especially if I need to tuck in a dress shirt (which rules out most waistband holsters). Unfortunately, since there are billions of pockets in the world, of all shapes and sizes, there is no one perfect pocket holster.

One holster may sit perfectly in the front pocket of a pair of blue jeans; that same holster could flop around like a fish out of water in a large cargo short pocket. Anyone who totes a gun inside the pocket is thus forced on a never-ending quest to obtain holsters for every conceivable garment.

The latest pocket holster I've tried is the DeSantis Super Fly. It's the sequel, so-to-speak, of the popular DeSantis Nemesis line of pocket holsters. If you're not familiar with the Nemesis, it has a tacky outer surface that helps it stay in the pocket during a draw. Below is my Nemesis, cut and modified to fit the S&W 642 J-Frame revolver better:

As you can see, I had to cut off large chunks of the holster that were superfluous, as well as reinforce the barrel opening with stitching. With these modifications, it's pretty much as small as a J-Frame holster can be. What I was finding, though, was that the modified Nemesis had a tendency to fall over sideways in the pocket - it was too small for some pants.

Enter the DeSantis Super Fly. It's like a Nemesis on steroids, with more rigidity, supposedly due to flexible polymer inserts (I can't be sure since I can't feel them inside the holster, but in any case, the material is definitely stiffer). It costs twice as much as the Nemesis - is it worth it?

Well, at least you get more for your money. The Super Fly comes with an ambidextrous velcro shield that attaches to the side of the holster in order to prevent the gun from printing. The shield works okay, but interferes with obtaining a firing grip during a fast draw. I use the shield more for when I have a particularly large pocket to fill, like an outer jacket:

Here's the holster with the shield off:

The Super Fly fits the J-Frame quite a bit better than the default, unmodified Nemesis - there's a little extra headroom for the muzzle and the sides of the gun, but nothing too egregious. Drawing the gun, especially without the shield, is swift and sure.

Here's the Super Fly in a jeans pocket. It rides pretty well, though if you know what to look for, you can probably spot the revolver's grip in this picture:

Overall, the Super Fly is a good holster that represents an improvement over the Nemesis, at least in some respects. Truth be told, I'd get the Nemesis and other cheap pocket holsters first before you splurge on the Super Fly, but it's a good option for those who have a big wardrobe.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Links: Fuzzy Yellow Balls

If you're a hardcore tennis fan, you'll find that the commentary on American TV can be a little underwhelming - a lot of platitudes about how a player "loves the big stage" or "needs to be more aggressive," rather than talking about the strokes and strategies of the high-level pros.

The solution? Fuzzy Yellow Balls.

Okay, so the website's name is pretty silly, but the site (and its YouTube channel) is a great resource if you are trying to learn how to play tennis. Every stroke is broken down into its components, complete with video on how to execute the shot. There are also video galleries of top tennis champions on the practice court that make great references for improving your strokes. For those who want to go even deeper, you can pay for FYB Premium and learn all about court geometry, movement, and match strategy.

Additionally, tennis coach Will Hamilton manages to comment on important matches in the tennis world. All during the Australian Open, Hamilton has been giving in-depth previews of the men's singles matches, going beyond "who's in form" and detailing strategies for both players. Here's a good one previewing the 4th round match between Nikolay Davydenko and Fernando Verdasco (and the match basically played out like Hamilton described):

And while you might think FYB is all cerebral tennis geekery, they do have a sense of humor:

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Movies: Decent Foreign Movie Double Feature

I shuffle through a lot of foreign movies, and I can safely say that just because a movie is in a different language, it doesn't mean it'll be more engaging than the latest Hollywood blockbuster at the multiplex. Plenty of critically acclaimed foreign flicks are just plain boring; here are two that might hold your interest:


"Noise" is a drama directed by Matthew Saville. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, but don't hold that against it - it's really a well thought-out, entertaining movie:

Constable Graham McGahan (Brendan Cowell) is stuck in a job he hates - jockeying the "mobile police station" (a glorified truck camper) for a sleepy suburb that's been wracked by a series of murders. On top of these long night shifts, he's experiencing tinnitus, a constant ringing in his ears, and it might be a sign of more serious medical problems.

"Noise" is a slow-burn police drama, with a pitch-perfect performance from Cowell - he's at turns sarcastic, sympathetic, and serious. There's action, at least at the end, and there's a dose of mystery, too. But what keeps it from being boring are McGahan's profanity-laced encounters with the locals - there's nothing like corrosive banter being delivered in an Australian accent.

Rating: 7/10

Taxi Number 9211

Hollywood regularly poaches ideas from world cinema, so it's only fair that Bollywood return the favor in this Indian remake of "Changing Lanes" (the 2002 American thriller starring Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson). Directed by Milan Luthria, "Taxi Number 9211" is markedly different in tone than the source material, ditching the thriller elements and opting for a more lighthearted romp through Mumbai.

In the movie, a recalcitrant cab driver named Raghav (played by veteran actor Nana Patekar) faces off against a spoiled playboy named Jai (the photogenic John Abraham). When the two first cross paths, Jai is desperate to get to court to deliver a will in order to claim his inheritance, but his constant demands to go faster get on Raghav's nerves. Several car accidents, dirty tricks, and police chases later, and it's a full-on battle between two guys who really need to take a chill pill.

I liked the chemistry between the male leads, especially Patekar's angry deadpan humor. The plot does follow the Bollywood formula, and you'll see the feel-good ending coming a mile away, but it's still a pretty good flick. "Taxi Number 9211" does tend to overuse "Meter Down," a track by composer Adnan Sami. I really can't blame them, though - if you had a song this catchy, wouldn't you try to stick it in every scene?

Rating: 6/10

Friday, January 22, 2010

Miscellany: Alpha Innovations Kubaton Review

Impact weapons are among the simplest self-defense tools, and they're easy to improvise in a pinch. In olden times, for instance, the gentleman's cane doubled as a hanbō. Yet while the cane is still a viable option for some, I'd wager that most people simply can't carry a full-size walking stick around with them every day.

That's where Alpha Innovations comes in. They produce a line of small, inexpensive handheld strike aids for self-defense - everything from traditional koppo sticks to aggressive-looking polymer knuckles.

I opted for their kubatons, which come in a variety of shapes and sizes. A kubaton is a small, rigid stick designed to improve the effectiveness of strikes (Tak Kubota popularized it, but the idea is old). Since the ends of the kubaton are hard and small in surface area, you can use it to target a wider variety of areas than you could striking barehanded (bony areas like collarbones, for instance).

Here's the short kubaton, which measures 4-3/4" long:

I also ordered the flat-ended, 6" version:

Now, it's easy enough to use a hairbrush or a ballpoint pen as a kubaton. The Alpha Innovations models offer several advantages, however. They're made of a dense, hard polymer that makes for a very sturdy pocket stick (I've used them to crack bricks and cinder blocks without too much trouble). Despite this rigidity, they're relatively small and light, and easy to carry inside a jacket or jeans pocket.

Of the two, I prefer the short model - the nominal point makes it more effective at striking, and it's easier to conceal. I found it a little too large to be a key fob, so I detached the included split ring and tied a paracord loop to it instead. The flat-ended kubaton does have its place, though - it looks a little less threatening, and the additional length means it's easier to strike with both ends of the weapon.

I do have some minor criticisms. The surface of both kubatons is relatively smooth except for a few round ridges; I would have liked to have some molded-in checkering to prevent the thing from slipping out of the hand. You can have the kubatons in any color you like, as long as it's black - low-key color options (a flat grey or tan) would help reduce the mall ninja factor.

All in all, though, Alpha Innovations makes a good kubaton. For those times when you shouldn't draw a gun but need something to extricate yourself from a hairy fight, the Alpha Innovations kubaton is a great option that'll buy you some time while you size up the situation. They're well worth a look for people who need a simple, pocketable impact weapon.

Disclaimer: local laws governing the possession of weapons like the kubaton vary widely, and are often vague - is a kubaton a sap? A blackjack? It is your responsibility, through either competent research or the advice of qualified legal counsel, to learn what is and what is not legal to carry in your jurisdiction.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sports: The Night Owl's Slam

To the dismay of American tennis fans, trying to watch the Australian Open live is a nightmare here in the States. Melbourne, the site of the tourney, is in the UTC+10 time zone - fully 15 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. That means most of the important matches (and all of the night ones) take place when the country is asleep.

It's a shame, too, because even the early rounds of the 2010 AO have had some gutsy tennis on display in those night matches. American James Blake lost an epic, heartbreaking five-setter to U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro; for the handful of people who stayed up to watch, they were treated to the 30 year old Blake's best performance in years. Justine Henin, in her first Grand Slam since unretiring, defeated No. 5-ranked Elena Dementieva in another tightly contested night match that had the quality and feel of a semifinal, not a second rounder.

ESPN does replay some of the previous night's tennis during the day, but of course it's pretty pointless watching a rebroadcast when you already know who won. At least the commentary is good - Darren Cahill, one of the game's most respected coaches, is often on hand to give expert analysis. Bad commentary can ruin a sports broadcast - I can't even watch "Football Night in America" when Keith Olbermann is hosting.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Politics: Let the fingerpointing begin!

So who's to blame for Scott Brown's upset victory in the Massachusetts Senate race? Martha Coakley, his hapless opponent? President Obama, whose conspicuous emergency fly-in this past weekend might have done more harm than good?

There's probably a simpler explanation - Scott Brown's campaign, especially during the crucial two weeks before the election, put out some fairly convincing ads. Check out this one capitalizing on the Kennedy name:

or this one, implicitly lambasting Coakley on her infamous "in the cold, shaking hands with strangers" gaffe:

The Brown campaign, if anything, shows that a good-looking candidate, armed with hatred of the incumbent and awesome campaign ads, can triumph even without much of a record. Sounds familiar to me...

Links: xkcd

Ever have a link that's been in your "favorites" bar for a long time but hasn't made it onto the blog sidebar because of sheer neglect? xkcd is one of those - it's a webcomic by Randall Munroe that runs three times a week.

Since Munroe has a physics degree and programmed with NASA before he started writing the strip, xkcd has its fair share of geek-related humor. Some strips are silly, some are moving, and some, like this comparison of the gravity wells of the bodies in the solar system, are just plain cool:

Munroe's blog is good, too. Here's an entertaining post discussing the unwritten rules followed in men's bathrooms everywhere: never crowd someone who's taking a leak (even more true with a trough-type urinal).

Miscellany: A Paracord Primer, Part 3 - Lanyards & Fobs

Lanyards and fobs are among the most practical things you can make with 550 paracord. A lanyard is a cord loop that attaches to an item in order to facilitate retention; lanyards can be worn around the neck, the wrists, or attached to a belt with a carabiner. A fob is a piece of cord that is formed into a solid shape (so that you can grab the fob and yank the item out of a crowded pocket).

Here's a basic lanyard for the Byrd Cara Cara I reviewed recently. The big knot near the knife handle is a diamond knot (also known as the knife lanyard knot). It's symmetrical and pretty, as well as being easy to tie if you are patient. The ending knot at the end of the loop is a carrick bend, a simple but useful knot (side note: I attached strips of skateboard grip tape on the back of the handle for better traction):

Below is a fob for the Victorinox Tinker, also previously reviewed. The fob's weave goes by many names - I've seen it called the cobra stitch, the Solomon bar, and the Portugese sinnet. I used an initial loop of cord secured by an Ashley's bend (flatter and smaller than the diamond knot), and then tied the cobra stitch around the loop:

You can store several feet of cord using the cobra stitch for use in a pinch; just be aware that the cord'll be pretty kinky after you undo the weave. Since this photo, I've actually taken a few rows out of the weave - the remainder makes for a neat little sliding section to accommodate a carabiner or a storage peg in the garage.

All the old boondoggle skills you learned in summer camp can be applied to paracord, too. The round stitch is a classic fob weave that'll produce a fairly stiff spiral - especially handy with a small multitool like the Gerber Clutch:

For the Boker Escape, I decided to finish off the handle wrap with a crown sinnet (AKA the box or square stitch) tied directly to the handle wrapping - it makes for a neat, flexible little handle extension.

Here's the completed sinnet (side note: I had to soak the sheath in hot water and remold it to retain the knife better).

With today's entry, we've reached the limit of my knowledge of paracord craft. For much, much more impressive projects, try out Stormdrane's Blog. Happy paracording!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Movies: MLK Day Integrated Football Double Feature

To commemorate Martin Luther King Day, Shangrila Towers will be featuring two football movies that mix the tropes of Inspiring Sports Story with the tropes of Inspiring Racial Tolerance Story. While other sports have the same kinds of movies ("Glory Road," "Invictus," etc.), racial prejudice is one of the nastiest, most visceral forms of discrimination, and it dovetails well with rough-and-tumble action on the American gridiron.

The Express: The Ernie Davis Story

"The Express" tells the story of Syracuse All-American running back Ernie Davis (played by Rob Brown), who became the first African-American Heisman Trophy winner in 1961. In that regard, it's a pretty conventional biopic, starting off with Davis as a young boy facing racism in Pennsylvania and running all the way through to the Orangemen's national championship season. If you're at all familiar with Ernie Davis' life, you'll see the bittersweet dénouement coming, though this is where Brown's performance shines the most. Dennis Quaid also has a key role as Ben Schwartzwalder, Syracuse's head coach.

Despite the generally competent acting, the movie loses a lot of points during the actual football games. If you're a West Virginia Mountaineer or Texas Longhorn fan, you'll probably take issue with the portrayals of their racist players mercilessly beating up Ernie Davis between plays (someone in the movie actually knees him, WWE SmackDown!-style). It borders on libel, but, since this is a sports movie and not a documentary, I suppose director Gary Fleder can get away with it.

Rating: 5/10

Remember the Titans

This is one of the highest-grossing football movies ever, mostly due to the megawatt star power of Denzel Washington. He plays Herman Boone, head coach of the recently-desegregated T.C. Williams High School, who has to manage racial tensions both within the community and on the team. The stakes are high - if Boone loses one game, he gets fired.

Some of the details were fictionalized (okay, maybe most of them), but the movie holds up okay thanks to a great ensemble cast of young actors, who really sell the predictable-yet-heartfelt bonding the team undergoes through the season. Plus, along with "Stepmom," the movie features one of the best uses of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" in film.

Rating: 7/10

Music: The Concert

I've never been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, but it seems like one of those idyllic places where you'd like to hole up if the world ever ends. It's an oasis of culture: on the grounds, you'll find paintings from Rembrandt, a courtyard garden, and an intimate concert chamber called the Tapestry Room.

The ISGM holds a regular classical music concert series inside the Tapestry Room. Twice a month, they release new entries in "The Concert," a podcast featuring selected pieces from the concert series. Due to the constraints of the performance area, you'll seldom hear a huge orchestra thundering through a Romantic symphony; instead, the show mostly features chamber music, both famous and little-known. If you need a little culture in your workday wasteland, give it a try.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Movies: Yes Man

The romantic comedy has proven to be one of the most durable movie genres; audiences in the '30s gobbled up screwball comedies like "Bringing Up Baby," and it's surprising how little rom-coms have changed since then. One of the more recent variations is what I like to call the "stiff-meets-spirit" rom-com: a straitlaced guy meets a quirky girl who introduces him to new things. "Yes Man," starring Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel, follows the formula pretty closely.

Carrey plays Carl, an introverted divorcee who changes his tune after attending a motivational seminar; spurred on by the crowd there, he promises to say yes to anything people ask of him. It's the kind of ridiculous premise that wears out its welcome quickly (sorta like "Liar, Liar," another Carrey film). Along the way Carl meets Allison, the sort of unpredictable, independent-minded woman you'd completely expect to be the love interest in a movie like this.

"Yes Man" is not a great movie, but it is reasonable late-night filler for a habitual insomniac like me. Carrey is his usual exuberant self for most of the film, and his energy almost bridges the 20 year age gap separating him from his co-star. Deschanel's deadpan is as reliable as always, and she and Carrey have at least a nominal chesmistry.

My personal highlight from the film is the scene when Carl and Allison go skeet shooting in Nebraska. Anyone who's ever introduced people to the joys of clay pigeon shooting has probably seen this safety violation once or twice after someone breaks their first bird:

Rating: 6/10

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Miscellany: Victorinox Tinker SAK review

The Leatherman-style multitools have become the most popular designs in the MT world for good reason: the combination of standard folding tools with integral pliers is space-efficient and useful. If you want to buy a genuine Leatherman, though, it's going to be expensive (more than $40 for most of their U.S.-made models), and it's going to be relatively heavy (usually at least 5 ounces).

Due to these drawbacks, there's still a place for the classic Swiss Army knife design. Hey, it's MacGyver approved:

Besides being MacGyver's SAK of choice, the Tinker is one of the most practical of the Victorinox models. It's a close cousin to Karl Elsner's original Officer's Knife, which Victorinox now calls the Spartan. The Tinker's sleek, 2-ply design only weighs 2.2 ounces - less than half of the compact size Leatherman Juice, and nearly as light as the ultracompact keychain MTs. The Tinker's one size smaller than the Super Tinker (sacrificing the scissors and the mostly-useless parcel hook), but it's also much thinner and lighter since it uses one less layer and spring in its design.

The main blade on the Tinker is the classic SAK pen blade that everyone knows and loves. It's big, measuring nearly 2-1/2" inches, so it works great for light cutting tasks like opening packaging or cutting apples. It's not the hardest knife steel, but it's flat ground and easy to sharpen. As you can see, the Tinker also sports a smaller, secondary blade; while it works okay, I wish this secondary blade had a different blade shape to make it more useful (perhaps a serrated sheepsfoot or a modified Wharncliffe design like other Victorinox models).

Like most of the 3-1/2" (91mm) size Victorinox knives, the Tinker has two signature tools - the can opener and the bottle opener. The can opener in particular is well-designed, perhaps the best opener out there. While it's slow (you take little bites of the can, working it forward along the rim), I've used it to crack open several different cans with no problems. There's a small screwdriver at the end of the can opener, too, though the awkward placement limits its utility.

The bottle opener works fine for popping beer bottles, but the real star is the big flat-bladed screwdriver on the end. This size is good for a wide variety of screws, including those found on the mounts for scopes and tactical lights. This tool can lock at both 180 degrees and a 90 degrees, increasing its versatility in tight spaces.

On the back of the knife, we see the reamer/awl and the Phillips screwdriver. The Phillips driver's placement is less than ideal, obviously, but it locks up strongly and gives you plenty of leverage.

More problematic, though, is the awl. While it has a good shape, the actual lock-up of the tool is pretty bad. It's easy to push the awl off of 90 degrees with light pressure, and there's even a good deal of side-to-side play. Granted, the awl's still usuable, but it's much less capable than the locking awls found on the newer MTs.

Part of the awl's problem, I suppose, is that it shares a spring with the tools in the front. This is both a blessing an a curse; like Elsner's original design, you can cram more tools into the handle, but the springs have to do double-duty and are thus not going to lock as well as purpose-built springs. This weakness is borne out by the fact that Victorinox's larger MTs with singular, individual springs, like the SwissTool, all lock up solidly.

Nearly every SAK with red plastic handle scales has a toothpick and tweezers, and the Tinker is no different. On the 3-1/2" models, the toothpick is longer compared to the smaller SAKs, enough that you might actually consider using this as a toothpick (wash it first, obviously). Disappointingly, the tweezers are the exact same size and design as the keychain SAKs - I would have liked to see tweezers with an independent spring mechanism and a finer point.

To sum up, the Tinker offers a lot of functionality (three drivers, two blades, and a great can opener) in a very pocketable size and shape. Best of all, you can easily score one for under $15, which is flat-out ridiculous for a product that's made in Switzerland and has a lifetime warranty. It's an inexpensive way to embrace your inner MacGyver.

News: Hitting Close to Home

Folks around South Florida have been following the tragic earthquake in Haiti with much interest. After all, Haitian immigrants are so pervasive in these parts that we have Haitian radio stations and Creole patient instructions in the hospitals.

Why Florida? Well, even in the best of times, Haiti's crushing poverty and political instability drove many desperate Haitians to seek our shores, hoping for a better life. As a result, many of us have Haitian-American friends, family, and coworkers.

If you can, please donate to relief agencies like UNICEF and the American Red Cross, whether it's your money (particularly helpful to secure medical supplies), your food, or your time. It's a recession in the U.S., but in Haiti, where most people get by on less than a dollar a day, your aid could literally be the difference between baking to death in the sun or having enough water to live.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Music: Ode to the Spaghetti Western

We're coming up on the anniversary of the release of "A Fistful of Dollars," the immortal Spaghetti Western that launched the careers of both Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone. But today's entry is a music post, not a movie post, and that means it's all about the Spaghetti Western composers, great names like Ennio Morricone and Luis Bacalov (below is his famous track from "The Grand Duel," which would later be recycled by Quentin Tarentino in "Kill Bill"):

Many of these composers have gone on to great fame (Bacalov would later win an Oscar for his work in "Il Postino"), but most are obscure. My favorite Spaghetti Western cue of all time is "Ballata per un Pistolero" by Roberto Pregadio, off of the "Il Pistolero Dell'Ave Maria" soundtrack. As you listen, imagine a team of desperados in the distance, closing on our outnumbered hero, who walks out into the town for the final showdown:

(If you've ever seen "The Adventures of Pete and Pete," you'll probably recognize the dramatic, whistling tune from the episode "The Call.")

Food: PyroGrill

Business owners are, in general, optimistic people. It takes a lot of belief to open a new restaurant or expand an existing chain of restaurants, knowing that most such efforts fail within the first year. But you'll beat the odds, since your food is better, your service quicker, your place cleaner...right?

PyroGrill, a small chain of fast-casual restaurants based here in Florida, had high hopes at the beginning of 2008. The owner, Michael Curcio, was clearly dedicated, since the company rebranded itself a couple years ago and was looking to expand. Fast-casual food was really taking off.

Cut to the beginning of 2010. A horrific economy has forced PyroGrill to shutter their Lake Worth location. It was always a longshot; the Lake Worth PyroGrill, while near a major intersection, was exposed to brutal competition from national chains like Outback Steakhouse and Chili's, as well as hometown faves like Chris' Taverna. The food would need to be outstanding in order to draw people in; I suppose things just didn't work out.

I did visit the Lake Worth PyroGrill, not too long before they closed. The restaurant was inviting, well-decorated...and empty. A sample meal told me all I needed to know - in a market that's racing toward $2.99 fast food value meals and eating at home to save money, a smallish $6 burrito wasn't going to set anyone's world afire. The rice & curry mustard combination on my "original" burrito was tasty, but not tasty enough to make me forsake Moe's and Chipotle, both national burrito chains that offer much more sizeable portions.

Still, I have to tip my hat to the Curcio family and the rest of the people at PyroGrill. The business is still going, which is saying something nowadays. Like a million other small businesses clinging to life by their fingernails, better times are, as always, just around the corner...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Guns: Cold Weather CCW

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven
- Ecclesiastes 3:1

While it's rough on your electric bill, cold weather is a boon to people who tote a gun for self-defense. Holster choices expand dramatically once you can add a covering garment to your daily wardrobe. The outside-the-waistband holster above would be difficult to reliably conceal in a Florida summer (when everyone in your office is down to just their dress shirt), but it's a cinch to wear in the middle of January. Close-to-the-body carry methods like belly bands are much easier to pull off, too, since you don't have to worry about sweating.

There are some downsides to carrying in wintry conditions, of course. You'll probably have gloves on if it gets below freezing, and it's important that you choose a pair that allows you to manipulate your firearm. If you're stuck in "Fargo"-esque conditions, it can be tough to balance keeping your digits toasty and being able to draw your heater.

One consideration that might not be readily apparent is that all the bad guys will probably be wearing extra clothing, too. In the unlikely event you experience an aggressive threat to your life out in the cold, your bullets might have to chew through multiple layers to stop your assailant. Newer JHPs should be engineered to expand even after passing through clothing; you may want to switch to FMJs on your spare mag/speedloader if you can't find or afford up-to-date ammo.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Miscellany: A Visit to IKEA's Orlando Store

It's hard to believe any single retail store could outshine the upscale Mall at Millenia in Orlando. After all, the Mall at Millenia features dozens and dozens of shops, including posh tenants like Vuitton, Cartier, and Ferragamo.

Looming in the distance, though, is a blue and yellow Scandinavian monolith of home furnishing:

Until I visited the store in Orlando, I had a negative perception of IKEA and their products. I think this was partly due to the flak they got from David Fincher's über-pretentious movie, "Fight Club" - here's the narrator whining about them:

Compare that message with IKEA's own commercial, directed by Spike Jonze. It's a neat little piece, parodying the sentimental attachment people have for their stuff. And yes, there's a Swedish guy in there:

Two takes on the company by two idiosyncratic directors. I had all the research I needed, at least for a trip to a furniture store.

To begin with, walking inside IKEA was like walking inside a set of architect's blueprints. Every foot of the place is so heavily designed and thought out that it's impossible not to be impressed. To your right, there's a play area - with a ball pit, arts and crafts, and full supervision by the staff so moms and dads can shop without worry. To your left, there are lockers to keep any personal stuff safe while you shop, complete with color-coded, numbered keys. The design intent is clear - Ikea wants you to focus on nothing but shopping, to hold nothing but what is on sale. After all, who can measure a bureau for their bedroom when their two year old is throwing a fit?

And what's this? You discern some commotion that people eating? Inside a furniture store?

Yes, IKEA has a full cafeteria, serving Swedish-y food at reasonable prices. You can buy a 50 cent hot dog, or a $1 cinnamon roll, or have a cup of lingonberry-flavored soda. For people feeling more peckish, the Swedish meatballs and stuffed salmon are sure to please. Only Scandinavians would bother to offer food for patrons at a furniture store. Because who wants to shop for a new entertainment center when they're hungry?

After the initial shock wears off, though, the experience is much like any furniture store. There are model rooms, many of which are arranged into tiny floor spaces with square footage that is proudly displayed when you enter. You'd be amazed at how much storage and furniture you can cram into 237 square feet if you really try.

IKEA offers stuff for the home and office, and it all bears one-word Scandinavian names. Sometimes these are easy to remember (the KASSETT line of media storage accessories) and sometimes they're a little inscrutable (SKÄRPT kitchen knives). The store is so large that there's a suggested walking path (with arrows drawn on the ground), but even after traipsing through the showroom you might come away impressed but not awed. Until you walk into the attached warehouse...

That's a lot of furniture. When you think about how many rooms, how many homes, how many neighborhoods could be furnished with the stuff in just a single IKEA warehouse, the mind boggles at how far evolution has taken us. Were we really lashing together temporary shelters from fallen trees and leaves thousands of years ago?

Since IKEA is all about flat-packed, your-assembly-required furniture, you can buy and cart away an entire living room's worth of furniture in a single trip. You walk through the showroom, ticking off what you like, and then pick it up when you walk inside their enormous warehouse. Plop it on your cart (which, incidentally, is also offered for sale in the store) and head to the cashiers. Where there's more stuff you can buy while you stand in line.

All in all, I'd say that if you've never been inside an IKEA store, it'd be worth your time to visit one, if only for a lesson in customer service/industrial design/consumer psychology. The entire store is engineered so that it's almost impossible not to buy something, anything. Heck, even a homeless guy could afford a 50 cent hot dog.

My suggested soundtrack for your Ikea experience? My favorite indie Swedish pop band, Komeda:

TV: Tabatha's Salon Takeover

Maybe it's because Mom is halfway through cosmetology school. Maybe it's because repeated viewings of "Project Runway" gave me a slight metro streak. For whatever reason, today's featured TV program is "Tabatha's Salon Takeover," a reality show on Bravo.

The show follows Tabatha Coffey, an Australian hairdresser, as she travels to various foundering hair salons and attempts to turn their businesses around. Coffey competed on Bravo's "Shear Genius" reality show, and, due to her acerbic tongue and hairdressing prowess, quickly became a fan favorite. Now she turns that same biting criticism to other salon owners:

The sarcasm is obviously amped up for TV, but there are good tips here for any aspiring salon owner. Cleanliness is repeatedly emphasized, as is the importance of hard work and training. It's not just hair salons that could benefit from Tabatha's no-nonsense professionalism...if you've ever cringed when eating at a dirty restaurant or walking into a dirty bathroom at an auto mechanic, you'll cheer at these segments.

Every episode of "Salon Takeover" includes a brief period where the Bravo TV staff renovate the salon with a new look. Unlike other makeover shows, though, the budget is limited, so you'll never see Tabatha knocking down walls or adding rooms to a salon. Tabatha also conducts a follow-up visit to the salon six weeks later, to see if her advice did any good.

Without Coffey's famed persona, there wouldn't be much of a show here (my favorite moment was when she delivered a dressing-down to a gay salon owner who refused to take female customers). It is an act, though - in an interview with Maggie Mulhern of Modern Salon, Tabatha displays far more of the famed Aussie mellowness than we see on the show:

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Brr...Shangrila Towers, freezing rain edition

This is what temperatures look like here in south Florida right now:

Now, granted, it's pretty warm compared to most of the country at the moment, but this sort of weather hits our area only about one week out of the year. Floridians don't have to dig out their comforters and prime their furnaces very often. Case in point - space heaters were sold out at our local big box store. Too much more of this "climate change" and we'll be like those people at the end of that "Twilight Zone" episode where the Earth was moving further away from the Sun:

Friday, January 08, 2010

Miscellany: Byrd Cara Cara knife review

To knife fans, the $70 Spyderco Enduras and Benchmade Griptilians of the world are about as extravagant as a Toyota Camry - they're good quality production folders, no more and no less. For every "knife nut," though, there are plenty of people who won't shell out more than $20 for a folding knife, even if that means they end up with some flea market slipjoint cranked out of a Third World shanty. Here's Cutlerylover to explain:

The Byrd line is Spyderco's entry-level presence in the cheap knife market. In a similar fashion to other U.S. manufacturers (including Benchmade's Red Class), the knives are designed by Spyderco but made in China as opposed to Seki City, Japan or Golden, Colorado. Supposedly, Spyderco offsets the inherent problems of using outsourced labor and machinery with rigorous quality control and close supervision. Let's see if that's true...

The Cara Cara is one of the largest Byrd knives, with a nearly 4" long blade and a generous 5" handle. Despite these beefy dimensions, you can buy one of these knives for well under $20 at virtually every online knife retailer. I chose the FRN-handle lightweight version, which comes in at a svelte 3.8 ounces.

Here we come to the first cost-saving measure - cheaper foreign-produced steel. The Chinese 8Cr13MoV steel is widely thought to be analogous to AUS-8, but in any case it's considerably less expensive than the VG-10 used in the main line Spydercos. In terms of performance, the harder VG-10 beats 8Cr13MoV in almost all categories (toughness, ability to take an edge, corrosion resistance, etc.). For most users, though, it will be difficult to tell the difference:

The blade bears the "comet" opening hole common to all Byrd knives, and the overall bird's head effect is aesthetically cool, at least in my eyes. Functionally, the hollow-ground edge slices well; the grind starts from midway down the blade and leaves plenty of relief for easy resharpening. As with nearly every Spyderco design, the thumbramp is prominent and fully jimped for a sure grip.

The heart of any folding knife is its pivoting and locking mechanism. The Cara Cara's traditional lockback design doesn't feel like a bank vault, but it's certainly tough enough for most chores. The long blade and pivot hole make it a little difficult to "flick" open with your thumb, but I prefer manually swinging the blade out with my thumb anyway, for more control.

The Cara Cara's pocket clip is also thoroughly modern - you can move it to any of the "four corners" of the handle for tip-up or tip-down carry, right side or left side (I've found that the Cara Cara rides very well in tip-down carry). The clip itself is strong without being excessive:

The FRN handle has nested stainless steel liners, but they must be pretty thin considering the weight of the knife. This light weight is also partly due to the comet-shaped cutouts Spyderco has put along the edges of the handle. The handle shape features finger grooves that pair up well with the jimped choil at the ricasso end of the blade (the blade edge runs right up to the edge of the choil, so you can easily choke up for detail work).

So it all seems gravy...the Cara Cara is a sharp, well-designed knife at a bargain basement price, right? Well, not quite. You usually get what you pay for, and the fit and finish of a Byrd knife tends to be a little below the standards set by U.S. knife makers. For instance, you can see in this picture that my Cara Cara has a defect on the lockback (it looks like a small burn or dent):

And it's not just visible blemishes, either - it's the little things. Like the fact that the screws on the pocket clip are so soft that my Phillips head nearly stripped them when I tried to reposition the clip. Or that the handle molding isn't as sharp and complex as Spyderco's "Volcano Grip." My gripes are hardly unique - other Byrd owners have reported rough finishing and sometimes more serious problems, although the latter are rare and the knives are covered by a one-year warranty.

Does that mean the Byrd line is bad? Heavens no! Considering the sub-$20 price point, you're still getting a lot of knife for the money. The smart Spyderco design elements are enough to make the Cara Cara worth at least a try.

News: The New (Old) Spree Shooter

Sadly, we're all pretty familiar with the spree shooters of the VA Tech variety by now. In addition to their ilk, we've also seen other killers ostensibly motivated by religion or politics. But, as the past few weeks have shown, "economic climate change" has produced its own brand of threats:

It's one of the oldest sources of mass shootings - disgruntlement at the workplace. You've seen it in cheesy movies (most of my favorite Michael Douglas quotes come from "Falling Down") and it's even entered the popular lexicon: "going postal." Though the source of the violence is more easily understood than with other spree killers, it doesn't make what happens any less bloody.

It's also no coincidence both of these shootings came after lawsuits about retirement benefits. One of the byproducts of the adversarial U.S. legal system is, unfortunately, the animosity that can be generated between the parties in a case. Not sure if there's any way to "fix" that.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Links: Blogroll Update

I like to keep my blogroll current - not just adding blogs or websites to it, but also removing them as they "go dark," so to speak. It's never anything personal and it usually has nothing to do with any of the content at a site. Here are a couple of blogs that are simply not updated often enough to stay on the Shangrila Towers blogroll:

All You Really Need - John the Texaner was never a prolific blogger, so I sort of knew this was coming when things got quiet at AYRN. Hopefully he's doing okay.

Rachel Lucas - Rachel vacationed in Europe (incredible series of blog posts - a must for anyone who likes Old World architecture) and finally moved to England.

Anyway, good luck to the both of them. Hopefully, I can update Shangrila Towers often enough to avoid their fate.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Guns: Administrative Gun Handling for the CCW

Citizens who regularly carry a firearm for self-defense handle their guns more than any other group of gunowners, save for the people who carry them for a living (LEOs, military, etc.). Unfortunately, careless gun handling can lead to embarrassment and possibly punishment, like it did for Agent Zero/Hibachi.

There are a few different schools of thought on just how often you should actually handle your gun. A thorough observance of the Four Rules will prevent most trouble, but I'll post my three main rules of thumb here anyway:

1. The Holster Is Your Friend - During the course of a day, I think the typical carry gun should never leave the holster. The holster protects the gun from wear, but more importantly it protects the trigger from the outside world. I leave my firearm safely ensconced in its cocoon unless I encounter point #2...

2. Chamber Check Any Unattended Firearm - This one could be rephrased in any number of catchy ways - "After you take a stroll, look at the hole" or perhaps "Before you swipe, check the pipe." When a gun leaves my person, it automatically and instantly becomes An Unknown. Don't carry an Unknown - chamber check your guns!

For example, if I have to leave my CCW locked in my car during the day (to enter a courthouse, for instance), I make sure the gun is still loaded and hasn't been damaged when I get back to it. The last thing you want when carrying a firearm is surprises. Which brings us to #3...

3. Same Shtick, Different Day - I'm a firm believer in sticking to one carry location for your gun. Oh, the exact holster and carry method can vary depending on your clothing, but I think the general placement - whether the gun is on your left, right, front, or back - shouldn't vary from day to day.

Settling on one overall location trains you to adapt to the specific advantages and disadvantages of that location. For example, weak side carry methods (the cross draw and the shoulder holster) work great when seated but have a more complicated draw and can be more difficult to retain in a struggle. Below-the-hip carry methods like ankle and thigh holsters are hard to access on the move or in certain positions.

Books: DOS for Dummies

Computer software tends to crib ideas from older media. The practice pervades even the language of computing (why else would we call files "files"?). Sometimes, though, books, TV, and movies grab things from the world of ones and zeros. The "For Dummies" series of instructional books is one such instance; the series started out with "DOS For Dummies" by Dan Gookin, a primer on how to use MS-DOS (the creaky command-line-based operating system that paved the way for Windows).

Here's an indicator of what a geek I am - when I was in elementary school, I read "DOS For Dummies" for fun. There's some snarky humor in the book, even if you don't count the cartoons by Rich Tennant. It's never directed at the newbie reader, of course, but rather at the infernal minds who created MS-DOS (mostly Tim Paterson, I guess, but I like to blame Bill Gates for good measure).

Unlike a lot of computer books from the '90s, this one is still relevant, because even the fanciest version of Windows still has the command prompt available for old diehards or old programs. So, the next time you type "dir /o /p" at a lonely monochrome screen, spare a thought for all the tech writers like Dan Gookin, showing users the way of the system while poking fun at it all the way.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Miscellany: A Paracord Primer, Part 2 - Handle Wrapping

550 paracord is commonly used to wrap handles for better comfort and traction. Whether it's a knife handle, a bicycle handle, or a water bottle, paracord is ideal since it's elastic (stretches tight over a variety of handle shapes) and dries fast (everything you own will get wet at one time or another).

I wrapped the CRKT Ringer 3 I reviewed last week in gutted paracord. Here's the end product:

The process is simple - just lay one end of the gutted paracord flat against the side of the knife, wrap over it to secure that end in place, and keep wrapping all over the handle. I purposely kept one part of the handle unwrapped so I had some tactile indication of which side the edge was on (this is a common problem with neck knives; since the orientation of the blade changes, you can inadvertently put your thumb on the edge as you draw the knife if you're not careful).

Keep the wrap as tight and uniform as possible. I had to double back around the top side of the knife to get to the small protrusion at the end of the knife. At the protrusion, I tied a simple overhand knot to stop the wrapping from unraveling, and then a doubled figure-eight knot at the trailing end of the cord to form a small lanyard. Other, bulkier stopper knots will be needed for larger knives.

Here is a wrap of the Boker Escape I reviewed.

I used a 180 degree katana wrap - for an instructional, here's a great video from williamcutting08 (check out his other YT vids - he has many great wrapping tutorials):

Again, keeping the wrap tight and uniform will make the end product look better. Nongutted paracord yields a thicker handle, and you can wrap over an existing wrap for added thickness as long as you're neat about it. For even more thickness or texture, you'll need to braid the paracord first before wrapping it. Keep in mind that a wrapped handle may or may not fit in a sheath or LBE gear.

How did I finish off that Escape knife? Well, you'll have to wait for the next Paracord Primer entry, where we'll look at knife lanyarding and fobbing. See you then!

Movies: New Year's Stinkfest Triple Feature

For some reason, cable TV networks treat the New Year's break as a license to dredge up some of the most mediocre movies ever to grace the silver screen (the same thing happens at Christmastime, but at least those movies have a holiday flavor). These New Year's fillers aren't the worst movies ever made, mind you, but they are clichéd, hackneyed, and mostly forgettable.

Behind Enemy Lines

Released shortly after September 11th, this action-thriller's box office revenues far exceeded its shaky script and humdrum action scenes. Given that we had just declared war on the Taliban, moviegoers embraced anything that portrayed the U.S. military positively, and "Behind Enemy Lines" doesn't hold up well. The only part of the movie I liked was the unflappable Bosnian sniper, who looks exactly like Niko Bellic from GTA IV.

Rating: 5/10

Cheaper By The Dozen 2

The first "Cheaper By The Dozen" was a maudlin but harmless Steve Martin family comedy, notable because of its unlikely assortment of young stars - Hilary Duff, Tom Welling, and Ashton Kutcher - all in one movie? The unnecessary sequel tried to pair up Martin with the normally funny Eugene Levy (the patriarch of a rival family) but fails pretty miserably to generate anything other than laughs of embarrassment. Slapstick isn't really a strength of either Martin or Levy, but that's where a lot of the comedy is (supposed to be) coming from here.

Rating: 3/10


This movie is proof positive that Hayden Christensen's ability to ruin sci-fi films isn't limited to "Star Wars." "Jumper" is an uneven adaptation of the novel of the same name, and if you've ever seen an episode of "The Tomorrow People," you already know the concept - teleporting humans vs. those who hunt them. Christensen has the same pouty, dimwitted performance he used for Anakin, and it really makes the movie hard to digest. Samuel L. Jackson plays Christensen's opposition (yes, it's Mace Windu himself), adding to the feeling that you're watching one of Lucas' prequels. And that's a bad thing.

Rating: 4/10

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Miscellany: Let the De-Christmas-ization begin!

Every year, after New Year's Day, we start putting Christmas down the memory hole, so to speak. All the decorations are taken down and put into musty old cardboard boxes; the tree is de-trimmed and left out on the curbside as garbage. Every last vestige of red and green is unceremoniously shoved back into the garage. By the next day, it's as if Christmas never took place, like it was a collective dream or hallucination.

Hopefully your De-Christmas-izations are going well. Shangrila Towers will be back on its regular schedule soon.